Today while enjoying my meal at McDonalds, my biggest junk food guilty pleasure, I encountered a strange albeit friendly old man. As I sat with my girlfriend and consumed my hamburger and sugary soft drink, I noticed a tall, white, elderly man speaking to a younger man of around my age. The older man was inquiring about the young man’s heritage, probably provoked by the difference in skin tone between the two individuals. The young man replied that he was Honduran, at which point the older man began to recount to the young man about his Italian heritage.
“Back in my day the area I lived in, just over there (gestures outside window) was called Guinea Hill. You know, like guinea wop, what they used to call Italians back then.”
The young man was very polite, and continued to listen as the older man followed him over to a table far from the soda machines that they started at. After a while of speaking to eachother, the young man nodding politely as he listened and tried to eat his meal. The older gentleman said his goodbye and walked away. As he did so he say a small child with his mother, both with darker skin tones than he. He made a remark about the child’s shirt, complementing the mother and hi-fiving the kid who seemed happy to participate with the old man. The mother watched him leave, skeptical of his intentions. He walked back to his table and drank some coffee. Behind him another Hispanic lady sat down and took out her phone. The old man turned around and attempted to strike up a conversation with her too, asking about her heritage. She mentioned she was also Honduran, which upon hearing the old man said he has met a lot of Hondurans here. He said he comes to McDonalds every day, and likes to greet people with the Italian phrase “Bongiorno!” The lady was simply not interested in the conversation and seemed kind of uncomfortable that this man was talking to her. The older man relented and bid her a good day, took a sip of coffee and went back to talk more with the younger man from earlier. He wandered over to the young man’s table and starting talking to him once more. This time it was about his first wife and he showed the young man pictures of his former love. It was around this time that I had to depart, my meal complete.
I noticed the old man shook as he drank his coffee, perhaps because of his advanced age or maybe some kind of nervous condition. He also had his front left breast pocket full of brown paper napkins. He drank his coffee through a small coffee mixing straw. As I left he had begun to speak to another gentlemen, this one middle aged and had much darker skin coloration than the previous conversationalists. The conversation was much the same, with the old man telling the younger man about Italian language and his former home.
I think this encounter was very strange. As I sat at the McDonalds and watched it unfold I couldn’t help but feel pity for this ‘poor’ old man. I began to think that perhaps he was mentally ‘unwell’ or perhaps just lonely. It seemed sad more than anything else. But as I sat and thought about it, it dawned on me that if the man had been younger I wouldn’t have thought it was sad; I would have thought it was creepy and uncomfortable. This train of thought led me to think about ageism and how we treat our own elderly.
I think that the elderly are a type of special monster as discussed in Cohen’s Monster Theses. I say this because the elderly are generally lacking in physical strength, agility, coordination and are seen as feeble, weak and confused. Their bodies lose muscle mass and can often contort into new shapes and sizes. They sometimes become fat and diabetic or skinny and frail. Much like a monster, their physical forms become almost unrecognizable as ‘human’ and society isolates them into colonies made up of their own and are taken care of by trained ‘professionals’ for their own ‘good and safety’. Just because they are isolated does not mean they do not matter to us. It’s actually the opposite. The elderly are constantly preyed upon by society as a means of progress and change. We use them as inspirational storytellers to remind our children how ‘easy’ they have it in the modern era or to catalyze action for a certain cause. Many politicians and political groups use volunteering with the old as demonstrations of generosity and self-sacrifice, after all, who would willingly take care of such monstrosities? All of these qualities are things that Cohen describes monsters having in his Monster Theses.
- The elderly body (Or the one we generally perceive as elderly) represents our cultural fears of death and enfeeblement, as well as our anxieties about inadequacy and dependence.
- The monstrosity of old age is permanent, it can never be vanquished and is therefore never truly absent from our worldviews. In this way it always escapes conquest, and lives again to challenge us another day.
- The elderly defy classification. It is entirely possible to be old and fit, or young but feeble. Lines on the face can be acquired from sun or laughter just as easily as old age. It is impossible to draw a boundary on who is old and who is not. There is no magical number of years one needs to be alive for to become ‘old’
- The old dwell on the gate of temporal difference. They are the gatekeepers between the last generation and the one today, of times past and present.
- The old are the borders between life and death, they are the liminal creatures that separated those that are and those that have ceased to be.
- The old are elevated as the self-aware. They have lived their years and have come to terms with their lives and beings. They have changed countless times and are faced with the reality of death, of unlife. They are becoming more ‘other’ than they have ever been and will soon cross over to become a truly different thing.
In addition to the general characteristics of the elderly (or how we perceive and imagine the elderly) this particular old person embodies all of these theses.
- His shaky body and wrinkled face reflected upon me my own sense of mortality and eventual degradation.
- He never truly left the McDonalds, always coming back another day. Or in a smaller sense, never leaving the table of the young boy.
- He defied my ability to classify him as crazy or lonely. He made it impossible for me to determine his age or state of being.
- He stood between the characteristics of past generations and mine. His racially and xenophobically charged language as casual statements clashed with my perception of wrongness of those words.
- He lived liminally, never really sitting down by himself or with a group of his own. He preferred to wander from person to person, group to group and boundary to boundary.
- In this McDonalds he became something else. A potential conversation piece for my girlfriend and I or a mutually understood eye-lock and head shake between a stranger and myself.
I am left with so many questions about this man. Why did he choose this McDonalds? Why did he love Italian words so much? What was the deal with the brown paper napkins in his shirt pocket, or the straw he drank his coffee out of? Perhaps Bennet can answer these questions, but for now they remain a mystery and that only adds to a truly monstrous experience. I expect I will think of this man in the future. Perhaps when I enter the medical field, and experience patients who will challenge me just as this man has. I leave this experience with a more thorough understanding of ‘strange old men’ and a new respect for my elders.