I recently turned 83, and while there are many joys to getting older, getting out of taxis is not one of them.
What you don’t want to do is get your left foot caught under the front right seat before you try to swing your right foot toward the door; otherwise, you’ll topple over while attempting to pay the fare, possibly injuring your ankle, and causing the maneuver to go even more slowly. If you make it past the taxi door, there is still the one-foot jump to the street. You’re old. You could fall. Happens all the time.
And that’s when it’s just you in the taxi. If some other old person is with you — a friend, a spouse — there’s a real possibility of never getting out of the vehicle. You might live out the rest of your days in the back seat, watching Dick Cavett do real estate ads on a loop.
“Old People Getting Out of Taxis.” I was thinking of making a film with that title, if I knew how to make a film. Figure it would run four hours. I asked an actor friend, also old, if he’d star in it. His response: “If I can get out of my chair.”
It’s no joke, old age. It just looks funny. Mel Brooks latched on to this in his 1977 film “High Anxiety” with Professor Lilloman (pronounced “little old man”), a stock character who moves at a turtle’s pace, mumbles and whines as he goes, equally irritated and irritating.
I used to find the professor a lot funnier than I do now. Slow? Merely to rise to my feet in a restaurant takes so much angling and fulcrum searching, the waitstaff takes bets on whether I will do it at all.
Old age isn’t what the books promised it would be. Literature is littered with old people for whom the years have brought some combination of wisdom, serenity, authority and power — King Lear, the ageless priest in Shangri-La, Miss Marple, Mr. Chips, Mrs. Chips (I made that up), Dickens’s Aged P, crazy Mrs. Danvers. In fiction, old folks are usually impressive and in control. In life, something less.
I can’t think of anyone who has come to me for wisdom, serenity, authority or power. People do come to sell me life insurance for $9 a month and medicines such as Prevagen, which is advertised on TV as making one sharper and improving one’s memory. Of course, that is beneficial only to those who have more things they wish to remember than to forget.
One thing I need to remember is which day for which doctor. Two years ago, my wife and I moved back to New York City after 24 years of living by the sea. The city is safer, we thought — just in case we may ever need to be near medical facilities. Since our move, not a day has passed without one of us seeing a doctor, arranging to see one or thinking or talking about seeing one.
On one day last week, I had a vascular sonogram in the morning, consulted my ophthalmologist in the afternoon, made an appointment with a retina specialist, spoke to my primary care physician about test results and put off my dentist. As a result of such activities, my vocabulary has increased. I now can say “occlusion” — and mean it. Has anyone seen my oximeter?
Activities such as getting out of a taxi are not only degrading and humiliating; they take so much effort, they simply make you tired. You may reasonably say, “Why not take the subway?” I would, except for the two hours needed to get up and down the stairs. Still, it’s all a matter of adjustment. It took me three or four years of taxi rides to finally admit to myself that I’m old.
Old. Even the word sounds like a sigh of surrender.
I wrote a book called “Rules for Aging” 25 years ago, when I used to leap in and out of taxis like a deer, if you can picture such a thing. The rules were less about aging than about living generally, one of the first being “Nobody’s thinking about you.”
In old age that’s true in spades. And that’s another of aging’s unnerving surprises. You disappear from the culture, or rather, it disappears from you. Young women and men shown on TV as world famous, you’ve never heard of. New idioms leave you baffled. You are Rip Van Winkle without having fallen asleep.
To be sure, old age has compensations. Grandchildren. Their company is delightful, partly because they think you have something useful to impart, if you could remember to impart it. Waitresses tend to treat you sweetly. Doormen and maintenance crews show respect. And there are positive or harmless activities for the over the hill. Women take up watercolors and form book clubs. Men find loud if pointless camaraderie in diners and on village benches all over the country. Hey, old-timer.
While here in the city, we hail taxis. And cringe to see whether the one we have hailed is a normal car, for normal people, or one of those sliding, clanging door jobs that require a forklift for entry. I’m not exaggerating — much.
My point is: Who ever expected to spend time wondering if Madison Beer is a beverage honoring a founding father? Who ever expected that one’s social circle would consist of Marie, who does blood work, and an M.R.I. technician named Lou? Who ever expected that getting out of a taxi would be so momentous an issue that one is a bundle of nerves planning exit strategies halfway through the ride? Who ever expected old age?
Mr. Rosenblatt is a longtime contributor to Time magazine and “PBS NewsHour” and the author of several novels and memoirs, including “Cataract Blues: Running the Keyboard.”
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