Push Carts in NYC, Thoughts on Old Age

October 8, 2009

Dear Papaito,

They played one of your favorite classical pieces at the café today. I paused my reading for a moment and listened. I tried to remember its name, or the name of its composer, but neither came to mind. I thought I would ask you when you arrived. I suppose I will ask you tomorrow?

Our spot by the window was not taken. I made my way there between tables and costumers, and sat with a cup of steaming coffee between my hands. My eyes wandered lazily around the room, turning to the door every time a new costumer entered. Was that you? Would the next one be you? Maybe the one after? And wandering around, my eyes stumbled upon my reflection on the glass door behind your seat. I had never noticed it before. Today, with your seat empty, nothing was there to block it. From that moment on, that reflection became a persistent reminder of our absence.

Resigning myself to the idea that you wouldn’t come today, I took my books out my bag, and began to read. From the corner of my eye, I could see a continuous stream of university students passing by my side. The feeling was comforting; Cairo nurtured in me a need to be around people when I read and study, and I have not shaken it off yet (maybe I never will). Yet windows have this magnetic quality to them. Some thing or another will catch my attention, and then, before I can try to prevent it, it will have unfurled an unending thread of thoughts…

His step was slow and heavy. His legs, short and thin, sagged with the weight of years. For companion he had a metal pushcart, which I have  learned to associate with old age in the streets of this city. And it was this cart, barely moving behind the window, that initially caught my eye.

The man was mumbling something to himself –or his taciturn metal buddy- as he pushed him down the street. I wished to know what he was saying. I wished to be confided the secret. Would the old man share if I asked? So I decided that from that moment until they left my range of vision, I would walk with them.

I had to slow my own pace to be admitted as their companion, to which I agreed with great pleasure. But Papaito, it was harder than I had thought. I had not realized that speed was the rule of the sidewalk (had you?). I noticed with some embarrassment that our slow pace isolated us and marginalized us to a side…People passed us. Dodged us. Evaded us. We were but obstacles on the sidewalk. Streetlights during the day. Forgotten billboards. True, they were never rude to us. They were never disrespectful. Never offensive. But then again, nor were they ever anything… and we were nothing to them.

We were invisible. There was no space for our slow pace in this sidewalk of everyone and no one. The dictatorial pace of the majority surrounded us, devoured us, and threw us to the fringes of this massive racing track everyone seemed to be on. Everyone ran. Everyone raced But what were people running from Papaito? Would you know? The more I thought about it, the more ironic it seemed: they could not see us, and yet, with every new rushed step they took, they were one step closer to us. We were nobody, and every one of them we would become.

Papaito, they had relieved us from the race. We had returner our running gear, and vanished into nothingness. There was no room for us on the track. Yet there we stood, years away from it, and yet so close we could almost touch our own exclusion.

And they reached the window frame, and I had to part with them. So I left them. The old man did not speak a single word to me. Nor did his faithful companion. But they shared the secret he was mumbling. I think I might have begun to understand.

Back in my seat, I wondered whether old age is scary because it is the epitome of fears too ordinary and recurrent in our daily lives. The fear of imminent insignificance. Of being invisible to loved ones. Of marginality. Of weakness. Of vulnerability. Of dependency… All the things we’ve learned to fear. And more.

Yet, there are so many elderly people around us, struggling to push their own metal carts… And it seems we don’t always see them because they are not all old.

Why, that may be all of us, sometimes.

Mint tea tomorrow?

J.

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