Tuesday, December 4, 2012

How Old is Old?

Ever since I turned thirty, I had it in my head that thirty-five was the Ultima Thule of youth. And the years from thirty-five to forty, while not exactly middle age, were at least a kind of twilight zone. I also resolved that I would forswear the "long, lingering look behind" once I reached that age, that I would square my shoulders and take it in the spirit of A.E. Housman's verse:

The chestnut casts his flambeaux, and the flowers
Stream from the hawthorn on the wind away,
The doors clap to, the pane is blind with showers.
Pass me the can, lad; there's an end of May.

So when I turned thirty-five this year, I sighed and decided to get on with it without any desperate clinging onto youth.

Still, I'm rather pleased that in the last month or so I've had quite a spate of people calling me "young man".

The first was a female guard at the security check in the airport at Richmond, Virginia. My flight back to Ireland (via Philadelphia) with US Airways had been cancelled and they'd put me on a Delta flight to JFK Airport instead. I don't know whether Delta's security is more stringent, or whether it was the fact that I was flying to New York rather than Philadelphia, but the security seemed tighter. There was a sniffer dog, for one thing, who spent an uncomfortably long time investigating me.

(Speaking of age, I also noticed a sign which informed travellers over the age of 65-- or was it 75?-- that they were exempted from having to take their shoes off to get through security. That's the kind of ageism that might lead a senior citizen to terrorism, just to make a point.)

In any case, when my turn came, the rather severe-looking black lady ushered me through with "Go ahead, young man", which tickled me pink.

A few hours later, and on another continent, I was ordering a hot chocolate in the Tolka House in Glasnevin, where I was reading The Irish Catholic at my leisure. The pleasant barman there has made a habit of saying "You're a gentleman" when he finishes serving me. (I seem to get this quite a bit, from barmen and barbers and taxi-drivers. I think my social awkwardness translates as a kind of stiff gentility.) But this time he added "There you go, young man", which once again made me feel that it was perhaps earlier than I thought.

The last occasion was on Sunday, and there is quite a story attached to it. If you were in Dublin on Sunday you know it was a miserable, drizzly day. But drizzly as it was, I suddenly felt restless and inclined to a long walk, while listening to music on my MP3 player. I walked from Ballymun to Phibsborough, then turned right (for the sake of taking a route I had never taken before)and walked all the way to the Phoenix park. Then I turned around and began to walk back.

Somewhere along this route-- I won't say where, because one of the ladies in question specifically asked me not to identify the house-- I passed a house where two old ladies were standing at the gate, one of them holding a bicycle. I had my music playing, but I saw they were trying to catch my attention, so I removed the headphones.

They asked me if I could walk with them to the house and stand there as they had a look inside. That's all they wanted me to do.

They were excited and talking over each other, so it took a few moments for me to make out exactly what the story was. It seemed that the house (which belonged to one of the women) had been broken into and trashed by Romanian gypsies. (I merely report what I was told.) The two women were simply checking on it and they were both very nervous.

I stood at the door as the woman turned on her flashlight and pointed it through the (smashed) window. I couldn't make out very much inside, but it was obvious that the place had been completely ransacked. To use the conventional expression, it looked as though a bomb had hit it.

The lady (after taking some minutes to work up her courage) finally opened the door and stepped in. Perhaps I should have done that for her, but I didn't like the idea of stepping into a house that had been broken into and perhaps becoming the brunt of an accusation myself, though the ladies were perfectly pleasant. Then she locked up again and they went on their way.

All this took about twenty minutes, since the ladies were anxious to tell me every detail of the story. They told me the gypsies had broken into the house several times, that some of them had gone to jail but that others hadn't turned up for the court summons, that they wanted to take possession rather than merely burgle the place. They told me a house opposite had suffered the same fate, and six in a row not far off from it. They told me old people were living in terror and the gardai wouldn't do anything about it.

One of the ladies told me she would happily pay a gang to shoot the miscreants in the head and drop them in the canal. She said this several times.

It took me some time to take my leave, they were so eager to thank me and to tell me their story. The lady who owned the house was especially eager to convince me not to believe the politically correct whitewashing of incidents such as this one.

"I know you're young", she said. "How old are you?"

"Thirty-five", I said.

"That's young", she said.

So there you go. It's official. For another year at least.

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