I'm a couple of weeks away from turning 52, and just looking at that number made me feel as if I had tumbled out of a window.
It takes just a second to reassure myself that I'm not falling yet. But aging, like gravity, is an unstoppable force. And not everyone thinks to take advantage of life before the fall. I sometimes think of living as a chore that I've left at the bottom of a to-do list for... oh, 30 years. Like finishing Ulysses (my James Joyce reading group broke up rather abruptly) or dancing shirtless at Limelight.
I feel that we're all at a cocktail party in a glittering high-rise, and everyone gets pushed out the window eventually. You can't avoid your fate by hiding in the corner and avoiding eye contact with everyone.
Some people never make it to the window. Bad luck and bad choices can mean an unnaturally early exit from the party. I'm selfishly glad that I made it this far, and certainly a little too smug about not drinking too much or taking any drugs that might have brought me to a sudden end. But I should have downed some of those raw oysters (everyone who ate them seems fine!) and been bolder about putting my arm around someone on the couch.
Last week I spent a couple of days on a college campus in Washington, D.C., and I regretted how shy and buttoned-up I was when I was younger. Why didn't I grow a beard before I got gray hair? Why didn't I wear cool sunglasses and walk around in shorts and untucked shirts when I could look roguish instead of sloppy and forgetful? (A stain on a shirt means insouciance at 30 and the beginnings of senility at 60.) I wouldn't have been kicked out of the cocktail party for displaying a little color or showing a little leg.
Should I warn younger people that a lifetime isn't infinite? I can imagine going to gay bars like a missionary, taking aside twentysomethings to preach what I've learned, but I wouldn't have paid attention to someone like that when I was in my twenties. And getting a reputation as a creepy old man is not what I need for my self-esteem at this point.
So I'm going to keep away from the window as long as I can. And be less picky about what's left at the bar and buffet table.
Well, I didn't do much thinking about it. I was offered a good and exciting job in New York and I could no longer afford my apartment in Boston anyway. I would have hesitated to leave a significant other behind, but there wasn't one, and the prospects for finding someone are a bit better in a bigger city. Here I can claim some dignity by telling people here that I had a boyfriend in Boston, and people won't necessarily doubt me. (Not that anyone has yet asked.)
After being here almost a month, the thing I miss most about Boston are the bathrooms. The bathrooms in New York are disgusting even when they're clean. I guess there is no incentive for commercial or residential landlords to upgrade bathroom fixtures every 60 years or so; prospective tenants just sigh and tell themselves that a missing faucet is worth being a block from the subway.
Customer service is far better in New York. On one of my first days, I went to Starbucks to get a lunch I could eat at my desk. (I thought such a practice was barbarous until I worked in Midtown Manhattan.) I didn't realize that I was supposed to take my food from the display case and hand it to the cashier. So when I asked for a chicken pesto sandwich, the cashier ran from her post to the other end of the store, made her way around the snaking line of customers, grabbed a sandwich in its wrapper, and ran back to the cash register before telling me with a smile that next time I could select the food myself. This would never happen in Boston, where the customer is always an idiot. The best-case scenario would have been a cashier who didn't use the f-word when telling me to go back and get the sandwich, moron.
People do hold doors for those behind them in Boston, but they don't make eye contact like they do here, and say "Good morning!" like they mean it. In my apartment building, people bid adieu to anyone getting off an elevator as if they're waving goodbye to someone about to board the Titanic. ("Take care! [We might never see each other again!] " "You too! [I'm pretty sure we'll both be alive and on this same elevator tomorrow.]"
I'm sorry, New York, but you don't move any faster than Bostonians. You have even more people getting to the tops of staircases and coming to a dead stop to look at smartphones, oblivious of everyone behind them. And they're not tourists.
New Yorker are friendlier, but that hasn't made it a breeze to meet people. At bars and social gatherings, I get the impression, more than ever, that people can't look away fast enough if I'm brave enough to make eye contact with them. (This includes people close to my own age.) There's a logic behind this, in that there are so many more people to look at in New York, and you don't want to waste time on the wrong ones. I might do better meeting people in a small, closed-off population, but I don't think I can make a living as a proofreader in Antarctica.
The rents in my apartment building are going up again this fall (new living situation needed, in Boston or New York!), and my mother is indignant enough for both of us. “I can’t understand it,” she said last week, as we discussed the scarcity of apartments near Boston subway lines that rent for less than $2000 a month. “How could they have gone up so much?”
I didn’t have the heart to reply honestly: “You’re the reason rent is so expensive!”
With my father in a nursing home, my mother now lives alone in a house, within walking distance to the subway, where six of us lived a few decades ago. Her best friend lives a few blocks away in a house where five people used to live. There must be tens of thousands of comfortable homes in walkable neighborhoods in the Boston area where big families have given way to elderly people living alone. This is one reason there are so many children in my apartment building, including the monster upstairs who seems to run around in circles at night like a crazed cat. When there are so few houses on the market, more young families have to compete with singles and couples for small apartments.
In 2005, Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey played into the stereotype of the heartless Republican when she suggested that many elderly people in Massachusetts were “overhoused,” with property-tax breaks for seniors only encouraging them to live alone in huge houses. The Boston Globe’s Raphael Lewis captured some of the outrage:
“Reading in the paper about what the lieutenant governor said last week, it was quite upsetting about how seniors should just move out because they only use one room out of your whole house,” Leola Coleman, 74, of Mattapan said to Healey.
'”But I think we should have the privilege to do that if we want to,” Coleman said. '”And you know what I mean, like we have to leave and give up our homes because of the baby boomers.”
Oh, those arrogant baby boomers, living in their fancy crowded apartments and looking askance at people who allegedly use only one room out of their whole house. What would they have the good elderly folk of Massachusetts do with their millions of rolls of gift wrap? (And we’re not really talking about baby boomers coveting houses anymore; they’re now old enough to be the ones who refuse to go.)
I don’t blame my mother for not wanting to move. If she sold the house, she’d only have to deal with the same ridiculous rents and home prices that the rest of us face. But if all the widows and widowers in the Boston area sold their houses at once, we’d get somewhere. Many of the houses would go to young families now in apartments. Some of the houses would be subdivided into apartments or would be shared by students and other young adults. (Cities and towns would have to permit this re-use; posh suburbs like Dover and Weston would undoubtedly ban the disgusting habit of housing more than one person per acre.) At the same time, some of the widows and widowers would move in with other family members, and some would get apartments with roommates. The overall result would be a reduced demand for apartments, and at least a slowdown in rent increases.
There will be no exodus from too-big houses any time soon. Homeownership is too precious to people who came of age anywhere between the Great Depression and the early 1970s. In the 1980s, comic Kevin Meaney made a running gag out of his mother fretting, “We’re gonna lose the house!” It really is an obsessive fear among American working-class families, even when it’s unlikely that the house will be passed down to the next generation.
And though this may change as more people live in apartments for longer periods of time, Americans never seem satisfied with the amount of room for their stuff. As the Washington Post recently reported, “living space available per person has doubled over the last 40 years,” the result of the median home size going up (from about 1,500 to 2,500 square feet from 1973 to 2013) and the average number of people in a household going down (from three people to just over 2.5 people over the same period). In fact, the living space per person has quadrupled or quintupled over the past 40 years for seniors who remain in houses where they once raised families—but that means the living space has shrunk for families who cannot afford houses and have to compete with young singles for apartments.
Since we’re not going to force people out of their homes, a more reasonable solution is to build more housing in desirable areas, including apartment buildings in neighborhoods with public transportation. That’s been happening to some extent in the Boston area, and my mother is all in favor of that. But most of her homeowning neighbors, in a city just north of Boston, are of the NIMBY persuasion, and they loudly oppose new apartments and the “transients” they attract. (My own building, in a formerly all-commercial area a block from the subway, has 11 stories, and that was enough to scandalize the city into imposing height restrictions to make sure it never happens again.)
I get it. A big, quiet, almost empty house is a reward for raising a family, and it hardly makes up for the cost, the work, and the heartaches of shepherding three or four kids into adulthood. But please don’t accuse me, struggling to come up with enough money for a cozy one-bedroom apartment, of bringing down the tone of the neighborhood.
It’s Pride Week in Boston! So far, I’m spending it in my apartment getting headaches from the backhoes tearing up a parking lot on the next block and the six-year-old boy upstairs stomping around as if his apartment were carpeted with smoldering cigarette butts. I’m also waiting for confirmation that I’ll actually be paid for an editing job, and waiting for information about my dad’s health.
And it’s getting hot. Fortunately, the New Kids on the Block tell me it’s OK to go commando if I use the right toilet paper. I don’t think they really know why men wear boxers and briefs. (Zippers have something to do with it.)
But I promised to be positive about Gay Pride. What am I thankful for this year?
1.) I’m old enough for people to think my lack of a husband is due to ACT UP–era objections to marriage as an assimilationist and patriarchal institution. (That’s not it. At all.)
Last night, a Friday, I started to do my taxes and realized I was in the kind of financial situation that people kill themselves over. I took a break and watched something on Netflix in which some schlubby guy did something impulsive and ended up owing $5,000 a month to a rich family for the rest of his life (or until he paid them $5 million). So things could be worse.
Today I’m baby-sitting my father. He’s 87, and he thought he was turning 90 next week until I corrected him, unnecessarily and maybe cruelly. He uses a walker and is nearly blind and mostly deaf, and he’s never sure what day it is. We don’t want him left alone in case he falls or burns the house down trying to make a cup of instant coffee. So I could have it worse.
My mother is taking her own break, attending my nephew’s First Communion instead of staying at home and tensing up at every unexpected noise. “He’s going to run you ragged,” she says, waiting for my brother to pick her up, but he’s never as demanding or impatient with anyone else as he is with my mother.
He’s sitting on the enclosed sunporch, with an Irish-music program at full volume. They don’t play U2 on this station, but I do hear Paul McCartney shout-singing “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” amid the ballads and polka riffs and songs about unicorns. There’s also a drinking song about a brawl at a party with the lyrics “Murphy and his cousin/paralyzed half a dozen”; a song called “The Legend” about the “great Nelson Mandela” as an inspiration for an “Ireland united and free”; and “The Red Rose Cafe,” which my father knows well enough to softly sing along to. (“Down at the Red Rose Cafe in the harbour/There by the port just outside Amsterdam/Everyone shares in the songs and the laughter/Everyone there is so happy to be there.”)
There’s also a song called “The Old Man,” about losing one’s father (“I thought he’d live forever/He seemed so big and strong”), which we both silently listen to. The afternoon is not so bad. I spend most of it reading magazines on my computer tablet (no computers or Internet service at my parents’ house), periodically refilling his coffee cup and accompanying him to the outside porch to see if the April wind has quieted.
A few hours later, it’s back to worrying over Excel spreadsheets. I curse aloud when I go over bank statements and discover that I accidentally bought a few extra monthly subway passes last year. The MBTA’s vending machines don’t always work, and when one fails to update my Charlie Card, I sputter angrily and try another one, acting very much like my impatient father. I didn’t always remember to make sure that my credit-card charge was cancelled. No one to blame but myself if I can’t afford a bottle of wine tonight.
OK, my financial situation is not as bad as… well, not as bad as it is for most people in the world, or even for most Americans. But we all compare ourselves with our peers — best friends, Facebook acquaintances, and former co-workers who went on to better things. My father is from a different time and place, so he didn’t feel like an underachiever when he couldn’t afford a trip to Europe or a barber who would give him anything other than a crew cut. For a few hours, listening to an AM radio station and eating tuna fish sandwiches with my dad, I remember where I’m from and forget where I am.
Like so many in New England, I spent February and much of March hallucinating about what could be under our enormous snowdrifts (tunnels from North Korea? graboids?), but I got some writing done.
My column in the print edition of America magazine was on "The Prison Trap." An excerpt:
our political system does not always reward sensible reform. A single violent act, even if it is not indicative of a rising crime rate, can frighten the public enough to cause a return to blindly punitive policies. The benefits of criminal justice reform, including financial savings and the repairs to communities damaged by mass incarceration, do not necessarily redound to prosecutors and judges, so they may not be motivated to tighten the prison pipeline. The N.R.C. report estimated that only 5 percent of felony convictions come from juries; most often, prosecutors exact guilty pleas from defendants by threatening to seek longer sentences at trial.
what if gridlock is the only thing keeping the United States together? Our entire history has conditioned us to expect half-measures and abandoned initiatives from the federal government. We don’t know how we’d react if an unprecedentedly disciplined, ideologically cohesive political party seized control of the White House and Congress and governed “aggressively.” (The past few years in Wisconsin provide one example, with protest marches and an attempt to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker.) Would states governed by the opposite party be bolder about trying to “nullify” federal law, the way same states have tried to do with Obamacare? Would the minority party in Congress refuse to participate in votes, or resort to political theater such as boycotting State of the Union addresses?
We’ve made it this far only because of weak political parties with little sense of principle—giving us, among other things, a bipartisan policy of white supremacy that lasted for nearly two centuries. But the Democratic and Republican parties recently figured out that in the natural order of things, they’re supposed to be rivals, not siblings. Think of them as a cheetah and a gazelle, playfully wrestling as infants until the inevitable day when one nearly tears the head off the other. You can decide which, if any, is the more aggressive in this situation.
Read more posts about politics at the (Un)Conventional Wisdom page. I promise posts not about politics here in the future, assuming I get out of my apartment and find some urban adventures.