I’m Nearly 87, But Don’t Call Me “Old Man”

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Gerald Eskenazi headlined “I’m Nearly 87, but Don’t Call me ‘Old Man'”

‘Hey! Old man!”

I looked up. I was alone at the curb. The guy was yelling at me.

Yes, I was the old man, and he was warning me to watch out for cars, that I was getting too close to the curb.

And I’ve been thinking since: When did I become an old man, and what do others think of me now? That I am too feeble to realize where I am? Is this what people think of the elderly? Do they look at people running for president the same way? Or maybe someone who has just gotten into a car accident?

I’ll be 87 soon. Through most of my career as a sportswriter, I described people in their 20s. Yes, I admit, I wrote about athletes in their 30s as “aging.” I didn’t know anyone in my family who was 87. But we have an octogenarian president to whose age people often point when, in the Yiddish expression, he fumfers, or trips over a word. His strongest opponent, at this moment, also will turn 80 while in office if elected.

Yet there are societal upsides to reaching a certain age.

I don’t know when it first happened, but people on the street make room for me. I even walked to the front of the line at the Museum of Natural History and no one batted an eye. Young people smile at me. After all, I’m harmless, right?

Still, I am angered when people point to age as the reason for a problem, as if a younger person can’t be a poor driver or put together an incoherent sentence.

I’m no crusader, but in a way this has become my cause because I’m not happy when an 80-something is defined by age.

This seems to be happening at an increasing rate in our society, in which older people are more prevalent than they were when I was coming of age in the 1950s. The guy who yelled at me to watch out for cars? He didn’t see me; he saw an “old man.” Not the kid who used to play stickball in the streets of East New York, the Brooklyn neighborhood. Not Roz’s husband of more than 60 years, father of three, grandfather of six, author of many books, and of whom Muhammad Ali once playfully said, “You know, you’re not as dumb as you look.”

Society will have to rethink its stereotypes of aging. It is, quite simply, hurtful. I appreciate that “youngsters” hold a door open for me even if I wasn’t having trouble opening it myself or wave me into an elevator ahead of them. That’s OK but not what I want. I want them to see me as a functioning, understanding man who knows not to step onto the street while he’s looking at his cellphone to see what new texts he has.

Gerald Eskenazi was a longtime sportswriter for the New York Times and is the author of 16 books.

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