Posted by: facetothewind | January 19, 2007

Aging Disgracefully: on the occasion of my 43rd birthday

Written for the Gay & Lesbian Review issue on aging in the gay community, but rejected…

A couple of years ago I had an epiphany at a party. It was a party like most I attend where there is some diversity of age. Typical of social gatherings of mixed ages, I noticed that the clusters of men were beginning to sort by age, almost as if each person had been requested to write his age in large letters on his forehead and then find others in the group who would be within say, 10 years of his own number.

Being age-conscious as I am, and fueled by my guilty conscience, I can’t help noticing who is left out of group conversations. This time, I spied a man in a booth in the corner staring at the floor through thick glasses. I noted that he was, by my estimation, the oldest man at the party.

Unable to actually wrest myself from the men in my own age bracket, I got the old man’s number from a friend and took it upon myself to call him later that week just to make contact and assuage my guilt for ignoring him. I hoped to find out that he was an incredibly well-rounded man and shame on us all for ignoring him. Turned out the gentleman with the Coke bottle glasses was actually quite a bore regaling me with jokes that seemed right out of a Milton Berle stand-up routine. I laughed politely and hung up the phone hoping that I wouldn’t have to sit in private company with this man, ever. Could it be that he was sidelined not because of his age, but because he liked to stay at home and bake recipes from Betty Crocker and had nothing scintillating to add to a conversation of men in their 30s and 40s?

In a way, this gay Uncle Miltie was a wraith bearing a stern warning to me as a middle aged man holding onto a few small vestiges of physical attractiveness: become interesting or become invisible. Like most gay men, I grew up thinking that instant gratification was the birthright of homosexuality, and I acted accordingly. Armed with a lithe body and a full head of hair, I entered the fray on Fire Island. How could I not have? The sexual culture of gay males lubricates the slide right into gluttony.

I can recall on a number of occasions walking beside a straight comrade and noticing a man on the street and making some comment about his attractiveness. I have often been reminded by these straight men that if I were straight I would be considered a crude menace to women pointing out their breasts and the equivalent of “hey get a load of that babe!” I cringed and celebrated that I wasn’t and went on searching the periphery for the next set of firm buns and bulging biceps.

But while I was off on my knees worshipping Eros in the dunes of Fire Island enjoying my ringless nihilism, my straight friends were on their knees proposing, making commitments and otherwise toeing the line in ways I never could. As they began popping out the little progeny and acquiring their soccer-mom vans to take them to ballet class, I was off to Mykonos and the Radical Faeries, doing mushrooms and getting naked in fields of flowers.

It wasn’t until that epiphanal party that I began to see my balloon payment coming due in the form of some thick glasses in the corner, staring at the floor. Gay life with its emphasis on pleasure, charm and bling-bling, was beginning to seem very front-weighted – enjoy now, pay later. I made only feeble attempts at committing to a long-term relationship, had completely eschewed all notions of gay marriage, and heavens, I could never have children. How could I possibly juggle toddlers while checking Craig’s List for hookups? It started to seem like I had not planned for my old age and was going to be doomed to being alone and miserable like the guy in the corner at the party.

After Sonny Bono’s death on a ski slope, I recall Cher saying something to the effect, “Well, if Sonny could die, then it can’t be all that difficult and I can do it.” I took her irreverent wisdom to heart and began taking a closer look at some of my gay elders who had passed where I am now, 30 years ago.

Have you ever noticed that the men in the locker rooms who seem to be the most joyful are the guys in their 70s and 80s? We’ve all seen them – the guys with moles and wiry brows twisting into their eyes, who come to the daytime water-aerobics class at the Y. They sing in the shower and whistle while powdering their bent and craggy old toes. There comes a certain freedom when your body has gone irretrievably into the final stretch. There’s no more hope or expectation that they’ll ever have a so-called “gym-toned” body. Contrary to most people, I believe true happiness comes when you’ve given up all hope and have faced the bleakness of life head-on.

Take for instance my friend Wessie. He was a banker his whole life, but now in his late 70s he has a joie de vivre that I rarely see in anyone my age too caught up in muscling things into place. In my 40s, I’m told I’m in my prime – my power years – poised to make my mark and influence the next generation. And there is still some pressure to keep my body from sliding to the floor and tame my wild hairs. But at Wessie’s age, it’s a lost cause. The most he can hope for is that his gout won’t keep him from driving himself to the park to satisfy one of his fetishes: picking up homeless men, bringing them home for a bath and having sex with them.

When he sees the Mormons coming to the house, he strips off his clothes and throws open the door clad only in a smile. He has become an emancipated, dirty old man, aging disgracefully by any heterosexual (and even most homosexual standards) these days. And he wears it well. He enjoys the freedom one is afforded of being considered an eccentric old man – if only his neighbors really knew the whole story. And what freedom that is.

Thus I began to see that to make my balloon payment I was going to have to let go of all hope and accept the vicissitudes of aging. I would need to make peace with being alone more and in that aloneness, I would vow to be the best little dirty old man next door that I possibly could be.

Alas, I think social obligation still has the best of me at 42. It is what I would call age-appropriate ambition and propriety. I still have a few more careers left in me, and a little muscle tone to keep me motivated. But I can’t wait to be liberated from this sentence. Meanwhile as my straight counterparts are on to the Junior Welfare League part of their lives, I’m off to Thailand to peer into the future of my disgrace.

As I move into my old age, I certainly am not going to be enjoying the patter of grandchildren’s little feet on the polished concrete of my urban townhouse. There will be no presence of a little old lady in my life to temper my whimsy. With any luck and a little inspiration from some other dirty old men who have come before me, I fully expect to be happily sitting in my living room, braiding my nose hairs, waiting for the Mormons to ring.

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