He’s About My Age

He’s about my age. His white hair is long and full, but not so much that he looks like he never found his way home from a Grateful Dead concert. I see him walking through the neighborhood all the time.

Today he’s on the other side of the street, and my grandson and I are playing in the front yard. He hasn’t looked in our direction all summer, but now he says something I can’t quite hear.

“Excuse me?” I say.

He bounds across the road so he can repeat his first message, which may or may not have been purposely mumbled just so he could bound across the road.

He begins in mid-sentence. We figure out we both graduated from high school in 1968 and ask the usual questions about where we grew up, where we went to school. He asks about my grandson. “What’s his name? How old is he?”

Even though he didn’t plan this conversation (maybe) he has a lot to say. At some points he’s just lost in his own narrative. At others, his gaze lingers on me, and I wonder if he’s flirting. It’s so hard to know when hormones aren’t flying through the air like they used to.

But yes, I think the neighbor likes me.

“What’s your favorite band of all time?” he asks.

“Rolling Stones,” I say.

He approves of my answer and starts telling me about a movie starring Mick, something I never heard of because — truthfully — I stopped caring deeply about Mick a while ago. In the middle of his story, my grandson decides it’s time for lunch. The neighbor and I say our goodbyes.

Me: “I guess I’ll see you around.”

He: “I guess you’ll have no choice.”

I’m a little uneasy the rest of the afternoon, worrying he might be at his house now, thinking Damn. What an attractive woman. What if the next time I see him he pulls out a Rolling Stones boxed set from behind his back, or invites me to dinner?

A week later, I spot him in the supermarket, on the other side of the produce aisle. My grandson is in the shopping cart seat, facing me, and I pretend to be telling him something interesting about cucumbers because I don’t want to get the neighbor’s hopes up if he sees me. I don’t want to look available, if that’s the right word for the way you can look in a supermarket when you’re this old and getting your grandson in the cart seat is the most physical thing you’ve done all day.

I’m thinking to myself, Ugh, I have to let him know that I’m just not interested. But before I know it, he has seen me, crossed over, and is standing in front of us, grinning.

“Oh, hi there,” I say.

He smiles big. He motions to my grandson and asks, “How old is he?” I’m a little confused. “What’s his name?” he asks. Again, old news, but I tell him.

I realize it’s not that he’s a bad listener and has forgotten the details of our talk on the sidewalk. He has no idea who I am.

On the way home, with my grandson chirping happily in the back seat about the cookie the bakery lady gave him, I feel the need to reach deep into my memory box.

I was 23, at a wedding, seated next to a man from Greece. He was dark and tall and brilliant. We danced. I’d had a lot of wine and had suddenly remembered what a fabulous dancer I was. At the table, as we talked, he looked deeply into my eyes, and we took almost-drunk turns being fascinating.

Hours later — home alone and in bed — I heard little pebbles glancing off my second-story window. He was standing in my front yard, bathed in moonlight.

“We’re not finished,” he said, “I want to know more.”

I go over the story a few more times — savoring a detail here and adding a new one there — until finally I’m ready to take it into old age with me.

“How’s that cookie?” I ask my grandson. I’m happy the rest of the way home.

The Lessons You Learn from a Chocolate Pancake

pancakeOur friendship with Miss Susannah began five years ago, early on a Sunday morning, when she leaned over our booth and said what she says to everyone in her section, “What can I get you folks?”

I was new to the game of taking grandsons to restaurants. Austin was three and Brendan one, and I figured we couldn’t do much damage at our local IHOP, already a little worn around the edges. I was relieved when Susannah said she was a grandmother, too. I figured if some sugar packets got mysteriously opened or if we left the syrup bottles drippy from overuse, she’d understand.

I used to think the appeal for the boys was the restaurant’s go-to item for kids ─ a chocolate pancake made into a smiley face by chocolate chips, whipped cream, and maraschino cherries (the kind of breakfast only a grandmother would let happen). It must look a lot better than it tastes, though, because halfway through, Austin and Brendan usually push their plates gently to the middle of the table and sigh, “Ugh . . . I’m full.”

Even if I give them some alternative breakfast restaurant ideas ─ lots of places have fancy pancakes ─ they won’t hear of it.

“Miss Susannah!” they say in unison, every time.

On the drive over, the boys usually wonder aloud if she’ll be there (she is always there). If it’s been more than a few weeks since our last visit, they predict she’ll be surprised (she isn’t but pretends to be).

“Maybe she was thinking we wouldn’t come back,” Austin says, “and then she’ll see us and she’ll be all, ‘Where have you guys been?’”

Susannah may be in the middle of yelling at the cook, or squinting at her order pad, or rushing to get someone’s coffee to the table, but everything stops when the boys walk in. She hugs and kisses them. We never have to ask to be seated in her section. It’s the only place in my life where I’ve ever been a regular. I’m the Norm of IHOP.

“So, how is school going?” she’ll ask. “What do you think about this rain? Are you going to take swim lessons at your pool this summer?” They do their best to keep her up to date, sensing that somehow it’s important to her.

They’re too young to notice her age, probably 70ish, or that her work day started before sunrise, or that her tips are never going to buy her a retirement condo in Boca. They just know that the second she sees them, everything stops. She beams. They beam back. And for five years they’ve come here. For her, not the pancakes.

I try not to get ahead of myself about what this all means. I did that too much as a mother, always a few years in the future, predicting what every little milestone was telling me. When you’re a grandmother, it’s easier to live in the moment. No guarantees as I listen to their adorable little  boy voices, that I’ll ever get to hear their grownup ones. No need, as I watch them eat their chocolate pancakes and scan the room for their favorite waitress, to tell myself what fine men they’ll turn out to be.

They are kind children. That’s enough for today.

As we are leaving this morning, Susannah says to a couple at the next table, “They’ve been coming here since they were babies.” They don’t hear her, but I do.

As we pull out of the parking lot, it’s quiet in the car.

“She was really smiley today,” Austin says.

Then they lean back, and for a while we ride in a delicious, sweet silence.

Quick Requiem at a Red Light

After landing on Long Island and renting a car, I’m lost within ten minutes of leaving the airport parking lot. I didn’t think I’d need a GPS in my homeland, but apparently I do. One town just slides into another and looks exactly like the last one did. I feel like there used to be space between them that let you know you were changing zip codes. Okay, it’s been a while.

It makes me wonder how teenagers keep school rivalries going these days. In the Class of ’68, we referred to kids from Wantagh — three miles away — with a vague, almost mythical, curiosity as if they spoke a different dialect and worshipped at Stonehenge. I’m guessing that’s all over now because kids don’t actually have to see each other anymore to be BFF’s. Maybe kids don’t root for the home team either. Maybe they don’t chant at football games, or even go to football games. We shouted, “We are good! We are great! We’re the Class of ’68!” Our lungs got a workout back then. But we hardly ever used our thumbs the way kids do today.

I finally get my bearings by telling myself that when I get to the corner with Shoe Town on the right and Carvel up ahead on the left, I’ll know where I am. And then I recognize that I’m at that corner, but Shoe Town is gone. It’s a bank now. It’s probably been a bank for years. Maybe it’s not even the original building. I have no idea. When you haven’t lived in your hometown since 1973, things like this happen.

Shoe Town was one of the few perfect things in my pubescent years, and it seems right to mourn its passing as I wait at the red light. Before it came into my life and offered me the anonymity I needed with feet like mine, shoe shopping was a humiliating hell. Before the boxy store on the corner went up, all I had were smarmy salesmen measuring my foot and then sighing and saying, “I’ll see what I can do,” only to come back from that secret room in the back with one box instead of the five or six choices other girls got.

The summer before 6th grade, just before Shoe Town opened, my mother and I went on a fruitless quest to find something in my size (10) that wasn’t a patent-leather stiletto heel designed for a woman three times my age.

After one salesman measured my foot, he looked over at my mother and said, “Well, we don’t have any shoes that will fit her, but I could give you a couple of boxes to take home.”

She pretended to think it wasn’t funny, but later when I overheard her telling the story to my father, I could hear chuckles all around. This is what I was up against until I finally found a shoe store that made sense.

For one thing, Shoe Town was self-serve way before its time, so I could be my own agent. I could also walk there with my friends and spend as much time as I needed to try on every shoe in Size 8 or 9 that looked like it had any chance of fitting my foot and walking a few steps before I’d melt in pain in front of the full length mirrors they had in the corners.

Eventually I’d wander over to the Size 10 rack where I belonged and settle on a pair that didn’t embarrass me too much. Later, in my room, I would rub the 10 from inside the shoes until it was gone. Just in case. I took shoe size very seriously, as if it were a blight on my character.

When you come back to the place where you grew up, it’s all right there, sitting at a red light. Now you remember everything. How good it felt to buy your own shoes and carry them home. How the Carvel Flying Saucer melted in your hand all the way down Jerusalem Avenue. Opening your front door and knowing that roast chicken was for dinner. Your mother humming along to the Ray Conniff Singers on the HiFi. Running up the stairs to your room and trying on your new shoes. And thinking there was no way life would ever change from that day.

So you mourn the passing of a shoe store that was kind to you, and that’s not the weirdest thought you have at the red light. The oddest thing is that you still call this town home.