Slice of Life
When the elevator opens at your floor, there’s a woman—a person, a neighbor—in it, someone whom you have known, vaguely, for years. You have both volunteered with the tenants association, she rather more energetically than you.
It’s the middle of the day, a weekday. She, who worked for the city—for the Water Department?—in some kind of design-administrative post, is clearly not going to the office. And she’s older than you, and you’re approaching retirement age.
You make some casual, friendly remark about how it would seem she is retired.
“Yes,” she says, “And I love it. I couldn’t be happier.”
“Couldn’t,” too, was an interesting word choice. Of course the recent retiree had said the words brightly, and with her hair recently done and her face freshly made up. She couldn’t be happier. But this “couldn’t” could also imply a restriction, a hopelessness. Some people could be happier, but not me.
In the elevator none of this occurs to you. You say, rather, that you, too, will soon be retired, and that, even though you are not wild about your job, the place you work, your colleagues, you are, simultaneously, looking forward to retirement and not looking forward to it. You are about to note that one of the advantages of a job is that it gives you something external, and other people, to be annoyed with, rather than turning on yourself.
But before you can get started on anything like this, the woman repeats, “I just love it.”
The more sophisticated person might say that the key word was not “love,” but “just,” as if the woman had said, “I limit myself to loving being retired. And I refuse to go beyond that, even just in conversation with you.”
As if Socrates wandered through the agora looking for someone to talk to about virtue, and this not just because he thought virtue was an interesting subject or a subject his fellow Athenians were confused about, but because he himself was plagued with doubts about the way he himself lived his life—looking for people to talk to. Seeking solace in conversation? Could this be a virtuous way to live? And particularly on this day when it seemed no one wanted to talk with him.
“Sorry, Socrates, too busy.”
“What are you too busy with? And why are—”
The man was gone, walking away, joined by someone with whom he had some business.
And the elevator has reached the ground floor, and the woman has headed toward the laundry room, and you out into the heat of the day. And you are not thinking so much that no one wants to talk to you, as that no one wants to have a conversation. The people around you are using words to shut off, distance themselves from conversation, with themselves above all.
You have no idea whether your neighbor is happy or not (or whether she has any better or more grounded ideas than you have about what happiness is, what it feels like). You can imagine that, no matter how happy or unhappy she is, it is indeed true that she couldn’t be happier. But you are also sure that your neighbor doesn’t “just love” retirement; there are also moments—days and weeks—when she finds it trying or anxiety-provoking. Perhaps moments when she is indeed too exposed to herself, prey to fears and doubts, caught between the impending end and a sense that it no longer matters what she does with her time. Doing the laundry, getting her hair done, working so hard for the tenants association—does it feel at times like she is just going through the motions? Does it feel at times like she has always been just going through the motions?
You realize that it is a bit much, putting so many—projecting so many—thoughts and feelings onto a person you hardly know. What hurts is this: You yourself are struggling with retirement, with an aging body and a lack of sex appeal and a sense of just going through the motions, time on your hands, many things. And, intellectually, you know that many people your age are struggling with these things too. And, in the right situations—perhaps with a spouse or close friend, though at least equally likely it would be in a foreign country with a stranger never to be seen again—people might talk about their struggles and fears. But most of the time—and perhaps particularly your fellow Americans, the people around you—they take quite another approach, using words to build walls.
Channel surfing you come across some competition, college students. After each stage, first the winning group and then the losers are interviewed. And all the winners say the same thing, and all the losers. The losers say nothing of their disappointments, shortcomings, limitations. They say—in the full flush of their defeat—how great the experience has been and how much fun they have had and how much they love their teammates and how they can’t wait for next year. They couldn’t be happier.
— Wm. Eaton, July 2016
Very short companion piece (you might say): A play there is, my lord, some ten words long
Very long companion piece: Guston, Schapiro, Rosenberg, . . . Dialogue
(1) 3D optical illusion at Southside shopping centre in London. It tricked people into thinking that the floor of the elevator has collapsed. When the doors opened, scared people felt as if they were only a step away from falling into a deep elevator shaft. Created to publicize a resort attraction. Blog post, February 17, 2012.
(2) Elevator shaft art by Skott Marsi for The Kaufman Organization (real-estate company). NAIOP Commercial Real Estate Development Organization blog post, Fall 2015.
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