At the legal aid office where I’d gone for some advice, the woman behind the counter asked if I suffered from any disabilities. “No,” I answered. As she typed standing at the computer, her back to me, I added, “Except for age.”
I’d used a light tone to signal that my remark was a joke, but she didn’t laugh. She didn’t look away from her screen or turn around or even nod. I’d noticed her gray hair on entering the office because it looked nice—loose curls just short of shoulder length—and when my joke fell flat, I noticed the gray again. She was the far side of thin, more scrawny than slender, and she looked dried out, like a leaf on a tree still hanging on but beginning to curl inward at the edges. Was age a handicap for her, I wondered, and nothing to joke about, or was the notion that gray hair and wrinkles might hold you back offensive to her for the opposite reason, because she refused to trade on age and anyone who did was weak and despicable? My joke was offensive, in the way of a call for special attention when anyone can see that we’re all special enough to make specialness quite ordinary. If we don’t have the drawn brow of tired years then we have the smooth one of uninitiated youth, which can be equally limiting. As can every step along the way from one to the other, and beyond. Tell a group of friends about a recent spate of bad luck, and after a quick nod at your troubles, everyone rattles out their own story of a recent spate of bad luck. A lot of what’s mentioned has to do with age or its opposite, youth.
Instead of using age for my attempt at levity, I could as easily have said, “Except for my son,” making light of family responsibilities, and when my age joke fell flat I briefly wished I had. It couldn’t have been received with less interest than my remark about age. But later, thinking it over, I realized I couldn’t know how that joke would go over either. Would it have been better to stick strictly to business? As David Stromberg wrote in an article on this website, “There’s no control group for reality. We either do something or we don’t, and either way, the eventualities that emerge can surprise us. Sometimes they are happy surprises, and sometimes they are not. And all we’re really left with, in the end, are the choices we made.”
The woman asked me a few more questions, gave me some instructions, then made to turn away. She sighed when I repeated the instructions to make sure I’d understood. “That’s right,” she said, and when I thanked her and said good-bye, she barely looked at me. That was okay. I’d made my choice, which was to try. And who knows—maybe my bumbling softened her a little because when I returned to the office a week later, she greeted me as if I were a friend, almost an old friend.
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