Turning Fifty

by William Pierce

At Peet’s Coffee in Newton Center, I encountered two different pairs of aging white men. The first pair was sitting at the table next to mine: two fit guys in their midfifties, one a silver fox type, the other shorter, darker, hairier, more sad-sackish. Both seemed to have retired early, and they were struggling for ways to connect.

When the glum one returned from the bathroom, he asked Silver Fox if he was doing much with his woodworking lately.

“Oh yeah, small projects. I like to keep my hand in.”

“I’d really like to see your shop sometime.”

“Well, you know it’s a big mess, you couldn’t really walk around, in fact it’s—I haven’t been able to walk in there for a while, my wife’s been upset about that, it’s a real mess, I just haven’t taken the time to—”

So he’d lied? Wanted the other to think of him as engaged and heroic, the master of all trades, living the dream?

As soon as a comfy chair freed up—wide wooden armrests, perfect for my teapot and cup—I moved to it, and along came a man in his early seventies. He stopped where another seventy-something was sitting, and for fifteen minutes they congratulated each other. All of their children lived within eleven minutes of here. No six-hour flights. No holidays-only.

“Who else … ?”

“Just about no one.”

The four seemed damaged in a familiar way. They reminded me of guys from my high school class, when I’d gone back for our twenty-fifth reunion. First, Andy, a charismatic athlete, irresistibly handsome—also probably an alcoholic. He put his arm around me and came in close to my ear, saying, “Billy. Billy, Billy, Bill. Please publish that novel as soon as you can. Look, I’m a lawyer in a small town, I’m fine, I’m doing fine. But I’m bored as fuck and I want to be able to live vicariously. Give me something here, pal.”

A couple of hours later, Christian, all in white like Tom Wolfe, greeted me at the open bar. I rubbed his white lapel between my fingers. “You’re looking good!” I said. In return, he said something like this, in just this kind of storytelling spill: “Aren’t I? I’m looking spectacular. I wear my white threads so I stick out in a crowd and people notice me, and I’ve got money—I can buy as many of these white suits as I want. I’m a big success. I thought I’d resist taking over my father’s business, but then he died and my mother asked me to take over and really there wasn’t much of a choice. It wasn’t a good time for the business to be sold, and my father wasn’t great at saving—to tell you the truth he wasn’t that great a businessman. But I went in there and rescued the place and quadrupled the sales—and there I was, not much to do, but I had money! And I could get noticed! And everyone loves me because I’m one of the most successful businessmen in town and I wear snappy white suits. And do you know what I do? Do you know where all this money comes from? My great expertise? I sell water valves. I sell every kind of valve a municipal water system could possibly need. I know everything there is to know about water valves, and there’s no water manager in the country who doesn’t know my company. So yes, I look great in these white suits, don’t I? I’m always the life of the party.”

That same night, at a reception in the glass-sided arts building, Teddy stunned five or six of us. His father, he said, had not done particularly well. Teddy had grown up seeing the effects of poverty, hadn’t had much himself, his parents very limited by the lack of money. He got to boarding school on a scholarship, then college at UVA, and he decided, after seeing the lives of everyone around him, how to proceed with his own. He wanted to get rich; he didn’t care how. From then on, he only ever had the goal of being rich. So he kept his eyes open. Medical school. Urology—one of the most lucrative subspecialties. Then, once he was a successful urologist with several clinics, he noticed that plenty of his patients’ money was going to lab work—“and if my patients or their insurance companies are spending money, I want to be the one to catch it.” So he bought a urology lab and turned that into a chain. “And it worked. I’m as rich as I could ever have dreamed of being. It’s my whole life and I succeeded at it completely, and I can’t imagine wishing for anything different.” We asked if he was happy, and he hesitated. “I’m happy I reached my goal!”

When I told Emily these stories at Stoddard’s, she called it the midlife-crisis reunion. I said, for me everything was fine, though my writing career had hardly begun. “Yes,” she said, “your midlife crisis came later.”

From the edge of Boston Common we took the T to Kenmore Square, but the last D train had already passed. It was two a.m. Boston’s “experiment” of letting the subway run till three on weekends had officially ended.

She tapped for an Uber. The storefronts were dark, the sidewalk quiet. But within minutes, five cars had gathered at the curb. Private, unmarked, but unsettlingly similar. Many of the drivers suddenly doing this for a living had black SUVs or long black sedans. Clusters of people emerged from formerly empty shadows, got into one or another of the cars, and swept off. The only human beings we’d noticed earlier stepped into the street to read a license plate, checking and double-checking on their phone and at the front and back of the vehicle to be sure. Two more cars pulled up, one of them honking, then honking again. The app gave no image, just said ours was a Toyota. The honking one—a Honda—pulled closer, and the driver rolled down his window. “Are you Ahmed?” Emily asked. “Yes,” he said, “get in.” And off we went.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

It was a small thing, Wegmans’ way with coupons, but it connected to more and more—the behavior of apps, for example—and had gradually set a tone.

Wegmans in Chestnut Hill had opened in the middle of 2014, and for a year and a half they’d acclimated people—and worked to change their habit of going elsewhere—by mailing out substantial coupons. For a year I saved seven dollars most every week. Five dollars off a total of twenty-five or more. One dollar off this, and another dollar off that, rotating among bulk foods, the bakery, specialty cheeses, health and beauty, store-brand cold cuts, organic dairy, and so on. I could almost always find something I needed in those side categories, and when I couldn’t, I bought a dollar’s worth of something I’d enjoy. The coupons made the shopping more fun, gave it a slight challenge, and led me to go there more consistently, in fact made it a routine—though I was no fan of many of their store brands and especially not of their devious way of stocking the famous brands and then gradually replacing them, product by product, with Wegmans version, sometimes even packaged to look similar, as in the case of Barilla pasta, whose shelf footage had been shrinking by the month. It felt like just a matter of time before Heinz and Hellmanns’ would begin to melt away.

Today I again shopped at Wegmans, and since the new batch of coupons hadn’t arrived in the mail, after filling a cart I rolled back across the store to Customer Service.

“Oh, the coupon program has been discontinued. It’s still in use at the Burlington store.”

So there it was. Cold turkey.

Maybe it wouldn’t have sat in me as a programmed corporate deception if we weren’t living in the era of proud—programmed—corporate deceptions. The prime example was Facebook, notorious for letting people choose settings for privacy and then quietly changing them a couple of months later. The Messenger app, Facebook’s texting feature in app form, frequently prompted you to give access to information, like your phone’s entire contact list, that you’d already said you didn’t want to connect it to, and if you ever tapped the option that you’d been strenuously avoiding, that was it—they took the data. Company upon company had found ways to get access to people’s camera rolls, their contact lists, their Facebook friends—they gave no other option if you wanted to be part of the game. When you said no, the next time you opened the app you were asked to say yes to the things you’d originally rejected. If these things were required, the app could say so up front, but they rarely did. The designers wanted to coax you in—either by numbing your fears, frustrating them away (oh fuck it), or having you tap accidentally, or tap not realizing you’d just “changed your mind.” There seemed to be no standards, limits, or regulations. And there was for sure no shame.

Allow us to notify you! Allow us to notify you!

A box popped up. “Turn on notifications.” It was a command, not a question, and below it were two buttons: “Okay” and “Not Now.” How about “No”? How about “Don’t Ask Again.”

Quicken 2013 did something equally dishonest. Every time you opened the software in each successive year, a dialogue box asked if you want to “upgrade” to Quicken 2014, 2015, 2016. For the average user nothing would make the new version more useful or better. You were being asked, with software upgrades generally, to pay for the privilege of having to relearn something familiar—and the new version would take up more storage space too, meaning it would run more slowly, which, in the vicious cycle of these things, hastened the day when you were forced to “upgrade” the device also.

When Quicken asked, you could click the X and make the ad go away. And for those who were sure they weren’t interested and didn’t want to be pestered, there was a “Remind Me Later” box that could be unchecked. Maybe a few months would go by before the ad returned. But no. The box did nothing. You could uncheck it every time if you wanted. You could register a protest by trying again. It never did a thing. The box was there to keep people from complaining. But the next time you opened Quicken, the ad was back. “Hmm, must be a bug in my copy.”

At 1:30 Michael picked me up and we drove to Winship Elementary School in Brighton, where Jamie had asked me to talk about storytelling with second-graders. I visited two classes, and my experiences with them were surprisingly different. I’d decided to focus on beginnings, middles, and ends and show them they already had a strong instinct, like songbirds. In the first, the kids’ ideas cohered around two stories, the one about a princess locked in a tower, the other, based on a book they knew, about A.J., a boy who hated school. They suggested beginnings, then middles, then ends. I had them imagine using their endings to start a story, as happened in Alice in Wonderland when she fell asleep at the beginning.

I wish I could write about each of the kids individually. The heavy girl with the long braid who looked Native American, who got great respect from the other students—they almost always took up whatever she suggested. Or the leading-lady type who sat at a desk instead of on the floor with the rest and kept her arm up the whole time and got exasperated when I stopped calling on her. Or the small-headed, Irish-looking boy, who sat so close beneath me as I stood there that I didn’t see his raised arm until the teacher pointed him out: “Dylan’s been wanting to say something. That’s Dylan,” pointing me back when I thought she meant the handsome Hispanic kid to the right of him, who’d already spoken a couple of times. Or the energetic Asian girl behind Dylan, who had pigtails and kept adding “and died” to her offerings, only to please the streetwise white girl to the left of me whose scenarios involved bazookas and death. When I talked about Bazooka gum, each boy afterward took up the challenge and riffed on gum, still working within the story of the tower or the story of A.J., who now had the advantage of bubble gum but no longer the help of weapons.

There was a disturbing moment at the end of class. The teacher asked the minder—the young woman on hand to accompany me—if she wanted to take a picture. The leading lady jumped over to be next to me as the minder named this person, that person, the other person, “Go over there,” away from the group that had gathered around me. I was standing in my leather coat by then. The minder tapped the leading lady too: “Over there, you don’t have permission either.” The pictures, I realized then, would be posted on the school’s website—so this was what happened when parents left the annual permission form unsigned: their children were called out, practically humiliated.

In the second classroom the teacher was younger, more edge-of-the-seat. She was also harsher, the kind of person I remembered afterward as wearing cat’s-eye glasses. Halfway through the class, she briefly lectured me on the attention spans of second graders and suggested I might have them write in their notebooks—so I did, and it worked decently well against the huge restlessness of her pupils. During group time, as they began to focus, the teacher pulled three of the kids away. Soon she brought them back. Then, still in the middle of my activity, she ushered away another three. They were shopping at the Success Table. Whatever credits they’d gotten—for behaving, for finishing their homework—they were able to use to get markers, crayons, pencils, stickers, and other goodies. These were the last minutes of the school week.

All through this mayhem, the minder snapped pictures of them, me, me and them, them with each other—angling her shots to be sure those without permission were out of the frame.

In this class there were many more little white boys with the look of Andy Seymour, intent on farts and the destruction of the universe. The others listened to each other’s stories, but mainly gave rhyming additions about a cat who chased a rat. Earnest additions, but there wasn’t motion in them: the cat was in a house and the rat was too, that kind of thing, so that by happenstance we got little of the conflict and complication that had come up very naturally in the earlier class. It was all descriptive middle until the kids got punchy and started adding “and died” to the end of everything. In their notebooks they wrote endings, which I then asked them to go back and turn into beginnings. But the bell rang and suddenly it was all about being sure they made their buses.

I went downstairs in a daze.

Can I reconstruct this day? Do I really want to? I woke up at seven-thirty feeling great, wanting to get out of bed. I devised a round that I would make in the bright morning sun. I let myself fall back to sleep. I set an alarm for nine. Then nine-thirty. And got up at ten.

With bagels in mind, I went on my errands. First came Stop and Shop for cash. I also got the plain yogurt that I’d forgotten to buy at Wegmans, which would let me make mango and honey, a snack I’d inherited from a lover last year. Then came the tiny underground Alton Shoe Repair, also on Harvard Street. The son was one of those men people call “powerfully built.” As an American boy he would have been an athlete, but he grew up in Russia and I have no idea how things were for him there. His father, who had an even stronger accent, was short and dark-haired, with a Jewish tradesman’s look, the look of a Bruno Schulz sketch, that his son, gentle and mostly bald with short brush needles of hair, didn’t have.

“Did he tell you how much?” the son asked. His father wasn’t in on Saturday mornings.

“No, he didn’t.”

“I’m going to let him tell you.” The son took both boots and wrote out a ticket and tore off my half and gave it to me.

The next stop, up toward Coolidge Corner and across the street, was Michael’s Deli, which according to Emily had its bagels shipped up from Manhattan every day. I ordered three plain, three sesame, a third of a pound of lox, a full-sour pickle, and two knishes to heat up for lunch: potato and pastrami.

On the way back through, a 55- or 60-degree beauty of a day, I stopped at Walgreens for contact solution. I picked up masking tape, too. The pens at work were slippery, and I had the idea of wrapping them.

At the apartment I sat on the back deck with an open-face salmon bagel and a cup of Nepal tea and wrote, on my phone as always. I was caught up with recent days, so I went back to one of the two periods— both weekends—that in places had only been sketched out in notes.

Charlie picked up when I called, though he was crying hard and had to excuse himself from the phone. After a time, he was able to tell me. He’d been seeing a doctor for glaucoma—he had a family history of it, and a few years back his pressures had started to go up. He’d taken the medicine faithfully. But early this year his vision went blurry in one eye.

By the time his ophthalmologist accepted that he should go to a specialist, it was too late—“officially hopeless.” The specialist said he would never recover vision in his right eye.

When I got off the call, I stayed at the kitchen window and wrote long paragraphs about Charlie, what he was going through. It had shaken me badly. Charlie wasn’t grieving what others would grieve first—he wasn’t talking about depth of field, the ability to see in three dimensions, to drive safely, wasn’t bemoaning the new limit to his peripheral vision, the lopsidedness of seeing from the left instead of from the middle—nor was he panicked that he’d go blind in the other eye. He was mourning the loss of reading. He didn’t want to live without books, and for now he was having terrible trouble with them.

Charlie had been suicidal before. Ironically, this helped me—I knew he’d suffered that kind of despair and lived through it. I’d felt the urge to kill myself over the last couple of years—not so strongly that I’d visualized ways and means—I’d never quite planned to do it—but enough that the trap of that thinking was familiar to me. It could seem like a solution, even a perfectly okay one, not itself depressing. A way out of bottomlessly sad thoughts.

In those paragraphs by the window, I wrote about my Aunt Frances, about telling Charlie about my Aunt Frances, who’d lost sight in one eye five or six years ago. At first it drove her crazy, but she’d recovered her ability to read and, since losing binocular vision, had become a deeply skilled genealogical researcher.

What he needed to do, I told Charlie, was stop reading for a while, stop even trying—I could picture him powering through just as I did when I was convinced a thing was impossible. It became for sure impossible, even if it didn’t have to be. He should give himself time to adjust, accept that there would be a transition, that it took awhile and needed patience. There was no reason that having one eye—of course, he didn’t have one eye, but seeing from only one eye—would mean he couldn’t read again. In the meantime, he could visit with friends and enjoy himself in other ways—and lay off this stress in order to protect his health. There was no reason he wouldn’t get his reading life back.

The call upset me, but it was hugely affirming too: Charlie reacting as a reader first, even in extremis. Books and writing were central to his sense of an engaged, engaging life—to his, to mine, to many dozens of our friends’ and acquaintances’—and the moment felt like a hard-won proof of just how far the need extended.

Could I drive him to my place? Did he want some other kind of outing? He promised he’d call and start to see friends again, all of it—as soon as he finished the review he was working on. Any other assignment he would have dropped, but this was for an online journal that paid “extravagantly” and he didn’t want to lose it. The deadline was in ten days. Ten days! I didn’t think he could survive so long. But he insisted. He needed to do this, and really he was short by only three or four hundred words and then he’d be done.

It helped to know he was writing, that he could write. But when we hung up—as I described in those paragraphs—I had no idea when I would hear from him again. And then the paragraphs disappeared. My Notes app blinked, and they were gone.

Without eating, without moving from the kitchen window, I spent hours trying to reconstruct them. Finally I gave up and went to the gym and stayed there till closing. Which didn’t mean I put down the phone. I even mildly injured my shoulder adjusting a seat one-handed because I wouldn’t unclutch.

After that, there was an irony to the resolution I’d made this morning. I’d noticed a shower drain’s worth of hair left in my hands when I shampooed, and could feel the washcloth’s greater range on my forehead. Looking in the mirror and realizing how much and how quickly my hairline had changed, I promised I’d avoid the recent triple-hit of stress, late nights, and hard partying. The whole thing reminded me of Geoff Dyer’s brilliant riff in Out of Sheer Rage—every thought about losing hair ensured more of the kind of stress that made it fall out. Unlike Dyer’s, I didn’t think mine would grow back with beauty rest. But for now, anyone not touching my scalp would have thought I was making this up. The curls hid a lot. By next year it would be obvious, but by then I’d be fifty.

Published on July 24, 2020

First published in Harvard Review 55.