We share a chapter of comedian Sara Benincasa’s very observant, funny and – dare we say – kind chapter on “older people” from her new book, Real Artists Have Day Jobs.
"Always Say Hello to Older People, Because They Are Invisible"
One thing I loved very much about where I last lived in Brooklyn was the diversity of the folks in my building. They weren’t just diverse in terms of skin color, income, gender, sexuality, and all that jazz—they were also diverse in terms of age. On my floor alone, we had residents from age two to age seventy-six, with a range of folks in between. On any given nice day, there would be a whole pack of toddlers playing outside while moms and grandmas and nannies looked on.
It’s rare to see people of different ages voluntarily hanging out together. Young people tend to hang in packs. You’re more likely to see old people walking alone, at least in New York City. Sometimes they’re slower than the younger types. And I always make eye contact and say hello to the elders, because not enough people do. Mind you, I don’t think I deserve a fucking medal for this; I just think it’s the way things ought to be.
When someone is a young adult and perceived to be sexually available, they get plenty of attention. When they’re little and cute, in the presexualized era of innocence (of course even kids are sexual beings, but you know what I mean), everybody wants to exclaim over them. And when they’re babies, forget it. People love babies. Babies are life marching on, a living, breathing, diaper-shitting example of our future in motion. But old people? Old people remind us of our mortality. Old people are inclined to weakness and disease. They are often predeceased by family and friends. Sometimes they’re absolutely alone in the world, and they’re depressed. Maybe that’s why they get ignored and dismissed. Maybe that’s why some people prefer to pretend our elders don’t even exist.
I’m careful to always hold doors for old women. Now, old men can be a bit tricky in this regard, as some of them have enormous pride and prefer to hold a door for a lady. I don’t make a big hairy deal of holding the door for an old guy. I’ll let him take over in the door-holding department if he seems to want to do that.
And good Lord, I do not use an extra-loud baby voice for older people. That shit is condescending and disrespectful. These people fought wars, or protested wars, or lost sons and daughters to wars. These people have known change and turmoil and perhaps poverty and distress. Sure, sometimes you need to shout for them to hear you, and sometimes you’ve got to go a bit slow for them to keep up. But don’t infantilize them, please.
Now, this does not mean old people get a pass to be assholes. I don’t believe that you should sit idly by and smile uncomfortably while your great-grandmother spews some homophobic or racist garbage. Challenge her old ass on her old-ass beliefs. Do her the courtesy of treating her as an equal, a person who is capable of defending her viewpoint or even, miracle of miracles, actually changing her mind. We’re all adults here. Sure, some of us lived through World War II and some of us can barely remember 9/11, but we still ought to be able to have an honest conversation about important things.
When I’m old as hell, I hope I delight in hearing young people’s views on the world. I’ll also probably delight in telling them when I think they’re totally wrong. I plan to be a jolly, badass old gal who cracks inappropriate jokes and wears weird hats. You know, like I do now, except with creakier bones. Some people will dismiss me as bananas, and I’ll smile with pleasure at the freedom this affords me. And, like my one friend’s grandma, I plan to have many suitors and to play them against each other mercilessly while I cackle over a glass of bourbon. And when young people pass by, I’ll smile at them, happy with the knowledge that I am so much fucking smarter than they are. I hope they smile back.