THE BLOG
07/09/2013 09:12 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2013

OLD! OLD! We Hate Old!

I've lived in New York a long time and I've never seen anything like what's going on right now with ubiquitous chopped meat joints. Hamburger places have sprung up everywhere. Folks can't get enough and the press can't write too much about them.

So, during a recent catch-up telephone call with my younger brother, I made a suggestion, in passing, a business proposal. My eminently brilliant idea: if New York City can't get their fill of "meat pies" (beef, we pray) maybe we could appropriate the trend back home.

My entrepreneur-well-fixed-banker-brother -- six years of separation -- poo-poo-ed my High-End-Ground Chuck-Joint-Proposal with a politically incorrect, stunning shrug. "J.... J., you're too old to be making business proposals." I snapped-back with a feeble joke and signed off. Too old?

The conversation with Baby-Nearing-Social-Security-Age-Brother hung around in my head all week. I asked myself over and over again, as well as a few friends, how old is "too old" to have a solid business idea? My young sibling forced me to examine, re-think, aging. I had plenty to mull over. Why, how about the gent who wrote the novel "Jules and Jim" at 75, I asked? What about Barbara Cook, Maw Barker, Grandma Moses, Whistler's Mother!

In a flash, a hurtful punch-line came to mind: New York Magazine contest-editor Mary Ann Madden (one-time secretary to director Mike Nichols) would invariably get a laugh at dinner parties back in the day with one of her many searing punch-lines "... old! Old! We hate old!" And now, heigh-ho, old is too close to home to be funny.

Lickety-split, I was taken back to a painful story. I was visiting my friend Philip in West Los Angeles a few years back. One afternoon, we stopped by to visit his 65-plus-year-old mother; though up there, still rather attractive with big blue eyes and blond, silver streaked hair. The late Mrs. Alles had once been married to a mysterious, intriguing gent who was involved in some high-profile scandal years back, possibly Billie Sol Estes. (My buddy, to my disappointment, would never share his notorious stepfather stories with me). On that day, Mrs. Alles chatted about this and that, and then, for some reason, recounted a story that I suspect haunted her. It's stayed with me ever since...

When Mrs. Alles was a young girl one of her chores was to bring her fussy elderly grandfather his perfectly chilled buttermilk, every day at the same time, in the same glass, in the same chair. For years, it was her job, fetching his beverage and dealing with the fussbudget -- a meticulous, set-in-his-ways alder-cocker. When she got all grown up, or thought she was, one day she brought the octogenarian his buttermilk and dumped it in his lap. Her breath became a mite measured as she paused a moment and then continued wistfully, "He was never the same after that. He slowly deteriorated... lost his vigor and feistiness, and then died not long later." Death by Buttermilk, I say, Death by Buttermilk.

You might have suspected by now, this obsession was no longer about a business suggestion -- not withstanding beef patty wars between East Coast "Shake Shack" and West Coast "Umami Burger" not to mention Tampa's "Burger 21" heading North and closing in. (Why, I recently read ground beef sandwiches -- hamburgers -- have caught-on in Italy).

Say, my Italian family is privy to several superb old-country, handed-down meatball recipes -- "goomba food" -- so tasty they make you, as we used to say back home, "make you want to slap your grandmaw." And, I have copies. Why not a High End Hamburger-Meatball eatery?

My plan succinctly: upscale hamburger-and-meatball place positioned on main drag near where we grew up, Clarksburg-Bridgeport, W.Va., on well-traveled strip between Benedum Airport and the now-defunct stockyards, a busy intersection-bustling thoroughfare with ample foot traffic. I was ON a roll! The prospective goldmine, outfitted with checkered tablecloth-cotton napkins; plenty of front and back parking and jazzy crowd-drawing takeout! What's more, we could incorporate our secret, old-world, meatball recipes. Great eats, big profits. We could not miss. In short order, my brother shot it down.

Stunned, several other stories came to mind.

I was chatting with my aging Aunt Caroline, well-over 90 then, living near San Francisco. At one point, I asked her what she'd been doing with herself? She said: "Every morning, I pick up the little old ladies and drive them to church, then, take them home after Mass." "Little old ladies!?" I exclaimed. "How old are they?" "Seventy-five ... eighty," she answered. So much for "old" in San Francisco.

I couldn't shake this new, troubling "old" syndrome. Several years ago, I was visiting West Virginia and stopped by my late uncle's Ritzy Restaurant to say hello to my cousin, visiting, who was that day acting as waiter-counterman. Uncle Joseph, one of the meanest men I've ever encountered -- let me amend that: the meanest person I ever met -- was sipping a beer on the first revolving bar stool. The old guy asked me, "Would you like something to eat, James? A hotdog? A Budweiser!" Before I could answer, cousin Anthony chimed in with, "Why are you being so nice to James, Father?" (He called his dad "Father" to the amazement of most people who heard that endearment). The startling answer from that old geezer: "... so James won't be mean to me -- when I get old." Four thoughts popped into my mind right off on that:

A). Quite possibly, everyone's life eventually catches up to him, sooner or later. b). It's obvious some old folks get scared, downright terrified of being mistreated when they can no longer fend for themselves. c). In this case: those of us who were not so nice in the past become aware of it and fear retaliation. d). Maybe, just maybe, Uncle Joseph remembered I was right there in the kitchen, as a ten-year-old boy, when he shouted full throttle, red blood vessels straining in his olive Italian neck, to my defenseless mother, announcing our eviction from our (his!) musty, dusty, damp basement apartment: "I want you and your kids out! Out!" Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

As I reflected back on all this, I resolved to be strong, to be self-sufficient, to be self-reliant -- in case I grow old. I've come to realize, it's possible we can't count on anyone to fend for us - at least with the compassion we'd prefer. Oh, of course, there may be an angel or two on hand for us, if we're lucky, but truth is, we can't depend on it. I do suspect, we all, in our heart of hearts, hope people won't be mean to us, to quote my late (unctuous) Uncle Joseph, "when we get old." It's the original unconscionable sin.

For now, old me sees clearly without eyeglasses except in a Broadway theater. My hearing is fine. I have a complete set of teeth (sans wisdom) that I whiten regularly as well as a full head of salt and pepper hair. I work out daily, at least show up at the Y.M.C.A. to do some form of exercise. I still wear the same unfussy, unfashionable clothing I've always worn, but more frequently put on a sport coat, even with jeans, than I used to. (I pray I'm not tempting fate revealing all that here). Oops, yes, I'm a wee bit more superstitious -- I cross my fingers not only about the state of my health but also the State of the Union.

Holland Taylor said it better. No kid herself, the indefatigable actress (CBS' Two and a Half Men), said it this way in uncompromising Tony-nominated one-woman play "Ann," which she also wrote, about former feisty Texas governor Ann Richards, "I'm afraid I'll end up living in a trailer parked in my daughter's driveway." Taylor wrapped her tireless solo performance with advice Richard's not-so-sweet mother gave her after she lost a hard-fought election, "You have to move on, Ann. Move on!" Not a bad idea with a big-time election defeat or a hangnail disappointment or a lowbrow bruised ego even. Move on, governor.

Overall Upshot: compassion is paramount when it comes to older kin. The aging person may be more sensitive than we realize. He/she might need the obvious kindness(es) as well as a few subtle reassurances. Furthermore, humorist Mary Ann Madden* just might be wrong. We don't hate old.

Hold the phone! There might be a solution! Nick Bilton reported in The New York Times there are robots in development that will care for the aging. It seems several institutions around the country (and England) are testing and experimenting with automated caregivers. These trendsetting companies assure us the butler robot is the wave of the future -- cutting-edge custodians, they claim, that can cook, clean, garden, and even keep us company. Why, the researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have gone so far as to create "Cody," who, they say, can actually give you a "gentle bath." Who doesn't want a gentle bath? Furthermore, the robotic rangers promise to remind you to take your medicine and, if you prefer, they will actually administer the correct prescriptions for you.

Hollywood, not being a place to let some viable venue go untapped, had a futuristic film in 2012 on the subject called Robot & Frank staring the invariably on-the-money Frank Langella. It seems son-Langella is mired down with family and office -- and way too damn busy to care for Alzheimer-afflicted dad. At one point in the movie, young Frank pulls a "large white humanoid robot, VGC-601" out of his car trunk for dear old dad. This contemporary contraption could, for openers, perform chores such as cleaning the kitchen, locating and fetching daddy's eyeglasses.

Wow. If old (or new) VGC can handle a gourmet meatball recipe and take out the garbage, he has a friend here for... well, for life.

On the other foot, robots might be able to take care of us -- but then again robots do not age. These virtually perfect machines neither decay nor eventually pass away and get by with an occasionally tweak. Yes, but they don't have the imagination to dream up burger joints in the West Virginia hills or sport a spectrum of emotions that can makes them laugh or cry; get angry or lonely or hungry or tired - all those awesome feelings that make us fully realized human beings. And even more favorable news? We now know: Imagination, creativity, and emotions do not have to diminish with age. Yaaaa!

Say, I have an idea here. How about an automated Hamburger-Meatball-Joint with attractive, friendly, germ-free robotic waiters and smart-machine gourmet chiefs, both who never get an order wrong? I'm going to telephone my brother on the cell and run this new proposition by him. I don't think it can miss. Where is the cell? Has anyone seen my cell? Where in the hell did I put my cellphone?