If there is one message to be taken from Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and countless other children's stories throughout history, it is this: Old people cannot be trusted. They will feed you poison, lock you in ovens and generally try to devour your youth by any means necessary. Even in your everyday life you can see it in the eyes of senior citizens, the hunger loosely knitted on their dangling faces as they shamble through the streets, through empty restaurants and gardens, through the parking lot of the local mall where you and the rest of the survivors are holed up with only one gun.
"Neurologically healthy braaaaains!"
I refuse to be embarrassed about my fear of the elderly. Old people are terrifying because they have attracted the attention of death. Death paws and examines them, leaving his fingerprints across their bodies and making his intentions clear. He is interested. I don't want to get mixed up in that. I'm afraid that, just by proximity, I will be thrown into their negotiations, and that would wreck my plans of living forever.
But sometimes journalists are called upon to put their fears aside for the sake of capturing a moment in human history. They will crawl through war zones for
, or push their way through riots for The Washington Post
, and every once in a while, they will be forced to volunteer at a retirement home for a whole day to unearth the "Favorite Gifts from Grandkids!" on behalf of Highlights
magazine, as I was a month ago. To date, I can confidently say it was the bravest thing I've ever done.
Heritage Park Nursing Home smelled like a stroke. Years of burnt toast were masked by orange-scented cleaning product. I played rummy 500 in the common area with Ernie, an 83-year-old war veteran and shameless cheater.
"Anyone who killed 12 North Koreans with his bare hands gets an additional 100 points. Everyone knows that."
He was short, but he had the earlobes and nostrils of a giant.
"You have the earlobes and nostrils of a giant," I told him.
"You have girl hands," he said, accurately.
"What do you do all day while you're waiting to die?"
"I play on the Internet and I watch TV."
"That's depressing," I said.
"Why is that depressing?"
"Because that's what I do."
I had been there all morning, and Ernie was the first senior I had worked up the courage to approach. I almost spoke to a hairless woman with an oxygen tank and a wheelchair, but when I sat down next to her, she grabbed my arm and I panicked. I turned her wheelchair toward the corner and locked the wheels, and she made no effort to change her position the rest of the day.
In the middle of a hand, a woman in glasses thick enough to catch her eyes on fire in sunlight floated over to Ernie and told him that Ingrid just broke up with Lou and that she had heard from Hester that Ernie liked Ingrid back in December, and that if he still liked her would he want to go out with her.
Ernie said that he wasn't looking for anything serious but that he'd probably be into hooking up with her if they were drunk at a party or something.
"Let's make this quick, I've gotta get back to the caps tournament."
Then they both turned to me.
"Can you get us beer?" Ernie asked. "We'd give you money."
"You want me to go buy you alcohol?"
"Yeah, we don't have a car. It would be really cool of you to buy us beer."
"It would. You're cool, right?"
"Yes. I'm very cool."
"Good, then you can buy us beer," he said. And it was decided.
The woman with the glass paperweights on her face squealed, "I'll ask Tod if he's OK with having a keg in his room. See you after bed check." Then she turned to me. "If you can score some Ecstasy, that would be rad, too."
"Oh my God! Your hands feel like they're made of guitar solos."
Ernie wrote out a shopping list of booze and had me deliver it through the back entrance while everyone was eating dinner. He told me to stick around for the party, an invitation that was equal parts horrifying and flattering.
"I don't think so," I told him.
"Everyone knows who you are now, they think you're a hero for doing this," he explained.
The party was bigger than I expected. The women shuffled around in clashing pastel blazers and scarves, with perfume so thick it made my teeth hurt. They laughed into their plastic cups while the men played some drinking game with the dice they stole from the backgammon set in the games closet. Everyone wore wool. I knew because I could smell it.
"Hey. Hey! Everyone shut up for a second. I love you guys."
We were all packed so tightly into one room that there were a few precarious moments where one old person or another almost rubbed against me. An old man in a Colonel Mustard suit lay on the bed with his fingers clasped, and I couldn't tell whether he was asleep or dead. With his eyes still closed, he asked, "Do you want to see a trick?"
I told him I did not.
He reached down and pulled his pant leg up from the bottom. His leg was shiny and tanner than the rest of him, and it was as bald as his head. He popped something at the top of his shin and twisted the leg sideways in a direction it wasn't supposed to go. He pried it from his knee, making a "Ta-da!" face.
Everyone turned when I screamed. They stopped drinking and talking to look at the old man holding his leg up, then went back to their conversations and drugs. "Pretty neat, huh?" he said, and jabbed it at me. I looked at the rest of his leg, and the pants bunched around a knee that went nowhere.
"Where's your real leg?" I asked.
"Korea. I lost it there. But here's the funny part." He turned his stem over in his hands and held it closer under my face. "What's that say?" he asked, and pointed at some words.
"Made in Korea," I read.
"Ha!" he said.
"Agh!" I said.
"Tom, for God's sake, put your leg back on!" shouted a woman in a flower-print dress.
He dropped it on the bed next to him and leaned in close, "You want to go get high with me?"
"Do your grandchildren give you gifts?"
"Then yes. Let's go get high."
I talked to Colonel Mustard for a long time about his family. He had four grandkids who would make him macaroni art and Christmas ornaments out of dough. He wished he could see them more often and even learned to use Facebook and to play