I had taken to staring at old people.
Life had felled me in such a way, I’d began to question my own ability to do it.
Because, contrary to the holistic musings of optimists, I now knew that a person necessarily “did” life. In much the same fashion a person did work, or did masturbate.
Life wasn’t a contact sport, or any other pithy bullshit saying meant to move us forward with empty encouragements.
I wasn’t a franchise player, solidifying my team’s brand; giving hope to the coordinator that’d invested so much in me; or the millions who tuned in each week to see me orchestrate some feat of well-timed, athletic majesty.
Because there was no team. No one was watching.
It was just me.
And I wasn’t inspiring to anyone in particular.
I was a woman. Waking up every day, going through the motions, breathing in and exhaling out. Doing life.
The irony of the phrase’s euphemistic connection to prison terminology wasn’t lost on me.
And I’d taken to staring at old people.
Because they’d somehow managed to *do* life for an extended period of time.
And each liver spot, each varicose vein, each gingerly, rheumatic movement was a battle scar of the life-war long fought; every slow, haggard breath the evidence of the same war, hard won.
I’d considered all of this for the one hundredth time as I stood in line at the grocery store similarly regarding the elderly woman before me.
She was in her early to mid eighties and diminutive of frame. Her equally small, age-d voice revealed Latin origins that weren’t necessarily apparent on first glance. And though slight enough to give rise to concern in the event of an overly-aggressive wind, her stature belied a spirited fury caged within.
The sales associate behind the register was the current target of all of that fury.
I’d been standing there for some time, patient as the grave, even as two people who’d separated the woman and I departed with frustrated huffs for more expedient lanes.
But Life had recently dealt me the latest in long series of blows, and I was determined to bide my time in solemn quiet. So I austerely stood my ground. My left hand held a basket laden with wet dog food. My right gripped firmly at a brown paper bag disguising 750 milliliters of triple-distilled, eighteen year old Irish whiskey. Salvation was as good as mine. I needed only wait it out.
I was still staring at the woman when another sales associate and an assistant manager walked over to usher us both to the customer service desk.
My new guy was all apologies and overly-dramatized contrition, while the woman’s interactions with her new guy seemed more constrained than before.
On closer inspection, her face bore a passing familiarity, though I could not quite place it. She’d attempted to write a check, but had been denied as she’d failed to bring the requisite identification card.
She’d assured the store manager over and over that she shopped there every day; that she wrote checks every day; that she’d only stopped in briefly to purchase a few items and had neglected to bring her customary change purse. She’d presented him with a bank card bearing her name and likeness.
The very young manager was cordial, but dismissive. He spoke the language of “regrettably,” “unfortunately,” “I’m truly sorry,” but his tone betrayed a casual apathy.
It wasn’t lost on the woman, either. She’d clenched her tiny, worn hands in righteous indignation, chastising the younger man, letting him know she’d be certain to “tell all of the seniors at the center about this!”
She’d asked about the cost of the beer in her basket, thinking maybe she had enough cash on hand for that at least. Her hopes were dashed, once more, as the manager barked out, “$6.35,” and the crumpled five dollar bill she held shrunk within her withered grasp.
And there they stood before me, the young and the old, both equally resolute in their respective positions, locked in the stalemate to end all stalemates.
It all came rushing at me in these alarming waves—Hobbes, Spencer, Darwin, Schmidt, Burgess—I wasn’t smart enough to piece it together in discernible, intelligible, palatable linear thought, but I knew I was bearing witness to a century’s worth of debate on natural selection, survival of the fittest, and derivative social evolution.
I saw her so clearly, then. I saw how tired she was. How old she was. Every line etched on her tiny face appeared to me some twisted, epidermal merit badge, earned from doing life. She had risen every single morning and walked this earth doing life for eight decades. She had eked out an existence in this ever-changing, crazy, unpredictable world, and lived to tell the tale for nearly one hundred years.
And at 8 pm on a Friday night in Northern Virginia, the ONLY thing in the world this long-suffering, ever-enduring, sainted woman wanted, was a fucking beer.
And this young punk, who undoubtedly thought his managerial position at 24 qualified him a winner at doing life, wouldn’t let her have it.
Something inside of me became outraged.
And not just on the woman’s behalf.
But for me. For me and every other person out there that was struggling to put one foot before the other, day after day, while confronting seemingly insurmountable circumstances.
I was angry at the prospect of my somehow *managing* to do life; to get through; and reaching the point of exhale in the sunset of my days, having out-maneuvered the pitfalls that caught so many others in the fray—only to be told “No,” by some self-aggrandizing, young prick in a name-tag.
“Wait a minute,” I said to my new guy.
I turned my attention to the assistant manager. “I’m buying her beer.”
The old woman had already turned away, dejectedly, to make her humiliating exit. She paused as she heard my words, and looked up at me, seeing me only for the first time.
“What?” she asked, bewildered.
I made a show of pushing her beer to my side of the customer service desk just to let the manager know what a bright star of hateful dick he shone in my eyes.
“Ma’am,” I said, gently, “If you’d allow me, I’d like to buy your beer for you.”
As the realization dawned on her, the older woman’s face was overwhelmed by the magnitude of her smile.
“You’d do that for me?” she asked, beaming.
I felt good, felt whole for the first time in a very long time.
“It would be my pleasure,” I assured her. “I think everyone is having a hard week. It’s Friday. You deserve a beer.”
Tears began to form in her eyes, and she all at once seemed taller than before. “Thank you,” she said slowly.
I realized, then, that this woman lived in my building. I’d seen her in passing, never sparing her more than a glance. Perhaps in as dismissive a fashion as the young manager before me.
I made the purchase, gathered our things, and we left the store quietly (I determined to hum the chorus to “Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong” whenever I called to mind the events in later days).
When I handed her the bag with her beer, I’d expected us to part paths. Instead, she’d linked her arm in mine, and walked with me across the street to our building, excitedly chatting about how we’d “showed him.”
As it happens, her name is Julia.
And she is 82.
Life is not a contact sport.
You wake up every day and make a conscious decision to do it.
And you will spend much of it confused. And alone.
But, every now and then, someone steps in to walk beside you; to help you cross.
And after you get wherever you’re going, you should have a fucking beer.