I helped an old man load his groceries into the trunk of his car, which was parked curbside near the entrance to a 99-Cent store. He walked with a cane and seemed to have trouble handling his bags. A watermelon had fallen to the sidewalk, somehow escaping unblemished. But things didn’t look as though they would end well.
Do they ever? According to the old man, they do not. He thanked me profusely for assisting, and then he seemed to want to explain why he needed help, and then he sensed that this was already understood by both of us. He shook his bald head, covered by a baseball cap. Then he said, “Don’t ever get old. Stay the way you are now. Getting old. It’s no good.”
At a birthday party for an elegant lady turning 100, the centarian’s daughter toasted her with wishes that she enjoy “many, many more years.” The guests cheered. The birthday girl smiled impassively, saying nothing.
If the 99-Cent store man had been there, he would have scoffed. “Trust me, don’t get old,” he said. I mumbled something about understanding the concept, but really, I knew I couldn’t yet truly understand the disappointment one feels in his body when it fails him. We two men, three or four decades apart in age, stood beside his car, the bags now safely ensconced in the trunk. He glanced at my still-straight spine and sturdy legs. I understood I would fully value my youthful vitality only when these glorious years were in the past.
We all must die. The ending often isn’t good.
The 99-cent store is where consumer merchandise goes to die. Many items for sale there are proof of what slave labor can accomplish when properly encouraged, but one gets the sense that we’d all, slaves and masters alike, be better off if we made and consumed less of everything. The 99-Cent store is the last stop – or maybe second or third last stop, depending on scrap prices – on a long journey of uselessness and pointlessness, where the SpongeBob yearly desk planner comingles with the Jeff Gordon 3-D hologram poster, where all the excess disposable razors and scented candles and commemorative placemats find a common resting place. Where all the stuff that was made in hopes that it would mean something to someone somewhere – enough that someone would want to buy it the first year or two it sat on a shelf at full retail – turned out to mean almost nothing to anybody.
Which is more or less how most of our lives turn out. Our importance and meaningfulness to others is usually far less than we once thought it might be. We are the sun of a very small universe, and sooner than we like to think the light will dim and we’ll be completely forgotten, like all the plastic detritus in the 99-Cent store. Your brand, it seems, is just as bad (or good?) as Disney’s; it can’t keep you out of the 99-Cent grave.
Still, we’re all connected, and not by fake technology-dependent networks. We’re connected by the universal threads that weave the energy of the universe (or what we imagine the universe to be) into a grand unknowable mystery that can often be a lot of fun. We’re young and old and in between all at the same time, but when we still look and feel and think young, we’re young even if we’re old.
We all must die. The ending is sometimes good.
The next time I see an old person in need I’ll help, with pleasure. And I’ll feel a renewed sense of gratefulness that I’m not the one who needs to be helped. Not yet.