Last Friday in the West Loop of Chicago, I skipped lunch and took a walk in order to enjoy the bright blue sky and lukewarm sun. I was well into a nonsensical reverie about French presses, tiny cars and strange restaurants, when suddenly a brush of concern flittered through my neurons.
Oh god, I’ve lost my edge. I’m becoming dotty. Taking that panicked worry to its logical conclusion, I knew that if I died right then, I’d leave no profound last words, not like Voltaire or even like Joan Crawford, who is said to have screamed, Damn it, don’t you dare ask God to help me! (Can’t you just hear her saying that? So wire hanger-ish.)
No, instead of something profound or memorable, I’d be thinking about a restaurant down the road — The Girl & The Goat — and their unappetizing menu of wood-roasted pig face and parsnip puree. (That’s for real, ya’ll. Click the link).
I remember that at the end of her life, my mother saw a blonde woman in a green dress beckoning to her from a silver train. The only part of MJ’s DNA I share is the tendency to dream of odd things in vivid color. On Friday, on some corner of Randolph Street, I just knew that if I keeled over at that very moment, there’d be no friendly guide to see me into heaven. It would just be me, alone, pulling into a white tunneled Starbucks drive-thru in a red, button-sized Smart car while trying to clear my mind of menu memories like confit goat belly and tongue-olive vinaigrette.
Obviously, I thought, today would be a terrible day to die. I should probably hang on a little while longer.
Comforted by new, meaningful mission, I dug my hands into warm coat pockets and jangled the spare coins that weighted down both. In Chicago, far away from the kids who hang out in front of 7-11 or the homeless guy who sits outside of Starbucks, I’ve amassed a ton of change. I try to remember the last time I bought anything that cost less than a dollar, but that makes me recall the days of powdery white candy cigarettes with pink sugar tips, which not even the novelty candy makers dare sell anymore. Almost everyone smoked when I was growing up, though, including grocery store clerks and teachers. I remember sitting in a classroom, shaking my wrists out after a painful hour spent learning to write in cursive with a #2 Ticonderoga pencil while Mrs. McCollum gathered up her Virginia Slims and headed outside for a break.
Who reminisces like this?
Put off by my mental turn into an era of beehives and bubble gum rock, I scanned the street looking for redemption. For that one person who needed about $8.32 worth of quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. I figured if I died during an act of generosity, maybe God would see fit to send me a blonde angel instead of a roasted goat. But at that moment, in all of Chicago, as far as my eyes could see, there wasn’t one person who looked ragged except me.
It’s occurred to me more than once that I just don’t look good in clothes. I’m sure I look worse out of them, but that’s not the point. The point is nothing fits. Pants are too long, shirts are too short and unless I’m in love, I hate to shop. Only love makes me want to lengthen my legs, shorten my torso, and style my hair — which right now has a skunk-like gray stripe growing down its crooked part. And gray hair isn’t like normal hair at all. It’s like the little steel threads of a Brillo pad.
Oh my god, I thought somewhere near Morgan Street, I’m going to die with Don King hair.
I continued walking until I found a Starbucks. The girl behind the counter seemed oblivious to my existential crisis, so I put on my best game face and ordered a non-fat Venti latte with an extra shot but then — along with feeling dotty, misshapen and gray — I felt pretentious. I wondered if my world would right itself — if I might find some check and balance or even a bit of redemption — in paying for my $4.76 order with coins. Of course I didn’t, because that’s something only very old, very young, or very poor people do.
Heading back to The Rosie Show, it hit me: there has been a lot of talk around the office about the number 50. (Rosie turns 50 nine days before I do.)
50, I realize, is the reason for all this angst. 50 is trying to be my late-blooming midlife crisis. 50 is the reason my legs are too short and my hair is Don King funky. 50 is why babies make my ovaries hurt, young people frustrate me, and love stories make me cry. 50 is why I won’t even try something like hedgehog mushroom gribiche, knowing that I’d prefer a cheeseburger.
My 50 wants to drive a sensible, mid-sized car — a nice, solid GMC or Chevy — and it doesn’t care that it’s still using a flip phone from 1993, but it can’t abide thin towels, cheap coffee, rude people, or disposable razors. My 50 likes to think ahead, divert disaster, and fix what needs fixing before moving onto the next thing. It’s afraid to go to funerals, weddings, or other serious events because it doesn’t trust its hormones not to laugh at inappropriate times.
Yet for all its dichotomous stodginess and hormonal unpredictability, my 50 is wild. Not 20 or 30 wild, but urgent-wild. Life experience-wild. Smart-wild. We-don’t-have-all-the-time-in-the-world-left wild. My 50 has become a colorful precautious sage. Unlike previous ages, it doesn’t fly by the seat of its pants, fueled by nothing more than big ideas and all-encompassing feelings — it’s got documentation, research, personal anecdotes, informed and fierce opinions, and a strong backbone.
My 50 still has a 10 year old girl on the inside, ready to drop everything and play at a moment’s notice — or burst into tears when things hurt or don’t go her way — but it’s learned to self-parent, discipline and nurture.
My 50 has realized that impulse and intuition is not the same thing. One should be checked and the other heeded.
My 50 has realized that it’s not about how many new stones can be dug up — it’s about taking the time to polish the ones you’ve already collected before searching for more.
Somewhere along the way, the sharp edges of my younger years grew into curves of memory, mind, and consciousness. I’ve lost edges, but gained a horizon.
I still wish I could rock a pair of jeans or keep a hairstyle for longer than five minutes, though. Maybe that will happen when I’m 51.