Don't ask me why I did it. Perhaps one feels especially morbid, or mortal, on one's birthday. In any case, a few days ago, on my 37th "anniversary," I scheduled my annual physical.
The woman who drew my blood sample said, yup, lots of people have physicals on their birthdays.
Good way to remember to do it. Good way to see how you stack up against the self of a year ago. Good way to be able to say to your loved ones on Birthday Evening that there's life in the old dog yet.
I nodded. Seemed reasonable enough.
But not so reasonable that I wasn't getting depressed as I fidgeted in a waiting room chair.
Too old to play shortstop for the Yankees. Too old to be called "promising" any more. Too old to be a rock star, an astronaut, a guy who lifts the fronts of Volkswagens for kicks.
The only magazine that would want me in its centerfold, I thought, would be Fat Man's Digest.
At which point, a man came slowly into the waiting room and sat down.
I guessed him for about 75. An elegant 75.
His white hair was combed perfectly. His white shirt was immaculate. He was carrying a brown and white seersucker jacket, slung over his shoulder, a la Cary Grant. Might have been an ambassador once, I said to myself. In any case, a guy with a lot of style.
Before he could catch me staring at him, I looked away, at the stack of medical magazines, observing the code that says: Thou shalt not converse with another patient in a doctor's waiting room.
He broke it first.
"I just got some bad news," he said.
My gulp must have been visible.
Was this elderly man about to tell me he was dying of cancer? Heart disease? Unknown and unspellable ailments?
Well, nowhere to hide.
"What was the news?"
"I'm going to live to be 100, the doctor says."
My sigh was a lot deeper than usual. My smile must have been a lot wider, too.
"That's bad news?"
"Well, to a lot of my friends, it is. They've given up on life a long time ago. Terrible thing to live too long, y'know. But a young man like you wouldn't know."
"Young man? I was just sitting here thinking how old I'm getting."
"How old are you?"
"Thirty-seven?" He laughed out loud. "I've got grandchildren as old as you. Older, actually. You're just starting out. You've got a long way to go. What are you so worried about?"
"Well, I'm at the point in my life where I hear a person describing me to another person, and he'll say, 'You know him. He's the guy with the gray hair.' That's a little hard to take."
"You'll get used to it," the man said. "You'd better, when you're my age. Do you know that I'm 94? Be 95 later this month."
"You're really 94?" I asked.
"Yes, I am. And I get a little worried about people your age. I've had such a full, good life. I wonder if people your age, and the people behind you, will have good lives. I sometimes wonder if there'll be a Washington, be a world."
"I wonder about that every day," I said. "What do you think we have to do to improve things?"
The man switched his seersucker jacket from his left hand to his right. "I think you'll have to do a much better job of managing the world than you're doing now," he said.
"Your whole generation is going to have to do that. Otherwise, there won't be any point in living to an age like mine. Why be alive just to be miserable?"
The nurse came around the corner. "Mr. Levey," she said, "the doctor will see you now."
"I hope you live to be 200, sir," I said, as I gathered up my jacket.
"I wouldn't want to," he said. "As I said, no point in living too long. But 100 wouldn't be so bad."
I was nearly out of earshot when he added:
"And a happy birthday to you, young man."
Truly, they don't make 'em like they used to.