I stepped out onto the street to allow the guy approaching me on the sidewalk six feet of safety, and said to him as he passed, “Were you able to see your grandchildren this weekend?” He stopped and kind of rolled his eyes above his checkered mask and said: “I don’t have any grandchildren. I don’t even have any children.”
And then we both realized what had happened. I had mistaken him for someone else I knew.
So there we were, two strangers keeping our distance but laughing together in the middle of Walnut Street in our Shadyside Pittsburgh neighborhood — sharing a rare humorous coronavirus event.
This has happened a couple of times since coronavirus restrictions started in March. Masks protect from infection but also make it more difficult to be friendly — and at a time when I really was trying to be friendly, maybe for the first time in my life.
I have always, more or less, been kind of a loner. I am a writer, so I spend many hours alone with a keyboard, monitor and notepad. I interact with lots of people, interviewing and often accompanying them as they work or play. For some of my books, I’ve devoted years hanging out with my “subjects,” and although you do get to know them in a certain way, I am always at a distance, not allowing myself to get too close so that I can write what I see and not be impacted too much by fondness and familiarity. I have been doing this work for years — observing organ transplant surgeons, psychiatrists, roboticists and National League baseball umpires, to name a few. Though I might keep in touch with these folks, we remain acquaintances, not friends.
This gradually carried over and affected my social life. For a long time, I didn’t care much. But then, half a dozen years ago, I turned 70. Which was no big deal. But during that period, I suffered more than a few personal losses. My two best friends died. And then my mother died. My girlfriend and I broke up after 10 years together. Suddenly, I realized I didn’t have much of a personal life anymore. At my age, I thought, it was going to be difficult to find new friends. I didn’t think I had the strength or interest to try.
During those next few years I continued to write, but pretty much in isolation — not so different from the coronavirus isolation we are all experiencing today. Each birthday that passed after 70 weighed heavily. How many years did I have left? I didn’t want to continue to live the rest of my life with “Law and Order” reruns as one of my few amusements. And wine. Takeout dinners. Netflix. The highlight of my days was walking and running — beginning and ending on Walnut Street.
I did research and began looking for optimistic viewpoints about aging and loneliness. People, I found in one study, are happiest at the beginnings and endings of their lives, and those with more positive attitudes about aging are less challenged by memory loss. These folks not only live longer, a half-dozen years longer on average, but they have better handwriting.
Gradually I forced myself to find a more friendly world. First, I tried to loosen up and not seem so intense and introspective. Little things. I began making eye contact when I walked Walnut. Instead of staring straight ahead, I might say, “Hello.” When I did that, sometimes they would say hello back. Then, sometimes, I would figure out something else to say, awkward or banal maybe, stuff I had in the past criticized and mumbled derisively about — the Steelers, the Pirates, the weather. But I got conversations going, quite easily in fact, when I wanted to, and sometimes people said things that surprised and delighted me.
I began reaching out to strangers, or almost-strangers — restaurant workers, clerks at convenience stores. It was . . . nice. Not that I had ever been not nice. But I became more open. I isolated distinctive things that I noticed about them, and I commented. New hair styles, sharp boots, unique tattoos. In the past, I kept my observations to myself or written in my notebook. Now I shared my admiration for them, their style and demeanor, and my efforts were appreciated. Next time I saw them, they reminded me that I had praised or, for that matter, just noticed them. Funny thing is, I soon discovered that people were noticing details about me as well. “Nice blazer,” they might say, or, “You got a haircut!”
Instead of drinking and eating alone, I popped into neighborhood restaurants that I knew more mature people might frequent and talked to customers who sat beside me, often also alone.
One place, Casbah, became a regular hangout. When I worked late at my keyboard, I would wander into Casbah an hour or so before closing and have a nightcap, talk with the bartenders who were cleaning up after a long evening, or with the few stragglers who, like me, had wandered in before facing home alone. There were other regular hangouts and connections I discovered. Friday happy hour Casbah with one group. Tuesday Elbow Room or Cappy’s with another. Nothing ever too special, just a drink or two, dinner, conversation — home by 9 p.m.
I felt a change in myself physically. I could sense it in how I walked; my body language was more open. No longer did I hunch and glare. And I wasn’t rushing around so much; I learned to stroll. I was smiling more often, naturally and easily. I may sound like I am going overboard about all of this, such small things to exult about, but believe me, it was a revelation and a relief. Sometimes, more often than not, talking with other people, especially somewhat spontaneously, out of the blue, cheered the heck out of me when I was down.
Then came the coronavirus.
No more Casbah, no more Tuesdays and Fridays, no more passing the time of day on the streets. But I had had such a good time, felt so much satisfaction and relief, that I decided, despite the virus, I would not let go of everything I enjoyed about my new life.
So I started reaching out to people I hadn’t seen for many years — sending emails and proposing Zooms. Mostly former students from the 1970s and 1980s, a time when I most enjoyed teaching. Because of the coronavirus, we all had more time to devote to our personal lives, even if it had to be on a display.
I continued my social distance walking and running on Walnut and peering at everyone a bit more intensely, looking at their eyes, their hair and even their clothes and playing a game with myself, wondering if I knew them. In the process I got to talk with a lot of people who were as isolated as I was. I also made a few mistakes — and a few new friends in the process.
Like the guy I met with no grandchildren. We introduced ourselves that day and chatted a bit about what everybody was chatting about these days, life behind our masks. Then we went our separate ways. But I do see him out walking once in a while. And I always say to him, as we pass, six feet or more apart, a smile in my eyes, “How’s your grandchildren?”
This is an excerpt from Gutkind’s book, “My Last Eight Thousand Days: An American Male in His Seventies,” which will be released in October. Gutkind is the founder and editor of the magazine Creative Nonfiction, and professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University.
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