Like many New Yorkers, I am grateful to the city planners who had the foresight to create such a phenomenal public transit system in the early 1900s. Growing up in Zimbabwe, a “Third World” country — to use an un-PC but strangely resonant term — I used to have to wait for a bus to take me to town for anywhere from three hours on a very bad day to at least 45 minutes on a good day. Or I’d have to catch a ramshackle skorokoro “emergency taxi.” Luckily for me, my family owned a car, so taking the bus was not an everyday necessity. The problem: I was one of the lucky few.
New York, on the contrary, is a democratic city. As a result, democratic buses and subways vein the whole area, carrying passengers to pretty much any of the five boroughs fairly easily, night or day. Often it only takes four minutes for a train to arrive and allow me to step through the sliding doors.
But I do have one problem with NYC public transport, something that can irritate me on a good day but pain me on a bad day: it is democratic, but certainly not gerontocratic. Very often, too often, I see a very elderly man hanging on to an overhead strap for dear life as the train sways and rumbles, heaving him off-balance, throwing his thinning bones against the next passenger who stiffens, glares and huffs under his breath. Meanwhile, comfortably ensconced in a seat on the crowded train, an able-bodied teenager is absorbed in her cell phone, never even noticing that this silver-haired senior is clutching his cane, barely able to stand on firm ground, much less on a moving train.
When I was growing up in said Third World country, I always looked forward to getting older because when you are old, people are supposed to respect you. Zimbabwe, like many other so-called “traditional” societies, is a gerontocracy — it’s a society ruled by elders. Maybe it’s because when I was a kid in the 1980s, our First Lady, Ghanaian Sally Mugabe, used to wear fantastic West African garb, but I always pictured myself in my older years as a plump, voluptuous woman swathed in a grand boubou with a matching doeku on my head. A lot of richly patterned, brightly hued fabric over my heavy body, thickened with age, celebratory of a life well lived. In a country plagued by malnutrition and the HIV/ AIDS pandemic, who wants those scrawny chicken necks you see in too-thin older women? Who wants the protruding hipbones of girlhood when you can have the luscious fleshiness of mature femininity?
But alas, no one wants to get old in America. No one respects the years you have toiled, the adversities you have overcome, the sheer triumph of just being able to make it to the subway station at all, frail, shaking, fragile — but determinedly trying to get somewhere.
Aging, perceptions of beauty and standing up to let an older person sit down are cultural constructs. Each culture develops its own construct, but thanks to globalization, the zealous worship of callow youthfulness is rapidly colonizing the planet, so forgive me if I try and hold on to my Third Worldness in which it’s fine for any adult to admonish any child for poor conduct. And fortunately, I am naturally bossy, so I tell that silly girl smitten with her smartphone to please get up and let this swaying silver-haired gentleman sit down. And as she begrudgingly pulls herself up and he gingerly lowers himself into the seat, I pull out my own phone.
We’re going over the Brooklyn Bridge now, but I don’t look at the Statue of Liberty, the proud, heavyset dame perpetually thrusting her torch triumphantly into the New York sky. Instead, I connect to the internet and place an order for a full range of anti-aging products, including face serum and neck tightening cream, because that surly teenager just grunted, “Whatever, Ma’am.”
“Ma’am.” That sure-fire form of address that unofficially signals that youthful maidenhood — the era of “Miss” — has well and truly past.
If only I could hold on to more vestiges of my Third World youth…