Emily Meg Weinstein

MY OLD MEN

Bert lived in my apartment building in Brooklyn. Every day he took a walk, wearing a white v-neck t-shirt, a pair of jeans or corduroys and, in winter, a blue down ski jacket. He carried a cassette-tape Walkman and wore earmuff headphones and black-rimmed Woody Allen glasses.

Though Bert was part of the neighborhood old guard of first-generation immigrants from Italy and Poland, his personal style was identical to that of the invading hipsters, who were replacing the immigrants one by one by paying three or four times their original rents.

I would often see Bert walking slowly up and down our block as I rushed out for an espresso, or to the subway, late for work. If I was in a hurry, Bert and I would shout enthusiastic hellos at one another, amplified by the necessity of talking over Bert’s headphones.

“It’s a beautiful day!” Bert would say. “And I can tell you are really enjoying it.”

“YES!” I would shout in the direction of Bert’s headphones. “And you are, too!”

“It’s a beautiful day,” Bert would say, “And you look just beautiful!”

“THANK YOU!” I would shout. “THAT IS SO NICE OF YOU TO SAY!”

“What a nice smile!” Bert would smile.

After a while, I started to think of Bert as less of an old guy and more of just a guy. His hair was white and his skin spotted, but he was still handsome. I could see that he had been very handsome when he was young. He knew how to treat a lady, I imagined, though what he had actually made evident to me was that he knew how to compliment a lady.

Time is always bending for me. I see myself old and young all the time. When I go past a place where something significant happened, I see the ghosts of myself and my companions there, just as we were in that moment. I frequently suffer from what I call pre-emptive nostalgia. This is a joy that takes the form of an unbearable, poignant longing to be where you are—the ghost of a future longing. There are some things that happen that I can already feel myself looking back on wistfully from an old age.

I am skeptical of God, astrology, Western medicine and American democracy, but one thing I do believe in is a kind of romantic magic. Some people spark and some do not. It first happened for me when I was very young and I have waited for it to come again, and stay, ever since. Rarely does it come and never has it stayed, so I am waiting most of the time.

It was a curious and wonderful thing to feel this spark with not just an older, but an old man. Flirtation with any man of biologically viable age carries with it the vague threat or promise of sexual action. But a trans-multi-generational flirtation was free of that. It was pure flirtation, which is the intimation of attraction without the promise of action.

I didn’t see Bert around for a while. But it was winter, and cold. Maybe Bert would come out when it was spring again. But then it was spring again and I still didn’t see Bert. I knew what that really meant. I asked Jim, our landlord and super, about Bert. Jim told me that Bert had died over the winter. I was out of town and missed the usual handwritten sign taped to the door of our building announcing the death of a resident and the location of the funeral service and, in the New York tradition, the vacation of a rent-stabilized apartment.

I missed Bert. I was glad to be one of the last girls he ever flirted with in this lifetime. He was the only hipster I had ever successfully flirted with. I felt, for most of my early adulthood in New York, that the hipsters were indifferent to me. Of course, indifference was the cornerstone of their—our?—culture. It turned out that I was much more attracted, and attractive, to hippies than hipsters. So I went West, where even the hipsters are hippier.

One morning in Sausalito, California, I returned to my car from the farmer’s market to find an older man carefully reading all the stickers on my bumper.

“I’m a buffalo,” the man chuckled. “I do what I want!”

The man couldn’t have known that my “I’m a buffalo, I do what I want!” bumper sticker is actually very emotionally loaded for me. One man I had dated had been attracted to me because he liked the stickers on my car. He wanted me to get him a buffalo sticker. I got him two. But shortly after, another man I fell swiftly and madly in love with had quoted my own bumper sticker back to me in the course of telling me we would not be, and in fact were not now, monogamous. He did this very cheerfully. “Like it says on your bumper sticker,” he said. “‘I’m a buffalo, I do what I want!’”

The old man reading the bumper was like a West Coast version of Bert. He had a beard.

“Glad you like my stickers,” I said.

“That buffalo one is really good,” he said.

“I know they may seem excessive,” I said, “but it’s my first car.”

“You did a very nice job!” said the man.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Happy spring!” said the man.

I was relieved that the man was too old to make a pass at me and attach a third poignant memory to the buffalo sticker. The memory of the man cheerfully quoting my own bumper sticker to me in the process of breaking my heart had not faded, nor the realization that despite procuring not one but two buffalo bumper stickers for the other admirer of the buffalo sticker, I would have to break his heart.

Maybe I would meet someone to love, and we would be fortunate enough to grow old together, and when he was old he would resemble the old men who had given me these shivers of time-travel pre-emptive nostalgia, and maybe that was why they did. Or maybe I loved them in a former life and was the reincarnation of another Brooklyn girl, or a French one they’d met overseas in the war, before they were old men. If I found someone to love, he’d be my old man. Maybe we’d listen to the song, “My Old Man” together. Joni Mitchell was a Californian by choice and now so was I. Joni Mitchell said that when she wrote the album Blue, on which “My Old Man” appears, she felt like, “the cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes.” Joni Mitchell said that to Cameron Crowe, when he was a reporter for Rolling Stone, in an article published in the year 1979, the year I was born. It is being born in that year that makes me so much younger than the older men and older than the younger men. Cameron Crowe made a movie I loved called Almost Famous about his experience as a teenaged Rolling Stone reporter. When I wrangled my way on tour with my friends’ band, people asked if I was “like the kid in Almost Famous.” One reason I wanted to go on tour with my friends’ band was that I half-believed that they were capable of time travel, and found the ideas about love in their songs to be true. I traveled with them through Germany and Austria, where I was surprised to find I had some weird cultural memories. I felt Jewish things about Germany, which I had not expected. I did not like to hear the words “Your papers, please,” said in a German accent. I knew this was likely because of movies and not my past lives, but I wondered if I had been a soldier—maybe even a German one, who knew? The words “German soldier” always reminded me of the young adult book Summer of My German Soldier, in which a Jewish girl forms a friendship with a German POW imprisoned in a camp in her town. They kiss, once, through a fence. The German solider reminds me of the song, “Buffalo Soldier,” which brings us back to the buffalo, the bumper sticker on my car, and the smiles of the old men with whom I sometimes flirt.



Emily Meg Weinstein writes the web site Super Lefty, where she has published over 300 essays. Her work has also appeared in various publications and anthologies. She is the author of two chapbooks, and the nonfiction editor of Forklift, Ohio. She lives, writes, teaches and climbs in Oakland, California.