It is morning in St. Petersburg, another perfect day, and since it is getting on toward the 1st of November the downtown hotels and rooming houses are gearing up for the arrival of the snowbirds. Black maids from the Gas House area are lugging mops and buckets into the winter wings of the Hotel Ten Eyck and the Detroit, the Deermont, the Cordova and the Randolph, airing the tiny, neat rooms after the long, dull, torrid Gulf summer; putting sheets on the hard, single beds; Ajaxing the washbowls and the toilets down the hall; sweeping dust from beneath the painted bureaus and the straight-backed chairs
Up the street from the Detroit, the Fern Grill Fruit Company has reopened for the old folks who can afford to send Christmas baskets of oranges to their kids back in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Syracuse, where it’s already topcoat weather. The chairs on the patio of the Detroit and out front of the Ponce de Leon are being taken by women with fidgety hands and old men with dark glasses and the sucked-in lips that go with toothless gums and a three-day stubble of beard because they forget to shave; just as so many of them forget to change their socks and underwear, living alone; and may, slipping a little toward the end, forget for a moment where they live.
At 11:00 or so, they’ll ease themselves up and start for the center of town, past the green quiet of Williams Park where the best benches are taken by the bums, past the jewelers with signs in their windows saying, ANTIQUE JEWELRY BOUGHT AND SOLD, past the post office with its banks of boxes, the little windows snow-flecked once a month with Social Security checks. In the heat of the day they move slowly on up First Avenue to the Driftwood Cafeteria, big as a hockey rink. Inside they can get fillet of sole for 89 cents, liver and onions for 99 cents, pork chop on dressing for $1.09.
Another perfect day – the temperature around 70, the sky a rich blue as brilliant as porcelain, the sun just strong enough to stir a sluggish circulation. Life of a sort is returning to downtown St. Petersburg, where every other dollar comes from a Social Security check, and where you can get your blood pressure measured on the street for 50 cents, and where the traffic lights are slow because the streets are wide and it takes a long time for old folks to cross on crutches or aluminum walkers, and where the list of funeral notices in the morning St. Petersburg Times is twice as long as the list of births.
There are 100,000 men and women over 65 in St. Petersburg, according to the city’s managers, who appreciate the money they spend but who are sensitive about the city’s reputation as a way place for “the newlywed and the nearly dead,” an anteroom to the Great Beyond. A few years ago the city got rid of the green benches that lined the streets for the convenience of the old and the tired – preferring to project itself as a fun-in-the-sun city on the go. It didn’t work, of course. St. Petersburg has been the retirement capital of the world ever since the railroad pushed down the peninsula from Tampa around the turn of the century. A local pharmacist energetically promoted the railhead town as “the sunshine city,” an ideal spot for those who could no longer take the cold and the ice of less temperate zones, and ever since the annual migration of the snowbirds has been the bedrock of the local economy.
Not long ago, the city managers relented and put back some of the benches. It’s a quiet, clean, uncrowded place and the pace is easy but there is a sameness to the days – you don’t notice the change in the seasons, and the year or five years or 20 years between retirement and death can pass with the fitful emptiness of a summer afternoon.
Gladys Betty has got a problem. She can’t seem to live on $148 a month, which is what her Social Security check comes to. Now her hearing is beginning to go and she has discovered that Medicare does not cover certain prosthetics, a word she never ran across before. False teeth and hearing aids are prosthetics that are not covered. Mrs. Betty doesn’t know what to do, so she is waiting in the annex of the St. Petersburg Municipal Building to see Constance Rudd, who runs the city’s Office on Aging. Mrs. Rudd, who is about the same age as Mrs. Betty, is telling a visitor about the 50 or 60 separate and distinct programs, private and public, federal, state and local, which attempt to meet the needs of the aged in Pinellas County. There is Transportation of the Elderly (TOTE) and Meals on Wheels, which brings one hot meal a day to shutins, and the day-care center on South 4th Street, where people can leave problem parents, and on and on.
“I’ve been interested in gerontology since I was in my 20s,” says Mrs. Rudd, a neat, trim woman with a natural sweetness of manner, an expressive face and gold-rimmed glasses which give her an air of total candor.
“My father died nine days after we moved here – he had been injured in a car accident – and I saw the needs that my mother had. I was a social worker here in St. Pete during the depths of the Depression and no one who is young can possibly realize what life was like in Florida at that time. People lost everything overnight. Everything. I knew one congressman’s widow who had $5 a week to spend on food.
“Things are better now of course, but there are still a great number close to the poverty level. I think I have always been interested in the old people because there are so many with so much courage and so much dignity. If you could just sit in this office for a day, you would see people who manage to get along with so little.”
On the way out, Mrs. Rudd introduces her visitor to Mrs. Betty. “Can you believe she’s . . .”
“Seventy-three,” says Mrs. Betty, a lean woman with bleached hair and the deep even tan of long-time St. Pete residents. Her manner is what they call perky.
“Mrs. Betty doesn’t have much to live on but she doesn’t give up and she doesn’t let it get her down. Isn’t that right?”
“That’s right,” says Mrs. Betty. “I pay $85-a-month rent and that leaves only $2 a day for food but I eat well. My husband used to say, ‘Buy one lamb chop, Gladys, or one chop steak, but let it be good.’ So I may eat only one thing, but I let it be good.
“But how am I going to pay for a hearing aid? My husband had trouble with hearing all his life. He used to say, ‘You’re lucky, Gladys, you can hear a cat walk.’ But now my hearing is going and where am I going to find the $30 or $40 for a hearing aid?”
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” says Mrs. Rudd.
“I try to find work but they won’t hire old people, not even as maids. One place said they didn’t want white working with the colored – it wouldn’t work out. But what am I going to do?”
“But you don’t let it get you down, do you?” says Mrs. Rudd.
“My money’s giving out. Next month I’ll be out on the curb.” There are tears in Mrs. Betty’s eyes. Her voice is close to breaking. Things are slipping out of control here. “I’ll be in Williams Park with a tin cup, along with all the other bums.”
“It won’t come to that,” says Mrs. Rudd.
“But they can’t take my pride!” Mrs. Betty says fiercely. She wipes her eyes and smiles.
If there is anything to be done Mrs. Rudd will find a way to do it, but when a problem comes down to money there is no simple solution. The City of St. Petersburg takes its responsibilities seriously, but it is in no position to take up the slack in Medicare. There just isn’t money enough. Gladys Betty had better learn to lip-read.
Nine times out of ten they’ll tell you it’s the climate that brings them down. Like Gladys Betty, they have their pride. The mean annual temperature in St. Pete, they say, is 71 degrees. The old feel the damp and cold and they’re easily trapped by snow and ice. In Michigan or upstate New York the winters can be murder, with months of raw wind and slippery footing. It’s natural the old should think of Florida, where it feels like spring nine months of the year and it’s said to be cheaper to live.
So one day when it’s sleeting, say, and the slush is turning to moonscape ice, perhaps the third or fourth straight day indoors with nothing to do but stare out the window or watch television, a decision is made at least to give it a try. It’s a three-hour flight from Detroit or New York to the Tampa Airport, just across Tampa Bay from St. Petersburg, and the first sight of that blue-green water and the palm trees and the brilliant skies after the cold and the wet can be very persuasive.
The weather may bring them to Florida, but it’s being short on money that brings them to downtown St. Pete. The United States is, of course, the richest country in the world and the real-estate sections of big-city papers are filled with ads for retirement communities, condominiums, “leisure villages” and so on, but only a tiny minority of the 20 million Americans over 65 can afford to live in them. Eighty-three percent of the couples live on less than $10,000 a year, and 69% of the single (who are mostly women) live on less than $3000 a year.
The vast majority of the old do not have enough money and the average person cannot conceivably accumulate enough capital by saving – $100,000 invested at six percent would be a minimum – to provide for retirement. Only the self-employed generally can go on working past 65 at anything except the most menial jobs and even they will eventually come to a day when their health retires them ready or no. The pension situation is a scandal, many working people never collecting a penny. A recent study by Ralph Nader indicates that many corporations routinely fire middle-management executives before the mandatory retirement age. The halls of a major corporate headquarters in Oxford, Connecticut, are said by employees to be haunted by ghostly figures in their early 60s trying to lay so low they’ll be overlooked, and allowed to stay the course and collect their full pension – but you’ve got to make yourself mighty scarce to evade the notice of a computer and not many of them make it.
Social Security is simply inadequate. Last winter the average benefit paid in Florida was $164.22 a month. Eleven percent increases this year will help but will hardly solve the problem. On January 1st the federal government began to provide the old with something called Supplemental Security Income, a program which will supersede most state and local programs of special aid. SSI will guarantee a monthly minimum of $140 to every individual and $210 to every couple over 65 who qualify, basically by being “poor.” If they own a house worth more than $25,000, or a car worth more than $1200, or have stocks, bonds and cash which total more than $2250, they don’t qualify as poor. Varying state supplements will push the SSI minimums higher – in certain cases as high as $95 in California and only a few additional dollars in Florida. Some states will provide no supplements. The SSI minimums will, in effect, establish a rock bottom beneath which no old person will be allowed to sink. People getting SSI will be far better off than the elderly poor who live on nothing or next to nothing now, but the minimums are well below the federally-figured poverty level and they are not going to be well-off by any but their previous standards.
Downtown St. Petersburg is the rule in the United States, not the exception. This is where people come to eke out tiny pensions or Social Security because it is here, in the old center of the town, where you find the clean winter hotels that cost only $1000, say, for a room with a bath between November and May; or an “efficiency apartment,” which means a room with a kitchen tucked into a corner, for $30 a week; or even a room with bath down the corridor and a window on an air shaft for as little as $10 a week. It is here that we enter the true country of the old, a few square miles where the aged are not the 10% of the population they are in the nation as a whole, but 30 or 40%. They cannot afford the expensive distractions of the rich, and most of them have learned nothing in life except how to work. Of all their burdens, perhaps the heaviest is time on their hands.
Gladys Betty would work if she could but she can’t, so she spends the most part of her days just “relaxing.” She can’t tell you quite what she means by “relaxing.” “Relaxing” is . . . well, relaxing. A stroll around Mirror Lake, maybe stopping to wave to a familiar face on the porch of the Hotel Ten Eyck. An hour on a bench in Williams Park, watching people cross the street to the post office. Sometimes she relaxes with her friend, sometimes alone.
What did she do yesterday? Well, as a matter of fact, yesterday was her birthday and she got a card from her granddaughter Karen, only the card was actually a Halloween card. Maybe Karen didn’t know it was grandmother’s birthday. Still, it came on her birthday. After picking up the card at the post office she took a long slow walk in the midday sun, the white buildings and asphalt streets blurred with heat, all the way down Second Avenue to the pier and halfway out the pier. Then she sat down on a beach. It was quite a walk. Her friend didn’t come because her friend didn’t like to walk all that way in the heat.
While she was sitting there a man came over and said, “You’re very pretty, did you know that?”
“Today is my birthday,” said Gladys Betty. “I don’t think I’m pretty; I think I’m beautiful.”
“What I’m looking for,” said the man, who was a bit older, wearing billowy blue serge pants, “is a woman who will be compatible to me.”
“The Senior Citizens Center is right over there – there must be 50 women over there so you can take your pick.”
“It’s closed,” said the man.
“Then try the Shuffleboard Club, there must be 50 women there, too, and if that’s closed, Mirror Lake is right behind you.”
“Are you suggesting I jump in?” asked the man.
“Gee,” said Gladys Betty, “you catch on fast.”
That was all she could remember about yesterday.
Down at the Senior Citizens Center the Wednesday afternoon square-dance class is getting under way. Inside the huge ballroom Jack Evans, in white western shirt and black cowboy boots, a lean man with sideburns and massive horn-rimmed glasses as thick and heavy as welder’s goggles, is introducing 24 men and women to the basic square-dance steps for 75 cents each. “The first thing I want to warn you, is . . . the floor is slippery. So be careful. Don’t overdo it. I’m going to slow the music way down.
“We call ourselves the Young-old Smoothies. You’re young-old and I’m . . . smooooth. The first rule in square dancing – don’t look at your partner, look at me – the first rule is to pay attention to the caller. The second rule is always, always smile, because then your partner may think he made the mistake!”
Evans starts to explain a step. “Now there’s a right way to do this, and a wrong way. We’re going to do it. . . the wrong way . . . because we have tremendously slippery floors. If we did it the right way I’d be picking somebody up with a broken hip.”
The music starts, followed by the muted thumping of rubber-soled feet and the ring of bangle bracelets and laughter as people, feeling as silly and shy as kids, bump into each other or turn the wrong way. They all had to drag themselves down here saying go on, give it a try, but once the music starts and they see everybody else prancing around they forget themselves and pretty soon they’re all having a terrific time. It just goes to show you, says one old man at the end of the lesson, that it ain’t so bad down here if you just get out of yourself.
The activity that goes on down at the Senior Citizens Center is relentless – a daily profusion of bingo games, ballroom dancing, card parties, sing-alongs, New York-Ohio get-togethers, day trips to Disney World and canasta tournaments. The sprawling concrete building, its fluorescent lighting, pastel walls and linoleum floors giving it the air of a public institution, a bit like a hospital in fact, is crowded almost as soon as the doors open. There’s a billiard room, thick with cigar smoke by 9:10 in the morning, and a large common room with card and checkers tables and a double rack of metal shelves in one corner containing at least 100 jigsaw puzzles, some of them of staggering difficulty. There are a lot of people playing games of one sort or another, sometimes together, sometimes alone, but they aren’t the ones you’re most likely to notice on your first visit. What strikes you is the number of old men and women, but more men than women for some reason, who are sitting and doing . . . nothing. Your first guess is that perhaps they’re just “resting,” say, or “taking it easy” or “thinking things over.” But they aren’t. They wander in early and sit down with a coffee in the snack bar or perhaps take a chair by the window in the common room and then just . . . sit. You may find two or three in the television room and you think they’re watching television, but then the sound and picture fuzz out and nobody will get up. They’ll just sit there and look at the snow.
It’s puzzling. They look healthy enough after all. When they buy lunch in the cafeteria they count out the change to the penny, they cross the street safely and dress neatly, and yet they have mentally departed. There is no other way to describe it. Wherever you go in St. Petersburg you will see the departed in hotel lobbies, on benches, strolling down the pier, standing on a street corner, incapable of deciding whether to go forward or back, or simply sitting in one of the chairs in front of the bandstand in Williams Park, like early arrivals for a concert two weeks off. We are not speaking of a mental condition here. They have simply closed up shop and gone away.
They lean back on benches and stare into the tree tops. Sometimes their lips move, as if they were conversing with some phantom up among the branches. It is not easy to attract their attention. They do not see those who sit down next to them, they do not hear when they are spoken to. If you persist, if you shout, if you grab them by the arm and try to shake them awake you may succeed in evoking a flicker of dumb, wide-eyed fear, but that is all.
No one pays them much attention down at the Senior Citizens Center or anywhere else. They are just there, like furniture. Occasionally someone will make a little joke about them. “We’ll all end up like that,” said a man doing a jigsaw puzzle, “if we just live long enough.”
Bertha Spinks, who has been working in the snack bar for the last two years, says the departed are just “relaxing” and thinks no more about it. She is gray haired and partially blind, a friendly, helpful woman who thinks this is a terrific place, there isn’t anyplace in the world nicer to retire to than St. Petersburg, Florida.
“In 1935 when I first came here my mother and I would walk down Central Avenue from 9th Street to 4th Street in October! and not see one single person! You couldn’t do that on the hottest day in August now.
“The ones that belongs here know what to do with their time. They play cards, they dance, there’s always things going on. This is a very happy bunch of people. Of course everywhere there are a few grouch. Some people grumbles about the transportation because it’s only every half-hour or hour. Some grumbles about the doctors, you know, medical care, and what it costs to live, and their families. But there aren’t too many grouch here. I’m going to retire myself in 11 years. I imagine I’ll come down here and enjoy myself instead of working here.”
It’s somewhere to go and something to do but, even among those whose taste it is, not everybody can spare the $6 for annual dues. Russell Miller came by a couple of times, a tall, stooping man with the gray beard, fierce eyes and starved body of St. John the Baptist – not your typical jigsaw puzzle fanatic but a man whose isolation was beginning to poison his spirit. Bertha Spinks remembered him. She put him in the grouch category. His face was so fierce. He didn’t seem to enjoy himself at all, and that beard! So long and frizzy, and his hair! Why didn’t he shave off that beard and cut his hair and smile once in a while; he might have made a few friends and had a good time.
Miller can’t remember when he last had a good time but he can tell you a lot about living on $152 a month, which is $5 a day, which is enough to keep you alive and let you think through the implications of failing strength and rising prices and a fixed income.
Miller lived in a rooming house for a while but he was late one month with his rent and they threw him out. He was destitute. He had nothing and nowhere to go. He comes from North Carolina where they take their religion seriously, in the countryside at any rate, so Miller walked into John 3:16 Cook’s Mission Power Headquarters out on Central Avenue. Brother John’s real interest is in derelicts, addicts, winos and smalltime hustlers – the detritus of St. Petersburg he calls snowbuzzards – and he works 12 hours a day saving them with the message of John 3:16, which begins, “For God so loved the world . . .” Brother John took Miller in all the same, of course, just as he had taken in a lot of other old folks, some of them literally dumped on his doorstep by their children – ancient foundlings.
Miller moved into House Eight with the rest of the “retirees.” But then some months later Brother John, a flamboyant former actor who likes electric suits and every sort of razzle-dazzle, decided he was going to hold a parade to bring the word to St. Petersburg. Miller, who has no patience for foolishness and spectacle, said he wasn’t walking in any goddamned parade. Brother John said damnit, you can leave then, and Miller stalked out.
It was hard finding another place to live because of his beard. Landladies saw him as a superannuated hippie and wouldn’t let him lie on their clean linen with that long greasy hair and Miller, who is fierce when it comes to his dignity, of course refused to cut it. Eventually he was back on the street with nothing, so he returned to John 3:16 and of course Brother John, cooled off now and feeling guilty about their quarrel, took him back in. Living in House Eight costs Miller $3 a day or $90 a month; he can therefore save $60. He suffers knowing he is living mostly on charity, but every month gives him another $60 toward recovered independence, departure and a new life elsewhere.
He makes his bed in the morning. He eats three meals a day, which Ted Laird, who runs the house, manages to keep balanced, more or less. Between meals Miller sits in one of the ancient lawn chairs beneath the trees in front of House Eight. He reads the Bible but nothing else. He doesn’t talk much to the other “retirees,” some of whom are the next thing to basket cases. They can get around but that’s it. Miller makes it clear he would never talk to a writer if Ted Laird hadn’t asked him to do it. He doesn’t give a damn what the writer is doing, newspapers are all foolishness, they’re all a bunch of crap, just get on with it. He sits at a table, hunched over, stroking his beard, his eyes turned resolutely away.
“It’s just pure hell when you’re old, that’s all I can say. If I spent a dollar on anything in the world except to eat or for a bed to sleep in, I was broke. The library’s the only place I can go in this town. The Senior Citizens Center and the Shuffleboard Club are out. You got to join, you got to belong to ’em. I can’t afford it.”
His voice is rising, he looks furious. This ought to be self-evident, why am I making him spell it all out? Why am I asking him all these personal questions? The Social Security knows all about him already, they know more about him than he does himself. He already said being old is pure hell, what more do I want?
“Hey, Russell,” says Laird, “this is for Brother John.”
Miller calms down. He doesn’t mean to sound angry, he says, it’s just his voice. He keeps his eyes turned resolutely away.
Miller knows a good deal about what it costs to live all over the country. When he quit his last job a few years ago he was living in Phoenix, Arizona, which is not cheap. He should have left a lot sooner than he did but he was slow to look into the abyss, even after he received his first Social Security check, and took one look at the figure, and knew goddamn well he couldn’t live on it.
He’d done a lot of different kinds of work in his life. He’d been a powderman on the highway back in North Carolina in 1912, when he was 17, and more than once had nearly resolved his retirement problem with too much powder or too short a fuse. He’d drove about everything that can be drove, and made good money, and saved some of it, and was pretty well set, he thought, when he left his last job in Phoenix. Slow to admit what was happening, like a lot of people, he lived on his savings for a while and watched them run out a good deal faster than his life. When he was down to $20,000 he stirred himself and set out around the country to find a place where you could live on $152 a month. In less than two years he tried out dozens of cities and towns in 16 states – Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas – oh hell, just everywhere you’d think it’d be cheap, but it wasn’t. He left his $20,000 in hotels and bus stations and ended up in St. Petersburg.
“It’s cheaper in the small towns and out of the traffic, that’s about all I can say. I lived in St. Petersburg from 1947 to 1961. It used to be $7-8 a week, room and board, but now there’s come a time when a man on Social Security can’t live anywhere.
“It’s just plain hell, that’s all I can say. People’s not friendly, you haven’t got no friends anywhere, not here, that’s for damn . . .”
“Ain’t I your friend?” asks Ted Laird.
“Well,” says Miller, not wanting to be rude but not wanting to lie either, “you’re as good a friend as I’ve got.
“There’s people see you coming and take advantage. If I go up here on 9th Street there’s lots of times I’ve all but had to fight or give someone some money. Most old people are old and they know it; they don’t get around so good; they can’t protect themselves; they can’t run; if somebody comes up and asks ’em for something they know they’ve got to give it over.
“It’s just pure hell here. I ain’t going to stay here for the rest of my life. It’s not what I want.”
Russell Miller can’t believe the next question. He is furious, sure he is being insulted, he is being laughed at. His voice rises and cracks as if he is close to tears of rage.
“I want to settle down and be in peace. I want to get out somewhere and have some peace and not be worried all the time. Not be worrying where my next meal’s coming from, where I’m going to sleep.”
It used to be you could afford to live in St. Paul, Minnesota. When he’s got some money that’s where he’s going. The winters are terrible and the city air is bad for his heart. It’s not where he’d rather go but maybe he can live there. Where would he go if he didn’t have to think about the money?
“All the places I’ve seen,” he says, thinking this is the first sensible question he’s been asked, “the prettiest is the southwest corner of Arkansas. It’s not too high for my heart, it’s rolling land with hills, it’s grass, it’s got just enough trees to set it off. That’s been the prettiest place in the United States I think I’ve seen.
“Most of the people that are there was raised there. It’s not like here where one’s from New York and one’s from North Carolina and one’s from Ohio and one’s from Iowa and they don’t have nothing to say to each other. The people there are still friendly. If I was to go where I wanted to, that’s where I’d go.”
Stanley Nelson could afford to go to Arkansas, or Hong Kong for that matter, and last summer he nearly packed up and went, but then . . . he didn’t. He’s the victim of inertia. Life lost its flavor when emphysema forced him to give up his law practice in New Jersey a few years ago. He was a trial lawyer and he loved it. He’s not rich but he’s well-off, he could go pretty much anywhere his lungs would let him, but what would be the point? What’s the difference between the Ponce de Leon in St. Petersburg and a hotel anyplace else? He’s bored, he’d like to shake off his lassitude, one of these days he’ll pick up and go but he’s not sure, he says with a smile, what he will have gained thereby. He’d probably feel in Hong Kong just as he does here. You can’t know, he says, what a privilege it is to work.
It is quiet where we’re sitting. A few chairs down, a man is asleep, his mouth open in a little o, the lips pinched. His hands are motionless on his chest. His eyes are not quite closed so you can see a hint of white just below the pink, translucent lids. If you did not hear the faint hiss of dry air going in, moist air coming out, you might think about calling a doctor. From up on the terrace there comes the murmur of four ladies at bridge, the slap of cards. Down to the left is the green palm-lined shore, and beyond it the flat, glistening blue expanse of Tampa Bay.
Stanley Nelson is a small man with a consumptive’s stoop. He wears a jacket and tie, unusual in St. Petersburg. Wisps of gray hair rise from his head. His voice is raspy, his face round and ironic. He looks at you directly through his round glasses when he wants you to take particular note of what he is saying.
When your work is taken away, he says, a sameness settles over your days. He gets up at the same hour every day, for example. He has breakfast. About ten he walks up the street to Reed News for a copy of The New York Times. He walks back and reads the paper sitting in one of the deck chairs in front of the Ponce de Leon. Then he has the rest of the day to kill. Often he goes to the law library, free for the first time in his life to follow the growth of the law. He finds himself feeding birds, something he never did before. He finds himself walking slowly around bodies of water. He has dinner in the big Maas Brothers department store. He reads. He goes to bed.
Sometimes it is quiet through the night and in the morning he learns that the man in the next room died in his sleep. These little surprises are not infrequent. You will be sitting in a big easy chair in a hotel lobby and hear something, some liquid noise from the back of a man’s throat, and you look over and you see the man in the next chair has had a stroke. There is no commotion. The ambulance will pass through the streets in silence, no siren to alarm. The next morning the victim will be listed in the funeral notices of the St. Petersburg Times, one among ten or 15 names of retired school teachers, retired legal secretaries, retired elevator starters, retired machinists who came down one or five or 20 years ago.
In the old days the bodies of the extinguished would be sent back to their hometowns by rail. The railroads insisted they be accompanied and for a price a son or a daughter up North could hire a companion for a parent’s final journey. Now things are simpler. Most of the dead are cremated and the ashes mailed home. The price is reasonable, only $295. Social Security will cover most of it. Nelson thinks about this to a certain extent, not in a spirit of fear but of realism.
With the exception of short visits with his daughter in Michigan, where his emphysema quickly exhausts him, Nelson rarely speaks to another human being at any length now, but as soon as you hear him you know you are in communication with a keen apprehension, a deepening curiosity, a quickening sense of complexity, paradox, irony and mystery. He knows more law than ever before, he can suggest a hundred artful ways Leon Jaworski could deliberately blow his case, he can convince you the adversary process is necessary even when it is most unfair. He has nothing in particular to do with his days so he reads and thinks. He is not trying to make sense out of life, exactly. He is trying to discover what it is, now, at the end of his life, that he ought to feel.
“When I first came down here I went to the Shuffleboard Club and I stood there for a while watching people play the game and I said to myself, ‘I hope I never get old.’ And then I thought, ‘But I’m old already!’ I feel no different than I felt when I was 35 but then I tell myself, ‘You’re not 35, you’re close to 80!’
“I’ve gone the other way now. I’ve reached the stage in life where I’d just like to be left alone. There isn’t anybody here I could be friends with. No doubt that’s one of my many defects. I’m no longer in a position to start working socially. It’s too hard. Life is too real, you’re constantly reminded that you’re on the way out. You see the ambulance riding back and forth all the time.
“I don’t think many people who reach old age come to any definite conclusions about what life adds up to. People are too various. In 1930 I went to Europe on a honeymoon with my late wife. In England I wanted to go to the graveyard of Thomas Gray, the author of ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.’ My wife said, ‘What do you want to do that for? That’s the last thing in the world I’d want to do.’ But it was what I wanted to do and I did it.
“I wanted to go to Reading Gaol where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated and I wanted to go to Oxford to see one of the colleges that was founded in the year 900. Now how do you figure life out when one guy wants to do things like that, and another guy is only interested in nightclubs?
“The older I get the more relative the world becomes, and the more relative it becomes, the less answers I have. And yet I understand it better.
“The impression a lawyer gets after ten or 15 years of practice is ‘Look out! Everyone is after something, everyone is out for himself.’ Almost anything that comes into your purview is either tainted or tinted. You’re accustomed to people saying, ‘I’m guilty, how can I get away with it?’
“But after a while you begin to take a larger view. You see that most people are as naive as children, they couldn’t cheat you if they tried, their attempts are so inept they are almost innocent. Scoundrels turn out to have noble motives and upright citizens aren’t what they seem. Every man is sui generis. I know more about the law now than I ever did. I know more about human beings, what you can expect from them, when they’re telling the truth, how to recognize the truth when you hear it. Just as I’m getting ready to understand the world, I’m getting ready to go out.”
It is night in St. Petersburg, the end of another perfect day. Up at the Hotel TenEyck, a big, comfortable, wood-frame building just above Mirror Lake, Mrs. William H. Tyndal is getting ready to lock up. The last of her guests has gone up to his room in the slow, creaking elevator and the lobby is quiet.
Mrs. Tyndal’s days are long enough without having to lock up, too, but her clerk – she calls him her clerk but he’s not really a clerk, just an old man she gives a room and lets help out – is in the hospital. Two days ago Mrs. Tyndal heard him calling out and opened the door to his room. He was lying on the floor, stark naked. He was all right; that is, he was conscious. His legs had given out, is all. He’d had a stroke and now he was in the hospital and he wasn’t getting any better.
Mrs. Tyndal doesn’t know quite what to do. Her clerk has a son and a daughter but you might as well talk to the pines out there in the yard. Once when her clerk was sick two years ago Mrs. Tyndal called up his son and the son said he was busy right then, could he call back? Well, he hadn’t called yet, and that was two years. So she wrote the old man’s daughter and the daughter wrote back saying, for goodness sake don’t put him in Bayfront, put him in the Veterans Administration Hospital, it’s cheaper. The daughter said that as soon as she got back from her vacation, she’d get in touch with Mrs. Tyndal. Well, it must’ve been a long vacation, because she hasn’t called yet. Mrs. Tyndal doesn’t understand this. She took care of her parents. What’s the matter with these children nowadays?
Mrs. Tyndal is a tough, capable woman, handsome in her way, with dark hair piled high on her head. All her life she’s had a talent for making things go but some problems are just too big. She’s given her clerk a place to live for five years but she can’t take care of him forever. She can’t pay his bills and bring him his dinner and change his bedpan for however long he’ll live. He’s 80 but you never know. Some people 80 live to be 90 and some 90 live to be a hundred.
Mrs. Tyndal is in excellent health herself, thank God, but she’s not getting any younger. In fact she’ll be retiring soon and she’s got it all planned out. She’s seen what happens to people who don’t prepare, who run out of money or have no family or don’t take an interest in anything except the Tuesday night bingo game. You wouldn’t believe the excitement around here every Tuesday. It’s all they talk about on Monday and Wednesday. That’s not for Mrs. Tyndal.
First, she wants to go back home to Kentucky for a long visit, not just a week or even a month, but half a year at the least. The last time she was home was three years ago to bury her father, and the last time before that was to bury her mother. This time she just wants to enjoy herself, see old friends, do nothing for a while.
Then she wants to spend a year in Europe and see everything she has always wanted to see, starting with the bronze statue of Caesar Augustus in the Vatican Museum. When she was a girl she studied Latin for years. Cicero was tough going but she loved the Gallic Wars and Tacitus and Suetonious made her eyes pop. She’s always wanted to see Athens and the Eternal City and a lot of other places too. She’s never been to Europe before and she knows she’ll never go again. This is her one chance and she means to see enough to last the rest of her life.
And then Mrs. Tyndal thinks she’ll buy one of the new condominiums over in Gulfport, which is about 20 minutes away. They’re small and efficient and easy to take care of. She’s had a lifetime of keeping things up and now she wants to relax. And after that . . . Well, she hasn’t started to think about that yet.