, Newburyport, MA

April 16, 2013

No filling station for old men

As I See It
Jack Garvey

---- — Awed by the stylish design of my employer’s new van, the young attendant leans into the window for a look at the dash as soon as he puts the nozzle into the tank.

I keep nodding and saying “uh-huh,” agreeing that I’m lucky to have so many bells and whistles, some of which I’ll never use or even know what they are.

But he dwells on one — an outlet for ear-pods or headphones — that will allow me to “crank up the tunes and let the miles fly by.”

For this he won’t take a simple yes for an answer. I try deflecting his good-natured prods with self-deprecation:

“I’m too old for that.”

“Don’t you listen to music?”

“Yes, but nothing I want to plug myself into.”

“But this’ll shut out everything else.”

“Such as what? Sirens? Motorcycles? Some other driver or pedestrian needing my attention?”

So exuberant is he over what he considers my new fringe benefit that deadpan jokes are lost on him. I ignore his next few sallies.

Perhaps he recalls my crack about being old when he urges me to imagine Beethoven without the roar of Firestones on 495, the brakes and horns on 128, the bang and clang of loading docks in the North End.

Oh, it’s tempting! Which may be why I finally turn toward him, our faces a foot apart. Still, I hold my tongue until he grins, “Why not?”

“Because I’m better than that.”

He lurches so quickly back that anyone present may think I shoved him. The grin melts into amazement, then protest:

“What? You’re saying that I (expletive) because — “

“Wasn’t about you. Was you kept talking about me.”

When he stands speechless, I can’t help myself:

“What about you? Can you tell me how many justices sit on the Supreme Court?”

After a moment’s surprise, he squints upward before looking right at me: “Eleven?”

I remain silent, expressionless, so he tries to trump the question:

“Well, I know they serve for life, and that presidents are elected for four years, and representatives and senators for two.”

By today’s standards three out of four isn’t bad, although that still seems a low bar for a college student — and demoralizing for me since I know that he attends my alma mater.

Just then the nozzle clicks full, and I laugh aloud at a new twist of an old expression: saved by the pump!

Regrettably, he takes the laughter to be at him and offers a retort while preparing the receipt. Of all possible numbers, the charge is $50.50.

“Shouldn’t talk politics, man! Politics (expletive)!”

But the question is not political. It’s simple civics — and there’s nothing liberal or conservative about a number that is a basic fact of American government.

Much like me when I wouldn’t hear his endorsement of audio technology, he won’t hear my suggestion of what in this world matters and what does not.

Offering a conciliatory and deliberate “take care,” I roll away thinking only of how America has become — to borrow a recent book and film title — no country for old men.

Not because of generational taste, but because our perception of pleasure and purpose is so divided — so mutually exclusive — that any purpose at all is often taken as an infringement on pleasure.

If, as a canvasser working to undo “Citizens United” complained last summer, we now regard it “impolite to talk about politics,” where does that leave “of the people, by the people”?

And doesn’t it turn Lincoln’s third phrase into “for the inattentive”?

Result is not just an inability to distinguish politics from civics, ideology from history and opinion from fact, but between those who work for and those who work against public interest.

Hence, for dysfunctions such as the “fiscal cliff” and “debt ceiling,” both sides of Congress are blamed, 50/50.

Those devoted to making government fail are then rewarded for calling government a failure, while those trying to make it work are ridiculed as fools.

It’s as if we keep wiring ourselves into our own dashboards to shut out all sirens and needs of the real world.

How is it that we not better than this?


Jack Garvey of Plum Island can be reached at