Here's the thing with Philly. Sometimes strange things happen. And sometimes they happen so regularly that they get reclassified as normal. Like once a year, the public transportation system goes on strike for plus-or-minus a week. That's what happened last week so a lot of the seniors couldn't even get to the center. I felt bad, imagining them stuck at home in front of a window or TV. By definition the seniors who have made the choice to be part of this center is an ultra social group. They show up to make friends, learn new skills and just have a good time. They'll do what it takes, move around with canes and walkers but they'll get there, rain or shine. In fact, sometimes their fearlessness scares me. I catch myself telling them to be careful when the streets are slippery on a rainy day.
When I walked into the center last week, the lobby and cafeteria felt empty. Not eerily so, but just quieter. Usually the cafeteria is noisy - I can't even pick out one conversation from another, but that day I would say there were less than twenty people. Helen saw me at the doorway and waved me in. She introduced me to her friends Beatrice Bonners and Isadora Fields (btw are those two first-and-last-name combos fantastic or what?) and pretty soon more people joined and we all started chatting. And that's what we ended up doing instead of our usual sit-around-the-classroom-table class. You've gotta give the seniors props for being spontaneous.
So I don’t know how they got started on this, but some of them have high school reunions coming up (so that’d be like sixty-year reunions – I can’t even comprehend that length of time.) I asked them how much people change over that kind of time, and the consensus around the cafeteria table was clear: people look and act the same, but become a little more mature. I don’t why but I thought their response is both funny and profound. Maybe it’s the idea (the relief!) that people never fully mature – we just move a little farther along in that general direction.
Beatrice and Isadora started thinking back about high school, out loud. They actually went to the same high school, but in different years. “The marble stairway,” they squealed like teenage girls, “Remember the marble stairway?” Of course they both remember it vividly. Apparently anyone who set foot (as in literally, as in placing a single foot) on the marble treads got sent right away to the Principal’s Office. No one even knew why the stairway existed or where it led to. It doesn’t seem like Beatrice and Isadora ever bothered to find out the truth. The illusion of danger, I guess, is always more fun than the safety of fact.
They told us about all sorts of random bits and pieces about their school. Pretty soon, they drew a crowd in the cafeteria. A man with two cans of ginger ale rolled over in his wheelchair, making a joke about the extra can of soda and taking a dramatic gulp from each one. A lady with not-a-streak-of-non-white hair scooted her chair a little closer, wordlessly. The women at the table next to us stopped their own conversation and turned to look our way.
Beatrice and Isadora remember that first thing in the morning, they went to homeroom, where they did bible reading, the Pledge of Allegiance, and once in a while sang a little song. They remember the English Teacher who spat on you whenever she talked. And the Principal, he was very thin, too thin. When I asked them whether they liked their English Teacher, Beatrice nodded excitedly and said she tries not to remember teachers she didn’t like.
In a time-travel kind of way, towards the end of the hour, the high school conversation jumped back into the present. They all said that, sometimes, they still feel like they did as teenagers. “But you know,” Beatrice added, “I don’t let my kids know that. They already worry about me too much. I have to remind them who’s Mom. I have to tell them I’m grown.”
She said one time last year, the senior center had a field trip to Delaware. There, her heart problems acted up, so her kids sent her to a hospital in the area and kept her there for a few days. They said to her, “You are not going out of town again.”
“Of course I had to prove them wrong. The next month I went right back,” Beatrice said proudly. Helen was sitting next to her all this time, and I was sitting next to Helen. She whispered to Beatrice, “I think it’s nice they are concerned about you.” Beatrice flashed a knowing smile.