Some things you can come right out and ask, and you’ll usually get an answer. Like what time it is, or directions, or anything comprised primarily of facts. Other more elusive matters, besides having more than one answer, don’t necessarily come with a concise question. And what is the question if not a key to a door of a room with something in it you want or need?
In 1979 I began a process of getting to know people much older than myself. I was working as an activities director at a nursing home in Boston, a career path I departed from a few years later. I did, however, hold onto my quest to get to know these people – skin and bones like me, but living out their latter and final phases.
Getting to know them, becoming friends by my regular contact and frequent conversations, I’d ask them many things. Often I’d ask surprise or odd questions, for the more direct and expected route often yielded little in showing me who they were right now. This was no more apparent than in the area of love and romance. When I would ask, for example, how they met their spouse, the story was so often told that it had become a rote monologue, with little revealed of their current emotional stake in the facts.
I asked, “Did you ever have a perfect kiss?” Jack Mudurian said, “If a pretty girl let me kiss her, I’d take her for a ride in the car, if I had a car to drive.” Jeanne Malone said, “I think the nicest kiss I got was from Muhammed Ali.”
I asked, “Why do people kiss?” Bob Shirey said “Well, for one reason, it’s so easy – it’s a very easy thing to do. And it’s a positive gesture, it’s not negative. Why do people give people the finger? Because it’s easy and it communicates. But it’s the other way around, it means the opposite. And it doesn’t cost anything. It’s cheaper than flowers, isn’t it? Yeah, it is.”
Needless to say, I wasn’t trying to get answers to live my life by. I was trying to get to know these old people. They held no secrets to the universe, they had just lived more years than me. Most of the unanswerable questions remain unanswered – or the questions lose their meaning and we turn our back on them. The cloudy stuff of life, those things we can never really see through or around – like love and death – can never be reduced to snappy, easy-to-remember tips (and beware of anyone who thinks they can). No, we learn most of our important lessons from the examples of others; from watching and from knowing other people. And whether they succeed or fail, we learn from them, just as others are learning from us.
I was getting answers to my questions, but those answers more importantly were adding up into the living, breathing people I was coming to know. There are no secrets to a life lived long, nor secrets to romance. There are just people who’ve struggled with all of those issues before us, and there’s strength to be found in knowing that they did.
I asked, “What makes a good relationship?” Ernie Brookings said, “Happiness and coordination.” Abe Surgecoff said, “Doin’ for ’em, and help each other out. And, ah, divide the money. And, ah, lendin’ clothes.”
Abe was a very content man, who liked mostly to help out at the nursing home _ passing out coffee, running errands for other residents, that sort of thing. He also came through with more of an answer than I could’ve dreamed of, when I asked him if he knew the lyrics to a nonexistent song called “Love Was Out To Get Me.” Barely even pausing to stop and think he rattled off fifteen remarkable lines.
She was afraid of him
Every time you come to see me, I hate to see ya
I want to get you down sweetheart
You were once before in love with somebody, but I don’t know who the somebody is
You don’t put the work in
You hate my love and I hate your love
When I need you, you come to me with forward arms
I give you things and you throw them away
You throw things away and we hate each other’s parting
You start these different things and hope for the best
You show me a door and then you didn’t show me a door
We hate to see each other parting
I hate to see you part with no cash
When I asked to give you cash, you refused.
I don’t know if he knew what an amazing poem he seemed to invent out of the air, but I thanked him, he smiled and walked away. I had no idea what I’d get from asking for that, I was simply being a wise guy and it was a spur of the moment bit of fun. I certainly didn’t need an answer to the question, I just needed to know somebody like Abe.
– David Greenberger
(aired on NPR’s All Things Considered, 14 February 1997)