By Steve Slavin
Arlene and I grew up in Bayside, Queens -- still a very pleasant, well-educated, upper-middle class community. Arlene would be not just the love of my life, but also my best friend. We were often kidded because we seemed so happy just talking to each other.
We met in high school and got married during our senior year at Queens College. With a lot of help from our parents, we bought a three-story fixer-upper just blocks from Long Island Sound, where we would raise three children.
Some of our neighbors would look at us in wonder, calling us “a real family.” We ate most of our meals together, went on day trips and family vacations, and often just hung out. Neighborhood kids seemed to prefer our home to their own.
But then, one day it ended. Not long after our youngest was out of the house, Arlene was diagnosed with breast cancer. We soon learned that it had spread throughout her body. Her last words to our children were, “Take care of your dad.”
I am eighty-one years old. But I am young again. You may remember reading about Ponce de Leon, a Spanish explorer who spent many years futilely searching for the Fountain of Youth.
As we age, especially men, we often make foolish efforts to hold back time. If we cannot be young again, at least let us not get any older. For many years, that was my quest.
I tried everything. I dyed my hair, worked out every day at the gym, and drove flashy sports cars. But when I looked at young women, they looked right through me. Or else, they treated me like the sad and somewhat delusional old man that I was.
My children worried about me. They threatened to take away my car keys and began talking about wonderful apartments for seniors.
To them, I had become a cantankerous old man. Loud music – and really, almost any music, bothered me. Twenty- and thirty-year-olds with tattoos and body piercings drove up my blood pressure. Sometimes just going out for a walk would subject me to intolerable levels of noise and sight pollution.
And then, one evening, as I passed a bar just off Bell Boulevard, I peered inside. It looked like any other hangout, and yet there was something very different about the atmosphere. I felt myself drawn inside.
Never much of a drinker, I walked up to the bar and asked for a screwdriver. When the bartender put the drink down in front of me, she did not look right through me.
We made some small talk, and then she rushed off to serve another customer. I smiled at myself, realizing that she was nice to all her customers. It was just part of her job.
Still, the place seemed pleasant, especially for a bar. There was music, but it wasn’t very loud. Most of the customers were quite young, but there was also a sprinkling of older people – some of whom seemed about my own age. As I sipped my drink, I began to relax.
But I couldn’t help wondering what was going on. Was this “bring your grandma and grandpa to a bar night”?
Then I began to stroll around, occasionally making eye contact. A young man smiled at me. I smiled back. I saluted with my glass and he did the same. The young woman with him asked me to join them.
I walked over and introduced myself. There were three or four other people, all of them Millennials, and we all got into a friendly political discussion. When the waitress came by, I ordered a round of drinks.
What may have bound us all together was the happy talk about the president’s impeachment. A couple of them admitted to being Republicans, but the word we all used to describe the man was schmuck.
When it was time for me to leave, a couple offered to drive me home. Although it was just a few blocks, I happily accepted. I was feeling pretty high.
When I got up the next morning, I found myself in a great mood. I remembered my dream – the best I one I had had in years. I got dressed and went for a long walk. The things that usually bothered me – the impatient drivers honking their horns, the morons with their blaring car speakers, and landscapers operating their outrageously loud lawn mowers – none of them seemed to bother me half as much as they usually did.
By evening, I found that I was still in good mood. After dinner, I went out for a stroll. And then, right in front of me was the same bar – the bar I had dreamed about. I had not noticed the sign before – “The Fountain of Youth.”
Was I dreaming now? I pinched myself. Someone walking by called out to me, “Hey mister, do you think you’re dreaming?”
I looked at the young man and asked, “Am I?”
“Well, if you are, what does that make me?”
“That’s a good question. Let me buy you a drink.”
“OK, but just one. The wife’s at home waiting for me.”
We went inside, and the bartender smiled at me.
“Welcome back.” Then she looked at my new friend.
“What are you drinking?”
“Scotch and soda.”
A minute later, she placed our drinks on the bar.
“You must be a regular here.”
“No, but I must have been here last night.”
“You don’t remember?”
“Actually, that’s why I was pinching myself.”
“Well, the barmaid knew what you like to drink. So, either you were here last night, or she’s a mind-reader."
After we finished our drinks, I decided to call it an evening and headed back home.
When I got up the next morning, I knew for sure that something had definitely changed in my life. I talked on the phone with my kids, and not once did the words, “senior apartments” come up. That evening I would go back to the bar. Whatever was going on there, I wanted to have more of it.
I remembered that Ponce De Leon wanted to drink water from the magic fountain. Maybe he should have been looking for a different kind of fountain – a fountain from which he could drink vodka.
That evening, my drink was waiting on the bar. Not too many people are drinking anything orange these days. I thanked the barista and she lingered for a while. She was an engineering student at Cooper Union, which greatly impressed me. I confessed to being a recovering English professor.
Then she said something that really surprised me. “You see that group at the table near the window?”
“They’d like you to join them.”
“How do you know?”
“They gave me the high sign.”
So I picked up my drink and walked over to them.
“You must be thinking I’m someone else. So no, even though we look like twins, I’m not Ashton Kutcher.”
“You’re not?” said a very attractive young woman. “You mean all this time I’ve had a crush on you, and you’re the wrong guy?”
“No ma’am, I’m not the wrong guy…. He is.”
We introduced ourselves. It amazed me that I was easily old enough to be their grandfather. But it didn’t seem to matter. I hung with them for over an hour and then headed home.
Every evening after that I went to drink at ”The Fountain of Youth.” Sometimes I hung out at the bar, usually talking to other patrons, and other times I joined couples or groups of people at the tables. I looked around and noticed that there were people as old as I sitting with groups of mostly younger people – all engaged in animated conversation.
I was aware that the nation’s somber mood had lifted considerably since the schmuck had been impeached. But it had to be a lot more than just that. Had attitudes towards the elderly changed all that much? Was eighty the new thirty?
Had we evolved from the “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” mantra of my youth to the “Don’t trust anyone under eighty” of my dotage? Did the young suddenly have a massive attitude adjustment, and begin to appreciate the wisdom of the aged?
Perhaps it was the other way around. Did we old fogeys get past our feelings of uptightness and disapproval of the ways of the Millennials, Gen X-ers and Gen Y-ers? Or had we suddenly worked out some kind of grand compromise?
I would never know the answer, nor would any of my compatriots who drank at “The Fountain of Youth.” The answer, it turns out, was far more prosaic.
One afternoon, the owner of “The Fountain of Youth” was breaking in a new bartender.
“So how come no TVs?”
“Simple. When I was a kid,” she said, “my grandparents talked about growing up before there were TVs in every living room. People actually used to sit around and talk to each other.”
“Yeah. And these days, of course, the only way younger people talk to each other is on their cell phones. Except in here.”
He looks around. She sees his expression turn from curiosity to disbelief. And then it dawns on him what she must have done.
“Don’t tell me!”
“Go ahead: try calling someone.”
He pulled out his phone and began dialing. “Holy shit!”
“That’s right! No reception.”
“What about music?”
“I love music. But young people think it should always be loud. But if they’re going to talk, I want them to be able to hear each other. So there’s always music playing, but it’s kept low.
“So, you’re telling me that people actually talk to each other here?”
“You’ll see for yourself…. Oh yeah, one more thing. Old people.”
“What about them?”
“First, I want them to feel comfortable in here. Because I need them. They’re basically the only people still capable of carrying on extended conversations.”
“And you want your customers to talk to each other.”
“Well, back in the good old days, that’s what they actually used to do at bars. Even complete strangers.”
“That’s right! So, the old folks who come in here are conversational facilitators. Still, there’s a problem.”
“The old people start a lot of bar fights?”
They both laughed.
“No, but many of them really can’t handle their liquor, and sometimes get into accidents, especially at night. So I needed to come up with a Solomon-like solution. (In the Old Testament, because God granted Solomon unsurpassed wisdom, he always made the wisest decisions.)
“We both know that most of the elderly patrons order screw-drivers, bloody marys, gin and tonics, and other relatively sweet drinks. So, my bartenders substitute a clear nonalcoholic liquid – the contents of which must remain a secret -- for the vodka or gin. When they drink, the poor old fools just act like they’ve got a buzz, without any of the bad side effects. They’re a lot nicer, and they don’t get into as many accidents. So, in the end, we all win.”
Just then, they heard an old geezer laughing uproariously with a bunch of Millennials.
“Hey Marty!” yelled the owner from across the room.
He yelled back, “What’s up, Bess?”
“Marty, you better watch it or I’m gonna have to cut you off.”
A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and economics books.His short story collection, "To the City, with Love," was recently published.