Literary Yard

Search for meaning

Growing older in a modern world

By Debra J. White

Home was a shabby brick apartment building in a working class, scrappy New York City neighborhood where families, even large ones, were packed into cramped quarters. I always knew I’d get old but it happened so quickly. Seems like yesterday when I was in high school at the now closed school, Mater Christi. Getting to school was either by foot or public transportation. Books weren’t banned. I had never heard the terms autism or attention deficit disorder. Children’s behavior wasn’t medicated and no one screamed hysterically about vaccinations. Woke was just another word in the dictionary. And there were no mass shootings. Hardly anyone but the police or military owned guns. Childhood obesity wasn’t an issue because outdoor activity so prevalent. The world has changed so much.

At sixteen years of age, I obtained my first job, earning $1.85 an hour at Alexander’s, one of the many department stores crisscrossing the city. On line shopping and changing consumer preferences sidelined all but a few department stores. Hired as a wrapper, I chopped off price tags attached to garments with straight pins. After the tag was removed, I slid the merchandise into a paper bag. Plastic wasn’t yet available. Complimentary gift boxes were handed out to customers who asked for them. Gift wrapping was free. Imagine that today? I was thrilled to be among the workforce, riding the bus from my dumpy neighborhood into a glitzy area of Manhattan. At lunch time, I meandered around, gazing into store windows. A Rolls Royce showroom offered such classy cars. I always wondered what it’d be like to live in a fancy apartment building with a doorman to greet me every day. So far, I still don’t know. Maybe there’s time left for a miracle.

During that summer, I worked full-time and met new, intriguing people at the store. I remember a hippie named Jane who had hitchhiked to the famous Woodstock rock concert in upstate New York. Always in sandals, loose fitting blouses and long flowery skirts, Jane’s relaxed attitude was easy to be around. She told me all about the wild and crazy three-day concert that made history around the world in 1969. I loved her big smile and laid-back ways. One day, she stopped coming to work. Evidently, Jane called up and said she was moving to California to live in a commune. I hope life was good to her. I felt sorry for John, the sad-faced stock boy, whose brother Richie was beaten to death by a deranged neighbor during his sophomore year of high school. I didn’t know what to say other than how sorry I was.

School resumed that fall and I reduced my hours to one afternoon after school and all day on Saturday. Stores weren’t open on Sunday. Most of my classmates worked in department stores. Some boys and girls branched out and worked for grocery chains like Key Food, Grand Union, Bohacks, Red Apple, Gristedes, or Waldbaums. But we all worked hard to earn our meager checks. Nearly all of us came from low-income families who struggled to make ends meet. Public assistance was considered shameful. No one accepted benefits even if they qualified. If we wanted new clothes and what sixteen year old girl didn’t, then we had to work. Boys needed money to take out girls on dates. That’s just how life was back then. If you wanted something, you worked for it.  

In 1971, my senior year, I switched jobs at a friend’s suggestion leaving Alexander’s to head for Macy’s in Herald Square with an increase in salary. I now earned $2.10 an hour, plus tips. At the time, the Macy’s flagship store had a basement restaurant called the Dutch Treat. I worked there as a waitress. Boys toiled away near the kitchen washing dishes. We were paid weekly in cash. Imagine that. 

I made calls on a rotary phone. Busy signals were as annoying as a run in my new stockings. Today’s youth will never experience the joy of hanging up on someone. Ma Bell, as we called the phone company, offered phones in a variety of colors. Phone selection was made in Ma Bell stores scattered around the city. Kitchens often had phones with long cords mounted on the wall. A technician had to install your phone line. The wait could be all day for service. Complain? Fugheddaboudit. Long distance calls cost more than local and if you were chatty the bills could be exorbitant.

 As a child visiting my grandmother in rural Alabama in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I listened in on party line calls until my grandmother caught me. She ended my busybody ways. My mother ordered our clothes from the Spiegel catalogue. Social networking was sitting in a park or playing games like checkers. Older kids passed around a six-pack. The country kids networked at campsites. I was the remote control on the black and white television set, getting up to change channels if my dad didn’t like what was on the tube. Neighborhood kids biked instead of playing with an X-box. Crime in our neighborhood was minimal. Not a single unlocked bike was ever ripped off. For school papers, I always had an ample supply of White-Out because my typing skills were dreadful. I was adept at cutting and pasting. We wrote then mailed letters and cards to our friends and families.

Before our family acquired a television set, I listened to radio broadcasts. Even as a kid, I was already a news junkie. I tuned into short-wave radio stations in Africa, wondering what life was like in such far-flung places of Nairobi, Cape Town, Algiers, and Casablanca. To expand my knowledge, I devoured geography books at the public library and looked up information about foreign nations so I knew where these places were, wondering if I’d ever get there. So far, I haven’t but there’s always hope in my twilight years. In class, we studied maps in our geography textbooks and answered questions about other people and places on exams. Now, many students are plunked behind computers for on-line education. The idea of home schooling makes me shiver. I would’ve missed horsing around the school yard with my friends. I enjoyed the walk to school, even in cold, blustery weather. Cafeteria food often turned up my nose but eating with my friends was enjoyable. The classroom discussions were invigorating, making me think about new and different ideas and social issues. Legislatures never interfered with what we learned. I don’t think they even knew or cared. I met new friends all the time. The way today’s students learn is so different from my era. A research paper is often compiled from internet sources, not all of which are reliable or accurate. Years ago, assignments were completed in the library by using thick reference books with data about geography, current events, world news, and just about everything. There were stacks of newspapers, magazines, and thick encyclopedias that we copied for maybe a nickel a page. On a Saturday afternoons (closed on Sunday) the public library was packed with young people checking out books, studying for tests, or compiling research. A library staff member helped us dig up obscure facts or figures.

Now, I’m approaching fossil status. On my next birthday I’ll be 70. I have gray hair, wrinkles, and assorted aches and pains. What senior doesn’t? My memory can be stale like three day old egg salad. In addition to memory loss from old age, I sustained a serious brain injury in 1994, the result of a pedestrian car accident that hospitalized me for two months. The driver said he didn’t see me walking two mid-sized dogs. Wonder if he even looked?

The accident prematurely ended my social work career. I missed having a job for a few reasons. Work forced me out of bed every morning whether I was ready or not. After a shower, I dressed like a good corporate servant in panty hose, pumps, and a dress. Once I ate breakfast, I rode the jam packed subway to reach the office, coping with pushy people, purse snatchers and horny old toads who goosed women. I carried a brief case to look important even though I wasn’t. At lunch, I often ate with co-workers in the company cafeteria. The lettuce on the BLTs may have been wilted and the coffee weak, but it was fun to eat with others. After work, I sometimes joined friends for a play, movie, or gallery opening. I shopped for sales because I was always financially challenged. That by the way hasn’t changed. Life hummed along until the 1994 accident. At the end of a long recovery, I found myself at home, disabled without a job and my career. Sitting at home watching television wasn’t an option so I offered my services to various agencies over the years. Volunteer work connected me to the world, a world that was often harsh to people with disabilities.

The world has taken so many twists and turns since my last day of employment in 1994. Blackberry and apple were known only as fruits. The term 5G didn’t terrify some people into torching cell phone towers; 5G could also be an apartment number or short for $5,000. A text was a hardcover school book. A virus could make you vomit or keep you in bed with chills and fever. Tablet? That was the name of the Catholic publication in New York City. An app was the beginning of the word application. How did I survive without posting selfies every day on Snapchat or TikTok? Not only did I turn out to be a reasonably intelligent person but I earned two college degrees, without the benefit of technology. If I wanted the result of 3,456 x 4,738 I did it by hand. In college, calculators were forbidden. Students took notes by hand. Some teachers closed the door at the sound of the bell. Late arriving students, even if only by five seconds, missed the entire class. Smoking was permitted in college classes. Imagine that? Cigarette smokers could light up almost everywhere back then, including hospitals, movie theaters, airplanes and restaurants. Hospital gift shops even sold cigarettes.

Today’s technology stumps me. I let go of my landline around 2010 and purchased my first cell phone. As soon as I walked into my trailer, the phone rang. Who could it be? I didn’t have time to hand out the number to anyone. Staring at the phone, I was perplexed. How do I answer it? I returned to the store along with my new phone. I explained my dilemma to the agent on duty. He asked if I was kidding. I said look at my face. I scowl covered me from the neck up. I said do I look like I’m kidding. 

Automation can be both beneficial and harmful. Robots perform jobs once held by humans such as the check-out counters now available from CVS to Wal-Mart and beyond. Automated messages and not office assistants spit out reminders so patients show up for their appointments. Factory floors once filled with workers churning out cars, carpets, and clothes. are nearly devoid of humans now. Robots perform the bulk of the work. Self-driving cars will soon ferry around passengers to places like work, the neighborhood tavern or to pick up cheese doodles. Even robotic arms assist in surgeries. I would absolutely refuse to board an airplane if the pilot is wired. The latest in artificial intelligence is the program ChatGpt. At least the new technology hasn’t yet learned how to play basketball, cut hair or fall in love. I hope AI doesn’t turn us into a world without emotions.

Shopping has become a breeze because of the internet. Whip out the lap top or the i-phone, credit card and order blouses, books or even a purebred puppy. The internet lets your fingers shop when it comes to almost anything. Amazon trucks are ever present all over the world. It seems they keep multiplying like a nest of roaches.

Several years ago, my Android phone suddenly asked for a PIN to make a call. Was this a joke? I had this phone for at least three years and never had to enter a PIN.  I couldn’t even remember the PIN. I wasn’t home where I kept a list of PIN numbers and needed to make a call. I entered what I thought was the correct PIN. Nope, not it. I stopped at a Cricket store (where I bought the phone). The guy on duty says it’s not a Cricket problem. Try the cell phone store nearby and there I headed. The baffled owner couldn’t figure out my dilemma either. He gave me some tips about an over-ride for the lost PIN. Once home, I found the PIN, or what I thought was the PIN. The number was indeed correct. Still, the lame phone wouldn’t budge. I felt like throwing it onto the busy avenue and letting a bus crush it into a million pieces. There, take that you worthless wad of wires. Angry and frustrated, I called Samsung, the phone manufacturer, from my neighbor’s landline phone. A recorded message said the wait would be an hour. Yikes. I press #1 for a call back. I returned home and ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Meantime, I managed to unlock the phone via instructions from the internet. I thanked the neighbor for her generosity and when Samsung called back two hours later I didn’t need their help after all.  I ended up ditching the Samsung phone and bought the lowest priced Apple with my 2021 stimulus check. I’ve had no problems since then. 

I cringe when hearing recorded messages from tech companies, banks, or from any business that instruct me to visit their websites at ……. I want a human being to assist me with problems especially when my ATM is rejected for no good reason or won’t accept my PIN. To reach a real person on the phone at a bank, tech company, etc. Recorded messages like “welcome to….for faster support please visit our website at ….to continue press 1 then press 2 for English irk the heck out of me. An automated voice says how may I help you today? I ask to speak to a representative. The voice says tell me in a few words why. I keep repeating speak to a representative. By now, I’ve finished my coffee and am still trying to connect with a human. I’m shocked when a real person finally answers. I pray I don’t get disconnected. I don’t have a normal brain (from the car accident), am not technically with it, and cannot handle some issues without human intervention. Our technologically advanced world bypassed people like me – older, not tech savvy and with issues understanding their systems. My dog’s veterinarian hasn’t caved into automation. A human recently called to remind me about my dog’s surgery. He’s OK, by the way.

COVID-19 vaccines became available for people in my age category in the spring of 2021. I booted up my laptop to search for available appointments. After an hour of fruitless web browsing, I developed one whopper of a headache. Every time I logged onto a vaccine site, it either crashed or said nothing was available. Another common message popping up said I had already signed up. No, I had not signed up. This was my first attempt to enroll. Screaming, yelling and threatening my computer with harm didn’t help. Instead, I called my friend Saba, a nurse, and begged her to intervene. Saba said come over right away. I’m driving my mother-in-law for her vaccine. We’ll get you an appointment. I got my first shot the next day.

A friend’s son once asked how I amused myself as a child without the internet. Courtyards connected our aging buildings and that is where we played games like whiffle ball, handball, tag, red light/green light. For extra fun, we climbed over brick walls separating the buildings. When games bored us, we rode bikes or walked around the neighborhood to look at the rats in vacant rubble strewn lots. For a treat, we feasted on egg creams and pretzels in Tony’s candy store. I never knew why it was called an egg cream. There were no eggs inside, just chocolate syrups, seltzer and milk. For laughs, we tried to cram into a phone booth. Remember the phone booth? Sometimes we sat on the front stoop and flipped baseball cards. Life was simple then without the benefit of technology.

The internet brought a seismic shift in the way we read. Books can now be downloaded and read on a device called the Kindle. So can newspapers, magazines and others periodicals. Ecologically, it saves paper and spares a tree. For money strapped readers, it’s cheaper. On the other hand, e-books helped crash the bookstore chain, Borders Books and Music and other independent bookstores. Newspapers couldn’t escape the heat either. How can they compete with the internet giants? Newsprint costs money as does delivery. Prior to the internet’s rapid spread, nearly all medium and large cities had at least two daily papers. New York City had three. Now most are down to one or even none. Even Pulitzer Prize winning papers folded. Thousands of reporters, editors, book store managers, and ordinary workers were booted out of jobs because of the internet. Even my writing career suffered as a result. Admittedly, some unemployed workers entered retraining programs and found other jobs but the internet changed the way we get our news. Sadly, the days of Walter Cronkite, Mr. Reliable, are in the past. Fact checking is rare. The internet is loaded with biased, false and misleading sources that are taken as factual by poorly informed readers who demean the work of esteemed scientists and physicians.

I hope I’m long gone before there are no more shopping malls, libraries, small businesses or bookstores. That’s what makes America great – the little things. Automation has improved society, made us better in so many ways too many to describe here. In other ways, technology made us less human, pushed us apart. I’ll always remember Saturday afternoons in New York City shopping with my friends. After an exhausting day, we’d plop down in a coffee shop and eat a hearty meal, talk and laugh. On-line shopping can never replace the human touch. My memory may be stale due to age and the lingering impact of brain trauma but I’ll always remember the sound of a human picking up the phone saying good morning, how may I help you?


A car accident ended Debra’s career due to brain trauma. She re-invented herself through volunteer work and writing. Debra wrote for magazines, literary journals, reviewed books, contributed book chapters and wrote a book for TFH Publications.

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