This week I went to West Chester, Pennsylvania, to interview Eddie Lewis, aka the Bald-Headed Buzzard. Bald he is, and extremely fond of the nickname he gave himself early in his career as a milkman; his first rounds were in his father’s horse-drawn wagon. (After retiring, he went to work for the local funeral home; 31 years later he continues to man the door for every memorial. He’s also a raffle salesman extraordinare, so he’s fed, pitched, or buried pretty much everyone in the county.)
I ask everyone what aspects of their jobs suit them and which they dislike. Eddie liked meeting people, and was proud of doing his job well. Dislikes? None. Hardships? Zip. Until, finally, I ask him about getting up early for the milk route. “Oh yes,” he replied, “that was hard. I had to get up at 2:30 every morning. I never did like it.” Until then I’d been feeling pretty heroic for getting up at 5:15 to catch a series of commuter trains. This man got up at 2:30 AM for 43 years and barely thought to mention it!
Is Eddie astonishingly stoic? Is stoicism a bygone trait? Is it more common among those who grew up accustomed to the deprivations of the Depression ? I couldn’t imagine anyone of my pampered class or generation (let alone our offspring) enduring this kind of hardship without bitching about it pretty much nonstop. Yet the litany of aches and sorrows that accompany old age make for lousy listening. Can we break the pattern? To what degree will activity itself — having more on the calendar than doctors’ appointments — reduce or distract us from that litany?