Enter the Pantaloon
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By Marc Porter Zasada
Again this afternoon I sit in a busy Westside restaurant and shamelessly eavesdrop on a conversation at the next table. There, a group of snappy young business people listens attentively to a man in his mid-seventies. He's white-haired and jowly, with a generous belly, and he speaks expansively, even endlessly about some minor point of accounting. The others apparently work for this man's medical corporation, and although they surely grow weary of his rambling conversation, they dare not interrupt. No, they laugh at his little jokes, and wait brightly for him to get around to ordering lunch.
Me, I find something charming, even nostalgic in this scene. After all, once upon a time, eager young bucks were often forced to endure the tedious whims of powerful old men and women. Nowadays, such moments seem limited to doctors, celebrities, politicians, and tightly-held corporations. Otherwise, we generally assume that a person in his mid-seventies will stop wasting our time and head out for the golf course.
We say, "Go to sleep old man, take up watercolors or work on your slice. At least, stop bothering us."
A couple years ago I went to a production of The Miser, a 17th century farce by Molière. In this play, an old man stubbornly holds onto his money and his power, refusing to make a graceful exit.
They used to call such men 'pantaloons,' which meant an old fool showing thin legs in short baggy pants. In The Miser, a pantaloon in a fright wig and garish makeup plots against the young, flirts recklessly, and shouts inappropriately. Naturally, in the last act, the young trick him out of both his money and his power.
Even the seniors in the audience laughed loudly.
But it occurred to me that plays like The Miser only exist because, once upon a time, the old did not retire to golf courses. They had no social security and no pensions, so they ruled their families from upstairs bedrooms and held onto power because they needed it to compete with the young and the nimble.
Surely, that system was less efficient than ours, surely it led to much misery among ambitious youth, and over the last three or four hundred years, people like Moli-re worked hard to end it. Real estate developers urged the elderly to move out. Movies promoted a harmless old age. And yes, over time, the young and nimble did get the upper hand.
Now me, I've never learned to play golf or paint watercolors, and like many in the baby boom generation, I've become rather suspicious of "retirement." I mean, even if I could afford it, what would I do? In fact, today at the restaurant, as I watch this anacronistic old lion cheerfully dominate his little group of fawning executives, I find myself strangely... inspired.
You know, in 25 years, we boomers will still be the largest generation in the city. Pretty soon, you'll look down the Third Street Promenade and observe a bobbing sea of gray hair.
The experts wring their hands and wonder how society will pay to ship the whole crowd of us off to the 14th hole. But guess what: if we can't afford to retire in style, more and more of us may choose not to leave the stage after the second act. More and more of us may stay right here and risk playing the pantaloon, fright wig and all. If so, the young and nimble may again be forced to listen to rambling conversations and laugh at our little jokes.
As for the Urban Man, at lunch today he raises his coffee cup in a silent toast to history, which has a habit of repeating itself.
Copyright © 2005. All Rights Reserved. Portions of this essay were taken from a longer version which previously appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine.
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