On a cloudy and cool Saturday morning several weeks ago, I met with my friend Jane for breakfast and a stroll through the farmer's market. At the end of a pleasant morning, I went to fetch my bike, locked about a block away, intending to catch up with her as she was finishing her shopping.
I was walking the bicycle through the crowd when a much older gentleman, after a double-take, said, “Nice setup with the rack and baskets!”
We discussed the carrying capacity, and then he asked, “Do you mind if I make a suggestion?”
“I don’t mind, no.”
“You might want to wear something reflective on your back.”
I reassured him that I go full out with the reflective gear. Family motto: better dorky than dead. I showed him the Christmas lights attached to the rear baskets. And we agreed that many cyclists on the road aren’t visible, and that in this cloudy climate it’s especially difficult to see riders.
Then he told me about his cross-country bike trips “back in the day,” that he was a member of the local cycling club, and then he casually mentioned improvements in bicycles, generally, looking at mine, which still has some “old school” features. I suspect he was about eighty and that he’d been cycling since at least the 1960s.
When I mentioned this exchange to Jane, she said, “You’re much more patient with the mansplaining than I am.” I hadn’t really described the conversation very well, I guess, because it didn’t feel like mansplaining.
It felt like an old guy wanting to be useful, helpful. You know: visible.
A few years ago I read a terrific essay by Roger Angell, stepson of E.B. White, who, you’ll recall, wrote Charlotte’s Web. Angell is in his 90s now, and his essay is so lovely that I recommend reading it all. In one bit he he talks about invisibility:
We elders—what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?—we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends—old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties—and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA—a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two of response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours.
For women, I think fifty is even a stretch, that we start to fade into the background sometime in our forties.
Of course, it’s possible that the farmer’s market guy was, indeed, mansplaining—he might be both experiencing the invisibility of age and an entitled ass. But it was too crowded and noisy to chat. If I hadn’t been so anxious about finding Jane (and anxious about the damn dogs—why so many dogs at the market?), I would have enjoyed hearing more.
I heard enough of his history to guess that he had been what I call a fancypants cyclist. I don’t tour, and, gods help me, I don’t do lycra. I ride to get around, and I am able to live without a car because everything I need is in close proximity to my home. That farmer’s market is about a mile and a half from my house, and I live exactly one mile from my work.
About half a mile the other direction from my place, there’s a little strip mall with a Goodwill and Harbor Freight, right next to each other. Last May I biked on over for some shopping. In addition to garden equipment, I also bought a floor-length black gown for an upcoming choir performance—$1.99! I was just getting organized to leave the store when a fella came screaming up on a bike.
“LOOKS LIKE YOU GOT ‘ER STRAPPED DOWN GOOD THERE, SISTER!”
“Thanks! Nothin’ like a new set of bungee cables to make a girl happy.”
“HELL. THEY EVEN MAKE AN OLD PIRATE LIKE ME HAPPY!”
I’m embarrassed to say that I’d mistaken this gentleman, obviously a pirate, for a homeless person. We had a laughing conversation, and then I went on my way. The rest of that day I kept wanting to call everyone SISTER!
This pirate was weather worn and tattooed, and his bike was a junker. I was not apprehensive or afraid of him, but something about that exchange loosed a memory from the old data bank. When I was a child, in the 70s, the fam was shopping for school clothes in the big city, New Haven. We were stopped at a traffic light, and my mother was at the wheel, staring straight ahead. Her jaw was clenched and her voice unnatural, panicked: “Roll up the windows. Don’t look, kids. Don’t look.” I looked: one man lying in the actual gutter, another on the sidewalk, another panhandling. It was my first glimpse of abject poverty.
Poverty, homelessness, age, skin color, gender—so many ways to be made invisible, to be disenfranchised. And in the last few weeks we have seen how dangerous and cruel the systems that support inequality and disenfranchisement actually are.
Of course you don’t have to ditch your car to meet people outside your little circle, but since giving up car ownership, curiously, my world has gotten bigger, not smaller.