They were responsive and quick, and I had a lot to do with them when I attended Wayne State University, just a block away. But the only thing I remember about library pages is that one of them called me Sir. I couldn't have been more than twenty years old, but I felt three or four times my age. It was one of those insignificant moments that stand out in life because they awaken a strange mix of bewilderment and awareness. It was the earliest intimation of daybreak at the dawning of my sense of mortality.
I ride a crowded bus every morning and evening during Ottawa's rush hours. I wouldn't be surprised if all the people who see me on the bus -- civil servants on their way to what passes for work, high school and university students going to school -- didn't think of me as Sir nowadays. I occasionally see a glimmer of pity in one of them, offering me a seat or pointing to one I might not have seen. At work, people are solicitous as they defer to me, holding back at the elevator until I get on or off, or offering to wait for the photocopier until I am finished.
It bugs the hell out of me. As tired as I sometimes am on the bus, I do not want anybody to stand up for me. I am lucky enough to be able to work, and I want to play the game straight, not fall into the old man's game.
On the other hand, when the bus is so packed that I don't have to hang onto a pole because the bodies around me give enough support to keep me upright even when the bus brakes, I sometimes do pull out the old man card.
I recently stepped on a few toes and energetically nudged some arms as I edged toward open space at the back of the bus, passing people too self-absorbed to notice that they were creating a logjam up front. Two words kept stubbornly passing through my head as I moved, and they were not "excuse me."
At some time in the past, my vacuous gaze and my determined shoving might have suggested no more than rudeness or pushiness. But now they are further signs of an old guy who doesn't give a damn.
There's a freedom in recognizing that my demeanor alone makes it unlikely that people will think badly of me when I step on their toes. But there's also a responsibility not to step on too many toes intentionally. If I do, people who see me coming will think I am just an old grouch.
Maybe that's what bluntness makes older people seem like. But that's an error of judgment people make because they can't see past the crust.