Aging is another of those things that no one can teach you about… you have to learn it firsthand, from your own experience.
What I can tell you, though, is this: it’s a multi-layered experience.
I suppose it’s easy to focus on the deterioration of the physical aspects, because it’s apparent to anyone paying attention. We bear witness to it all our lives: first our grandparents, then our parents, then our elders, and later – in our friends and in the mirror.
The less-discussed aspect of aging that no one ever bothered to tell me about is coming into much sharper focus these past couple of years…the process of watching bits and pieces of the world you’ve known all your life fall away into the ether.
Similar, maybe, to a polar bear wandering a giant glacier that continually chips off into the sea over the years until he’s left standing on a small patch of ice, surrounded by water… the change is gradual until you notice the water creeping toward you, and once you see it – it demands your attention until it’s impossible to ignore.
I’ve been on the road in fits and starts for most of the past three weeks, and after playing my last show of the month, I decided to pick up some goodies to take back to Nashville with me for the family… Dylan’s favorite ring bologna, Jayda’s favorite chicken pot pie, and a paper sack full of french fries from V&S sandwich shop. Unlike most french fries, the toaster oven loves them – and so does Wendy.
My daughter had told me about the closing of Queen City Diner, and I had no reason to doubt her – but I was still holding out an inkling of hope that I’d turn underneath the overpass onto Lancaster Avenue and find cars parked in the parking lot, just as they had been for as long as I could remember. I’d been going there since the sign went up, and probably ate a thousand meals there (and that’s a conservative estimate). I remember walking down the hill from where we lived on Belvedere Avenue with Jill and the kids in the aftermath of a snowstorm to eat during the holidays years ago – I remember taking a handful of the Marshall Tucker crew there in the middle of the night after the band played the Reading Air Show (this was right after my 48th birthday…there was cake and Crown Royal and Fireball and vomiting and photos on my cell phone that I don’t remember and waking up in my car in the parking garage of the Abe Lincoln Hotel and not remembering how I got back there) – and more late night stops after gigs than I could possibly count. In particular, stopping in with my buddy Mitch Deighan (who I’ve always affectionately referred to as “America’s Last Living Legitimate Hippie”) after Stone Road shows for soup and a plate of “chicken supreme” – grilled chicken with onions, peppers, rice and a light gravy. And yeah, I could probably make that myself, but – that’s not the point.
Queen City sponsored my kids’ T-ball team the year I coached for the league…the folks who worked there knew us when we came in (especially the night crew), and Wendy loved the way Sayed made home fries…not sure if she’ll get over this one.
Queen City is one of a handful of places in that area that had transcended the passage of time since we’d left – first to Philadelphia and then to Nashville – always very near exactly the same as they were when I last left them. V&S sandwich shop, Screpesci’s sandwich shop, Boehringer’s ice cream (SINCE 1949) and several others…I know that COVID has changed everything, and I know that nothing stays the same, and yeah, I see the kids and grandkids of the owners behind the counter at Screpesci’s now when I stop there, but I thought QC was as well positioned as anyone might’ve been to ride this thing out.
There was an invented scandal in the aftermath of 9/11 when a rumor started that federal agents had swept in and arrested a handful of people working in the kitchen – unfounded, stupid shit that hillbillies tell each other to stir up old pots of resentment. I actually had to refute this from a friend who insisted that he heard it from someone who was a restaurant supplies guy who heard it from…I finally said, “Dude…don’t you think that if something like this happened, that it’d be in four inch high letters on the front of the Reading Eagle? Don’t you think Jim Gardner [news anchorman in Philadelphia] would’ve been talking about this every night for the past week? You really think that the only people with the scoop are the guys who drop off paper napkins and plastic straws?”
Still, it gained enough traction that a handful of business owners took out a full page ad on the back of the A section of the local newspaper with bold black print:
UNITED WE STAND – WITH STEVE ELMARZOUKI
Then, it seemed unbelievable that something like that would be necessary…now – well, of course it was.
I have no idea what effect COVID might’ve had on the place, or whether perhaps the family just decided to move on to other, greener pastures…maybe business fell off enough that they didn’t want to keep it going. If they were in Nashville, my first assumption would be that the building was bought by developers for an unnecessary, mixed use eyesore…I mean, in the time since I was there last, a WAWA sprang up across from Screpesci’s that takes up almost the entire block, so maybe it’s not out of the question.
A hasty Google search says that they sold the building, but they’ll continue to operate another restaurant the family owns a few towns away – apparently, the location will become a medical marijuana dispensary. No formal announcement was made as to why they pulled the plug.
But whatever the cause, another chromosome of my DNA has fallen away.
This is the thing they don’t tell you about aging.
Features may soften, joints may stiffen, hair may lose its color and fall away (or worse, start growing from awkward places that require constant attention) – and we’re conditioned to expect these things as we get older.
For me, the physical aspects of aging have been largely manageable – but watching the world as I’ve known it all my life fall away has been a hell of a lot more unsettling than the occasional ache and pain here and there.
Ironically, the only place I ever had a conversation that contained any wisdom or insight about this subject was at the counter of this very restaurant… With a gentleman named Frank McCracken, who I knew from his frequent visits to Fred’s music store, where I used to work part time (also permanently closed).
It still bothers me that I can’t remember whose passing we were discussing, but Frank was very resolute in his thoughts about death at that point in time… He talked about how we come into this world as children, surrounded by people older than we are – and how over time, the seedlings eventually become the oldest trees in the forest.
A lot of folks have a hard time discussing death without interjecting spirituality and the prospect of an afterlife into the conversation, but Frank didn’t even go there – and the part of the conversation that’s haunted me the most to this day was his assertion that once you reached “elder tree“ status, nothing around you was the same as you remembered as a kid…and that by then, you don’t really recognize the world anymore and that the prospect of death was less scary than living in an unrecognizable world.
It was unsettling – both in terms of the subject matter and the fact that I was considering these things for the first time, and in the sense that it sounded like Frank was speaking from his own experience and that he was preparing to say goodbye himself…but Frank is still alive and kicking and leading the Frank McCracken Trio back in Reading, despite his observations that night – so there must still be enough of a resemblance to the world he’s known to keep him tethered for a little longer.
I catch myself wondering, now and then, how much of the loss I’ve experienced over the past two years would have landed in the same way if COVID hadn’t been a factor – I haven’t come to any solid conclusions there yet. Rusty and Paul’s passings weren’t COVID related, but my ability to play shows with the band and interact with them in these past 20 months certainly is. My ability to travel in the fashion I’ve been accustomed to – shows I haven’t played, people I haven’t seen – feels a little like thievery some days.
And yet – I have to accept the gist of what Frank and I talked about that night at the counter at Queen City…that the world doesn’t stand still for anyone, and we have to make our peace with that as best as we can, and that one day we’ll be gone as well – and that when that time comes, it won’t be as scary because we likely won’t feel as tethered to this world in those days as we once did.
Which makes me wonder whether I’m mourning the loss of these landmarks of my youth as much as perhaps the hastening of the hour at which I’m going to have to come to terms with the approach of this particular milestone.
Feels like the same thing, really.