Second Half of Life Series Vol. 6
I know how to use the round dial on a vintage telephone, but I also have an active Snapchat account. I connect with my boomer and Gen X friends on Facebook, while keeping up with my millennial friends on Instagram.
I was born on the cusp of Gen X. I don’t consider myself a baby boomer per se, but technically I could claim either territory. I’ve read when you’re born between generations—1964 for me—you learn how to navigate both sides, and it makes you a generational mediator.
In my mid-forties, I returned to college and studied servant leadership in preparation for a new vocation—a midlife career transition, or so I thought. By the time I had completed my organizational leadership degree and moved on to completing a master’s in peace and justice studies—ready for hire—I found myself not only dodging intergenerational crossfire, but confronting a peace and justice scene where the pendulum had swung past servant leadership—think Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela—in favor of tribal leadership and identity politics.
Facing a job market that was not as excited about my midlife career change as I was, I felt lost and unwanted. Besides age discrimination I encountered this excuse: You don’t have field experience. As if handing out water and medical attention in another country was tantamount to my experiences raising a family and running a small business. I found myself jobless and bitter—so I wallowed. And I blamed. I blamed those damn millennials. Not because they held me at arms length in the job market, but because their bosses held me at arms length for not being a millennial. And let’s be honest: not a person of color or LGBTQ+, which checks an important box for many non-profits. The irony of which is not lost on me, nor the racist sins of past and current generations. But understanding didn’t make me less bitter.
And then, my comeuppance.
After living in San Diego, California, for nine months I made a visit to my native state of Minnesota. My parents loaned me a car to drive. I won’t say jalopy, but definitely nearing 20 years of age and not driven in a while. On my way to a meeting, the car stalled on a freeway ramp. I called my husband. Then I tried to restart the car using his instructions. The car wouldn’t start. I called AAA roadside assistance. I waited for a tow and in the meantime, I tried not to look like a lady in distress.
The car had managed to make it halfway up the cloverleaf ramp before dying. I stood in the grassy boulevard at a distance to accommodate the possibility someone should crash directly into my car. I avoided eye contact with the concerned Minnesotans passing by; drilling me with their eyes in search of the faintest indication they should pull over to help. That’s just how people are in Minnesota. Long, icy cold winters cause extra concern when a motorist is stalled on the side of the road.
I held my AAA card open and visible in my left hand and cell phone in my right so people could see: I’m good. I don’t need help. I looked at the ground while I paced back and forth in the tall, springtime grass. Lilac bushes were in full bloom along the fence separating backyards from the freeway property. Their flowery odor failed to reach me due to the blanket of breezeless humidity settling in as midmorning approached. Nevertheless, and despite my attempts to appear cool and confident, a SUV (sports utility vehicle) halted traffic to pull up in front of my car just as I was halfway into my call with the AAA operator.
I knew I needed to approach the SUV to let them know I was fine; things were under control and a tow was on the way. I knew this would involve interrupting the woman on the other end of the line just long enough to shoo away the do-gooder in the SUV. I approached the passenger window and waited for it to roll down.
A woman leaned in toward her steering wheel to see me through the open window. She reminded me of the grown-up version of a girl I hadn’t seen in 17 years. A girl my daughter had partnered with in competition cheerleading. They both ‘based’ for the ‘flyers’ because they were tall and muscular, standing nearly six feet when they wore heels. I almost wanted to say, “Tristan?”
“Are you okay? Do you need a ride?” She asked. Her coppery eye shadow sparkled.
“I’m fine. I’m on the phone with AAA right now. They’re sending a tow truck. I didn’t run out of gas,” I said this defensively, not wanting people to think me irresponsible. “It’s probably the fuel line or something,” I offered as an uneducated guess.
She nodded and said, “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.” Emphasis on the okay.
“I’m fine. Thank-you so much for stopping to check.” Emphasis on the so much.
We looked into each other’s eyes in a nanosecond of acknowledgment. We both knew why she stopped. We both knew what “okay” meant. We were sisters in solidarity in that moment. She hadn’t hesitated for a moment to pull over, despite my charade. She needed to make sure a fellow woman was safe. She was black, and a millennial.
Even though the AAA operator had heard the entire conversation, I said, “Sorry, that was just a motorist checking on me.”
“That’s unusual. No one would ever stop for you in New York.” Just then a large dump truck veered around my car carving deep ruts into the clay-like dirt outside the boundary of the asphalt. A semi-truck followed suit. I felt a pang of guilt watching my mishap create roadway damage.
“I know.” I didn’t say what was on the tip of my tongue. It seemed too languorous to explain about Minnesotans and the better angels of their nature when it comes to roadside stranded-ness—saints, all—also, I wanted her to continue getting help for me. In truth, I was too overwhelmed by the encounter with “the motorist” to have words for the AAA operator.
When we hung up I thought about the beautiful woman who had stopped. I thought about our soul-felt exchange and how she conveyed her serious concern for my wellbeing. I could barely keep tears from welling in my eyes as I returned to pacing back and forth beside my car. The midmorning heat was ramping up. I was thankful I had a long sleeve cotton shirt to block the sun, but based on the tingling sensation on my scalp, I began to wish for a hat.
If I cried, the concerned passersby would receive the wrong message. They’d think I was, in fact, a lady in distress. I had to put on a brave face—a face that said, “I got this. Just keep moving on.”
I had a thousand things on my mind in that moment, but I sensed that somehow standing in the tall grass, halfway up a cloverleaf ramp—I’d been recalibrated. The tears still wanted to come. I squelched them again, blinking hard as I watched the line-up of cars enter the circular ramp, mentally noting: No tow truck yet. Continue to avoid eye contact with motorists. Don’t cry.
Even if there was a tribal and often warlike approach to peace and social justice waging in society, I remembered why I was called to the field—despite my feeble minded age of 54 years, and damned, white-privileged skin, threatening to burn in the morning sun along with my complete and utter lack of “qualifying” field experience.
When the tow truck arrived, the driver deftly lined up in front of my car. Then he fearlessly sprang from the cab as traffic veered around him, walking toward me with a smile from ear to ear. “Hello, sunshine! What happened?” Turns out, I later learned he was 35 years old and from Vera Cruz, Mexico.
I explained to Raymundo what had happened. He said, “Well, let’s get this thing out of here. Are you riding with me?”
“Yes. I need a ride.” I hopped into the cab of his truck while he finished the hook-up. I admired the cleanliness and faint new-car odor of the black leather interior, while enjoying the climate change of air-conditioning on instant tap coming through the vents. When Raymundo joined me I gave him the address to the shop where I wanted the car dropped. We proceeded to talk nonstop during the 20-mile commute. Diving right into the deep end, he told me how his two previous ‘white’ wives had burned him. He had a baby with the first one in high school. The second wife weighed over 300 pounds until she received gastric bypass surgery, after which, she informed him she didn’t love him—had never loved him—and then proceeded to cheat him out of a large sum of money.
These are the kinds of conversations I tend to have with men like Raymundo—working class men, down to earth and with no chances of making the cover of People magazine for sexiest man of the year. In other words, the male version of myself—those of us who grew up with no chance of being chosen to skate during the Snowball Skate, where boys chose from a lineup of hopeful girls standing against the far wall at Skateville.
Raymundo said he wasn’t going to “do white” anymore, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if this millennial might have been willing to date me, a 54-year-old lacking field experience—if I’d thrown him the keys to that door.
When we arrived at Jose Alvarez’s shop, the two of them exchanged rapid Spanish as if they telepathically knew that was an option. “…este lado y este lado…,” regarding where to leave the car.
I talked to Raymundo for another ten minutes standing outside his cab window. We talked about his work at the Amazon fulfillment center as a robotics technician. He’d been in charge of rebooting the diamond shaped digital readers in the floor, something I hesitate to describe further since I’ve never laid eyes on the interior of an Amazon fulfillment center. Like most stories you hear about these centers, he left after only seven months because of the way they overwork employees. He told me he currently made $30.00 an hour in his job for the towing company.
“That’s great,” I offered in my proud mom voice.
“Yeah. It’s good,” he said looking pensive.
“Benefits?” I asked.
“No. No benefits,” he responded.
Again, I was standing in the sun feeling it beat on my head. I had nothing better to do since my ride had not arrived, but I also wanted to escape the heat. Raymundo, ever the optimist, summarized our conversation with a series of affirmations about why he was pleased with his current station in life. Finally, it was mutually agreed upon that we needed to let each other get on with the day. Nevertheless, it was hard to part ways after our post-cloverleaf ramp, roadside assistance bonding. We both knew we’d never cross paths again. There it was again—that soulful acknowledgement. We didn’t quite want to release our moment in time—our connection—the ties that bind two people who have lived very different lives and yet, share a common thread of surviving the human experience.
He pulled the tow truck forward to exit from the parking lot. I headed into the mechanic shop to speak with Jose about the plan for my car. Jose, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, owned the business. Why do I know this? Because I’m the kind of person Jose would trust with this information.
It’s hard to move beyond the wallowing and blaming associated with my job-finding troubles, but Raymundo reminded me of my knack for creating cross-cultural ease. Jose reminded me of how much I love the resilience and determination of the human spirit. And the woman in the SUV, who reminded me of Tristan, demonstrated how we all need to watch each other’s backs, across generations, across racial differences and for women—across our shared gender.
I thought the car needed a new fuel pump, but I was wrong. It needed a camshaft-timing sensor—whatever the hell that is. Fortunately, I don’t have to have all the answers because people like Jose are the experts—working class people who would not have been picked off the wall at Skateville, or put on the cover of People magazine.
I’m not going to give up on finding work in my field of choice. I recently attended the graduation of my millennial daughter. She achieved a MBA (master’s in business administration) degree from the University of Washington. The keynote speaker was a medical doctor who returned to school to complete his MBA in order to prepare for the larger role of leading a healthcare organization. He described the process of stepping back from patient care and returning to school as a principle of slowing down before speeding up. He said we learn important lessons during those slow-down times.
We all seem to have times when life slows down. Sometimes this happens by choice, but other times it just happens. Maybe an injury occurs or an unexpected transition. It can leave us feeling left out—left out of what we thought we should be doing. However, if we could see the big picture and accept the roadside breakdown as a teaching moment, we might be better served. For me, I’m ready to press down on the accelerator and hold on tight for the ride.
Yours on the journey,
Thanks for reading!