The World According to AARP

Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

THEY USED THE HANDRAIL COMING INTO THE L.A. Film School's theater -- Ed Asner and some of the other old folks who'd arrived here to talk up SB 953, state Senator John Vasconcellos' (D - Silicon Valley) bill that would educate the public -- especially the young public -- about elder care and ageism. Last week's news conference had featured speakers from the American Association of Retired People, the California Commission on Aging and USC's Gerontology Department, but the Nikons didn't come out until Hollywood actors like Asner (Lou Grant), 72, Kent McCord (Adam 12), 59, and Peter Mark Richman (Dynasty), 75, took turns at the podium to denounce what Asner called the entertainment industry's "ever-degrading accent on youth."

The next hour heard diversity-couched demands to include more films and TV shows about the elderly, along with calls to stop equating the word old with tired, grumpy and used up. A quarter-century ago, when Vasconcellos was a denim-shirted, fire-breathing liberal, Silicon Valley didn't exist as a name, and if anyone used the term "ageism," it was probably in a very long and lofty sentence criticizing many other "isms." Today the 70-year-old senator and his colleagues looked, well, a little tired and grumpy. Indeed, there was a sense of time running out for both the people onstage and the kind of progressive California politics many of them embodied, a eucalyptus-scented idealism born of the GI Bill­optimism and affluence that swept the state following WWII. Theirs was the Pat Brown/CDC belief in the basic good nature of people, a nature that could be cultivated through education spending, water projects and well-planned suburbs.

But the people onstage, all of whom were white and mostly male, and who had for so long fought the good fight for other people and sympathized with their problems at comfortable distances -- all these people had now discovered that metaphorically they had become black, had become women, had become handicapped simply because they had grown old. As consumers they are ignored; as actors their roles have virtually vanished; and, survivors of the Depression and world war, they find themselves screamed at by complaining 18-year-old singers whenever they turn on a radio.

Sitting there at the film school last week, I remembered a long-ago Berkeley gathering of Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans and how unfair it had seemed that time had made old men of such blacklisted warriors as Milton Wolfe and Abe Osheroff. Last week, of course, I was looking at the aging of a much later generation, which only reinforced the point behind Vasconcellos' bill; as McCord told the press conference, "Everybody is going to get old. The only way you won't experience ageism is to die before 40."

Ironically, the big factor in SB 953's favor is also its biggest obstacle. On one hand, the American psyche has been saturated with Twilight Zone­like fables cautioning of terrible things befalling selfish people who ignore the helpless. On the other hand, our visceral fear of aging and death leads us to banish the elderly from our thoughts and to deny the inevitabilities of time by spending millions on anti-aging cosmetic surgery and age-reversal medical research.

The plain fact is that aging is the new leprosy -- and people do not want to be reminded that they are advancing toward it every day. And it isn't just a physical revulsion that shapes our attitudes -- there is also a suspicion that some old people in rarefied places like Hollywood just don't want to move over for a younger generation. "I refuse to believe my career is over," Peter Mark Richman told the conference, but how many other 75-year-olds in America hold a job? No doubt this is why Vasconcellos counseled his listeners that they had to fight an image of themselves being "greedy geezers" who wanted to hold on to everything. In the end, his strategy will have to be a careful balancing act between appealing to baby boomers' sense of guilt as well as their penchant for looking far over the horizon to protect their own comforts.

A few TV and radio stations had shown up to cover the conference, but the event and its message got incinerated from most of the day's news programs by the story of two teenage girls who'd been kidnapped in Quartz Hill, raped and rescued in Kern County, and would later be the subject of hours of attention from Geraldo Rivera and others. Nothing could challenge the wall-to-wall teen-abduction coverage, not even that day's news about the murder trial of Robert Blake, who, after all, was just another old actor.

No Nudes Is Bad News

FIRST ALAN WOODS' WILD WEST PAINTINGS of naked damsels disappeared from Long Beach when Twin Wheels restaurant closed a few years back. Then, six months ago, the nude ladies who had for 40 years adorned the walls of Clearman's North Woods Inn in San Gabriel vanished, replaced by fake Renoirs and other Impressionist reproductions. Clearman's' disrobed frontier maidens, along with the come-hither mannequins that looked out on its parking lot from the restaurant's upstairs windows, gave the place its unforgettable Klondike bordello look. Was the change a sign of the times -- suburban puritanism poking its blue nose into steak houses? political correctness run amok? Neither, says owner Gerard Galipeau. "We found out that most of these paintings were done by some well-known artists 50 or 60 years ago and were worth a bit of money. So we sold them at auctions in New York. And, sure, some people did complain about the nudes -- we're a family restaurant, after all. But what it got down to, really, was that the paintings were being destroyed by diners and years of cleaning." Unfortunately, the lusty window mannequins have joined the vanishing act and also gone the way of all steak-house flesh.


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