Fred Fox, oldest member of the Holmby Park Lawn Bowling Club, is waiting for the game to begin. He is killing time. There is nowhere he needs to be, no one he needs to meet. In a few short weeks, he will be 100 years old.
What is the best thing about being 100? “That's a nasty question!” Fox opines. “You should say, 'What are the problems of being 100?'?”
Sitting on a bench here in tony Holmby Park, in his bowling whites and big straw hat, he details the vexations: He requires pills for digestion. His legs are numb. His feet tingle. His mind moves quickly but his body won't keep pace — too damn slow.
He was a masterful French horn player once, before his upper teeth all fell out. He pops out his dentures now and waggles them with a toothless grin.
Fox was born and raised in Brooklyn, a poor dressmaker's son. His father saw music as their way out of poverty: He wanted young Fred to play the violin. Fox had other ideas. He'd gone to a party where he saw a live band for the first time and fell in love with the trombone. “That slide!” he recalls now. “Oh boy! That really got me.”
His folks were opposed. The trombone was “a cheap instrument.” It was his violin teacher who suggested a compromise: “Teach Freddy the French horn. Because even if he plays it as badly as he plays the fiddle, he'll make a living at it, because there aren't very many of them.”
“And he was right,” Fox says now.
By every measure of success, he made it. At 18, he played solo French horn for the Minneapolis Symphony. At 21, he moved to California and joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Later, he taught. Much later, he wrote a book that is considered the bible of brass technique. Thirty years later, royalty checks from Essentials of Brass Playing are still rolling in.
Music got him a girl, too, a pretty trumpet player named Frida. He saw her while playing in his high school orchestra. At a concert, he wailed on his horn solo. She took notice. Eventually, he married her. “Point being, it was the French horn that did it.”
He got rich, the hard, laborious, methodical way. He bought income property and managed it himself, painting walls, cleaning toilets, repairing sewer lines.
He traveled the world — camping for a year through Europe with his wife in the 1950s, trekking South America, teaching in Finland.
He raised a son. Is he a musician, too?
“No, thank God.”
Why thank God?
“To make a good living at it, he'd have to be in the top 10 percent of them. You know, better than everyone else. To make a good living as a dentist or doctor, 50 percent will do you very well.” The “musician thing,” Fox says, ought to be done only by those who must. “Otherwise don't do it. That's why.”
His son went into investment and became a multimillionaire instead.
How wonderful to be 100 years old and still active, people gush, blood pressure normal, no major illnesses. How wonderful that he still does his own driving and grocery shopping, even if it is premade roasted chickens, mostly, these days. He can't cook worth crap.
When people inquire how he stayed alive so long, he tells them not to let the terrible stuff linger in your head. From there, it migrates down to your body.
“The body is my dumb servant,” he says. “Keep it relaxed. Be nice to it. Keep it feeling good.”
He tells them about the moat and the castle. The castle is your mind. Build a moat around it. “Outside, it's bad. But inside, living is great. Anytime I have a thought that's a nasty one, instead of chewing on it, I mentally spit it out.”
If only he could spit out the aging process. His sleep is “atrocious,” what with urinating every two hours. Being 100, he says, “isn't too pleasant.”
His complaints are universal as well as particular. There are the grandchildren, for instance — joy and bane of old folks since time immemorial. He's got “about seven or eight” of them, plus a passel of great-grandchildren. “So what? I never see them. They never talk to me. They're so busy with their computers. They don't stop by and say, 'Grandpa, how was it back when…'?”
But he plans to solve that problem, too. Next time, he'll point to a grandkid and say, “You. Twenty minutes. With me.”
He doesn't regret much. Every decision he made, he plotted carefully. “If I made a mistake, it was done with total knowledge, and I can live with that.”
He doesn't regret even the ugliness with his father. Fox was a dutiful son who sent home $35 for every $75 he earned. Yet his dad was “a sourpuss.” He remembers inviting his father to one of his concerts. Pop sent a letter in reply: “I do not remember a single good thing that ever happened between us,” his father wrote.
“From that moment on, I didn't care if he lived or died,” Fox says. “It wasn't anger. I was through.”
No regrets. Well, maybe just one: the affairs he could have had with the wives of friends. “There were many moments when these wives were willing, shall we say. And I didn't. To this day, I ask, should I? I still don't know.”
Those friends are dead and gone. He has outlived each one. Even his wife is gone. She died of cancer 12 years ago. “What's so good about being old?” he asks again with a scowl.
Wisdom? “Sure, I've got wisdom. But I don't actually use it.”
You get to keep living? “Yes, that's true,” he concedes, then reconsiders. “You know what they say about those creatures who live forever? The bloodsuckers?” He makes a gleeful stabbing motion at his neck. “Many of them would love to die. Think about that.”
Asked what his favorite age was, he quips, “Anything but now.”
Now is hours of computer solitaire. Now is alternate mornings at the senior center and afternoons spent “just loafing.” Now is “another boring day in paradise.”
In the evenings, he rattles around alone in his house in Sherman Oaks. It's a big place — four stories, with an elevator. But he spends most of his time in a lounge chair conveniently situated to the bathroom and the TV.
He doesn't presume to know what happens after we die. We are like an ant crawling on a sink, he believes. A human notices the ant, but the ant goes about his business. “To that ant, you're so large as to be incomprehensible and invisible, right?” Whatever is out there, compared to us human beings, he says, “same ratio.”
Still, every now and then at night, he murmurs a prayer of sorts: “If anyone is listening, thank you for another nice day.”
In a minute, a friend ambles over and congratulates him on the upcoming centennial. Fox has a big party to look forward to. A ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel, hundreds of guests, three French horns, a former student flown in from Australia — his son spared no expense.
“How are you?” the friend asks.
“Well,” Fox says, “I'm here. And it's a nice day.”
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