The sobbing came from the next booth. Glancing over, I saw an attractive couple, tears streaming down their cheeks and dripping on their veggie lunch plates. And I spotted the source of their grief.
On the table was the latest copy of Newsweek, with a cover story revealing the shocking news that countless baby boomers have reached or are now approaching middle age. This issue of the magazine has traumatized many of those born in the 15 years after World War II.
"It's so cruel and unfair," the woman gasped.
"Yes," said the man, "I don't know if I can cope."
Then they saw me staring and the woman shrieked: "Look, it is old person, an ancient."
The man indignantly said: "Hey, you have frightened my companion. The least you can do is cover your face."
Draping a napkin over my head, I apologized for intruding and asked if I could be of any assistance in their time of sorrow.
"No," he said, "there is nothing you can do or anyone else. As incredible as it may sound, I am going to turn 40 in a couple of days. And she will do the same next month."
That admission brought on another fit of sobbing. When it subsided, she sighed and said: "And just when we're getting through that, we pick up this magazine and discover that some day we'll have to become 50. It says so right on the cover. How much bad news is a person expected to endure?"
But we all go through it. I once turned 40.
They stared suspiciously. "I don't believe that," she finally said.
It's true. Did you think that the rest of us were always middle-age or elderly?
"As a matter of fact, yes," she said. "Weren't you born that way? I mean, as far back as I can remember, people like you have looked old. Are you trying to say you were once young?"
Sure. Did you think yours were the first generations to experience aging?
He nodded. "We thought this was some sort of new disease that was infecting only baby boomers. I was going to write my congressman and demand to know why the government isn't spending more money to find a cure. But you say it actually happened to you once? Turning 40?"
Absolutely. Happened about a year after I turned 39, as I recall. Back in 19-something or other. Way back before the CD, the PC and even the VCR. But it was after the LP, FM and TV.
Leaning forward, he said: "Tell me, what was it like? How did it feel? How did you cope?"
"Ah-hah, it was so painful an experience that you have blocked it out of your memory."
"No, I simply forgot it like most other birthdays."
"That's impossible," he said. "How could you possibly forget something like that?"
Easy. You see, there was a time when turning 30, 40 or 50 was no big deal. Sixteen was a big deal because you could get a job. And 21 was a very significant milestone because it meant you could order a drink without worrying about being carded. But 30, 40 or 50 just quietly happened to people. Magazines didn't put it on the cover like it was a national crisis. And every columnist who turned 40 didn't write about his or her new age of enlightenment. You just got up and went to work, or went outside the cave to fight a dinosaur.
The woman said: "Are you trying to tell us that this sort of thing has been going on for a long time?"
Oh, sure, for centuries, since before recorded history.
Becoming angry, she said: "Then why hasn't anything been done about it? How could you just sit there and let it happen?"
But there isn't anything that can be done. You're born, you have birthdays, you turn 30, 40, 50 and so on, if you're lucky. And then, phfft.
"Phfft?" he said. "What do you mean, 'phfft'?"
I mean, phfft: the bell tolls, we have our exits and our entrances, the long sleep, adios amigos. You know, phfft, and it's all over.
He looked shocked. "You mean actually dying? Like in the movies and on TV shows, but for real?"
That's it. Happens all the time, and in the best of families, too.
She waved the magazine at him and said: "Was there anything about that in here?"
He shrugged and said: "I didn't get that far."
"Well, isn't that a fine kettle of tofu," she said. "How can a person make vacation plans?"
They were silent for a moment, then he grinned and said: "You're just trying to scare us, aren't you? A real kidder."
I'm afraid not. But don't worry. You have a lot of time left. With modern medicine and diet, you're a good bet to make it to 80.
His eyes narrowed in deep thought, then he took out his portable, wallet-sized computer, called up a spread sheet, punched in some numbers, studied the results and said: "He's right. Eighty is 40 plus 40, so we've used 40 but we have another 40 left. Not bad."
She looked relieved and said: "Then we can plan that vacation."
"Yes," he said, hitting more keys, "and it looks like we'll have time to pay off the credit cards."
Having eased their concerns, I paid my check and left.
While walking away, I heard him chuckle and say: "You know, I still think he's just a kidder."
She said: "Who?"