Yesterday in The New York Times, there was a terrific story by Al Baker about a police detective, a veteran of 40 years on the force, that has it all: human interest, crime statistics, department history, snitches, murder, mayhem and headline cases. Real-life Law & Order in black-and-white.
It is also a story about getting old.
"Some of his colleagues lovingly call him 'grandpa.' Some have taken to calling him 'Fish,' after the old detective played by Abe Vigoda on Barney Miller. In fact, Detective [John C.] Roe, 61, joined the city’s police force nearly a decade before that television series was shown...
"He is currently 10th on the Police Department’s longevity list; by the time he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 63 on Halloween 2012, he will be first."
I was reminded of my own retirement in 2004 – unanticipated but mandatory in a different way.
With a bunch of other employees, I had been caught in a layoff in 2004, from the website of a business research firm. As my younger colleagues found work in six or eight or 10 weeks or so, I couldn't get an interview.
There were repeated indications that my age, then 63, was a hindrance, but it is the hardest kind of ageism to prove - “failure to hire” - and anyway, I wasn't interested in lawsuits. I just wanted a job.
As a contract employee with zero benefits, I had been ineligible for unemployment insurance and my individual health care coverage cost hundreds of dollars a month. With that and the other normal expenses, I depleted all my savings and then sank deeper into debt each month as I took cash advances on one credit card to pay another and on a third or pay a fourth, etc.
The amount of money I owed was terrifying and rapidly growing. I had nightmares of becoming homeless.
It took a year of living in daily fear for my future until I realized that the only solution (salvation?) was to sell my apartment in Manhattan and leave the city. I went further into debt to get my home in shape to sell which didn't happen for another ten months.
And that is how I was forced into my personal “mandatory” retirement. Not what I had planned. Well, it would not have been my plan if I had bothered to plan - which I had not.
My great aunt Edith had worked until she was 70. My mother had worked until a couple of years before she died at age 75. Back in 2004, when I was laid off, I figured I would probably work for another decade.
If you don't count that last job, which I hated for a variety of good reasons (the four-hour commute was the least, which tells you something about it), I spent nearly 50 years at jobs I loved.
They were almost always interesting. They were my never-ending college education, my world travel, my access to brilliant, fascinating people along with some not-so-brilliant but still fascinating people too. And they actually paid me for this.
If I'd had my druthers, I would have retired from a job like one of those so that I could have felt, at the end of my working life, like Detective Roe who says he
"...dreads the approach of Halloween 2012, when he will have to hand in his badge, No. 1679.
"Sitting in the cinder-block interview room of the station house in Harlem, across from St. Mary’s Church, he adds: 'I’d be here until I’m 70, if I could. I’d be here forever.'”