When the pandemic started, sheltering at home was less traumatic for me than for those who’d lost income or had an extramarital affair interrupted, but I was missing schmoozing with friends. At 78, I’d never considered myself elderly until the coronavirus declared I was, warning that going into a grocery store could be fatal for someone my age. We were all doing our part to flatten the curve, which meant not getting together.
During the early months of distancing, there were many phone calls and e-mails with friends, but the contact dwindled over time. It wasn’t for lack of interest, just that there was little to say. Most in my circle were retired and had remained vital by taking classes, volunteering, consulting, or participating in book or study groups. The pandemic slammed the brakes on all those activities. Now the answer to, “What are you doing?” was a snicker or a sigh.
I began to envy my California girlfriends, who had yards where they gathered for meals and mani-pedis. And they had fires to talk about. Those of us in New York, binge-watching the same shows, had run out of things to say about them. We were all doing the same nothing.
“For me, Old People Shopping Hour is the new happy hour,” I quipped to my husband, Martin. Desperate to hear another voice, one morning I asked Alexa, “What’s the weather?”
“What difference does it make?” Martin called out. “You’re not going anywhere.”
Spending time at home wasn’t new to me. It’s what I’d been doing since aging out of a career as a television comedy writer. My first assignments had been on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude, and a Lily Tomlin special. Then, in my late 50s, I was surprised when business as usual morphed into no business as usual. I started writing personal essays, excited when they were published, and got a website to sell mosaic art I’d learned to make. But the lull of the pandemic was different. Three months in, I was feeling confined, uncertain, and boring.
Excited by any interaction, I was happy to get a robocall: “This is your last chance to get a special rate on your car insurance.” It amused me, mostly because of the exasperated, threatening tone of the recording. “Hit 1 to speak to a representative,” I was instructed. I did and a woman said, “Please tell me the year and make of your car.”
We no longer had a car but I decided to mess with her. “It’s a Dodge,” I said.
“1923.” The caller abruptly hung up.
Getting another chance later in the week, I said, “A ’59 Edsel.” Again, the call ended.
Hoping to engage the next caller, I thought I’d open up a conversation by saying, “When Trump first called his plan Fifteen Days to Slow the Spread, I thought it was a quicker way to shape up than Thirty Days to Thinner Thighs. Then I found out it was his way of trying to minimize the coronavirus.” Click.
A few days later, I tried a different tack, telling a caller, “I should have gotten Botox injections. My forehead is the only thing that shows above the mask.”
More absurd was the call congratulating me on winning a free cruise. “Why don’t we hold off until there’s a vaccine?” I quipped. She laughed, which encouraged me to go on. “The news has been making me anxious,” I told her. “After last night’s Rachel Maddow Show, I baked an emergency banana bread.” She didn’t laugh but she didn’t hang up. “I don’t know how they toughed out the 1918 Spanish flu without Netflix, Hulu, and Facebook,” I said. That’s when she ended the call.
It turns out my efforts to befriend telemarketers may be more effective than getting on the Do Not Call list. But if this goes on as long as Dr. Fauci’s predicting, maybe they’ll be lonely and more willing to talk.
Sybil Adelman Sage is a writer in New York. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.