November 28, 2022

Article at Medium

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The Old Man Nod

Orrin Onken
AI picture by Orrin Onken

I am a white American male who lives in the Pacific Northwest and whose ancestors came from Northern Europe. I wear plaid shirts. I am polite. I like mayonnaise. A lot. When I eat a cheeseburger, I am not eating American food; I am eating food. I listen to country and western music. Not as often as I eat mayonnaise, but often. There are lots of people like me where I live.

I have had friends whose skin was not white and had no ancestral connections to Europe. Many of them did the nod. Walking down the street, they would see a person who was a member of their ethnic community, and, although they didn’t know that person at all, they would give and receive the nod.

I was jealous. We white guys didn’t nod to each other. At least not in the United States where I lived. Maybe white guys did that in Kenya, where they were a minority, but I’ve never been to Kenya or lived in a place where I was a minority. The nod was never part of my experience. When I noticed it, I thought it was cool, and envied those who had it. The nod said they belonged to something, and I, the non-nodder, did not.

And then I grew old. My advanced age began announcing itself to the world through my appearance.

It started at the grocery store. I do the grocery shopping on Tuesday mornings because the shelves are restocked after the weekend and working people are too busy working to clog the aisles. I got nods from other old men doing their own Tuesday morning shopping. It startled me at first, and being a nod-newbie, I didn’t nod back. Slowly, I realized what was happening. It was age. The nods were coming from other old men. I had been inducted into a community that used the nod. I let my old man instincts take hold and nodded back.

Once answering a nod felt natural, I began initiating. First in the grocery store and later, wherever I encountered other old men in public.

When I first noticed the nod, I asked my wife about it, wondering if the nod was gender specific. She assured me it was not. Old men nod to old men, and old women nod to old women. She had been getting and returning the nod from little old ladies for a couple of years already. She said that among women, once the nod has been offered and returned, the door is thereafter open for the nodders to begin talking on any of the ordinary old-woman subjects. She recounted tales of, nod–nod, followed by lengthy grocery-aisle discussions of groceries, cooking, children, grandchildren, pets and even husbands.

It did not take long for me to integrate the nod into my day-to-day life.

Over a Thanksgiving weekend, my wife and I were vacationing at the Oregon coast. One morning, I was getting my daily exercise by walking the mean streets of Cannon Beach, the small tourist town where we were staying. The sidewalks were crowded with families in search of saltwater taffy, souvenir hoodies, and watercolor paintings of the ocean. And amidst it all, unbeknownst to the uninitiated, the old men, like me, were exchanging nods.

I would see another old guy, our eyes would meet, and the nods would happen. He might be with his family — his middle-aged children and their children. Sometimes his wife. Whoever they were, they were not old males. They didn’t belong. They were not us.

In the nod we share that although we might walk with family — young people — we are apart. Above and protected from all the silliness. We’ve seen it a thousand times. These forays into tourist towns with their bright colors and corn dogs are for the young. We are dragged there only as observers. To transport the credit card. Chaperones. Amused. Detached.

It’s all in the nod.

The old-guy nod doesn’t affirm a shared set of genes, or a culture, or an ancestry. We share a developmental stage. We share survival.

I remember something similar as a child. Moving to a new neighborhood with my parents and asking in desperation, are there kids there?. I had it as a teen and even as a college student, the sense that age was the best indicator of shared outlook and interest. And then it was gone. Middle age is a joy killer. And it lasts a long time. When I was middle-aged there were kids, and there were old people, but there was no us. Other middle-agers were not us. They were competition.

Now that I have an us — old guys — I have the nod. And I like it.

I’m new to it. My wife can move easily from the nod to conversation. I am not there yet. Men aren’t as social, so maybe post-nod conversations are not as common. Or maybe they are and I suck at it. Tools, cars, sports, weather. Seems to me like any of those topics could appropriately follow the nod were I to hang one of them in the air in the dairy aisle.

I’m ready. It is Tuesday, and I am heading to the grocery store.