Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number…Until You’re on a Bus With London Youths

They always say “old age” sneaks up on you, not including the caveat that pretty much any age after twenty-nine is considered day-old bread in Western society. Amelia Rollenstein, however, was of the belief that you were as young as you felt—and she certainly didn’t feel a day over sixteen. This was in spite of her parents’ best efforts to convince her she was a failure for not trying more earnestly to “become” an adult. As though it was something one just did by virtue of having all the things that adults were supposed to have, i.e. stability, a Good Job and, at the very least, a room of one’s own.

Hers, instead, was being rented from a stodgy old woman on Moon Street in Islington. It was a stout block with stout buildings to match. They weren’t any drearier than your average London flat, and Amelia was certain to tell herself that each day as she hauled her body up the rickety stairs desperately hoping they wouldn’t creak loudly enough for Mrs. Mossman to hear. Because if she did, she would invariably come skittering out like a roach, asking when Amelia was planning to pay the rest of her back rent. 

Amelia couldn’t be bothered with such lusterless details. She was a woman about town. Onward and upward to bigger and better things that the likes of Mrs. Mossman couldn’t possibly imagine. She was going to be in a West End play. Only the director didn’t yet know it. The title of the project was Bright Lights, Drab City, and she knew she would be perfect for the lead role of Erin Harkness, the plucky transplant from Manchester who comes to London in search of fame and fortune only to be struck down again and again by the city she loves seemingly only because it slaps her around so much. Why, the part was practically based on Amelia’s life, as far as she could gather. And this was her big chance at finally landing a major part instead of all those understudy gigs she took for middling characters in equally as middling plays. 

All in all, she was determined to start avoiding that word altogether: middling. She was so sick and tired of being too extraordinary to be common and too unspecial to be extraordinary. Something had to give. She needed to, at last, either teeter to one side or the other completely. Because this “somewhere in the middle” business was more than she could bear. It was worse than being down at heel entirely. For at least there, she would know for certain “her place.” That she ought to just give up and surrender to “the machine” that is capitalism—dictating that all “lower class” people must simply keep their heads down and work. Never bothering to reach for or dream of anything higher.

Her parents had warned her long ago not to. Yet she still left them in the dust of Manchester, kicking up her heels as she did it. Amelia could hardly wait to get away from their constant and prosaic cautiousness. Infecting her visions of greatness with banal “practicalities.” “How will you afford to live in London?” “What will you do if acting doesn’t work out?” “Don’t you worry about your safety there?” And all that sort of drivel. That middle-class drivel designed to keep people like Amelia forever stuck in said class. A horrible, rigged game designed by a combination of one’s birth lottery and the economic system in place. She was foolish and perhaps a touch narcissistic to believe that she could outrun it. 

All of these thoughts were a jumble in her head as she took her usual bus route from the St. Mary’s Church stop to get to Theatreland. She wasn’t even thinking about needing to be on her guard as a result of “young ruffians” (as a scandalized old lady or Morrissey might call them) boarding the bus while cackling and shouting, as youths do. Often saying nothing—or whatever it is they’re saying is indiscriminate, perhaps part of the arcane language (think: Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange) that can only be understood when you are still under the age of twenty. In any case, Amelia was too engrossed in her own musings to pay much attention. And it never occurred to her that her inherently “proper” manner of dressing (like someone trying emulate an Old Hollywood movie star) could end up calling such attention to her age. For “the kids” of now were not even half as aware of twentieth century pastiche as those who grew up in Amelia’s generation. Thus, she was setting herself apart in the present as someone “old-fashioned.”

But again, all of this was unbeknownst to her until she pressed the button for her stop and proceeded to attempt shoving through the throng. Only to find that the youths that comprised it were not letting her through, instead forming a resistant barrier that prevented her from exiting in time as she meekly tried to assert, “Excuse me? Can you please let me off?”

They wouldn’t. Not until the next stop, when they shoved her out the door and called after her, “Have a nice day, Ma’am!” Their diabolical giggling echoed out the open windows for a brief moment as she assessed the damage done to her person. She had landed with a forceful thud on her hands and knees, but not before her right cheek lightly kissed the pavement. Her oversized handbag (another mark of the “elderly”) had been knocked off her shoulder as well, the contents strewn about the sidewalk as passersby carried on as though she weren’t laid out like a pancake. So maybe it wasn’t just youths that were cruel. Maybe youth was only the jumping-off point for how cruel a human could become.

But still: what was it about youth in particular that made people so cruel? The arrogance of being “fresher” than everyone else? The idea that they’ll never reach the point of being “aged”? Is it resentment toward a previous generation’s sins that they’re suffering for in the present? Is it all merely hormonal? Amelia didn’t have much time to consider these questions or their answers as she picked herself up and dragged herself, bruised and bloodied, into the theater where she was currently taking on an “understudy to the understudy” role (COVID, after all, had made it very important to have multiple backups in case people contracted the contagion). 

Later that week, she would also realize that she was not getting the part for Bright Lights, Drab City, as she naively (almost like someone much younger and less seasoned in disappointment) believed she would. So maybe it was time to “pack it in,” as they say. Surrender to her middle-class and middle-aged station in life, the “demographic” that she had come to be classified in. Because being knocked down and not bothering to get up again and fight was the true sign of surrendering to age. 

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