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On Becoming Transparent

by Julia Sneden

"It's as if we were invisible," I murmured to my friend Ginny as we stood at the checkout stand. The young clerk who was ringing up my order was talking to her boyfriend on the phone. She rang up a 30%-off item at full price, and didn't even look up when I corrected her. She just punched in the correction and kept talking, phone tucked under her chin.

"You going to pick me up?" she said into the receiver. She was looking down at the floor as she waved a hand to indicate the total on the electronic sign on a little stand by the cash register.

"No, not invisible," Ginny said aloud. "It's more as if we were transparent. We're here, but we don't seem to have any substance."

I ran my credit card down the slot. Eyes still averted, the checker shoved the receipt at me, along with a pen for my signature. Into the phone she said: "Okay. Don't be late again, hear?" She gestured for me to pick up my package and move along as she stuffed the signed copy into her cash drawer and turned to the next customer.

As we drove home, Ginny and I compared notes about the weird thing that has happened to us in the last ten years. It's as if the graying of temples and the wrinkling of throats have delivered a new message to the world. Inside, we feel the same: in-charge, friendly, and quite competent. Our outsides, however, seem to have lost impact. We agreed that at times we feel decidedly devalued.

I think that transparency is a good word to describe what often happens to older women. People may see you, but they sometimes look right through you.

America has become a culture that worships youth. The obsession with remaining young manifests itself in the rush to plastic surgeons and the hair-coloring aisle. Diet books promise everything from slim bodies to glowing skin, and our exercise gurus speak of taut abs and toned legs, even for the elderly.

Is this obsession the result of a consumer-based, toss-aside culture that encourages us to discard anything old, dented, or performing a bit lamely, and replace it with a newer model? Have we equated older people to things that are worn out, and decided that gray hair and wrinkles make a human being less valuable? Certainly there has been a huge change from the days when elders were revered for their wisdom and strength of character.

"At first," Ginny said, "I tried to convince myself that what I was noticing was really not connected to my age. I told myself that these days, employers don't train their sales people to pay attention to the customer. That's demonstrably true, but it doesn't explain why that checker engaged the girl who was ahead of us in line in a conversation about where she'd gotten her nails done, or why she made eye contact with the guy behind us, and even hung up the phone and spoke directly to him."

"Well," I said, "we can hardly expect to get the same attention that a hunk will get from a teenage girl. Hormones rule. But that doesn't make it any easier to accept being downright ignored."

"Someday," Ginny said with a wicked grin, "that little girl will be us."

"Right," I said. "If she's lucky, the world will have changed by then."

Within the bosom of my family, I am known to be intelligent, competent, even someone to turn to for advice, but once I venture out into the world beyond my own door, I often find myself treated as — well, irrelevant is the word that springs to mind. Where once I could walk into a store and expect respectful attention, I seem now to be regarded as a bit of a nuisance to the people who are supposed to be serving me.

The other day I needed a new keyboard for my computer. It was a pretty straightforward transaction. I knew what I wanted, picked it off the shelf, and carried it to the front desk of the computer store. The clerk rang up my purchase. Suddenly, a young businessman burst through the door, came up to the desk, and began asking about a new piece of software. The salesman stopped what he was doing, answered the fellow's questions, and said: "I've got it in the back. I haven't unpacked it yet" and walked away from the desk.

"Excuse me," I said firmly, "but could you please finish my transaction?" The businessman glared at me. The clerk came back reluctantly and picked up my money, which was lying on the counter.

"I don't mean to be unreasonable," I said, "but I was here first."

"Sorry," said the businessman abruptly. "I'm just in a big hurry."

"As a matter of fact, so am I," I said with a smile. "I have a 95-year-old mother who is sitting out in the car, waiting for me to take her to a dental appointment."

He looked at me as if I were slightly crazy. "Well," he said with disdain, "I've got to get back to the office."

And then there was the time a couple of years ago when I was looking for a new car. I was on a preliminary foray, so I braced myself to withstand the usual enthusiastic approach of a salesman. I intended to insist that I be left alone for a while to browse. I found that there was a salesman standing nearby, all right, but he didn't approach me. That seemed odd indeed. Eventually, having looked at all the models and decided which one might be viable for me, I went to him and expressed an interest in taking a test drive.

"Tell you what," he said. "Come back tomorrow with your husband and then you can both take a turn driving it."

"Why would I do that?" I asked. "I'm shopping for my car, not his."

"Right," he said. "But we know (wink-wink) who's paying for it, don't we!" Needless to say, I walked out posthaste, and certainly didn't go back.

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