Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
A visit to a retirement residence conjures intimations of cultural senescence.
August 1, 2014 - 12:00 am
Not long ago, I was invited, accompanied by a trio of talented band mates, to give a performance of my original songs, just now released as a CD and digital download. The host organization was a swank retirement residence which resembled a five star hotel catering to a ritzy and fashionable clientele. The impressive and rambling building was situated in the midst of a vast sward of well-tended lawn, bordered by a lily pond and surrounded by hedges and flower beds. The pastoral location put me in mind of the English Renaissance poet Thomas Campion’s lines from a celebrated Masque: “Now hath Flora rob’d her bowers/To befriend this place with flowers.” This place was certainly thus befriended.
One entered on the mezzanine level, looking down on a large, elegantly appointed atrium featuring a comfortable lobby decorated with floral wallpaper, a café, a bar, a piano in the corner, ornate vases brimming with flowers, and a team of diligent attendants carrying trays of snacks, desserts and urns of coffee in preparation for the event. Soon the elderly residents began to file in, installing themselves on couches and armchairs, paying little attention as we began setting up our equipment, tuning our instruments, checking sound levels, and so on. There followed a brief introduction and we launched into our first song with the usual mixture of nervousness and swagger.
The performance itself, at least from our perspective, was a qualified success. I muffed an extro riff midway through, though no one seemed to notice, and at one point an amplifier malfunctioned and wreaked havoc with a harmony interlude, thankfully soon corrected. Otherwise we sailed through our production with a reasonable degree of competence, and I felt that, on the whole, we had done a credible job of entertaining our audience. I was shortly to be disabused. While a few of our auditors were clearly pleased and dutifully complimentary, the majority seemed to exist in some parallel universe with only the thinnest of threads connecting it to the customary world which I had assumed we shared.
To begin with, some of our more tryptophanic listeners had fallen asleep, half-hidden behind the blossoming flowerpots. Many, as I subsequently discovered, were effectively deaf — not tone deaf, but so hard of hearing that we might have manifested to them as a pantomime ensemble gesticulating to no purpose. Others were frankly puzzled. One woman informed me afterward that she and her friends had expected a traditional sing-a-long so that they could, well, sing along. A repertoire of new and original songs was not what they had bestirred themselves for. Others had been so busy chatting before, during and after the concert that they had little idea of what had just taken place. A tottering gentleman regaled us at length with his dimly remembered personal history. Another, a 90-year-old Don Juan, was exclusively interested in one of the female members of our troupe, whom he followed doggedly around the room. And so it went. I felt we could just as well have shouted banalities into the mics or told off-color jokes for all the melodic impact we’d had.
Of course, this was a retirement residence, an “old folks’ home,” and I should have anticipated no different a reaction from the generally uncomprehending response we met with. And lest I be mistaken for harboring a streak of cruel condescension, let me say that, after my initial shock, I realized that such an elderly company deserved nothing but sympathy and understanding. My error was assuming — since we would be performing in a state-of-the-art institution, doubtlessly among the most opulent in the country — that the residents would carry their age rather better than those who had not benefitted from the advantages they enjoyed. I should have known that, with providential exceptions, age is age no matter how pampered, and that sometimes money only whispers.