Behind the Scenes at the Alta Cocker Gazette
Oldsters gonna old.
I'm currently teaching a profile-writing class. It's mid-semester, and we've reached the point where the students have interviewed their subjects and a few secondary sources. It's the point at which you have way, way more information than you can ever use, and you need to figure out what story that information is telling you before you can pare it all down.
Just as I've been trying to convey to my students how to know when to speak in an interview and when to just listen, and how to wade through their many long transcriptions thoughtfully, I find myself in their shoes.
The week before, my 86-year-old dad had asked me, "Are you ever going to feature any actual old people on Oldster?" I pointed him to a piece I ran in September by 80-year-old Abigail Thomas and he said, "Eh. That was good, but that's just one." My dad doesn't get my fascination with what it means for people to reach various milestones throughout life, nor my whole shtick of trying to normalize and de-stigmatize aging by examining it among everyone, at every phase of growing older, not just at the end. He's perplexed by my choice to feature people of all ages.
I'll confess it's not lost on me that capturing this all under the heading of a term typically associated with alta cockers might be confusing to him and others. So I decided to indulge him and find some more subjects from his generation.
Clearly, Whoever Is In Charge of The Universe heard my dad's kvetching, and a few minutes after getting off FaceTime with my him, FaceBook (or whatever it's about to be renamed) showed me a post about Tibor Spitz. Something about how, even as a nonagenarian, he was a prolific painter, still working, still youthful. Bingo! Old, Jewish, the son of a cantor no less. A perfect trifecta to appease my elderly cantor dad. I DM'ed Spitz to ask for an interview, and he was happy to indulge me.
Of course, I planned on asking Spitz about his experience living through some of the 20th Century's worst atrocities, for instance surviving seven freezing months in an underground shelter in the Slovakian woods while hiding with his family from the Nazis. I'd ask him how it affected his outlook on life, and whether he was alarmed by the current rise of authoritarianism in the U.S. and around the globe.
However, I hoped to focus more on aging than anything else—what it's like for him to be his particular age; what allowed him to feel, act, seem younger than his years—the kinds of incongruities I'm obsessed with, which sparked Oldster in the first place.
But when I sat down in the Spitzes' cramped apartment—covered wall-to-wall with Tibor's paintings depicting his memories of his childhood in Slovakia—I found it nearly impossible to control the conversation. As soon as I turned on my iPhone's voice recording app, Spitz was off to the races, a firehose delivering anecdote after anecdote from the past in his heavy Slovakian/Yiddish accent. I couldn't tell where one story ended and the next began, because he rolled seamlessly from subject to subject. "That reminds me..." he would say before launching into the next recollection.
It was difficult to find an opening to interject questions, not only because he never stopped talking for three hours straight, but because when a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor is on a roll, telling you about his life and his philosophy, you don't interrupt him.
After a while though, as we approached the three-hour mark, Noemi started interrupting on my behalf. "Tibor," she would say, "give her a chance to speak. Try listening a little!"
I was glad she did, because I started to think I would never find an in, and also to worry that the interview might never end, and I'd never get to leave. I threw some questions at him about what it's like to be 92, and he had some great answers.
Then he asked, "So, how long have you been at Ulster Magazine?" Suddenly I got why he thought I was there to focus on what every other interviewer throughout his life has focused on—the whole megillah. Even though I'd emailed him about interviewing him for OLDSTER, to his 92-year-old mind, in which English is like a fifth or sixth language, it translated to "Ulster"—the name of our county, and a regional culture magazine that has been defunct since 2014.
I explained my "magazine" to him ("It's actually a newsletter..." "A what????") and my mission, and how at 56 I still sometimes get confused and think I'm 10 or 11, and all that. For a second, he looked at me as if I had three heads. Then he laughed, and smiled, and he and Noemi showed me to the door.
As I was leaving, they each hugged me and invited me to come over again soon. "Don't be a stranger," Tibor said. "Come have coffee or tea with us."
"Let's be friends!" Noemi said.
They kept calling after me as I walked through the hallway to the exit, but I couldn't respond. I was choked up, overcome with emotion.
I teared up in the car. Then I got home and started worrying about transcribing, and making some kind of sense of my three-hour interview. Wish me luck...