“Did you think he was talking down to you because you’re now a woman?” Jan Morris was asked in a televised interview that explored how her life had altered since she had been transformed from James Morris, a dashing British cavalry officer, exquisite writer and adventurous man into an equally dashing and adventurous woman.
As for writing, the British newspaper the Times fastidiously listed her as the 15th best British writer since World War II. Among many explorations as a man he endured all the privations as one of the support team on the first successful Everest climb.
Now she was recounting how the doorman in an apartment building was giving her directions to someone she had come to see (I’m paraphrasing): “It’s the third floor,” he said, holding up three fingers. She wasn’t offended, she said. “The old boy was just being nice.”
That anecdote has become part of our family lore. If either my wife, Maggie, or I want to imply that the other is being slow on the uptake, one infallible way of doing it — and as a bonus irritating the other — is to hold up three fingers.
But as you age you will find that you don’t need to change sex to get that kind of treatment from strangers, who also for the most part are just being nice and simply want to make quite sure you understand: they speak slowly and use all the resources of sign language — pointing, gesturing, sometimes drawing crude maps — to make sure your old mind is capable of absorbing it all.
However, even all that cosseting is sometimes not enough to ward off disaster. At Rome’s bustling Termini station a few weeks ago I went into the information office and asked what platform the 16.04 high-speed nonstop train to Naples would go from.
“Platform four,” the crisply efficient attendant told me, holding up four fingers. I held up four of my own. “Four?” I asked. “Four,” she said, looking hard at my hand.
It was close to departure time but I could make it so I carried my two heavy bags to platform No. 4 and there was the train. I heaved myself aboard, managed with an effort to put one bag in the overhead rack and breathed a sigh of relief. It had been touch and go but I was now sure I would be able to meet my friend at Naples station and go to the big dinner he’d planned.
A minute or so later the announcement came wishing passengers a good day, inviting them to sit back and relax, and welcoming us all to the 16.04 high-speed nonstop train to Milan.
Milan! Milan!! That’s 350 miles north, not a 150 south. Five hundred miles off course. That’s 50 miles a finger.
In a fury I wrestled the bag on the rack to the floor, pulled, pushed and kicked the two bags to end of the compartment, threw the first on to the platform (“Oh, please, god of locomotives, don’t let it start now”) then the other, then me.
I stumbled back to the information office. “The train on platform four was for Milan, I want Naples,” I gasped out.
“Oh, yes, I’m so sorry, the 16.04 to Naples is platform seven.” She held up two hands. I didn’t wait to count but instead humped my way to platform No. 7, and joy of joys the train was still there. “You’re going to make it, after all,” a small but happy voice within me said.
But just as I drew level with the first compartment it started to move, almost imperceptibly at first, but without the slightest sign that it might change its mind. I jogged alongside for a moment or two unable to believe I could be so near but so far. But, no, it gathered speed and I had to concede that I couldn’t run at 140 miles an hour.
I returned yet again to my digital mentor. “What a shame,” she said with the utmost sincerity. “But in 10 minutes there’s another train to Naples so you will only be 20 minutes late and if you have your friend’s cellphone number we will let him know.”
So that’s how I was ready for that important dinner and the only clues the other guests had that it might have been otherwise were that I was a shade even more disheveled than usual and wore a self-satisfied expression that said, “Someone up there likes me.”
Reg Green lives in La Cañada. His most recent book is “90 and Not Dead Yet.”