Monday, July 16, 2012

Where are the little old ladies?

Photo: Phil Maxwell

I wonder often what ever became of the little old ladies. As a social category they seem to have vanished from public view many years ago. I remember them well from my youth: walking around Boston in the afternoon hours one might encounter them shuffling down Tremont or Washington streets. They seemed to gravitate naturally to Boston Common, where they assumed ownership of every second park bench, claiming the shade under the bureaucratically-designated elm trees (Ulmus americana) as their naturally assigned habitat.

Little old ladies were recognized by their loose-fitting, full-length coats, the scarves or handkerchiefs covering their hair, and their oversized shopping bags and occasionally rolled-down stockings. Their shoes deviated far from the norm conventionally assigned to elderly women at the time, which involved black orthopedic-looking leather shoes and dark stockings. In flagrant disregard of geriatric fashion, little old ladies simply wore on their feet whatever was comfortable, anything from house-slippers to sneakers.

Photo: Phil Maxwell

I don't know if these women were really as impoverished or as socially victimized as they appeared. Certainly there does come a time in old age when you decide to chuck appearances altogether and concentrate on comfort as a survival strategy. But in my mind they seemed to me the original beatniks, "beat" in the primal sense of the word, not so much "beatified" as Kerouac conceived it, but rather as a sub-set of feminists resolved to ignore any conventionality and carve for themselves a chunk of private space in a dismissive world. In my imagination I thought they might be disguised bodhisattvas, like the ancient zen masters who lived defiantly under bridges among beggars.

Of course there is no longer a place for little old ladies in our suburban mall-culture, where if you want to desist from shopping and sit down somewhere, it's going to cost you. They do seem to enjoy a digital resonance however, as seen from a wonderful selection of photographs taken by Phil Maxwell, presently available at Spitalsfield Life.


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