John P. Weiss- The Old Man on the Scooter

For age is opportunity no less than youth itself

They met in a quaint coffee  shop near the edge of town.

Mary liked the location because it was less noisy than the crowded, bustling Starbucks downtown. Here, at the Frothy Mug, she could always find a quiet corner by the window, where she read her books and felt a certain sadness that much of life had passed by.

The old man showed up every Friday afternoon, his silly little scooter always sputtering and stalling. He’d fiddle with this or that and get the thing running again, eventually parking the scooter outside the Frothy Mug. The gentleman had close-cropped white hair, a shaven, well-lined face, and a slender build. He always carried a small leather journal and a rangefinder-style camera.

“Hello, Walter,” the servers would say familiarly.

On this day, Walter ordered a cappuccino and raisin scone, settled into a booth adjacent to Mary, and placed his camera and journal on the table. He pulled a large fountain pen out of his inner jacket pocket and began jotting notes in his journal. Then he picked up his camera, eyed the electronic viewfinder, toggled through images, and returned to making notes in his journal.

“On assignment for National Geographic?” Mary said to him, surprising herself. She seldom conversed with other customers.

“Heavens, no. I’d be broke. They killed National Geographic magazine in 2023. Laid everyone off. Now it’s just an online shell of itself. So, I’m afraid my photography and journal musings only serve my own entertainment,” Walter said.

“I didn’t realize they stopped printing National Geographic. I used to love the articles and photography. I guess this is what’s left of the world we live in,” Mary said.

“It’s a digital world now. But I refuse to succumb. Give me a good fountain pen, leather journal, and a Leica rangefinder any day over the ocean of piffle and smartphone images glutting the Internet,” Walter said.

“Yes, but does anyone see your words and images? I’m told that if you’re not online, you don’t exist,” Mary said.

“I’m a happy reader, scribbler of musings, and obscure photographer. By the way, I’m Walter.”

“Nice to meet you, Walter, I’m Mary.”

And this was how it all began.


Every Friday, Mary would settle into her favorite window booth at the Frothy Mug, and before long Walter would roll up on his temperamental scooter. He’d stroll in, order, and settle into a nearby booth.

Often Walter and Mary shared a booth and talked about life. Walter was nearly ten years older than Mary, and both were well into their retirement years, hovering in a liminal space between reasonable independence and full-blown dotage.

Mary was a widow. Her husband, Douglas, died five years ago of a sudden heart attack. And in a way, Mary died too. Retirement without the one you planned it with becomes a lonely journey. The condo they shared was so silent now. Even the sweetest memories of their life together sour with the reality of Douglas’s loss.

And then there are the health challenges.

Mary navigated a few serious illnesses, which left her feeling old and less vigorous. And since she and Douglas never had children, and her few relatives lived out of state, Mary felt increasingly isolated and alone. She had a few girlfriends, but they were married and talked mostly about grandchildren and superficial things.

Mary had been an English teacher and missed those classroom days of engaging young minds with the likes of Emily Dickinson and Jack London. But after retirement, she and Douglas moved to a more affordable state, and thus Mary lost contact with her students, coworkers, and friends.

The only place Mary found refuge was books.


One Friday afternoon, Mary and Walter claimed a corner booth in the back of the Frothy Mug, to enjoy their coffee and chat.

“Looks like you’re making healthy choices,” Mary said, pointing to the fresh cookies next to Walter’s coffee.

“At my age, I decided what the heck. Besides, I’ve always had a sweet tooth,” Walter said.

“Well, you’re slender, so you don’t have to worry about your weight. You don’t have to experience the charms of menopause. I used to be quite svelte, but all of that’s gone now,” Mary said.

“It’s not gone, Mary. It’s just different,”  Walter said.

“Oh Walter, look at me. The bloom of youth is gone. My husband is dead. My figure is shot. And the landscape ahead only leads to a dark cul-de-sac of infirmity, irrelevance, and death.” With that, Mary looked down at her coffee, and then out the window.

“Do you really believe all that?” Walter asked.

“Yes. The only solace in my life is books, and the conversations we enjoy. Otherwise, I feel like an apparition, wandering unseen. When I was young and walked past men, they’d turn around to look at me. Now they don’t even see me.”

“I see you, Mary. I see an attractive, intelligent, wise woman who’s lost sight of what this stage of life offers us,” Walter said.

“That’s sweet, Walter, but I don’t see that woman in the mirror.”

“That’s because you only see the superficial reflection, not the spirit within it,” Walter said, smiling.

“Perhaps. And tell me, what exactly does ‘this stage of life’ offer us, apart from decrepitude and loneliness?” Mary said.

“Freedom, Mary. We have abject freedom.”

“Freedom to disappear into ourselves?” Mary said sarcastically.

“No, freedom to be ourselves. Freedom to no longer worry about the world’s judgments, petty comparisons, needless jealousies, and endless ambitions. We can dress as we please, pursue our passions, and relish the free time our working years never allowed. And we gain the value of wisdom,” Walter said, with a glint in his eye.

“Don’t you get tired of people ignoring you? Treating you like an irrelevant old person?” Mary asked.

“Sure. I think it was Leon Trotsky who said, ‘Old age is the most unexpected of all things that can happen to a man.’ I suspect it’s equally true for a woman,” Walter said.

“Trust me, it’s equally true. I hate how invisible I feel. And people treat me like a child sometimes,” Mary said.

“Yes, I’ve experienced that, too. I wrote something down about that. Here in my journal.” Walter opened his leather journal and flipped through pages of immaculate, copperplate cursive.

“Ah, here it is. May I read this short poem to you?”

“Of course,” Mary said.

Walter sipped his coffee, cleared his throat, and said, “This little poem is from Shel Silverstein. It’s called ‘The Little Boy and the Old Man.’ I think it captures what we’re talking about.”

And with that, Walter read the following:

“Said the little boy, sometimes I drop my spoon.
Said the little old man, I do that too.
The little boy whispered, I wet my pants.
I do too, laughed the old man.
Said the little boy, I often cry.
The old man nodded. So do I.
But worst of all, said the boy,
it seems grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
I know what you mean, said the little old man.”

Walter closed his journal and looked up at Mary, whose eyes were misty.

“Exactly my point, Walter. Once we start wetting our pants, what’s the point anymore?”

“Well, Shel Silverstein had an answer for old age. It was in a poem of his called ‘Growing Down.’ I don’t have it in my journal, but it’s about a crabby old man named Mr. Brown who told all the kids to grow up. To wipe their noses.  Be polite. Wash their hands. Stuff like that. Until the kids told Mr. Brown to try ‘growing down.’ To crawl on your knees. Climb a tree. Eat ice cream. Wish on falling stars,” Walter said.

“I don’t think this old body wants to risk crawling on my knees or climbing trees,” Mary said.

“Well sure, we can’t do everything. But ice cream and wishing on falling stars sounds nice,” Walter said. “That reminds me of another poem I wrote down.”

“I must say, Walter, as a former English teacher, it’s a pleasure to speak with a literate man,” Mary said.

“Here it is,” Walter said, and then he began reading the poem.

“For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”

“Ah yes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I remember that one,” Mary said.

“The thing is, Mary, we live in a youth culture. Especially with all this social media stuff. And I think it’s disorienting for seniors like us. It’s hard to keep up with all the technology. We no longer recognize the movie stars and music. I think all of that adds to the sense of irrelevancy and loneliness. But we forget, like Longfellow wrote, that there’s opportunity in aging. The sky above us may get darker, but we can see the stars better,” Walter said.

“What does that mean, Walter? I should take up astronomy?” Mary said with a giggle.

“No, Mary. Embrace everything. Dare to live. People may see our age on the outside, and we might even feel it. But we don’t feel that way on the inside. We’re all the ages we’ve ever been inside. We have to remember how to tap those times and find a way to live them now,” Walter said.

They sat together in their little booth at the Frothy Mug, pondering their conversation.

“You know, Walter, I’ve often thought about starting a book club in my senior condominium complex. I see a few of the other ladies reading books by the pool, and it would be fun to come together and discuss books and literature and ideas. I think books might save us all from the melancholy of aging. You see, Walter, you’re inspiring me,” she said.

“I certainly hope so. I belong to a camera club. I’m the oldest person, but it doesn’t matter. We all share the same passion for photography, and the younger ones get a kick out of my old school, manual Leica,” Walter said.

Just then, Walter’s cell phone buzzed in his jacket pocket.

“Ugh, I almost forgot. I’ve got an appointment I’m going to be late for,” Walter said.

“Leaving me for a hot date?” Mary said.

“My hot date is a rather imperious, middle-aged oncologist with no sense of humor,” Walter said.

“Oh, I’m sorry Walter.”

“No apology necessary, Mary. You’re cracking little jokes. That’s progress. And I love your book club idea. Life is meant to be lived, Mary. However we can. Remember Robert Browning and his ‘Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.'”

“Oh Walter, now you’re just trying to impress this old English teacher,” Mary said with a smile, hoping Walter would not see the concern she felt for him, for his health. Oncology appointments are scary things.

“Start that book club, Mary. And I’ll see you next week,” Walter said.


Mary followed Walter’s advice and approached several women where she lived about her book club idea. Everyone loved the idea. It was agreed that they would take turns hosting the weekly meetings, and each would bring an appetizer. For their first book, they settled on Kristin Hannah’s new novel “The Women.”


That Friday, Mary settled into her favorite booth at the Frothy Mug and waited anxiously for Walter to arrive on his rickety old scooter. She couldn’t wait to tell him about the book club. And she was wearing a new outfit, having decided that she was going to stop feeling sorry for herself and update her wardrobe.

A few hours passed, but Walter never came.

She phoned his cell phone, but it went straight to voicemail. “Walter, where are you? It’s Mary. I want to tell you all about the book club, and show off my new sundress,” she said to the recording.

Mary tried phoning Walter a few days later, but again, it went straight to voicemail. And she didn’t know where he lived. She didn’t even know Walter’s last name. They were coffee shop pals, loose friends, and they never really broadened their friendship.

Some relationships are like that.

They work best on that narrow landscape between acquaintance and friendship. That place where you know each other in a particular setting, and the gentle distance and mystery about your broader lives keep the relationship fresh and uncomplicated.

The following Friday, she waited for Walter again, but he didn’t show.

And she continued with her life.

The book club grew, and some of the women became cherished friends. And she told them about Walter and how he inspired her to see aging as an opportunity. A chance to gaze at the stars. To grow down instead of up. To eat ice cream.

To live life fully.


Mary used to scan the newspapers and online notices to see if there was any news. Any mention of an elderly man named Walter. But there was nothing.

Until one sunny afternoon when a man in a suit and fedora knocked on her door.

“Yes?” Mary said from inside her locked front door.

“Hello, I’m looking for a Ms. Mary Swanson. My name is Marv Steinberg.”

“I’m sorry, but what’s this regarding?” Mary said, her door open now but with the security chain still attached.

“It’s about the estate of Elliot W. Murray, Ms. Swanson,” the man said as he adjusted a leather satchel over his shoulder.

“I don’t know anyone by that name. Well, come to think of it, I do know that name. Elliot W. Murray is a best-selling novelist. But I don’t know him, just that he writes poignant fiction. Didn’t he win the Man Booker Prize?”

“Yes, Ms. Swanson, I represent Elliot W. Murray. I’m his agent. May I come in?”

Mary unlatched the chain and led Steinberg into her living room. She offered him something to drink, but he politely declined.

“So, what’s this all about?” Mary asked.

“I’m afraid Mr. Murray passed away. He was battling cancer and collapsed rather suddenly. It’s all still such a shock. I’ve been working with his estate attorney and tying up loose ends. He never married and had no children. His work, his writing, was his life. Well, he also liked to dabble in photography,” Steinberg said.

“Photography?” Mary said, feeling like a puzzle in her mind was beginning to come together.

“Yes, street photography. He liked to wander the streets taking candid pictures. Some of them helped him create characters and narratives for this novels.”

“My coffee shop friend, Walter, liked to shoot street photography. Oh dear, Walter is Elliot W. Murray, isn’t he,” Mary said, her voice a bit shaky.

“Yes, he preferred to use his middle name with close friends.”

“I wondered what happened to Walter. I didn’t know where he lived, and I never saw any obituaries with his name. Now I know why. Oh, poor Walter. He was such a splendid, kind, wonderful man. He helped me come to terms with aging. He quoted poems and told me to grow down,” Mary said.

“Grow down?” Steinberg said.

“Yes, it’s from Shel Silverstein. Walter was always sharing poems and quotes from literature. I was always amazed by how well-read he was. Now it all makes sense. My Lord, Walter was Elliot W. Murray. I can’t believe it. He never said anything about being a famous author.”

“Walter was a humble guy,” Steinberg said, adding, “He even rode around on a pathetic old scooter.”

“Yes, I remember that scooter. Thank you for coming and telling me about Walter. This is a lot to take in. By the way, how did you know about me? How did you find me?” Mary said.

“After Walter passed away, we started to go through his things. In his leather travel journal, he wrote about you. About his friendship with you, and how impressed he was with your plans to form a book club. I have what he wrote here in my satchel.” Steinberg pulled out Walter’s familiar old journal. He flipped to a page filled with immaculate handwriting.

“May I read it to you?” Steinberg asked.

“Of course, yes, please,” Mary said.

Steinberg read the following:

“I met a wonderful, radiant, intelligent woman at the coffee shop. Her name is Mary and she lives nearby in a condominium retirement community. She was once an English teacher, but retired now and feeling a bit adrift. Lost her husband, and lost her zest for life. But she loves books. We enjoy coffees, have become friends, and I encourage her. She encourages me, too. Today she said she wants to start a book club where she lives. I think my heart nearly stopped when she said that. Especially in light of what I’ve been finishing up. And she said something so profound: ‘I think books might save us all from the melancholy of aging.’ It’s like she read my manuscript and summed up the message. And so I know what I have to do now.”

Tears edged out of Mary’s eyes and Steinberg offered her his handkerchief.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Steinberg, but this is a lot to take in. And I’m confused. What did Walter mean about his heart nearly stopping and something he was finishing up? And he knows what he has to do now?”

“Walter had just completed a brand new novel. It’s about a group of widows who form a book club in a small coffee shop and discover the salvation of literature,” Steinberg said.

“Good Lord, I had no idea,” Mary said.

“Of course you didn’t. When you told Walter about your desire to form a book club for the ladies where you live…well, it must have felt like a divine coincidence to Walter. I remember when he began the novel, he wasn’t sure if it would work. But I guess all his coffee dates with you inspired him. Especially what you said about books saving us all from the melancholy of aging,” Steinberg said.

He reached inside his satchel and said, “There’s something else.”

“Mr. Steinberg, I don’t think I can take something else. I’ll have to have to skip the coffee shop and find a stiff drink somewhere.”

Steinberg pulled a book out of his satchel and held it up. The title on the cover read, “The Coffee Shop Book Club.”

“The book comes out next week. This is an advance copy. I know Walter would have wanted you to have a copy. Had he lived, he surely would have inscribed it for you. But in a way, he already did,” Steinberg said.

“What do you mean?” Mary asked.

“Take a look inside,” Steinberg said as he handed Mary the book.

She opened the cover and found the following dedication a few pages inside:

“For Mary, and all the souls who form book clubs and never give up on life, even when it feels like life has given up on them.”

Once again, the tears flowed, and Steinberg smiled and told Mary she could keep his handkerchief.


The following month Mary’s book club gathered at Mary’s condo, and everyone settled in with their hors d’oeuvres, drinks, and book bags. It was a Friday night.

One of the ladies, named Tracy, reached into her book bag and said, “Hey everybody, I have a suggestion for this month’s book. I just bought it in the bookstore, and the owner told me this book is already a New York Times bestseller. The book’s title is, ‘The Coffee Shop Book Club.’ Is that perfect for our group, or what?”

“That does sound perfect,” Mary said, never sharing the connection between Walter and Elliot W. Murray.

Tracy passed the book around and everyone inspected it, approvingly. “Then it’s settled, this will be our next book,” Tracy announced. And everyone was talking about literature and Mary’s home was full of friends and books and life. All because a humble old man named Walter encouraged her to live again.

She opened the curtain and gazed at the stars blinking brightly in the night sky.

And quietly, to herself, she recited the lines:

“For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”