Friday, June 11, 2010

Who are you calling 'Dear'?

Something terrible happened to me the other day. I was sitting in a coffee shop and the waitress called me “dear.” “Here, you are, dear,” she said, putting my coffee in front of me.

Then it hit. Oh God. She thinks I’m old. She’s speaking to me in that voice reserved for the elderly and the mentally retarded. Well, I didn’t intend to become old for many more years. I don’t feel old. I don’t think I look old. But obviously in the eyes of the very young, I have gone over the hill.

I got hints of that on my book tour last year. A woman of a certain age, traveling alone, is invisible. When I entered the hotel restaurant I was either ignored or asked, “Are you waiting for someone?” as if a woman was not allowed to enter the place alone and would never consider sitting alone to eat. Once I tried the response, “You never know. I may get lucky tonight.” At which they blushed and looked shocked.

A similar thing happened at the car rental. I stood behind a gray haired man in line. He was served immediately but nobody served me, even though there appeared to be someone free at the counter. Not being the most patient of people I asked, “Isn’t anyone free to help me?”

“We thought you with this gentleman,” was the response.

“Do you always assume if you see two people in line that they’re together?” I asked.

So the message to the world is quite clear. Women once they pass a certain age are not supposed to travel alone. Actually, women before a certain age are viewed with suspicion too. I remember eating in posh hotel dining rooms when I was a young woman on a book tour. Then the men at surrounding tables eyed me to see if I was sitting there with the express intention of being picked up. In those days I always took a book with me. Or ordered room service.

One small trick I’ve learned to make sure I get proper attention (and feel free to use this, ladies) is never to accept the first, or even the second table offered. “I’d prefer to sit by the window, et.” Then immediately ask to see the wine list and order something esoteric. Ask how the chef prepares the salmon. Take out your iPhone and bark “I can’t discuss it now. I’m eating. My office, tomorrow morning.” You need to come across as a power broad. Someone not to be trifled with.

I was on a flight last year beside a young man who shouted into his Blackberry until we took off. As we came into Houston he asked, "So, are you coming visit family?"
"No," I replied. "Are you?"
He looked amused. "I'm here on business," he said.
"So am I," I replied.
So the message to all you ladies out there who have reached a certain age is to refuse to be invisible. I think the Red Hat ladies have the right idea. When I get old I will wear purple etc.  We will not go gently into that good night!


  1. Rhys, a few years ago, I was riding public transportation fairly frequently, and was horrified to find boys, men and even young women standing to offer me their seat on the bus or subway. On the one hand, I applaud their civility and courtesy, but to be the recipient of 'give the old lady your seat' when I wasn't even old yet, was quite humbling. My hair is now quite white on top, although I still don't consider myself old, but I just figure whoever condescends to my appearance of age hasn't noticed the youthful spirit under the white hair. I alternate between enjoying invisibility (it is so good for quietly observing others and writing in cafes!) and asserting my visibility and right to be noticed and treated fairly. Love your comment to your businessman on the airliner!

  2. If you're invisible I have disappeared! My hair went white before I reached 50 and I can't color it (doesn't take) nor do I want to.
    Someone recently told me that their grandma is now in her 70's and her hair is turning white like mine. Since they've known for quite some time they are confused as to my age. I just laugh even tough I don't keep my age a secret.
    I love it when seats, etc. are offered -- I mean, gee, sometimes I'm tired.
    Giggles and Guns

  3. I think people of a certain age are so unused to dignified, self-assured women that they fall back on the one courtesy they do remember: defer to the elderly and infirm. I'll take all the courtesy I can get at this point.
    When I was in Wales, I was never overlooked, and everyone knew I was an American before I spoke. When I asked a pubman about it, he said, "Well, you walked in here like you don't take s**** from anybody."
    I took it as a compliment.

  4. Great post, Rhys! I love your suggestions on how to be seated in a restaurant when you are alone. I am definitely going to try it. YOUR way sounds so nice; I probably would have tried being noticed by causing a (loud, unpleasant) scene. It must be the Brit in you that makes you polite! LOL

  5. When the man who fitted my new bathroom floor (next to the study) needed to speak to me, he went all the way downstairs to the kitchen, because that's clearly where a woman needs to be. At all times. I was working at my desk. In the study.

    I find that worse than being a lone female in a restaurant, as far as getting a good table is concerned, is being a female with a child in tow. Can't get lower than that. Also get better seats on planes alone than with my darling brats coming along too.

  6. I loved this blog!
    I usually take a couple of books with me when I go to a local Mexican restaurant for lunch. They: 1) think I am very, very strange to bring 2 books with me to read while I eat (I bring two because I'm never sure which one I'll prefer until I'm at my table, and 2) they feel very, very sorry for me and give me candy from their personal stash. I milk it for all it's worth.