It’s been weird, and also wonderful, that the older I grew as a young man, the more I made friends with old people. Not just older people — I mean old people. Their outlook was always young, but their minds and bodies had years and years of greater experience than I.
As a young bookseller in the early 1980s I made friends with Carlton A. Sheffield. He was a Stanford roommate of John Steinbeck’s and became a life-long friend of the Nobel Prized-winning author. Sheff, as he liked to be called, lived about an hour from me. I made regular visits to him over the years, often bringing Steinbeck scholars with me who would interview him. Sometimes we would bring a bottle of wine or maybe some beer. He would make us baloney sandwiches. We would talk about his life, about Steinbeck, and about life in general. I treasure those memories.
Around that same time I also made friends with another man who actually lived very close to Sheff, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author Wallace Stegner. When I first met him around 1982, he was 73 years old. I was 34. I was lucky enough to see him at his home in Los Altos, California about every nine months for nearly the next dozen years. Random House published one of my favorite books of his, Crossing to Safety, in 1987 when Stegner was 78 years old.
At the same time I was making friends with the 82-year-old baby sister of my father’s mother. Arax Yeprem lived in Istanbul, Turkey. She was my great aunt. I would never meet her in person, but we corresponded regularly from the early 1980s, when I “discovered” her, until her death. She could read and write English a little, but it was never difficult to feel the love in her letters when she would write, “You are industrious. I kiss your beautiful, beautiful eyes.” I treasure those letters.
I also made friends with a man who started out as a Steinbeck acquaintance, but who turned out to be on of my best friends. Graham Wilson was emeritus chairman of the English Department at San Francisco State University. Other than the gulf of difference in our ages, we had a lot in common. We both liked Steinbeck. We both had only one child, a daughter, and we had that child a little later in life than most parents. We both adored out daughters. I lived about an hour from him, and while I visited him occasionally, we mostly were phone buddies. About once a week he or I would call, just to check in. That “checking in” usually lasted an hour or longer.
In the mid-1990s I made friends with a writer named Harriet Doerr. Viking published her Stones for Ibarra, in 1984. It was her first book. At the time of its publication she was 74 years old. Let me repeat that. She had her first book published when she was 74 years old. She received her B. A. degree from Stanford University in 1977 when she was a mere pup of 67 years of age. She was a sweet old gal with whom I occasionally chatted on the phone. She was genuinely flattered at the attention I gave her and was even somewhat surprised that I wanted her to sign the few copies of Stones for Ibarra that I had managed to find. My time with her reminded me of when someone asked me why I flirted with old women so much. I would always reply, “Because they appreciate it so much more.”
What conclusions can I draw from these experiences? I’m unsure. I can say that I sought out these older folks not because they were old, but because they had some connection to my life, either as a person or as a bookseller, or both. However, what made me continue to pursue them was that they were highly intelligent. Just being with them made me feel smarter. I learned how some people handle life with grace. I learned that not only the young can accomplish much in life, and that there is life after youth. I learned that for some people giving to others made their own lives better. Older people became a resource I wanted to tap. I’m not terribly old yet. I’m 65. I hope I can return the favor.