Last summer, I became a pioneer in a sort of a May-December living arrangement. That’s when my 25-year-old grandson – I’ll call him Tom - decided to move from Chicago where he, like I, had grown up, move to New York and move into my West Side New York City apartment with me.
My one-bedroom apartment barely had room for me. But its amenities included a minuscule sleeping alcove, a second, half-bathroom, a dishwasher, a washer/drier, and a balcony on which he could both stash his bike and, in less than freezing temperatures, withdraw to converse in private on his cell phone – all attractions, according to Tom, that were lacking in the still tinier apartments of his friends in which he’d first thought he’d stay.
A graduate of an art school, Tom had dozens of friends who’d already moved to, or who’d moved back home to New York. Though I keep hearing that New York has become so prohibitively expensive that no one can afford to live here anymore, let alone move here, Tom’s social circle seemed to far exceed my own rapidly dwindling number of friends who lately had been succumbing, at an ever more alarming rate, to the ravages of death, disease and/or dementia.
My few remaining, cognitively- intact friends, hearing of Tom’s arrival, were shocked. “How long is he staying?” they kept asking. “Don’t you find it a huge imposition?”
Actually, I didn’t. I’d had trouble adjusting to living alone after thirty-plus years with my artist/companion, David. But in the three years since he died, while I’d gotten used to my privacy, Tom and I both understood our arrangement would be temporary – breathing space for him to take stock and look for a job.
Truth to tell, from his arrival, I found it exhilarating, to be privy to Tom’s boundless, energetic bursts of optimism as he outlined his hopes and goals for his future. For the past seven years – through high school and college – he’d held a part time and summer job in a Chicago bike shop. He was interested in retailing, design, plus he could sew. With his myriad contacts and talent, he felt sure that the world lay open before him. Then, a scant week after his arrival, Tom landed a job in a bike shop less than a mile from my West Side apartment – a far easier commute than any he’d had in Chicago,
Before long, my son, Tom’s uncle, along with his whole family, and even I, had all stopped by the bike shop to say hello to Tom at work.
At home, Tom regaled me with tales about his customers. On West 72nd Street, they comprised a cross section of Manhattan; like people I’d see when I reported on civil and criminal trials in Manhattan courtrooms, they ranged from foreigners, Orthodox Jews, working class people, to lawyers, psychoanalysts and other professionals, along with celebrities or an occasional biking-adicted world leaderg.
There were, of course, some minuses. Living alone, aside from an occasional steamed artichoke, I’d given up on cooking for myself. Now I felt a nagging guilt over my typical dinners - meals that mainly consisted of take-out food, or an ordered- in cheese burger or pasta. Despite vowing to take up cooking again, however, Tom’s erratic home-coming hours did little to bolster my resolve. Plus I soon found that he shared my taste for junk food - from pizza, or mac and cheese, to anything on Chipolte’s menu. My main concession to Tom’s presence was that at dinners with friends, I took to bringing home my leftovers, or an extra main dish for him - looking more like a bag lady than my image of a gracious grandmother.
I was surprised to find that Tom never looked at the newspapers I spent too much time studying each morning, or watched my favorite evening news or other TV programs. His chief – actually, his only - source of information was his computer – and his main choice of TV viewing was skateboarding videos.
`He’s not my son,’ I reminded myself, each time I’d return home to be confronted anew with what struck me as these more abysmal life choices. But by my advanced age I’d learned to keep my mouth shut – a trait I never came close to mastering in the stormy years before and during my divorce, when Tom’s mother was growing up – the third of my four children. Nor did I lie awake listening for his key in my door at whatever early morning hour he might return. At night, I just closed my bedroom door, read or watched TV and fell asleep. Occasionally, however, in a unique role reversal, when I had opera or theater tickets, it was I who sometimes texted Tom to tell him I wouldn’t be home until around midnight.
“I would have worried if you hadn’t shown up much after 11,” Tom said, sounding just like the real Jewish mother in his - and my - family: my daughter.
As weeks turned to months, friends and family began to ask me a new question: “Are you still getting along?’
“We call you `The Odd Couple’,” my granddaughter, Sarah, not her real name, who’d grown up in New York and was the same age as Tom, told me one night.
She'd meant it as a joke, but I said: "That's a good description. He's an exercise addict; I'm an exercise phobic."
I continued to take everyone’s assumption of impending disaster in stride. Even when he was little, Tom and I had always gotten along. He’d shared my taste in reading about Jeffrey Dahmer and some of the other grisly true crimes I’d reported on. Unlike his bookish younger brother, he also had always loved visiting New York. Like me, he felt invigorated by the city’s noise and hectic pace – by the jammed, chaotic mess of the city that, in just days, left his mother and brother limp and exhausted.
A few friends remained alarmed. “Is your grandson still there?” Roz asked, every time she phoned. Then, as if fearing disaster: “Are you feeling okay?”
Diane, another friend, continued to inquire how much longer my son, not my grandson, would be staying with me. Did these friends fear I’d embarked on a taboo relationship – a mama cougar out to ensnare my much younger grandson? They didn’t seem to know about today’s `boomerang’ generation – what writer Sally Koslow, in her book, Slouching Towards Adulthood: How To Let Go So Your Kids Can Grow Up
terms `adultescents.’ Koslow was describing today’s often jobless college graduates of around my grandson’s age who opt to move back into their parents home – more than 21 million, according to 2012 statistics - and a few million more who choose to move in with one or both grandparents.
Tom soon got busier, working three days a week in the bike shop, the other three in a skate board shop down the street. And I got introduced to a whole new group of his co-workers.
My friends went from appalled to dismayed. “Is he ever going to get a real job?” they asked?
“He’s just going through a delayed adolescence,” I said. “Or maybe a second one.” So long as he seemed happy, I doubted it mattered.
Not everyone has been as upset as my friends. My dermatologist said she has four patients in Manhattan - four! - whose grandchildren are living with them. “If their grandchild lives in some other city, how can they possibly afford to move here unless they’ve already got a great high- paying job?" she said. "And after all - some young people would rather live with a grandparent than a parent.
(Photo of Sally Koslow; Property of the author)
“Do you ever get embarrassed”, I asked Tom. “Living with your grandmother?”
“No, not at all,” Tom said. He noted that he’d grown up with friends in Chicago whose parents – thanks to their divorces, remarriages and second families- were all different ages. Some were as young as his parents, but others wre about the same age as me. “Besides,” Tom looked at me from his perch at his computer on my living room couch. “My colleagues all think you’re a really cool grandma. When I told them I was living with my grandmother, they thought you’d be a little old bedridden lady. But I told them no, you’re busier than I am. You go out to the theater, to movies, your Shakespeare group – and when they met you, they said `wow! She’s really cool!’”
I’d thought of myself as pretty doddering – prone to falling, arthritic ridden- the next broken bone just one footstep away. Never, until now, as cool.
I was more surprised when Tom, never that interested in films, piped up one night and said: “I know about a movie we should watch. “Grandma’s Boy.” It was a flop, then it became kind of a cult thing.”
So far Tom’s been too busy to watch it when I stream it on my Roku. Whenever he gets the time, I know he’ll find it a hoot. The movie grandma and grandson enrich each other. She gets her grandson, Alex to shape up - grow up? - and do chores around her apartment. IAlex manages to turn his grandma and her two mostly sedentary women roommates onto TV remotes, then to TV cooking programs, foul language, then accidentally onto drugs, and finally he gets them addicted to playing video games. Alex’s grandma becomes such a wiz at the new video game her movie grandson is developing, that, spoiler alert - she ends by saving the day.
I haven’t yet gotten hooked on speed, taken up video games or tried skate boarding. But I have introduced Tom to Bill Maher (he’d never had HBO), and to Larry Wilmore’s new Nightly Show – things I consider huge pluses. Mainly, what struck me about the movie, however, is that the cool reel- life grandma and grandson in Manhattan get along just as well as I have so far with my cool real- life live- in grandson in Manhattan. As half of a pair of real-life `Odd Couple' housemates, I also plan one day soon to ask my exercise-devotee- grandson to take this exercise-shunning grandma downstairs into our building's gym and forcibly show me what I need to do to start regularly working out.