The Big Five-Oh

For reasons unknown — maybe sadism — people sometimes print up t-shirts for their friends’ fiftieth or sixtieth birthdays. They give one to the birthday boy and maybe pass out a few more at the party. And the tees say jokey things about growing old or senile.

I guess you’re supposed to be a good sport about it all. I love my friends. They don’t make jokes like this, and when i turned 50 they took me out to dinner and said nothing more about it.

Anyway, after the big day nobody wears these shirts again, because they say “50” or “60” on them are otherwise unflattering. And so the shirts end up at Goodwill, where nobody buys them unless they don’t read English.

But Nancy’s tee is the best fiftieth-birthday shirt I’ve ever seen, and that’s why it came home with me:

I’ll never know who Nancy is, really. But this shirt summarizes the bullshit parts of an entire life, and that impressed me. Yes, Nancy survived: a much better commemoration of 50 years than “you’re over the hill at last.” I can see her friends toasting her with laughter and magaritas.

II got this shirt in 2009, so say it took a couple of years to make it to the thrift store. From all this we may surmise that Nancy was born in the mid- to late-50s, grew up in a steel town in the rust belt and maybe got busted for smoking pot with the tough kids. Then other things happened.

Those are all the facts I’ve got. I’ve never found Nancy, and I’ve never heard her story.

So I made one up for her. This tee is a writing prompt on cloth. So:

Maybe Nancy was a tough kid herself, a proto-punk growing up in a hard-knocks steel town. Where all the boys were supposed to go straight from high school graduation to a lifetime job in the mills. As for the girls, their job was to stay home, do laundry, and make babies.

But Nancy had no time for that script. So the Catholic girls at Industrial High spread rumors she was a “slut.” Which means almost nothing but implies almost everything. It’s a hard label to shake.

And the pimply-faced, smelly boys with big hands and noses would murmur “hur,hur,hur,” as she passed their lockers in hope that she’d pop their cherry for them. Lotsa luck, creeps, it’s just gossip.

Eventually Nancy tottered out of high school on platform shoes and into the maw of the ’70s. And hit the disco floor in Farrah Fawcett hair, a tube top, and glittery nail polish. Maybe she tended bar. There was a little college in there; nothing serious.

There was certainly a little coke — maybe more than a little — and eventually her Disco King in the form of a tall, dark, fast-talker with puka beads and and a porn-star mustache. And a brightish future managing a discount vinyl-flooring outlet.

They moved in together, and the Catholic girls from the old neighborhood — already married and pregnant — upped the gossip volume to Overload. Even though their brothers were aping John Travolta and trolling the disco floor for one-nighters. But, y’know, boys are different.

And so for a while it was party party party. But then Disco King wasn’t around so much — he worked late nearly every day. Nancy tired of taking a couple of general ed classes and hanging around the house all day.

So she tried a little dealing — I mean, why not sell what you like, and Disco King liked paying wholesale for his blow — but called it off after the cops got a little too interested.

She went straight: part-time work humping paper for a real estate agency. Where her adolescent ‘tude translated into just the right phone manner for barking at appraisers and title companies to keep that paper moving.

One long weekend, in a fit of coke-induced optimism, Nancy and Disco King drove to Atlantic City and married up. As luck would have it, Nancy caught him in the hot tub with a barmaid not long after.

He told her that marriage didn’t mean the same thing to him as it did to other guys. He gestured her into the tub for a threesome, gold chains jingling around his nipples. Right there and then, Nancy had an instant epiphany of disgust.

She packed her gear and moved out that night, but not before keying the hood of Disco King’s Camaro Z28. She never snorted coke again. Well, hardly ever.

Nancy upper her hours at the real estate office to full time, earned a real estate license, bought a few dress-for-success business suits — the kind that showed boob — and before you knew it she was leasing commercial space in the new office towers going up in the inner ‘burbs.

Nice bonuses, a sweet Volvo 240, and networking parties three nights a week. Sometimes she brought home more than business cards.

One of them stayed around — Thor, a tall, blond, residential agent with a good track record in high-end home sales and a water-polo body he’d picked up playing for Lutheran University.

It was lust at first sight, and compatible interest afterward. In the afterglow of sex, they talked cap rates and depreciation and gross rent multipliers until the sun rose. A merger was negotiated and finalized.

The Eighties hit the Rust Belt hard, and real estate along with it. Nancy and Thor sought greener pastures, and Thor fastened on California. People told them the business was hell in California, too; but as Nancy said, you don’t fear hell when you’ve seen Pittsburgh in January.

They settled in Santa Cruz, because the competition was small-time and they could smell all that Silicon Valley money just waiting to pour over the hill to buy pieces of Paradise.

In a few years, it did. Nancy and Thor sold beachfront homes to execs from Apple and Silicon Graphics and Tandem, all gravid with stock-option bucks.

After a while Thor stayed mostly in sales and Nancy took over the business end. She ran the office, leased vacation rentals, and managed their commercial properties.

Twin Mercedes, a sweet executive manse in Carbonero Heights, and then the dotcom boom; life was good.

Well, except that Thor spent more and more time hanging with the sales staff while Nancy minded the store alone. And it wasn’t easy.

She kept their ever-larger staff pumping paper and moving money, whipping cohort after cohort of slack-jawed 21 year-old girls and boys into hard-nosed cubicle warriors.

Until the competition hired them away and she had to start over with the latest crop of community college grads. Were they really getting dumber every year? And what the hell was this tattoo business all about?

Nancy joined three different clubs and partied hard with other self-made businesswomen and corporate ladder-climbers. They had great times down at the Crow’s Nest on Wednesday night and then was the time — or two — when she woke up Thursday morning in some Seabright beach boy’s bed not knowing how she got there.

And there was a photo –or two — of her dirty-dancing half-naked with Weevil, a 30-something local surf god with 37 endorsement contracts and a meth habit. She honestly didn’t remember a thing.

So, it was time to cut relations with Bloody Mary and the White Russian. She cooked a fine dinner for Thor one night and kind of apologized. Thor accepted the apology and told her he was moving in with their third-best salesperson — a 26-year-old blonde Reiki practitioner and CrossFit instructor, Abs you could bounce a quarter off, he gloated.

“Then I’ve got a going-away present for you” Nancy said. She reached for the stun gun she’d bought to ward off druggie tenants, and jabbed him with it. Several times.

Once Thor hit the floor, Nancy forced the door of his locked office and burrowed through his papers. She found travel receipts for Mr. and Mrs. Thor to Vegas and Cabo and Mazatlan going back three years. She didn’t remember any of those trips, and not because she’d been drinking.

So she scooped up the most incriminating paperwork and returned to stun the groaning Thor another time or two for good measure. But she’d run down the batteries and settled for pouring dessert — zabaglione — evenly up and down Thor’s prone body. She restrained herself from lighting it.

When Thor regained his faculties, he found a lawyer’s business card beside him on the floor. One of the Mercedes was gone, too.

The divorce wasn’t pretty, and neither was division of the business and assets, but they got through it and agreed not to spit at each other when they met again — Thor had it written into the settlement. Thor got the residential real estate business and the house; Nancy got property management and commercial real estate and a couple of apartment buildings.

Nancy also got a few visits from the FBI in the middle of it all, because one of her clueless 22-year-olds had opened an email attachment “from a friend” and infected the entire office network. It was now under the control of a Russian hacker ring that was using Nancy’s computers to flood the Western Hemisphere with malware disguised as weight-loss spam. The young worker was “reee-leee sorry.” Nancy put her on landscape maintenance.

And suddenly she was 50 years old and the “client meeting” someone put on her calendar turned out to be a surprise birthday party with the girls over at Cafe Palomar. And then her best friend Babs put this t-shirt in front her and led everybody in a gawdawful version of “Happy Birthday.”

Nancy just stared at the t-shirt, virgin daiquiri at her side. The big 5-0, then and God, hadn’t it just been the other day that she was 22 and dancing the Latin Hustle under a laser-lit disco ball?

She shook her head. She was here and this was now, and she was a tough old broad and that was that. She led the table in a toast to tough old broads everywhere and they pelted her with coasters. And a good time was had by all.

….and that’s why I collect tee shirts. Yeah, I’m weird.