I cannot for the life of me figure out or pretend to know what the clerk at Smith’s was thinking. I was cleanly, even nattily dressed at 8 a.m., a colored T-shirt underneath a pressed Façonable denim button-down, tan Banana Republic Gavin (“relaxed fit, lower waistline”) pants, National Geographic suede slip-ons and blue French socks with an upside down question mark. Sure I have gray, but not white, hair and even had been nursing a red apple on the right side of my nose as a remnant of youth. Maybe it was my focused, intent expression.
I had a simple task: to buy some newborn-sized diapers—which, as a pediatrician, are a necessity at my office. As Smith’s stores go, this one is massive, and I hate wasting time wandering while trying to shop.
“Excuse me. Could you please tell me where the diapers are?” I asked the first sales clerk I encountered.
“Disposable?” she asked. I thought this an unusual question.
“Right back there on the north wall past the health and beauty section,” she directed me. I headed off.
The north wall looked distant and wrong. The idea of going through the “health and beauty section” did not seem right. As I drew close, I noticed Tampax and sanitary pads and felt even more disquieted. Looking down the wall, I was unable to recognize anything that looked remotely like newborn diapers. As I moved along the display, I suddenly felt weak and mortified when my eyes settled upon the product she thought I had asked for: Depends. Shelves of them. I began hyperventilating and looking for the nearest store clerk.
There she was, around the corner, stocking the condom shelf.
“Where are the newborn diapers?” I asked, realizing that perhaps my initial question had not been specific enough.
Without hesitation she said, “Back on aisle 10 near the baby foods.”
“Thanks a lot,” I said with relief.
I found what I was looking for, and rather than confront the store clerk who sent me in search of Depends, I checked myself out at one of those new self-service registers so common now in large grocery stores. I felt at once mortified, angry, incredulous and the butt of someone’s cosmic joke. It was like the opposite of being carded at a bar. I had been profiled by an ageist.
For the next few days, I considered revisiting the site of the embarrassment. Even though I don’t consider myself that much of a scientist, sometimes you need reproducible results to believe something is true. So three days later, I ventured out to try my experiment. The first person I saw was at an information desk.
“Where are the diapers?” I asked.
Without looking at me, he said, “Aisle 10, where the baby diapers are.”
But it did not count; I needed someone to look me in the face and answer. I found a clerk stocking oranges.
“Where are the diapers?” I repeated.
She looked at me, furrowed her brow and said, “Aisle 10 I think.”
That was better but not good enough. I wanted to ask someone geographically closer to the Depends section. By the time I found the proper clerk, I had begun to feel like Larry David in a real-life episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. She was standing five feet from the Wall of Depends.
“Where are your diapers?” I asked.
She looked me up and down and then straight in the eye without blinking and without a doubt in her voice and said, “Right over there in aisle 10.”
Age, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Years later, at age 76, and a victim of polyuria, buying Depends is not only a necessity; it is a purchase I can buy without embarrassment. It is something I can be proud of, a sign of both physical and spiritual maturation.