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Knowing somebody’s coffee order is one of my favorite litmus tests for familiarity.
By my freshman year of college, I had his order memorized: a small black coffee and a cinnamon bagel, with peanut butter on the side. When we met for the last time before quarantine, I ordered for him; he paid.
He is a Vietnam war veteran, softball coach, and real estate agent. He is eccentric and old enough to be my grandfather but not loopy — his eyes are limpid and alert, and he remembers the minutiae of our conversations, from my summer plans to my roommates’ classes. He is my only friend above age 60, and he has political beliefs I profoundly disagree with. And yet I have lost sleep over the possibility that he might contract coronavirus.
All of my columns so far have focused on strangers who remained strangers, people whom I would likely not recognize should I run into them again. This week, I want to write about a stranger who became a friend.
Perhaps all of our friends are originally strangers, but many are known to us in some way before they become our friends: They are our classmates, colleagues, teammates, or friends of friends; we start with an outline of our connection to them and arrive at friendship by shading in particulars.
I am speaking of a different sort of friendship, one that emerged from chance repeated encounters. I met the man whose coffee order I now have memorized because he was a substitute teacher at my high school. That we were in the same place at the same point in time — a high school classroom on a Friday afternoon — was entirely incidental: He happened to be assigned to that room on the day I was supposed to be learning something in it.
He substituted regularly; we saw each other maybe once a month, every month, all four years of high school. During my senior year, I found his birthday through the school registrar and gave him home-baked blueberry crumble. He was one of the first people to congratulate me on my acceptance to Harvard. He called me “Crimson,” and when he suggested that we meet in Harvard Square when I was officially a college student, I did him one better and said that we should make it a regular occasion.
When we meet, he talks about his grandchildren and I talk about school. Sometimes we talk about politics. We both dislike President Donald Trump but for very different reasons, and our shared political inclinations do not extend very far beyond that. He reminds me to care about things I know are important but rarely remember the plight of veterans, social security, and deteriorating infrastructure.
These are issues I associate with a different generation, and I don’t think about them often because I don’t have any other friends who are, to put it colloquially, boomers. In fact, I know very few Harvard students who have friends that are significantly older than they are. Aside from the oldsters we are required to interact with — relatives, professors, and professional colleagues — our social networks are wholly homogeneous with respect to age.
This is not surprising; we are not afforded many opportunities to befriend older people. But the politics of the age gap are increasingly sharp. Although older people have long leaned conservative, the last two decades have shown a wider political chasm emerging around age. In the 2018 midterms, Gen Z and young Millenials — people under 30 — favored Democrats by two to one, compared to an even Democrat-Republican split in voters over 65.
Myriad factors feed into this age gap. More and more older people silo themselves ideologically in social media echo chambers; they represent the fastest growing social media user demographic. Norms and language matter, too; growing up with same-sex couples on TV and a vocabulary that included “intersectionality” and “institutionalized racism” gave my generation a vastly different starting point.
I should also emphasize that I do not refer to either “my generation” or “older people” as monolithic political entities: Many boomers were leaders in the anti-war, civil rights, and women’s liberation movements; gender, race, geography, and class all muddy any universalizing age-based political assumptions.
But on some issues, the age difference in politics is undeniable and clearcut: Roughly half of people older than 55 worry about global warming, compared to 70 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds. Older white Americans are far less likely to express support for the Black Lives Matter movement compared to younger Americans.
Like many members of my generation, I feel an intense but nebulous resentment toward older people for bequeathing a figuratively and literally burning planet. My friendship with an older person cannot dampen that existential ire.
But I write this piece on the precipice of a brutal pandemic winter, in which tens if not hundreds of thousands of older Americans are expected to die. If we remain socially disconnected from the elderly, we are destined to view these deaths not as tragedies but as statistics — or worse, a perverse good riddance, a necessary separation of chaff that allows for political progress.
I do not know how my friend will vote. But our cross-generational, unexpected friendship is a constant reminder that though we may not always see eye to eye, we can at least sit across a table and share a cup of coffee.
Talia M. Blatt ‘23 is a resident of Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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