Mr. Jenkins is 80 years old and lives in a subsidized senior apartment. He reported that experiences of discrimination were “just normal” when growing up in the south:
Before the start of school, dad would take us five boys downtown to buy shoes. They wouldn’t let us try them on. You took a string and measured your foot. They said, “If you try them on, nobody else will want them.” Things haven’t changed. Some stores, they act like you might steal something. It's one of those things I don’t see changing. He's black and you have to watch him.
Despite a scarcity of jobs, Mr. Jenkins reasoned that “everybody has to eat and everybody dies.” He worked as a cook before marriage, then attended mortuary college (where he met his wife) to learn embalming. The couple came to Philadelphia with their infant son. When asked if he had ever suffered, Mr. Jenkins recalled his son's death from pneumonia at age 2, over 50 years previously:
My wife accused me of bringing the germ home from the morgue. She went to Indiana with her family after the funeral. That was a very low point. I closed myself up in the house and drank. The funeral director wanted me to embalm bodies. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get myself together. I took a laborer's job.
Mr. Jenkins’ present loneliness mirrors the past. Because his middle son passed away two years previously, he has endured a significant depression:
We weren’t on the best of terms. I had to put him out, and we never had a reunion. He liked the fast track. When his mother was sick, I had to tell him to visit her. I always got him a job. I carried him along with me.
Mr. Jenkins’ surviving son is childless, divorced, and “successful.” Although he believes he could ask for help at any time, his son “must check his schedule just for a visit.”
Mr. Jenkins’ physical decline worries him. “I’m 80 years old and I see the difference from last year to this year.” He believes “[he] will not make it through another year.” Likewise “[he] cannot escape these four walls because [he] fears hitting the streets.” There were numerous neighborhood shootings in the past year:
I would say I suffer now. I got everything I need, but nobody to talk to. Walls don’t answer. Your mind goes way back. And you turn your TV on, this one's killed today. So many were killed yesterday. I get despondent.
Mr. Jenkins reported that suffering “is watching others suffer,” including elderly neighbors who “don’t have enough to get by.” When asked to define suffering, he said: “Suffering is not being able to get medical things you need to stay alive. Not being able to buy food. Or have to choose buying medicine or food.”
Despite appearing frail, Mr. Jenkins implements his generativity by volunteering for an organization that works out payment plans for elders’ overdue utility bills. As a judge of elections, he knocks on neighbors’ doors, encouraging them to vote. As an usher at his Baptist church, he attends Sunday services to “hand out the bulletins, walk them in, help out.”
Last Christmas, Mr. Jenkins hoped to begin a romantic relationship with a woman friend and wrote on a greeting card: “You may not be my first love, but you’ll be my last.” This lady has since avoided him; he thinks his seriousness frightened her. He called this unrequited love “suffering”:
It’ll never be as it was. Thing is I know her better than I know anybody else. It's better than walking out and meeting a stranger. She wouldn’t steal from me; I would trust her in this house anywhere.
Mr. Jenkins’ suffering consists of isolation, issues of trust and mistrust, and nearness to death. Two of his sons are deceased and his remaining son needs nothing from him. He places his generative outlet on diminishing hopes for romantic love and in empathy for “the old folks.”
Like Mr. Jenkins, Mr. Gossage, at age 81 years, has multiple health problems. He named the worst time in life as “being in the army.” Returning home on leave also caused anxiety:
I traveled back and forth to Maryland. In Delaware they stopped the bus, said, you have to go in back. I thought, when I get out the army, I’m sitting in the first seat. I don’t care what happens. That was a terrible thing.
Mr. Gossage's living room is filled with appliances that he repairs for neighbors. Throughout the past 40 years, family members “down on their luck” have lived with him. Several years ago, he took in three grandchildren after realizing that their mother, his daughter, was addicted to drugs:
When I had my grandchildren, my health suffered. I worried about them, not myself. When they come, the curtain came down. I went to court to get custody of them. Then I brought my daughter here so she’d get off drugs. She did, but after that she took me to court to get back custody. It was rough her living here, no money, just welfare. I’d tell them one thing, she’d say another. Two people talking to children is horrible.
One of Mr. Gossage's grandchildren, now a grown man, is staying with him “until he finds his own place.” I asked Mr. Gossage about this arrangement:
He don’t work, number one. The TV stays on all night. The washing machine—he wash all day. He is one reason I don’t have no money today. When he left school he worked in the prison. He made money on the side doing wrong. So he went to prison and I used my money to get him out. He didn’t pay me back what I put in. I did it for his mother; I didn’t want her to go back on drugs.
Mr. Gossage's generativity is created by the context of his children's lives and his neighborhood environment. Homes on his block are boarded, some are drug houses, and others are used by the homeless. Several years ago, he rented a veterans’ post to open a soup kitchen that weekly served almost 200 neighborhood needy. He relied on donations, and the rest he contributed
from my own pocket. A lot of old people do nothing. I feel good helping somebody. It makes me forget my own problems. And I can go to very few for help. What keeps me going is the scale, you know, help, not help, help, not help. Everybody have a job and I worry if I did my job ‘cause it's gonna help in the end. Like a scale—people do good, people don’t do good, but we all have a chance to make ourselves better by the deeds we do.
Mr. Gossage recently closed the soup kitchen due to dwindling funds. Yet, his goals remain shaped by others’ needs. He plans to travel to California to lay hands on the seriously ill son of a “good friend” for healing. He is saving to make this trip next spring. Mr. Gossage said he “doesn’t worry” about estrangement from one of his daughters and several grandchildren. He is concerned with generative behaviors for which he feels responsible, such as overweighting the “good” side of his scale in order to balance out others’ misdeeds and omissions.
Mr. Jenkins’ surviving child does not look to his father for help, and Mr. Gossage feels he has already given “too much” to children and grandchildren. Both men find their primary outlet for generativity in neighborhood elders who need and are grateful for their assistance.