Escaping the elderly

Ever been trapped in a room full of old people? You must have tried to escape. I was once in this situation, but physically could not escape. The door was locked, the key hidden, and the windows bolted shut.

I’ve done escape rooms in Paris, Tokyo, Berlin, LA, Irvine, and Boston. Last summer in San Francisco, my roommate Rachel and I booked an escape.

The building itself was tucked under a freeway overpass and hard to find. Mysterious and grungy—A good sign for this sort of thing.

The quirky “gamemaster” (as he called himself) greeted Rachel and I and told us to make name tags. I was “Chuck” and Rachel was “Cosmic Warlord.” (We later realized we missed a golden opportunity to pick really funny names, and brainstormed better ones on the train ride home).

The gamemaster told us that nine other people would be escaping with us. Minutes later, a poppin’ limo pulled up with music blaring. The door opened and disco strobe light spilled onto the street. From the limo, emerged nine senior citizens.

A bridge club from Brentwood. 

Tipsy off the limo’s refreshments, they wore matching shirts celebrating “Maude’s 75th!” They made themselves nametags: “Sherry Berry”, “Peaches”, “Wonder Woman”, “Girl”, “Mom”, “KTB”, “Davey Wavey.” A large, quiet, Navy SEAL-type baby boomer named himself “Princess”. My favorite was this one woman; she could’ve chosen any name and she chose “Mabel.” I love you, Mabel.

The gamemaster started the clock and locked us in the room. Game on.  

I reverted to my battle-tested protocol, working methodically, efficiently, quickly. The older folks, on the other hand, went nuts. They yelled and scrambled, fiddling frustratedly with each puzzle. Peaches wanted air conditioning.  Davey Wavey lost his wallet. It was chaos.

I faced an ethical fork in the road. Should I take a domineering leadership role, ignore the seniors, and solve everything myself? Escaping was our goal, after all. If I took control, we’d succeed.

But what about Maude? Would she spend her big day waiting around as some punk kid stole her thunder? Was success worth excluding these quirky old-timers? No. Our stated goal was escaping, but more importantly—fun. Good leaders do not seek victory at all costs. They help everyone show up, contribute, and learn.

I opted not to dictate, but to delegate. The seniors eagerly agreed, wanting to contribute. I had Sherry Berry, a former teacher, decode anagrams. Princess the mechanic started retooling a cryptex. Girl the accountant worked a number puzzle. I gave Mabel a blacklight to scan for invisible ink.

They worked with ardor, imbued with new confidence. Still, the plodding seniors were no Sherlocks. We had too much fun to notice. Every small victory was high-fived.

The alarm screamed. We didn’t escape the room. But I escaped my narrow definition of leadership. It’s not about winning. Despite our comic ineffectiveness, my new friends and I all contributed. Leadership is about giving Maude a great 75th birthday.


Looking around the library

It is 105 degrees out today. If you don’t have air conditioning and like to read, you’re at the Newport Beach Public Library.

It’s hard to find an empty chair. All the cubicles are taken, so I settle for a lounge chair. Each lounge chair has a lame circular table. What is the purpose of a table with a 6-inch-radius? Is it supposed to dignify the lounge chair? If you’re going to give me extraneous furniture at least give me a footrest.

My seat is at the center of the room. The lounge chairs and cubicles encircle me like a twenty-first century Stone Henge. No one is watching me, but I am in everyone’s peripheral vision.

My spot makes for a good observation deck. I can observe everyone around me without anyone taking notice. Some distinct characters have joined me at the library today:

In the cubicle to my right is an Asian college student who has hunkered down for the long haul. She has a 18 ounce thermos of water or tea, a Tupperware container of noodles and vegetables, a bottle of pink lotion, a calculator, a backpack, and a cooler bag. A textbook lies open with a notebook on top. She reads off her laptop, and occasionally glances at the iPhone propped up against the cubicle wall, constantly flashing with new text messages.

In the cubicle to her left is a white male student reading large blocks of text on his laptop. He focuses intently, pausing every 5 minutes to take a single bite of his protein bar. There are many bolded headings, bulletpoints, and footers. I imagine he is proofreading the bylaws of a campus organization he helps lead. It probably reads:


  • The protocol for voting abstentions is as follows
      1. The voting party may abstain from procedural matters only if the requisite quorum does not meet specific parliamentary standards
      2. Such standards include, but are not limited to
        1. I really pity this kid. Get a girlfriend.


To his left is another student, blonde, sitting crosslegged on a spinny chair. She wears Nikes, workout shorts, and a pink tank top. Her legs will probably get some dirt on them, with her sitting like that. On her laptop, she pulls up images of small, complex diagrams which she must lean in and squint at to see. She copies them down in her notebook. She sips a Starbucks iced latte.

To her left a man sits in an armchair. He wears flip flops and ripped socks, worn jeans, and a shirt the color of dried mud. He has headphones held together with tape, and watches a screen that I infer is borrowed from the library. I cannot tell if he is homeless. He is the only person here who occasionally looks up from what he is doing to glance around self-consciously. He has met my eye a couple times so I think I’ll have to stop observing him for now.

To his left (if you haven’t noticed, I’m going in a circle) is a middle aged man wearing neon pink shorts. Somehow, it doesn’t look out of place on him. The shorts compliment the black fitted shirt, the smart, red-rimmed glasses, the Perrier sparkling water, the leather backpack, and the MacBook Air with a sticker reading “1000 Miles.” I infer that he cycled down Pacific Coast Highway this morning. His grey hair flows in waves down to his shoulders. He is very absorbed in his typing. He’s using the lame little lounge-chair table, and that doesn’t look out of place with him either.

To his left, in a cubicle, is another Asian student who has taken a nap. She wears Minion-themed crocs with pink socks.

To her left is another student who appears more Southeast Asian, her sleek black hair streaked with blonde and tied back in a bun. She wears a gold necklace, black strappy sandals, and a navy blue sundress. Of her three books, one lies open, and she types on her laptop. She’s writing an essay. She is a liberal arts student, whereas the other students are STEM. Every 15 minutes or so, she checks her Facebook.

A heavyset lady with a suitcase walks past me then disappers behind a row of books. I wonder what the story is there.

An attractive Afro-Arab looking man sits down across from me. He wears metallic glasses and Airpods and carries nothing but his phone. I infer that he lives close-by, in Newport. You don’t travel 30 minutes to go to a library and check your phone. Maybe he was grocery shopping at Trader Joes down the street, and thought he’d stop by the library for a moment of silence and a breath of fresh air. I am guessing he’ll leave in the next ten minutes, once he cools down. I am right. 

That’s all the data I collect from my surroundings. Now I analyze my empirical observations and draw conclusions.

  1. You can learn a lot about a person by what beverage they drink.
  2. Students still seem to have and carry textbooks, but never open them.
  3. I have trouble creating narratives without the help of stereotypes. It is hard for me to visualize the napping croc-wearing Asian student ripping a bong, or the white male club organizer dancing at a J Cole concert, or the Nike-wearing blonde excelling in organic chemistry. But, I mean, 2/3 of those things have probably happened.
  4. Wow, two hours have passed?