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Life and the senior discount

If there is a major flashpoint for denial for baby boomers, it is those first few (or, let's face it, all) confrontations with the senior citizens' discount.

And, make no mistake, denial is a key part of growing older. Approaching the situation nearly equally from the standpoints of cosmetics and health, we punch, probe, pinch and sweat our bodies into shapes we see as indicative of youth.

The senior discount is a milestone on the journey into age. Nobody seems quite sure when the discount idea caught on. It was virtually unheard of 30 years ago, but as the population started graying, it caught on.

The Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa was where I first came face to face with the prospect of receiving a senior discount. It offers senior discounts at age 50. My late wife and I had been going to the zoo for nearly 20 years, watching it grow from a few animals in cages to its current status as a real tourist attraction.

"You aren't going to make a scene, are you?" she asked as we perused the sign setting prices for "adults" ages 12-49 at $7.50 and "seniors" 50 and older at $6.50.

Having just shelled out $15,000 for a new car for her, I wasn't inclined to argue. Two bucks was two bucks, enough to pay for a cup of gourmet coffee during the inescapable mall visit that would round out the afternoon.

Determined not to stutter (or croak, for that matter), I stepped up to the window and said, "Two seniors, please."

The clerk pushed the tickets across the counter. "Uh, we really are over 50," I said, hoping that she would somehow challenge our right to the two bucks.

"I know," she responded, waving away the profferred driver's license. (There was an answer good for two hours in front of the full-length mirror that night.)

As we walked around the zoo, I tried to figure what the rationale was. Were they giving me a break because my senses of sight, hearing and smell weren't as sharp and therefore I was getting less out of the attraction than somebody half my age? Was it because I wasn't putting my Birkenstocks down on the asphalt as forcibly as my Air-Jordan-shod co-gawkers and therefore not wearing out the pavement as fast?

Did I look so much less threatening than younger, stronger men that the caged animals would perceive me as less of a threat and wouldn't be as stressed by eye contact? Or is there something in the split that bifocals make across your pupils that just makes them want to giggle?

Suddenly the economics of it became clear.

If I went over to the University of South Florida and signed up for a few courses, I would qualify for a student discount. Maybe I could combine seniors' discounts and student discounts and work out a deal in which some theaters would have to pay me $2 to show up.

At some junctures where the retirement and youth cultures meet, there is a bit of friction, and baby boomers, with a foot firmly in each camp, sometimes feel torn between the two.

It was fashionable in some restaurants to complain about the bright overhead lights and the large-print menus with the Early Bird specials paper-clipped to the front. Some of us who did that now find ourselves desperately tilting the candle in the chianti bottle to get a better read _ and silently hoping the mild chicken wings are really mild.

The irony of the clash is that we are divided into three groups, those who are seniors, those who will be, and those, sadly, who won't make it.

There is a vast middle ground between when we aren't old enough to do things like drive, drink, marry or sign contracts and when we are too old to do certain things, like work.

If a few percentage points on the cost scale can ease the transition from one phase to another, who are we to question?

Take the two bucks, overtip the next 20-year-old food server who waits on you and congratulate yourself for taking part in the cyclic nature of the universe.

Jan Glidewell is a columnist for the Times' North Suncoast editions.