It happened in Memphis. A lot of history and interesting things occur in that magical city that sits grandly on the Mississippi River. Elvis held court there, the blues grew up there, and barbecue is queen. Elvis, of course, is still king.
I visited Memphis on a book tour. I had just returned to the hotel after television appearances and book signings. I stopped downstairs at the restaurant to order a salad to take back to my room. I forgo room service except in rare instances. Though I was on an expense account from my publishing house, I spend their money like I spend mine. That means not paying an extra 20 percent just to have someone bring food to my room. I can carry it myself to the room for free.
Time stretched on, even though only four or five customers were in the restaurant. I sat down at a table and waited. I noticed a large, broad-shouldered man sitting several tables away, where the light was soft and low. He was alone. I thought nothing of that since I was alone, too, and that is often the case with business travelers. He had on a black suit jacket and no tie. His hair was dark black, cut in what once was called a shag — layers that framed his face and fell past his collar. The man had a beard that was neither too long or nor too short. I paid him no further attention, choosing instead to focus on two waitresses who were fussing about the weekend schedule with a manager who wore badly scuffed brown loafers with worn-down heels.
“How does a person become a manager in a nice hotel wearing shoes like that?” I asked myself. I’d still like to know the answer to that one.
I thought a little more about possible answers to that question until another more important question pushed it out of my mind. I felt someone coming up behind me and turned to see the large man stomping in a heavy-footed pace toward the exit. He was about 6-foot-4 and stout. Not fat, mind you. He looked like I imagined Paul Bunyan did when I read about him as a child, or that character “Big Bad John” in that Jimmy Dean song from the 1960s. Our eyes met. He smiled kindly, his full cheeks pushing his blue eyes into crinkled squints.
“Hello,” he said. “How are you today?”
His words were articulated well and his tone was educated. A worn leather laptop bag was draped over his shoulder, and I immediately thought, “professor.”
I smiled back and returned his greeting as he strolled past me in long-legged strides. No sooner had he gone by than the most objectionable smell filled the air. It was a mixture of dirt, sweat and a long time with no soap or water. It caught me off guard. I turned to see where it was coming from, but no one was around. I turned back toward the nice giant and saw what I had missed before: The jacket had huge holes where the elbows were. The hem hung from the back, threads frayed and trailing and his lapels were worn and shiny. He wore dirty, knee-length shorts and flip flops patched together with duct tape. The soft lighting had hidden the ground-in dirt on his face. He exited the hotel, which sits in downtown Memphis near the river, and met up with another man who looked like he did. Homeless, no doubt. The jacket was a remnant from his better days because I don’t think a thrift store would stock one that large.
I grew thoughtful and tried to imagine who he had been and what journey had led him to the streets of downtown Memphis. Then, again, I saw the manager with the scuffed up shoes and thought, “If you’re not careful ...”
Rich is the best-selling author of “There’s A Better Day A-Comin.’” Go to www.rondarich.com to sign up for her newsletter.