Central Library in St. Louis
Inside this wonderful library on a fall day in 1976, there were numerous characters who seemed to be lost in their own worlds. But I will never forget one man who broke the whisper rule and shared a bit of his own wisdom.
Karen and Me
I was a 19 year old college student and it was fall break. Friends were heading out of town on adventures and I was stuck in St. Louis, working nights as a theatre usher to pay tuition. But my days were free and so was my friend Karen. Karen and I shared an important ability, which is especially rare today. We were able to entertain ourselves for great lengths of time, without spending a penny. (Although we did spend a few coins at a photo booth once)
On October 25, 1976, Karen and I made plans to drive downtown and explore our own city as if it were Paris...without spending a cent. The main focus of our adventure would be the impressive St. Louis Central Library with its monumental entrance and palace-like interior.
First we wandered through rooms and studied the ornate ceilings and stained glass windows. There were arches and chandeliers that really did make us think we'd taken a trip to Europe.
It was hard to imagine getting absorbed in a book with so many distractions. Echoing footsteps...the smells of old books and polished wood...grand windows to stare out and pictures painted on the ceiling.
This library was established (long before the building) in 1865 with only 1,500 books. Who knows how many there were in 1976, but we cracked a few. We browsed through books of quotations and memorized some of the best, so we could later use them in nonsense conversation as we strolled down busy sidewalks. We thumbed through phone books from distant cities, looking for friends from the past. We sat in small chairs in the Children's Room and enjoyed some colorful picture books. Then we had an amusing time fumbling with some microfilm. I don't remember what we looked at, but I do remember that we were very pleased with our accomplishments.
It began to feel strange when we entered the Periodicals Room. The tables were full of men reading newspapers. There was something sad and timeless about this image. It felt like we were entering a library during the depression, with jobless men searching the want ads. Then I began to breathe in the stale odor of the room and realized some of these men had not seen showers in some time. I felt uneasy at first, to recognize the fact that the library was a shelter to many homeless during the day. But it also made me secretly glad they had such a wonderful place to come.
Observing the people in the library turned out to be just as intriguing as the architecture and books. In the Popular Room, Karen and I flipped through books while glancing around, wondering where these library guests came from. Business men on lunch hour? Old retired couples, tired of watching TV? And then my eyes stopped on a man, with matted hair and a coat almost stiff with filth. He looked up from his paper as I was staring and I was jolted by his strikingly handsome face. An actor, playing a homeless man? In that second when our eyes met I panicked that I'd been caught staring, but his eyes were distant and spacey. He grinned towards me, yet his mind seemed far away.
Karen and I moved to another room and chose books we were actually interested in and settled at a large wooden table. I studied a book about the 1966 flood in Florence, Italy. Karen chose a pictorial on Japan. We were suddenly aware of a man dressed in torn clothing standing over us, slowly shaking his head. He spoke to Karen, "You're turning the pages too fast. You're not enjoying each picture." We both sort of laughed politely and the man walked away.
The man returned a while later and leaned over my book. I could smell alcohol and his voice was loud enough to make others turn. "And you should keep a dictionary with you. Don't pretend you know all the words." Ordinarily I would have moved away from a lecturing stranger with booze on his breath. But there was something protective about this old library and something oddly wise and peaceful about this odd man. "Look at the quality of the pages!" he said with sudden enthusiasm. "Feel how smooth they are. You don't realize how beautiful these pages are, because you're so young."
Thank You, Library Man
Thank you for reminding us to appreciate books. Not just for the stories, but for the pages themselves and for the words that we don't always know. I don't remember how our conversation ended. In fact I didn't even remember the part about your alcohol breath until I found it in a journal recently. I do know that Karen and I felt a little odd after you left. You made us stop and wonder a bit. That's always good. And remembering you has made me wonder about that impressive library. I discovered on the internet that the 100 year old library just completed massive renovations!
It looks beautiful in the film footage! http://central.slpl.org/
So Many Cruise Passengers
Thelma was one of 3,000 or so passengers on my recent Caribbean cruise ship. I will forget all the others, but I will never forget this dear woman.
So Many People
It's very easy to make friends on a cruise ship. Elevators are filled with chatty strangers and dining rooms are filled with shared tables. But I boarded the ship, eager to spend time with my family and read books. I wasn't in the mood to be social...until I spotted Thelma.
We were doing a little celebrating in the Martini Bar when I first noticed Thelma. She sat alone (blocked by our waiter) with an untouched glass of wine, wearing a glittery green dress. She looked so quiet and dignified. Or did she look worried? I couldn't stop wondering why she was alone.
Then I noticed a young man in a white cruise uniform enter the bar and head directly for Thelma's table. He kissed her cheek and she beamed. He squatted beside her and they chatted for a while before he rushed off. I wondered if he was her son and she rode the ship to be near him. But after a while Thelma was surrounded by other uniformed fans who greeted her with hugs and lingered for brief conversations. I waited until she was alone and then greeted Thelma myself. "What's your trick?" I wanted to know. "I noticed you're getting lots of hugs from men in uniform!" Thelma seemed delighted with my question and leaned in to share her news. "I know everyone who works on this ship... this is my 115th cruise on Princess Cruise Lines!" After I gasped at the news, Thelma followed with the humble remark, "But I'm not the top cruiser on this trip. There's someone who has me outnumbered." I was dizzy with the thought of endless cruising. While Thelma chatted about port stops and cruise tips...and how much she liked my dress, I tried to do the math to figure out how much of Thelma's life might be spent cruising. But before long it was time for our dinner reservation. I introduced my family to Thelma and we were off, without a chance to ask all the questions I really wanted to ask.
I'm glad I got to share a cruise ship with you. I could picture you wearing a crown. The Princess.... or even The Queen of Princess Cruises!
We saw you on other nights, sitting at your same spot. I didn't want to stalk or bombard you with more questions, but I rarely wonder so much about a stranger. When was your first cruise? Do you always travel alone? Do you get lonely? How do you make each trip special? What do you do during the day? Is it sad when you go home? Do you have a home? Don't you get tired of cruises? What do you love best...least? What's the craziest thing you've witnessed on a cruise? Saddest? Scariest?
I could have asked you those questions, and more. But I think I preferred just guessing the answers. Sometimes the mystery is a better memory.
A Wanderer with a Vision
When we met Chris, the owner of Cowhead Ranch he had just stepped out of his dusty white Lincoln and was being greeted by 3 yapping dogs. He didn't look too "cowboy" with his ball cap, down vest and dark shades, but when he opened his mouth, he spoke like a cowboy.
Chris greeted us with a strong handshake, but spoke gently like a man who was used to spending a lot of time alone.
Middle of Nowhere!
We heard about Chris and his ranch earlier that morning when we struck up a conversation with a waitress in Study Butte, Texas. When she heard the direction we were headed she mentioned the ranch and said we should stop in. She was new to the area and had been staying at the Ranch temporarily. She said Chris would love to have us stop in.
A Tiny Western Town
Chris was more than happy to show us the world he created with his own hands 10 years ago. He came to the area with no money at all and hinted at a rough life he hoped to leave behind. He managed to acquire this small bit of land and began building this dusty little "resort" with all the donated and discarded junk he could find.
I've seen plenty of created western towns in theme parks, but none had a church that was actually used. Chris took great pride showing us the church interior with donated pews and an alter.
There was a large painting of Big Bend National Park and a stained glass window created for him by a neighbor. But, I was most intrigued by the keyboard propped in the corner and the tambourine on the chair. He said they often gather here on Sundays or Wednesday evenings. I loved picturing the folks who might sit up in front and tap out a sweet rhythm to a hymn!
Chris was equally proud of the saloon with the satellite dish and propped up porch roof...heavy with sundried antlers and bones. The dirt and distant mountains made the whole thing seem like a movie set, but it was real. This isolated ranch, 25 miles from the Big Bend entrance is not a place we would have found on our own!
Pool and Booze
The felt on the tiny pool table was coated with a bit of dirt and the floor had a soft layer of sawdust. There were bottles of liquor and a table for cards and "Wi-fi!" Chris announced proudly. Chris said this was where people did a lot of hanging out, when they weren't around the campfire singing, or in the "Nine Point Social Club" where meals were served.
Bring Your Own Bedroll
The dogs happily trotted along as Chris showed a few choice cabins for $15.00 a night. He grinned pretty big to tell us they even had air-conditioning!
He reminded us to bring our own bedrolls and pillows next time we come.
This room had 2 sets of bunks. Nice for a family of 4! A vase with a couple flowers and a book...that I don't believe was the Bible.
We toured the bathhouse with an actual cowboy tub and a restroom with a real toilet. As we wandered, the wind began to gust and the temperature dropped in a matter of minutes. It was hard to imagine this place in summer when temps are in the 100s!
Thanks Cowboy Chris!
I could picture myself actually coming and spending a day or 2 just to find out more about you. I can't imagine living in such an isolated, dusty world! It seemed lonely to me, but you reminded us you had more friends than anyone in the world. You showed us the names of all your visitors autographed onto the beams holding up the ceiling in the Social Club. You showed us quirky gifts given to you by guests who have kept in contact with you. You obviously enjoy being surrounded by the memories of the people you've met over just these past 10 years. I don't know what your life was like before, but I'm so glad you discovered a life that suits you so well now!
To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers