Animals Make Us Look
Where do we learn to look away, when someone in need is sitting on a city street? I remember at age 11 when my family was in Italy, I learned to keep my distance from the fast working gypsies. I gulped and looked the other way when beggars on the street reached out a hand.
But I could never look away when someone had an animal.
2006 in Spain
I was an adult when I saw this dear woman and her cats on a busy sidewalk in Barcelona...and I couldn't look away. She was colorful from the orange yarn woven in her hair to the rainbow socks at her feet. She sat on a pink blanket and worked with fresh flowers, stringing them on ribbons. The cats didn't seem to mind the decorations and I was relieved to see their food and water nearby. Just like when I was a child, I couldn't help but stop and smile.
Flowers for Sale
The woman was selling her flowers, so she wasn't a beggar. She probably was poor, but maybe not. I couldn't speak with her, but she proudly posed with her cat for me and I thanked her with some money. Why didn't I buy a flower from her? They were actually rather lovely.
Thank you Sweet Cat Woman! Thank you for giving those cats such loving and gentle care. Some might say you'd found the perfect gimmick for making money. But there is no doubt in my mind that you wouldn't have traded those cats for million dollars!
Recent Stranger Memory
So many of my stranger recollections are from long ago. I don't always have photos of those strangers. Sometimes I'm lucky to find details in a journal that help bring a memory back to life.
It's been less than a week since my husband, Don and I met Mr. Sam while on a road trip down Route 66. We were lucky to have a camera with us, but even without photos, there is no doubt... Mr. Sam will never be forgotten.
We found him in the Round Barn on Route 66, in Arcadia, OK.
This restored 1898 barn is now a museum and gift/thrift shop. 100 years ago, locals gathered in the upstairs for dances beneath the rounded roof. (Which looks like a woven basket!) Don and I were wandering the lower level looking at a table of homemade wooden puzzles, when Mr. Sam approached us.
What's a SKY HOOK?
Mr. Sam volunteers once a week at the shop and was delighted when I asked. He said his granddaddy taught his granddaddy, who taught him how to carve this clever tool that can balance off one finger, when just the right weight is placed on the hook.
Two Hours of Stories
Mr. Sam has 86 years worth of stories to share and we had the time. He was animated and energetic as he moved us about the barn answering our endless questions and telling his tales. His polite manner matched his perfect attire. He must have asked us graciously about 10 times if we might have time to hear one more story. He seemed tickled each time we responded positively...rubbing his hands or springing into a new pose. I couldn't tell which was more entertaining, listening to him or watching him. As he spoke I watched his laughing face, his string tie (with arrowhead) swinging with his movement, his boots almost dancing on the floor, his Oklahoma belt buckle glistening as we moved towards the light from a window...and his hair! When he removed his hat, his white hair as airy as cotton candy, came to a perfect curl on his forehead. I was obviously charmed!
What I'll Remember
Mr. Sam is not a costumed storyteller. He is really an 86 year old hay farmer who enjoys sharing his memories. There are so many tales to remember, but there are a few that stand out to me. He told us about his farm down the road and how a distant relative acquired that property during the Oklahoma Land Run. He told us about being a small child and watching his mother put rags in the windows during the Dust Bowl, he talked about Route 66 when it was still bustling with cars. After nearly two hours of sharing, he asked us if he could tell us one last story...upstairs.
Dancing in the Barn!
This is what I'll most remember. Before we left, Mr. Sam wanted to climb the stairs and tell us a story about how this upper level was converted from hay loft to dance loft years ago. I think it was just a tricky way to get us upstairs to teach us some dance moves. On the wood floor, with a breeze blowing through the window Mr. Sam taught me the fox trot. I laughed a few times when my flip flop stepped on his boot. He spun me around and I followed....sloppily!
Mr. Sam was pretty serious about the waltz. I'm a horrible follower and he was patient.
Mr. Sam's Question
We took one more photo outside the barn. Before leaving Mr. Sam asked, "If you had looked into a crystal ball at breakfast this morning and it said you would be waltzing in a barn today...what would you have said?" I answered, "I hope so!"
Thanks Mr. Sam!
I was impressed by your stories, your energy and your charm. But mostly I will remember your positive nature. You may have spoken about the Dust Bowl and the Depression and even the Trail of Tears, but you also kept us laughing and smiling.
Where is help when you need it?
When I was growing up, it wasn't unusual to have a flat tire or some kind of car trouble that altered moods and even travel plans. My family of 6 in 1970 never made it to our vacation destination when our Buick broke down.
25 Years Later
In 1995 I was a mom, traveling to St. Louis with 2 young children in a Ford Taurus station wagon. A stranger stepped in to help, before I even knew I had a problem.
Breakfast in Springfield, MO
The 3 of us were headed to St. Louis from Tulsa. We would be staying only 2 weeks, but the station wagon was packed as if we were Okies fleeing the dustbowl. The entire back was filled to the roof with props and materials I would use in a class I was teaching... things like Indian drums, bags of wrapping paper tubes, boxes of empty cans and costumes. So when we stopped on I-44 at Cracker Barrel for breakfast, I assumed the man pointing to our car, was questioning our unusual load. Actually he was pointing our nearly flat tire...which I had not noticed.
The kids were restless for pancakes as I stood talking to the stranger beside our car, but all I could feel was relief. What if the flat had occurred on the freeway? I pictured scenes like I remembered from childhood. Then I cringed at the idea of unpacking my insane assortment of class supplies to get to the spare. The stranger, who introduced himself as Jerry frowned with concern, then studied his watch a moment before suggesting I relax with the kids on the rockers and he'd send for help. "I was stopping by my mechanic on the way to work, anyway. I'll see if they can send a truck."
Jerry Came Back
As we sat rocking in the shade, a waiter stuck his head out the door. He said Jerry had called and would be right there. Who was this Jerry? I asked the waiter and he said he was just a regular customer.
Moments later Jerry arrived with a pump borrowed from the shop. "They're really busy over there! We can fill your tire good enough to get you to the shop." He worked briskly to fill the tire, and then told us to follow his car.
The tiny shop was bustling with business. Jerry guided me towards a man in coveralls. He called the man by name and told him to get my tire fixed right away. "I'll come back this afternoon to get my car done." He turned to wish us luck before dashing out the door. I wasn't sure he even heard my thank you.
I sat reading with the kids while a number of customers entered the shop. I kept hearing an apologetic voice behind the counter. "We're really backed up!" and "We can maybe work you in this afternoon." We'd only been sitting a short while before I was handed a bill. I felt a brief wave of worry that maybe this had been a big set up and I would be charged a ridiculous fee. But then I saw the total. $7.50. The tire could be repaired. (no digging for the spare!) I felt like I was in a Twilight Zone episode, stepping back in time to a small town with kind strangers.
Pancakes and a Postcard
We headed with our repaired tire back to Cracker Barrel for pancakes. I bought a postcard in the shop and squeezed a rambling thank you on the back. I read it aloud to the kids and asked them to sign it with me. They were confused by the thank you. I had to convince them that Jerry didn't have to reach out to us. He was not getting paid to be kind.
Thank you, Jerry!
Hopefully the waiter gave you the postcard when you came in the next time. I have a feeling I'm not the only person you have gone out of your way to help. (You had a bit of a guardian angel style about you!) You made me stop and appreciate kindness. But most of all you taught my kids that sometimes you don't have to buy help. There are people who give it.
In the summer of 1976, I met the Snake Boy at a carnival in Maine.
I have no photos of that night, but I remember being intrigued by the sideshows, with their ridiculous signs like these. There was one sign that caught my attention. It read, Snake Girl Wanted!
Camp Waziyatah Girls go the the Fair
I was 19 that Bicentinnial summer. I was working as a camp counselor, teaching boating to young girls who got bored easily. Fencing, tennis, horseback riding, gymnastics, theatre ...they'd done it all before. There was one thing most of the girls had never experienced, and that was a traveling carnival with sideshows and carnies...at night!
So much to see
Before spotting the Snake Girl sign, I wandered with a small group for a bit, absorbing the atmosphere. First I enjoyed a funny exchange with the corn dog man, who announced with a wink that he had connections and could get me a free ride on the YoYo! Then I tried out a stupid Ring Around the Milk Bottle game and felt a little jolted when the fast talking carnie grabbed my hand and asked me to run away and marry him that night. "I have money!" He assured me. Then we were distracted by an angry young man who staggered through the crowds screaming that he was going to kill someone. Just when he disappeared into the crowds, there was a mechanical thud and a crowd gathered nearby to help a young girl who had been hit in the head by the seat of a double Ferris wheel. Suddenly this carnival felt like a Hitchcock movie. There was nothing whimsical or humorous about the characters anymore. My Wazi Girls were beginning to cling a bit.
The Snake Girl sign was a curious distraction.
"Hmm?" I wondered with another counselor. "What does a snake girl do?" Probably she would not be dressed like the woman on the left.
The girls decided that I should inquire, so I stepped up to the cashier at the sideshow and asked about the job. She told me to head into the tent and talk to the Snake Boy. I paused for more instruction. "You can't miss him. He'll be in the snake pit." The girls and counselor encouraged me on.
Once inside, I found the Snake Boy standing in a round structure that reminded me of an above ground pool. He held some kind of snake, while others slithered over his feet. I don't remember what he wore, but he seemed scrawny and spacey, with long stringy hair.
Suddenly I was being interviewed by Snake Boy and his manager for a job! I found myself going right along as if I were playing a character in a play. I said I was planning on quitting college and was looking into my job options...and no I wasn't opposed to going on tour with them. I asked Snake Boy more details about his job and he told me he got paid $85. a week. When I asked about accommodations he answered blandly. "Well, sometimes I just sleep right in here with the snakes."
Thanks, Snake Boy!
Every stranger teaches me something.
I always kind of wondered what it would have been like to have lived a life on the road with characters like you and the others I met that night.
Snake Boy, I wasn't planning on quitting college. But you taught me to not even joke about it!
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