The town of Hot Springs has a lot character, with its history of healing waters and bathhouses.
Knowing that, I hoped we might meet some curious locals when Don and I traveled there. We met a few, but the person I'll remember best was "Uncle Harry". He wasn't exactly a hillbilly from the Ozarks though. Harold was a retired chef from Italy.
Quiet at Night
It was a warm evening in September when Don and I wandered down from the Admiral Hotel, past the old bathhouses.
I noticed a man dressed in a dapper, white suit and hat seated outside the Plaza Hotel. He might have been an interesting character.
But it was inside this cozy little Italian restaurant where we met some folks sitting at the bar. Don had lots of questions for bartender Daniel, who had been serving up drinks for 25 years.
I was intrigued with the gentleman seated at the end of the bar. He spoke with a charming Italian accent, with just about everyone. At one point, he left his seat and headed into the kitchen.
The man in the white shirt came back carrying a steaming plate of fettuccine and a basket of bread. Daniel handed him a 7up and the man frowned and pointed to my glass. Daniel fetched him a glass of Pinot Noir, but the man fussed that it wasn't filled as high as mine. I laughed and we started talking. "You're Uncle Harold?" I asked, since everyone seemed to call him that. A few others jumped in to brag on Uncle Harold.
"Uncle Harold was a big name chef in Chicago!" He'd moved from Italy to Chicago in the sixties, where he worked as a chef until the 1980's. I was eager to get the details of his career in the food world. I wanted to picture the restaurants where he worked and to know what his favorite dishes were and who taught him to cook. But Uncle Harold spoke fast and his accent made communication tricky. He got a little impatient when politely repeated his words for confirmation... "So you said you worked as a chef since the 1960's?" "Yes. That's what I just told you."
My ears started working better when he talked about Italy. When he said he grew up in the town of Lucca, I lit up. I had fond memories of visiting the magical village as a child. I told him I was 11, but I remember it well from my diaries and the postcards I bought there. He asked if I remembered old wall the surrounded town.
He reminisced about how the city wall made Luccas so special. "We didn't have cars!" he recalled. And that reminded me of my childhood reaction to Venice which also didn't have cars. "I remember it felt like a kids playground, where we could roam and play without traffic and beeping horns!
I wondered where my old postcard collection was and wished I could show a few to Uncle Harold.
I found them when I returned from the trip and I wondered if Harold had gone to this Cathedral!
As we sat in that funny little bar, the 2 of us kept reflecting on our own memories of the same town. I asked if he knew of Villa Garzoni, which wasn't far from Lucca. The beautiful park, built in the 1600's, had a grand staircase and manicured gardens and fountains and waterways. He did know the park, that was in nearby Collodi, where the author of Pinocchio spent time in his childhood years.
Uncle Harold seemed about the same age as my dad. In fact he laughed and joked in a way that reminded me of my father. So I shared the memory of my dad in that very garden, being tossed into the fountain by the students we were traveling with, from Florida State. I had seen him climb out laughing and dripping, but I worried to my mother. "Why would they...!" "Your dad is one of their favorite teachers." My mom tried to assure me.
So Thanks, Uncle Harold!
It was fun to meet you and learn about you. But mostly you brought up forgotten memories of a place that seems like a vague dream. I've never met anyone from Lucca and you made me realize there really was such a magical place. I didn't make it up!
#73 - Nita, Cowgirl with Heart
She Caught my Eye
I Need to Chat
Once the couple was seated behind me, I couldn't really study them anymore. But I still felt like I just wanted to chat with these folks. I'm not sure why. Then I saw the woman get up and head for the buffet.
Meet Up at the Fruit Bar
I approached the fruit bar and opened the conversation with a stupid comment. "Now why would they have grated cheese at a fruit bar?" That's all it took.
Nita was a talker and by the time I returned to the table I was able to tell Don the scoop. Nita was 84 years old and has lived in Terlingua, since she left work at a livestock research facility in the '90's.
Nita brought Ray over to meet us before they left. His hair was neatly slicked back in his leahter hat and his gentle Canadian accent oddly reminded me of Lawrence Welk. When they found out we would be in the Terlingua area in a few days, they playfully demanded we come for "2-for-1 burger night" at Starlight. "We'll be there at 5, when they open. They always have our seats and Bud Lites waiting for us!" When Nita and Ray headed off, I couldn't help but smile at their immaculate bluejeans, which I'm pretty sure had creases. I am more sure about the fact Nita fit her little jeans better than most young cowgirls today!
By the time Don and I reached Starlight on Monday night, the place was packed and we spotted Nita and Ray at the bar sipping coffee. We grabbed beers, but before attempting to greet them, Nita had made her way over and was reprimanding us for not saying hello. She laughed and told us to bring our beers on over. For the next hour, Nita and Ray introduced us to every local in sight and by the time they hugged us good-bye (Nita reminded me that she doesn't do handshakes) they left us chatting with a crowd.
One Last Encounter
sweaters and jackets and warming hands on coffee mugs. There were cowboy hats and trucker hats and knit, hiker hats. Nita spotted us and she and Ray grabbed their mugs and moved over to some nearby chairs for a while. Once again, they made sure we met every person in the place, making us feel like we were part of the big breakfast gang. There were group discussions about the community and how new people sometimes move in with all their gripes and baggage and try to change things. We talked about Big Bend Park and the possibility of cell service. "You miss the scenery when you're staring at your cell phone!" Nita laughed. Then she described a bear that climbed an electric pole, right at the lodge. "That thing hit the wires and just fried! Those young people with their cell phones just missed the whole thing!"
I don't know about that bear story? But I loved the way you told it with your big charm and enthusiasm.
You are one of the most welcoming people I have ever met. I'm also not the only one who thinks you have a mighty cute figure. Just ask a couple of the younger gentlemen at the bar!
#72 Flamingo Guy
Melvin sighed as he looked out over the sand he was tending. I pointed to all the empty chairs and we wondered together why more people didn't get out and enjoy the best part of the morning.
Melvin did more than tend to the sand. He handled the flamingos.
The palapa we had chosen, was the one that all the important guests sit under. "When the Queen of Holland visited, that's where she sat... The King of Aruba..." Melvin went on to tell stories about a rapper named Timberland who had his wedding on the island. He described a grand piano, on a floating island and all the body guards scattered about. I'm sure he had plenty more stories.
Playing All Day
I told Melvin, I couldn't believe he had a job where he got to walk on the beach and deal with beautiful flamingos all day.
Then I felt bad because I used to resent it, when I taught preschool and heard comments like, "I wish I could play with kids all day."
Best Job Ever
But Melvin gave me 2 thumbs up and told me he did appreciate his job!
That made me feel a little less guilty when I returned to my lounge chair and stared out at the turquoise water, as you worked. It made me happy to see someone who enjoyed his work!
#71 Firewood Man in Eminence, MO
A Cafe Encounter
I met Pete while having lunch in a small town diner last October. That's not unusual, because my husband and I meet lots of folks in diners when we travel. But this encounter had so many connections to the past.
Back to Eminence
I was with fellow college students when we entered the cafe and struck up a conversation with Freeman and his coffee drinking buddies.
Where's the Cafe?
I was sad to discover, Bob's was no longer a cafe. I so wanted to sit in the saggy vinyl booths and order the blue plate special, which was once $1.25 and strike up a conversation with a local.
Ruby's was the only place with an OPEN sign. When we entered at 1:30 the waitress was clearing out the buffet and it took her a long time to decide that it would be okay to order off the menu.
As we settled into a corner table I began to recognize this building. I remembered this place as a cluttered general store, walls and shelves crammed with everything from chainsaws and canoe paddles to furs and guns.
Pete had finished his lunch and was listening, when Don asked the waitress what was good. Pete interrupted, "Everything!" It was clear that Pete had the time to chat. And we did. I couldn't help but notice Pete's overalls and remember the worn out pair Freeman wore when I met him. I asked if Pete he was local and then told him about my visit way back when.
Pete didn't seem much different than the small town folk I remember from nearly 40 years ago. He seemed content about his life, selling firewood from a big green truck. We finished up and said good-bye. I spotted his truck parked next to the Shannon County Jailhouse. The wood had been sold, but I saw his chair. "Sometimes I just park the truck beside the road till someone wants to buy some wood." he had told me.
It had been a little sad pulling into this small town that I remembered like a vague dream. It was nice to find someone who could verify my memories. And you told me Freeman's son still lives in town. He would be 87! If only I'd had time to meet him!
#70 Mr. Simon the Market Man
Soulard Market in St. Louis, Missouri
The Historic Market
This Renaissance style building went up in 1921, but there have been farmers selling their produce, dairy and livestock on this land since it was just a meadow, in 1779. In the 1970's, there were no Yuppies or tourists shopping here.
The "Grand Hall" was bustling with local shoppers. The smells of nearby Anheuser-Busch brewery seemed to follow you right inside, where the aromas from the spice shop and the bakery mingled with the less cozy smells of the meat market and fish shop.
The Market Wings
We only found a few vendors in the 4 wings that quiet morning. There were no chickens in crates or grumpy farmers telling you not to touch. Mr. Simon seemed pretty pleased to see us when we wandered down his way!
He teased us into buying some veggies we had no use for on our road trip. "You need to buy some sugar cane!" he insisted when he heard we were from Sugar Land, Texas. We did.
But he wasn't lauging when he pointed out the faded photo, high on the brick wall. It was a reunion photo and you knew family meant a lot to him. His buddy Joe wasn't family, but you could tell he treated Mr. Simon like a dad as he lifted crates and hauled boxes and made it clear that Mr. S shouldn't be lifting.
Thanks, Mr. S!
#69 Elevator Guy
San Diego Trip - April 2014
Not Too Shabby
Don and I stay at a lot of quirky, not so ritzy hotels and inns when we travel. We don't need a lot of pampering or high star ratings to lure us.
But we got some of those things on this trip and I'm not complaining. Mostly I loved the history of the hotel and the fact that one of my favorite movies, "Some Like It Hot" was filmed here in the 1950's.
But I also was pretty darn excited about riding on that old Otis elevator! A cage like elevator that required an operator!
I kept my fingers crossed that the man Lorrie had raved about, might still be working there.
There seemed to be so many people, with so many bags, waiting for the elevator in the lobby.
I worried about having to share my ride with other tourists. I convinced Don, we should take a few flights of stairs and catch him on the way down.
Me With Andrew
When the our sweet operator, wearing his brown uniform with cap opened those golden doors on the fourth floor, I could see we had the box to ourselves! Andrew, as his tag clearly read, seemed a bit awkward for someone who must greet strangers 8 hours a day. "We've heard so much about you!" I grinned like a fan.
He offered a nervous chuckle and sent our cage rumbling towards the lobby. "Where you from?" He sort of mumbled in a soft monotone. We answered Texas and he responded in the same tone, "Are you A & M Aggies?" We laughed and said no, that our kids had gone to UT. He seemed pleased as he focused his serious gaze at the elevator door and began to quietly sing, UT's "The Eyes of Texas are Upon You". We applauded and he tried to hide his awkward smile as we arrived at the lobby.
FYI... As it turns out, Andrew IS NOT the elevator man Lorrie remembered! How sweet to know there is more than one memorable elevator man!
#68 Tom, the Wood Cutter
Near Lake Tahoe in 2012
Don and I were hiking The Rainbow Trail on a chilly October morning when we met Tom.
A Quiet Morning
The only other person we had seen was a photographer shivering beside a couple tripods near Taylor Creek. The camera guy had been trying to capture some of the wild life activity that occurred each fall during kokanee trout spawning season. So were we. The year before we'd see a mother bear and cub enjoying some trout.
A People Encounter Instead
It was a surprise to suddenly come upon this man with no coat or gloves, standing beside a falling tree...sawing at the trunk.
Tom, the man with the saw acted like the last person you'd expect to see sawing a fallen Aspen in the woods. He laughed about the silliness of his technique, but he was a retired lawyer and was obeying the law. He said permits were needed and you could only use a saw. But it took a long time to get through this small trunk with the saw he had. It looked more like a serrated bread knife.
Don and I were bundled up with hats and gloves and asked Tom why he wasn't dressed more warmly. He just laughed and shook his head. "When I first moved here I brought all my cold weather gear..." I think he was from Chicago. "I never wear it. It never gets that cold." But he was worried about his dog who was waiting in the car. I had to just laugh when he opened the car door and out popped a little Dachshund sporting an orange knit sweater!
I had expected to see a Golden Retriever or a Lab jump out of the vehicle. But this sweet little pup with her delicate name Lilly, just amused me!
It was fun to talk to you out there in the snow.
You gave us a different idea on retirement, besides hanging out at country clubs. As you carried your few logs to the car, I tried to picture your wood burning fireplace. I imagined some comfy rustic furniture and lots of shelves of books and a cozy dog pillow for Lilly.
67 - Haunted Singer
Brent was not really a haunted singer, but I did have a rather eerie encounter with this young man outside the Von Minten Hotel a couple weeks ago.
My husband and I were on an 8-day road trip, in search of curious historic hotels. Years ago I'd heard about the Von Minden with it's haunted history, so I made Don pull over and let me take a peek.
As I approached the building, I assumed the hotel had closed down. The attached movie theatre next door was obviously out of business and there was nothing that invited a customer to enter. But when the door opened, I assumed I was wrong and stepped in. A breeze was blowing through the open windows and the light over the lobby desk was on. I hollered a polite "Hello!" and heard no reply. I called out again and thought I heard voices, but they could have been coming through the open windows.
A Closer Look
I'm not sure how I could be so brave, because the place was a little creepy. It looked like a hotel from the Twilight Zone, suddenly abandoned and left untouched. There was an old cash register and a few mailboxes. The key boxes were empty except for a few random items that looked like a calculator or a remote control. There were letters and papers cluttering the counter and a few dusty rockers sitting in front of the windows. A wooden phone booth with a payphone was tucked back by the stair landing.
Not long ago I read that you could stay in the hotel and even catch a movie next door. But when I peeked in the locked doors I could see the tiny lobby was out of use. An old white painted candy machine revealed some candy bars behind the glass windows. You could hardly recognize Humphry Bogart and Clark Gable on the faded movie posters.
As I started to head for the car, I saw this young man walking towards the front door. I asked if the hotel was open for business and he said he and a few others were living there. Somehow the idea of a haunted boarding house was even more unsettling to me than a haunted hotel. "Do you want to know if it's haunted?" He asked, as if assuming that was why I was curious. I said yes I did wonder and he answered with a positive, "Yes." Then he told me that just yesterday he'd been in his room and his deodorant just lifted off the dresser and flew across the room. "Wow!" I said, turning to make sure Don was in full view. He went on to explain that he was staying in town a while, helping his grandparents. He had recently gone into Houston to audition for "America's Got Talent" and was starting to worry since he hadn't heard news yet. He said the morning for his audtion he'd witnessed another sign of spirits, when he looked at the bathroom mirror to see the words "Good Luck" written. He talked about his music...singing since 5 and writing music since 14. The 23 year old said he'd just recorded the song "Yesterday" for You Tube and his musican, grandfather who does a mean version of Wipe Out on the drums at age 70, said he sounded just like John Lennon. I asked his name in case I saw him on TV. He said he was Brent and he posed for a photo so I could recognize him. He said he was hoping to catch the Greyhound to Houston soon, I didn't mention that we lived there. I think he could have talked for days, but I said I needed to get going.
You did give me some insight into the curious hotel I had wondered about. The slumber party kid in me still wants to squeal over ghost stories and imagine myself staying in a haunted hotel, but you cured that. I wish you luck with your music.
As a special note... When Don and I drove away we could see the advertisement written on the side of the hotel. We were curious and followed the directions to find Sengelmann Hall to see what the Bakery/Restaurant/Dance Hall was all about. We met the wonderful owner who said he also owns the hotel and hopes to get the money to fix it up along with the movie theatre. He was a pretty delightful guy actually and I wouldn't be surprised if someday I do return and find a lovely Boutique Hotel. Now that would be fun.
66- Stranger at the Resale Shop
When I met Julia, I wasn't shopping. I was walking to an area of antique shops and I paused to snap a cell phone shot of this iconic Malt-N-Burger Drive In.
I was standing on the sidewalk taking my (very poor) photo across Highway 90 when I heard a chuckle behind me. Juila was putting out a display of merchandise to attract shoppers. She was curious about why I was taking a photo of the burger place and we began talking...for 25 minutes!
Julia liked it that I was curious about the community of Rosenberg and what it was like years ago. She said she grew up on a farm in nearby Needville and remembered coming to Rosenberg for family outings. She told me about a café called Roses that had the best burgers. "6 for a dollar and the best malts!" She was happy to know I had actually eaten at Malt-N-Burger once. But now that I'm in the know, I'll order chicken fried steak, next time! Then she talked about shopping around the corner at the best store for western wear. And how disappointed she was when they removed the old gas pumps from the station across the street.
She remembered going to the old Cole Theatre around the corner for 25 cents. The theatre had separate entrances and concessions for black and white guests. "I remember when I was little, the blacks had to sit up in the balcony." That memory seemed to take her back to her life growing up on the farm when the workers in the fields were African American. "I was the water girl!" She shared almost proudly. I'm not sure how often or how much water she carried to the workmen, but she seemed to recall the job favorably. She laughed about how sometimes she would get teased. "They would pull my braids! They thought I was Mexican." She told me proudly she was Indian. There was so much I wanted to ask, but there wasn't a moment to get a word in.
She talked about her daddy and how she was his favorite. And then she shared a sad story of how her father was killed as a result of rushing to help when a small plane crashed on the farm back in the '60's. "It was all over the news." The pilot and his pregnant woman couldn't be saved and her father died weeks later as a result of inhaling the fumes.
Our conversation was interrupted when the mailman arrived. "Sorry!" Julia apologized to the mailman as he headed inside. "You aren't going to get much cooling relief today. I just turned on the air-conditioner." I smiled to myself, wondering how many stories the mailman had heard. After he left, Julia turned her focus back to fixing up the display of used purses and shoes. She chuckled about how she liked to make it nice, so the sale items just spoke out to potential customers walking by. "You know you want to take me home!" She laughed as she did the voice for a flower vase. I asked if I could take her photo and she smiled, "Help yourself!"
Thanks, Julia. We stood their dripping in the humid morning sun, chatting beside the not so attractive highway, but it felt like we were two characters in small town Mayberry, just gossiping the day away. You were a delight as you recalled your favorite diners and shops and people. You didn't whine about how it used to be, you smiled with your memories and set up your display of goods with such pride. You reminded me that it's possible to enjoy the moment, even when the weather's not ideal and the scenery is far from perfect.
#65 Pilot...Who Loves Tennis
Don and I met a few interesting people in Grass Valley, California while traveling last fall.
Our chat with G.G. (not Gi Gi!) when we were staying at Hotel Holbrooke was by far the most interesting.
We were headed out for dinner, when the lively hotel saloon caught our attention.
We grabbed the last table and sat to absorb some local color. The first thing that reminded us that we weren't in a Texas bar was seeing tennis on the TV, rather than football. That works for me!
The Tennis Fan
Don and I were amused by the man in the cap and sweater sitting at the bar watching the match. Each time Nadal won a point, he clapped and cheered, then swiveled his chair as if hoping to catch the eye of fellow tennis fans. Before long I had to inquire about his interest in the sport and I learned that G.G. did more than watch the sport, he had played on a team while in the Navy and continued to play during his years as a commercial pilot.
Tennis During the War
G.G. spent the next 45 minutes chatting with us. As far as I could tell he was only sipping a glass of water and his 82 year old brain seemed clear and quick.
He had a grin that was a little Robert Redford and a bit Bill Clinton and almost as many stories as Bob and Bill might have. He talked about leaving college and his plans to become a doctor to enlist in the Navy during the Korean War. He was looking for the easiest way to get through his service, but ended up in a flight program in Pensacola, which was only made more challenging when he got on the Navy's tennis team. G.G.'s storytelling could have sounded like bragging, but it was sort of charming the way he described the surprises he encountered in his journey through the service.
For a brief while we got off on a tangent about Laguna Beach, California. G.G. had lived there while in the service in the '50's. Don and I had lived there in the early '80's. We compared memories for a while.... his of being young and single and our memories of being newlyweds...in such an idyllic setting. Then at one point G.G. became nostalgic going back to a memory of being in the service stationed in Greece. He told a story about a mission involving the rescue of some very skilled divers who were the equivalent of Navy Seals. There was a great deal of secrecy about the mission, due to the fact they needed a helicopter and could not get proper permission. The story was long and detailed, and I wouldn't begin to try to retell it. But it was touching to see how G.G.'s recollection of this dangerous mission, brought out so many emotions. At one moment he was laughing and shaking his head at the craziness...then in the next moment there were tears in his eyes. G.G. laughed with surprise that he was getting emotional as he talked about his buddy, who had been at his side during the whole ordeal. The story ended happily, with the divers in decompression chambers at a hospital.
Before we parted, I had to ask one more question about his work as a pilot for 25 years with Pan Am. "Wasn't that a pretty glamorous time to be a pilot in the 1960's?" I laughed. I could picture the stewardesses
in their little hats and high heels flirting with him. "Oh no. It actually got
pretty boring. But I did go to some amazing places around the world and I always had my tennis gear and made sure I had someone lined up to play tennis when I got there."
Thanks, G.G.! You apologized for talking too much, but we never got bored. You shared about a world that I have no connection to at all. You reminded me about the bonds that are made when people face challenges with teamwork...like you and your buddy. It's not surprising that I thought about you two days later...on Veteran's Day.
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