We were eating at a little restaurant called the 'Squat and Gobble' in Bluffton SC when this older gentleman walked in. He was on a rolling walker and was immediately greeted by one of the waitresses, an obvious regular. He sat alone, and the way he naturally gravitated toward one particular booth made me think that was 'his spot'.
I didn't notice him much again until his food came.
I think it was the dramatic flouncing of his arm that caught my attention, his hand shook aggressively over his plate, it seemed like he was never going to successfully achieve the desired amount of whatever it was he was dressing his plate with. I initially assumed it was salt, but soon noticed the colors of his plate were morphing from whites, reds and browns to a solid blanket of black. This man was SERIOUSLY fond of pepper! How he never once sneezed I haven't the slightest.
It seemed humanly impossible to consume such an amount of seasoning, but with each confident shake of his hand I could quickly see he was going to have no problem, this was obviously his normal meal prep. I suspect he did this to every thing he ate.
I knew I had to just suck up all nerves and go straight over, I couldn't let an opportunity like this pass me up. I didn't have my camera on me, just my phone, but this plate was 'art'. You eat with your eyes first, right?
I was sure at his age he wasn't familiar with 'Instagram' or the importance of sharing images of your food, so I just skipped all that. I just went right for it. "Do you mind if I take a photo of your plate?" No reasons why, no explanations, I just asked. Surprisingly, he didn't mind at all. I took one shot. Feeling relieved that I had captured this unbelievable story of 'the pepper incident' I thanked him, told him that was a lot of pepper and after a chuckle or two, returned to my seat.
As I sat there and watched him out of the corner of my eye consume that tongue numbing dish, I started to notice more than just the pepper. He was wearing a hat that said 'Navy Veteran'. He had on suspenders, the kind my father in law wears, he had lots of stuff poking out of his lapel pocket, similar to treasures my Grandfather always stored in his. The empty seat across from him made me think of my Pappy, and how I would peek into his bedroom at night when I visited and see my grandmother's empty spot in the bed, how small and alone my Pap looked in that bed for two. His booth was the same way, it was missing a counterpart. I started to wonder about his wife, I was sure there had been one, was she at home enjoying her alone time, was he divorced, had she passed on?
I decided once again to intrude on his solo dining, and sat down in the empty seat. I asked him if he was enjoying his breakfast (his 'pepper' if I had been candid) he said he was, and immediately rolled into full conversation of how he ate at this particular restaurant once a day, sometimes twice, and where to get the best BBQ in town, someplace called 'Choo Choo's'. I asked if he was married and he told me widowed. He and his wife had moved to Bluffton 4 years ago to be closer to their daughter, son in law and grandchildren, his wife had been deceased for 3 years now. He reminisced how he was a truck driver most of his life, I asked about his hat and he said he was drafted into the Navy when he was a young man. I could tell at this point he was enjoying the company, someone to converse with, I kept encouraging more from him. The further back his stories went, the more passion I sensed in his voice. At one point he asked if I wanted to see his photo while he was enlisted, of course I did, he pulled out his wallet and showed me this image of his ship and him in his uniform. He proudly told me 'this is what I looked like when I was young'. He proceeded to flip and show me his daughter and grandchildren, I asked about his wife and he turned the page over and showed me a portrait of her, looked like it was taken in the 60's or 70's. I noticed the church bulletin sticking out of his pocket and asked if he was a Christian, he confirmed that he was, I told him I was too.
What was about a 10-15 minute conversation made me feel like Fred was a long lost friend of mine, I had enough information to tell his story. I could tell he had lived a full life. He seemed content, satisfied. I was honored to be entrusted with such special memories, personal details of his life.
I returned to my table and rejoined the company of the family I was with, he stopped by once more as he was leaving and told me a few other random things he felt like sharing, like what brand of lawn mower was the best. I feel confident our little visit helped make his morning brighter, just some one taking the time to engage in conversation, I'm sure his day would have otherwise been a little quieter, a little lonelier. I'd like to sit and talk with strangers more often.
You should try it too.