Ninety percent of my dissertation was written in the food court at the mall. I’m an extreme extrovert.
Prolonged silence exhausts me. Plus, the irregular noise of an ant walking greatly distracts me. So, crowded restaurants and coffee shops are how I roll. If there’s just a small crowd, I get caught up in the distraction of you on your first date telling your future spouse you watched all nine seasons of The Office in just one week.
This morning I arrived at my favorite food court in downtown Nashville. There were only two seats in the whole place within reach of an electric outlet. This morning both seats were vacant and equally lay next to their respective columns on opposite sides of the refectory. I shrugged and hastily approached one before either got snagged by some other power buzzard.
As I walked toward the seat I don’t usually pick, I thought of the last line of Robert Frost’s 1915 poem The Road Not Taken: “I took the (road) less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
The doors had been unlocked just minutes before, and there was only one person in the seating area. He was obviously homeless and sitting on a bench apart from the dining tables. He was sitting upright, but his head was slumping into sleep until it plopped down, and he snapped it partway back up.
It being an intermittent fasting morning for me, I wasn’t getting anything for breakfast, so I sat down to organize my desk for the day. I had my back to the man because it was the only way my cord would reach the outlet on the far side of the column beside me.
“After several minutes I heard a voice behind me say, ‘Excuse me, sir?’”
I was quickly in the writing zone amidst the humming HVAC system and Muzac. After several minutes I heard a voice behind me say, “Excuse me, sir?”
I turned and saw two uniformed security guards talking to the man on the bench. One officer was standing between me and the man on the bench. I could see the kind face of the other officer. The first officer politely but firmly said to the man on the bench, “I’m sorry, but you can’t sleep here.”
The man, whom I now couldn’t see, pleaded, “I wasn’t sleeping.”
“Yes, you were sleeping. There’s no sleeping on the benches. I’ve seen you sleeping twice now. I’m sorry, but if I see you go to sleep here again, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
The officers weren’t being abusive. The wingman whose face I could see was smiling compassionately. They were doing their job, enforcing a tough but uncomfortably necessary rule in this tourist haven.
Both the man and the officers seemed to need some relief. I wondered whether to do what most folks and myself usually do. Should I mind my own business or … ?
I walked over and said to the man on the bench, “Sir? Would you like some breakfast?”
He said, “Yes.”
I offered, “Come sit with me.” Then I gave a friendly nod to the officers to say, He’s with me.
The man stood, and I led him a few feet away to a coffee and pastry shop.
I extended my hand and said, “I’m Brad.”
Shaking my hand he said, “Hi, Brad. Good to meet you. I’m Wendall.”
“Good to meet you, Wendall. Tell this nice woman what you’d like.”
“He picked a shortbread muffin. It had a thin glaze the color of frost.”
He ordered a cup of coffee. I pointed at a glass case of pastries. He picked a shortbread muffin. It had a thin glaze the color of frost. Seeing a great rationalization to break my diet in order to be sociable, I compared the remaining muffin to a blueberry scone. I took the muffin.
The clerk asked, “Would you like those heated?”
I asked Wendall, “Would you like yours heated?”
He looked confused. “What’s that mean?”
“Would you like your muffin HEATED?”
“Heated? I don’t understand?”
“They can put the muffin in an oven. Do you want it HOT?”
“Oh. HOT! Yeah. Yeah.”
The clerk headed to the microwave with our muffins. I felt a sense of sweet anticipation, even as I contemplated the scone not taken.
Back at the table, Wendall burned his lips on the coffee, and he set it down to cool. I saw the steam emerging from the lid-slit like a djinn arising from its mystical lamp. Wendall opened the bag with his muffin, and I followed suit with mine, the rustling of the bags like an orchestra tuning. The baked aroma erupted from the bag and launched endorphins ricocheting in my brain. I inhaled the warmth down my throat. Biting into it, the texture on my lips was smooth and then moistly granulated. It tasted like glazed heaven.
“Suddenly, Wendall snapped me from my trance with a question about something.”
Suddenly, Wendall snapped me from my trance with a question about something.
“Did you take a picture of the donut?”
I looked at him with a confused look. He started laughing and said, “You must’ve sold the donut shop?”
I said I’d never owned a donut shop. He said, “You’re Al Green, aren’t you?”
“No. I’m Brad.”
“Oh, yeah. You look just like Al Green.”
I asked how long he’d lived in Nashville. He thought awhile before answering. He volunteered how old he was but said he wasn’t sure. He was pretty sure he was born in …19…61.
He started shivering, dressed only in a lime-green T-shirt on this sunny but brisk October morning, the leaves on the trees outside yellow in the sunlight. I remembered the previous Friday when I had gone to the car to get two jackets — one to wear and one to cover my bare legs, since I’d been wearing short pants. Today, I had worn long pants and one of my favorite jackets to ward off the aggressive AC compounded by giant ceiling fans. The multi-pocketed photographer’s jacket had been a Christmas gift from a seventh grader with whom I had worked and had complimented his jacket. He had told his grandparent guardians he wanted to give me one.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the couple now seated two tables away staring.”
I took off the jacket. “Here, Wendall. I’m wearing long sleeves. I’ll loan you this coat while we’re eating breakfast.” He put it on and thanked me, saying he’d left his coat at home. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the couple now seated two tables away staring. A young woman a few tables behind Wendall and wearing a shemagh around her neck and shoulders, smiled gently.
Wendall asked where I was from. We talked about that and where he was from.
Did I have kids? Yes. We talked about them and where they were.
Was I Al Green? No, we just met 30 minutes ago.
Wendall started nodding off again, his head sliding down and then snapping part way up. After about the third time, he looked at me with a hint of embarrassment in his eyes. I gestured at my laptop. “I need to work. Why don’t you put your hand on your chin like this and go to sleep? They won’t bother you if you’re sitting here with me.” He smiled and slept a bit, looking like an homage to Rodin’s The Thinker. He popped awake after a short repose.
Did I ever live by water? Yes. A lake. I greatly missed it. I didn’t go further down the rabbit hole of that deep pain.
Had I ever had a dog? Yes — part chow, part lab who loved canoeing with me and once had gone with me to an island on a day that was 5 degrees, and we had a blast. She loved running in circles on the snow.
Did my kids like the dog? Yes.
Was I Al Green?
No. I’m Brad. We just met 45 minutes ago.
“Wendall looked at the floor under the table, said something I didn’t hear, got up and told me he’d be right back.”
Wendall looked at the floor under the table, said something I didn’t hear, got up and told me he’d be right back. He walked over to a nearby trash can and came back with one of the custodian’s long-handled, stand-up dustpans. I looked under the table and there were crumbs from his muffin. He tried to sweep them together into a pile using the dustpan as a broom. He kept trying to get the pile in the pan, but it wouldn’t go. I could tell he was going to keep trying regardless. I grabbed a napkin and used it as broom to help finish the cleanup.
Just after we were reseated, my phone rang. Caller ID let me know I was getting a call from a friend in prison. Due to the difficulty of his getting access to a phone and our schedules matching, I always drop almost anything I’m doing to take his calls. He usually calls a little later on Fridays. I took the call long enough to say, “Hold on a sec.”
“Wendall. It’s been great meeting you. I’m sorry but I need to go somewhere to have a private conversation.” I started to pack up my laptop. He took off and handed me my jacket.
He reached in his pocket and spread out some things on the table. There was a tube of Chapstick, some string of some sort, and, in general, a bird’s nest of foundling objects. He picked one up. He held it by the end between the tips of his index finger and thumb. It was a squished-almost-flat, brassy metal, woman’s hairclip. “I want you to have this.”
“My goodness. Thank you, Wendall. I’m going to treasure this.”
That hairclip is as beautiful to me as Queen Victoria’s diamond and sapphire coronet. And Wendall’s gifting of it feeds my soul with a delight even more satisfying than a glazed-heaven shortbread muffin.
Of course, it’s not the hairclip in-and-of-itself I cherish. I cherish the treasures the souvenir keeps fresh on my mind when I look at it on my desk: a wonderful conversation with a delightful man, and the real-ization of embracing detours that at first seem like distractions.
Brad Bull earned a bachelor of arts degree in psychology with a minor in creative writing (Carson-Newman, 1988), a master of divinity majoring in pastoral counseling (Southern Baptist Seminary, 1992), and a Ph.D. in human ecology with a cognate in counseling (University of Tennessee, 2005). He has worked as a hospital chaplain, pastor, university professor and currently serves in private practice as a family therapist in Tennessee and Virginia. His counseling and retreat website is DrBradBull.com.