Between Byways and Sign Posts

Rural North Carolina, which I’ve blown past many times traveling between Washington D.C. consulting gigs and my new home town in East Tennessee, is an in between kind of place. It’s a location of convergence—where time and culture collides, where the practical intersects with the spiritual. The Irish say when you are in between—where water meets shore, where earth meets sky, the veil lifts and you may glimpse other worlds.

A few months ago, while returning home after a late business meeting in D.C., my stomach rumblings hit nine on my internal Richter scale. It was 12:20 am—I needed food and hot coffee. The many places I had raced through were locked up tighter than a cow’s tail at fly time. Acting on instinct, I took the next exit and drove for a mile or so before spotting an diner, in a tiny tease of a town, that was still open. I parked under a blue neon sign that should have said “Good FOOD.” But a few of the letters were dimmed, so it actually read: “Go OD.” In I bounced, and grabbed one of the few available counter stools. The  red vinyl was cracked, the counter Formica was shiny with age, but the overall impression was care had been taken to maintain it.  I dared myself to order the ‘trucker’s trough’ breakfast. My cell phone was flashing; however when I tried to check messages—no signal. Then the screen went entirely blank. It probably needed charging. The coffee was surprisingly good, strong, without bitterness. I was finishing my second cup when the food arrived on an enormous platter—enough grub to feed two hungry giants. “Hello lips, hello hips,” I said to the waitress. She nodded and I dug in.

The lean framed, sharp featured folks in the little diner were bundled in layers of clothing.  The light above the counter was bright and fierce, exposing ragged nails, tiny cigarette burns in clothes, and hair that had never been professionally colored or styled. It could have been the slightly more upbeat sister cafe to the Spanish one Hemingway wrote of in A Clean, Well Lighted Place. They slurped their coffee, crushed ice between their teeth, and devoured slices of toast, glazed donuts, or sausage biscuits. Not a crumb was wasted. Those leaving paid their bill by grabbing loose change from pants pockets or peeling dollars from worn wallets. In my slowed down mode, I watched them come and go while I poked at my food. The man seated to my right asked for another coffee by saying ‘fillerup,’ and I got one too, a third refill. These people greeted each other kindly, and interwoven in their conversations was a genuine sense of caring and concern. No one bragged about a deal just closed, about a promotion, or an invitation to a formal dinner party.

I ease-dropped shamelessly on animated conversations: one between two old women exchanging items pulled from two grocery bags, another between an older man and his grandson, and a third between a man dressed in stained overalls, chatting with the waitress. They seemed happy to be awake in the week hours, though a few grumbled they didn’t have enough money for a desired pack of smokes or a pack of gum. As they said their goodbyes, they kidded that filling up their tank left them with just enough money to buy a toothpick. No one rushed or hurried here, and like the old man in Hemingway’s story, there was a feeling of solace, a rightness to their ritual.

I wished I could offer them my basket of untouched toast or eggs, a slab of ham, or a mini-mountain of home fries. I pushed my plate away and asked the waitress if she had a pet that might like the scraps I couldn’t eat. She raised heavily penciled eyebrows, and gave me a crinkly smile. The man to my left tipped his cap in my direction, introduced himself as “Bowser, a well trained mutt,” and promptly dug into my leftovers. Before swiveling off his stool, he forked the last slice of ham and stuck it between two pieces of toast and thanked me. His rough hand rested, for an instant, on my shoulder; it was a surprisingly gentle gesture. He smoothed a wrinkled bill, laid it on the counter for the waitress, and drifted out the wobbly screen door towards a battered pick up truck. Before climbing into the truck, he handed the ham sandwich to a tiny woman sitting alone in an old sedan next to his truck.

“Here you go Margie, he said. “You need me to drive you home, or…?”

She interrupted the man and patted him on the arm. “Thank you kindly; I’ll just sit here a while longer. I can drive myself home just fine. Then I got a mile of chores to tackle.”

The two older women got up to leave and handed the waitress exact change for their meal, and a small bottle filled with a red liquid. One of the women told the waitress it would stop her son’s coughing…but no more than three doses a day. The women hugged each other and exchanged several brown paper wrapped packages. They smiled broadly, and promised to meet again soon. In awe, I beamed the best crinkly grin I could muster, pulled out a $20 dollar bill, thanked the waitress.  I slipped another $20 under my coffee cup. As I reluctantly turned to leave, the waitress thanked me for sharing my meal.

The stark, dog-earred feel of the diner clashed with my car’s gadget laden, plush interior. I threw my billfold into my oversized leather bag, tossed a wool sweater in the back, and headed back to the interstate. I wondered if the concrete, glass, and steeliness of the city I’d visited created hardened, brittle people while the loamy earthiness of the country and patina of worn places created kinder, better people? Was I a good person? I contributed to charities, volunteered at dog shelters, donated clothes, books, and toys—did these actions make me a good person? Or was I just another clueless human, blowing through life, not really seeing what a glance through a doorway offered, not registering the reality?

I didn’t resolve those questions that night. I did add a new word to my vocabulary, metanoia, a journey one embarks on to atone for or rectify a wrong, which changes ones way of life, or old patterns of thinking.  I started to pay more attention. I began to consciously develop new perceptions and a passion—for compassion–and for seeing with the mind’s eye. New signs appear as I commute, less frequently now, between Washington D.C. and East Tennessee. Signs that say: ‘We learn from hard knocks—and soft touches,’ and ‘It’s not about what we look at—it’s about what we see.’ These signs appear as reminders, as encouragement. ‘A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle,’ and ‘venture out—don’t stare up the steps—step up the stairs.’ Quirky signs flash me when I hurry and serve as reminders, like ‘everything happens for a raisin,’ and ‘think outside the bucks.’

I’m learning the myths and history of my adopted home in Tennessee. I read about the Civil War Underground Railroad and how, in the 1930s, the TVA banished local farmers and the Cherokee Indians from their sacred spaces in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Slowly I am discovered the locus pocus, the potent magic certain places exude. Sometimes, in between the cooing of a bird and the distant whine of a motorboat on the river, I can sense a release of dynamic energy by a squirrel leaping from oak to birch tree, causing the graceful, downward fluttering of a leaf, and the release of rainwater to a fledgling flower. This helps link me to that town where everyone knew and each other, and what each person needed.

I continue to work on developing the art of the crinkly grin. And as for stopping again for a bite to eat, it’s strange; I can’t find the town or the diner where I shared much more than a meal. I know it exists. If you happen upon the diner, you’ll let me know, won’t you?

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