Fishing in the dark

Green. The landscape from Kentucky through Nashville is decidedly greener than anything I’ll ever find in Illinois. It’s always my first indication of being far away from home on this road trip – the way the land changes from city white to railroad grey, and the further south we stretch through Indiana to corn yellow, finally transitioning to rolling hills of vivid, perpetual spring green.

The air smells sweet at first, then earthy as we pass open pastures and vast expanses of land. Hills rise and fall, cars change to trucks, and pace slows down. This is just the start of the south, but it feels worlds different than my home and I find myself inclined to smile and catch the eye of everyone in a cowboy hat and boots.

Clearly, travel makes me a far nicer person than I usually am.

It’s odd, I suppose, being more inclined to connect with a person I have little to no possibility of seeing again over say, a neighbor, who has audacity to wave to me every evening as if I actually care that she exists. In my best Blanche DuBois I could casually breathe that, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” and it would be partly true in that I’m finding strangers often do provide better company than everyday people.

My husband, of course, is the main exception to that rule, and it’s to his credit that I actually began talking to strangers at all. Early in our relationship his social skills were in sharp contrast to mine: He could begin conversations with anyone without hesitation whereas my strength was in ending conversations with everyone before they could begin.

Many women develop this trait early on as a defense mechanism: We learn fast that there is no swaying the twitchy-eyed, vaguely rapey guy who manages to locate us out of the din in a grocery store, or a parking lot, or wherever we happen to be minding our own business, and who insists we’re the angel of his dreams. Short of jamming car keys in his nose, a general “fuck off” attitude is the first line of protection. I just found it convenient to adopt this attitude all the time.

As endearing as my guy miraculously found it, my manner did not make me an ideal companion, let alone wife. Really, who wants to talk to a man with a bird of prey perched on his arm? Introductions would be made at social functions and I exhausted my good nature at, “Pleasure to meet you.” My husband carried the conversation solo while I preened first, then circled in for a quick kill: “It’s been nice meeting you.” Off I’d stalk, content to have avoided lengthy discussion, but also, as my husband would later tell me, missing out on potentially good stories.

That was how he sold conversation to me. I hate prattle, but love a good story, particularly one I can store away in my mental archive for future inspiration. Writers do that. We listen, we record, and later, write it into something. The fact that my husband knows this about me is exactly why I love him. There would be no cajoling me into conversing for the pleasure of it, or the etiquette of it, or for the benefit of others. I needed a takeaway.

My first conversation happened in the dark, in New Orleans no less, between sips off a Pimm’s Cup while circling the Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone. This isn’t an exaggeration – the bar quite literally revolves in a steady slow circle, never stopping and always depositing you in a different place than where you began. Pretty as it may be with the elegant moldings of cherubs and other carnival faces, the bar seems more dark joke than watering hole. I suspect watching patrons regain their land legs after several boozy revolutions is one of the greatest amusements of the bartenders.

People like Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, and even Liberace frequented the Carousel Bar in their days, but that steamy night my guy and I found ourselves seated next to a cadaver bag saleswoman. She was in town for business, a fascinating and somewhat disquieting thought, and not the person I’d expect to be peddling something quite so macabre.

I’d have pegged her as an Amway pusher, someone who just wants to share a bargain and an opportunity, and would have hopped off my bar stool mid-cycle to avoid a pitch had my guy not asked the introductory questions. Instead we found a foul-mouthed proprietor of human remain containers who, with the encouragement of a cocktail, told a rollicking story that concluded with her slapping the counter and swearing, “I TOLD that asshole to get the medium grade bag!”

Lesson learned: Strangers are surprising (and, apparently, low grade cadaver bags can leak). My guy swears it’s all about asking questions. I once watched him walk up to the biggest, burliest, overalled backwoods hillbilly I’d ever seen this side of Deliverance and ask, “So, what’s up with the barbeque here?” Admittedly, we were at a street festival booth and not a dilapidated off road gas station. But by comparison, when the next row over stood a booth decked out with chrome appliances and an extensive model train diorama, why would he choose to stop at the booth created out of wood crates and duct tape?

“James Brown,” he said. The cassette deck in the booth had been pulsating with Brown’s “Hot Pants” and that, my guy said, was how he knew this was someone he could talk to. And damn it, he was right. Our soul-loving new friend turned out to be a competitive barbeque master with the best Alabama-style pork I’d ever tasted. I hung my head in silly, shallow shame.

As we travel I’m finding it easier it drop my preconceived notions, especially in places like New Orleans and Nashville, where so much of your fun comes from interacting with locals. There was one in particular I was itching to know more about, in fact.

We found him at the Wagon Wheel Saloon on Nashville’s main drag, a bar like most in the area, faded, smoke-stained and held together by the sheer will power of the musicians. They play for tips that are deposited in oversize pickle jars and make the rounds between sets shaking hands and hawking requests. An hour set equals a few bills from each of us and the routine will repeat for every hour the bar is open, which is just about all of them in a day.

Sitting by us on what could only have been his specific stool was a polliwog of a man, round on top with oddly whispy legs. He was clearly not there for the band.

His main concern seemed to be the carton of Mentos candy placed in front of him, the meticulous stacks of chewing gum next to it, and the row of eye drop bottles he shuffled. Every so often he would pocket an eye drop dispenser, or replace it with a lighter in an intricate dance of consumer goods.

I’d seem similar displays, only those are located inside a swanky women’s restroom, where the attendant dispenses soap for you, hands you towels, and guilts you into a tip for the use of her community hairspray, deodorant, and perfume. It’s a ruse I get sucked into every time, not because I want to use her products, but because I’d rather turn over a dollar than blatantly dodge the offered soap. That just seems rude.

But there was no need to dodge this man; his self-containment was obvious. Even the bartenders ignored him, whether that was because his presence was nothing new or a matter of keeping peace was uncertain. I just knew I wanted his story.

My finger twitched in anticipation. I debated opening with a quirky, “Got any gum?” or maybe a less presuming, “Come here often?” But then things got weird.

He rolled his shirt sleeves up to his elbows, exposing pudgy arms covered in blonde hair. Out came a bottle of eye drops from his pocket, and without the slightest regard to my eyes, which were boring holes into his bizarre ritual, he squeezed several drops of eye liquid on his left arm, rubbed them in thoroughly, and repeated the same with his right arm. He capped the bottle and added it to the lineup of others on the bar.

My guy need not have subtly shaken his head; I knew enough to not engage at that point. We quickly paid our tab and bootscooted to another bar. We may have missed out on one heck of a conversation, but that was just fine by me. Some stories you just know won’t end well.