If you sit long enough in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, the South passes by.
Sometimes, it’ll even walk right up to you, grab a seat and sit awhile. Or perhaps just stand for a bit of conversation like the stately, older gentleman who sauntered over to our table, his classic trench coat slung over his shoulder and a cup of coffee in his hand. His hair was thick and silver and his pleasant face lined with experience that we would be given the pleasure of glimpsing.
“Where y’all from?” he asked, a friendly smile stretching across his face.
This is not strange to me. I am Southern to the marrow of my bones. Tink, though, is from a world where there are perimeters. This means that a stranger does not look you in the eye when he passes you on the street, he does not offer a casual word while standing in the grocery line and he never, ever walks up to you in the lobby of a fine hotel and begins a conversation.
It has taken him a few years of getting used to this way of life but he is starting to appreciate it and sometimes enjoys it, even if he doesn't fully understand it. You have to be born to it in order to truly know it.
I immediately jumped into conversation with this older gentleman and Tink, a bit reluctant, tagged along.
“I grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi,” he said. “You know, they say the Mississippi Delta starts here in the lobby of the Peabody and ends at Catfish Alley in Vicksburg.”
The conversation then crooked through the usual twists and turns that Southerners generally follow. He told how they settled in Memphis to be closer to home and how the Peabody was scheduled to be torn down when they arrived.
“You wouldn’t have believed it,” he shook his head, then looked up at the intricate woodwork and beautiful glass. “Now, look at it. Truly amazing what they were able to do.”
For some reason, he next mentioned the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, “Lanterns on the Levy” by William Alexander Percy of Greenville, Mississippi, and how he had been a man of strong moral conscience.
“Have you ever read anything by Walker Percy, his cousin?” I asked.
His eyes lighted up. “I have a story about him!”
This is how Southerners work – one story leads to another.
He went on to explain that in the 1960s, he was an attorney in New Orleans representing the U.S. in Civil Rights cases.
“We had a case come up in that parish across the bridge from New Orleans.” He pursed his lips, thinking. “Now, what’s the name of it?”
“St. Tammany,” I replied.
He snapped his fingers. “That’s right. Covington. I went over for a meeting with concerned citizens. Afterwards, a gentleman came up and introduced himself. He said, ‘I’m Walker Percy.’”
I gasped. It was exciting to meet someone who knew the esteemed writer. He smiled. “I said, ‘Well, Mr. Percy, what do you do for a living?”
His laughter was one of embarrassment. “He replied, 'I’m a medical doctor but don’t practice because I have TB. I now write novels.’ I returned to New Orleans and told my boss who said, ‘You met THE Walker Percy?’ Now, of course, I’ve read all his books starting with ‘The Movie Goer.’”
I clasped my hands together, happily. “I love that book!”
Suddenly, the man spotted his family across the lobby. “Oh! There’s everyone. I have to go. It was indeed a pleasure to speak with you.”
Tink watched him as he hurried off then thoughtfully remarked, “You Southerners are so invested in your culture. You have a strong sense of who you are and what matters.”
And so it shall be, as long as strangers keep talking and sharing their stories.Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column appears Saturdays and on www.gainesvilletimes.com.