It happened in Memphis. A lot of history and interesting stuff occurs in that magical city that sits grandly next to the Mississippi River. Elvis held court there, the blues grew up there and barbecue is queen. Elvis, of course, is still king.
I was there on a book tour. I just got back to the hotel after television appearances and book signings, so I went downstairs to the restaurant to order a salad to take to my room. I forgo room service except in rare incidents.
Though I have an expense account from my publisher, I spend their money like I spend mine. That means not paying an extra 20 percent just to have food brought to my room. I can carry it myself to the room for free.
Time stretched on — too long for a place that had only four or five customers — so I sat down at a table and waited. I noticed a large, broad-shouldered man sitting several tables back where the light was soft and low. He was alone. I thought nothing of that for I was alone, too, and that is often the case with business travelers.
He had on a black suit jacket and no tie. His hair was dark black, cut in what was once called a shag — layers framing his face and falling past his collar — and his face was covered in a beard that was neither too long or too short. I paid no further attention, choosing instead to focus on two waitresses who were fussing about the weekend schedule with a manager who wore badly scuffed brown loafers with worn-down heels.
“How,” I asked myself, “does a person become a manager in a nice hotel wearing shoes like that?” I’d still like to know the answer to that one.
That was only a question that kept me busy until the really important question pushed it out of my mind. I felt someone coming behind me and turned to see the large man stomping in a heavy-footed pace toward the exit. He was about 6-foot-4 and stout. Not fat, mind you. He looked like I imagined Paul Bunyan did when I read about him as a child or that character “Big John” in Jimmy Dean’s song of the 1960s.
Our eyes met. He smiled kindly, his full cheeks pushing his blue eyes into crinkled squints.
“Hello,” he said. “How are you today?”
His words were well-articulated and the tone was educated. A worn leather laptop bag hung over his shoulder and immediately brought to mind, “professor.”
I smiled back and returned his greeting as he strode past me in long-legged strides. No sooner had he passed than the most objectionable smell filled the air. It was a mixture of dirt, sweat and a long time with no soap or water. It caught me off guard. I turned to see where it was coming from but no one was around.
I turned back toward the nice giant and saw what I had missed before: The jacket had huge holes where the elbows were. The hem hung from the back, threads frayed and trailing and the lapels were worn and shiny. He wore knee-length khaki, dirty shorts and flip-flops patched together with duct tape. The soft lighting had hidden the ground-in dirt on his face.
He exited the hotel in downtown Memphis near the river and met another man who looked like him. Homeless, no doubt. The jacket was a remnant of his better days because no thrift store would have one that large in stock.
I grew thoughtful and tried to imagine who he had been and what journey had led him to the streets of downtown Memphis. Then, again, I saw the manager with the scuffed up shoes and thought, “If you’re not careful ...”
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “There’s A Better Day A-Comin’.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column appears Tuesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com/ .