In the summer of 1995, I was walking down a sidewalk in downtown New York City, New York, with some friends. As we passed an ice cream parlor, I noticed an old man sitting alone eating a strawberry ice cream cone. About a block later one of my friends noticed I was crying and asked what was wrong. I told her about the old man. It was so sad to me. I love old men. There is something so venerable about their frail bodies that are hunched over with the weight of a lifetime, their eyes full of history and their wrinkles laced with memories. I decided that night that old men should never have to eat alone. Since then, whenever I see an old man eating by himself, I ask them if I can join them. I have enjoyed the company of fourteen gentlemen since that day.
I met Sid in Union Springs, Alabama. I pumped his gas for him and then we split a pack of cheese crackers. He told me about his grandson, Darius, who was attending Auburn University. He was the first person in Sid’s family to ever go to college. He cried as he told me about him.
Farmer and I ate hot dogs in Bayou la Batre, Alabama. When I asked him how he had made his living, he told me he was a farmer. Before I could smile he said, “What else could I do with a name like Farmer?”
In Paducah, Kentucky, I ate chili cheese fries and drank a strawberry shake with Emmett. He was a retired physician. I asked him how he stayed so young looking. He told me that he always paid attention to nutrition. “I mean look at this meal. We have had all the basic food groups in one sitting!”
In the airport in St. Louis, Missouri, I met Franklin. He told me he had been in love with the same woman for fifty-seven years. “The only real problem with her” he said, “is she is married to my brother.” I told him that he was breaking my heart. “Then I guess we should order a beer,” he replied. We did.
In the airport in Newark, New Jersey, I ate cheeseburgers with Spencer. He was waiting on his grandson to arrive. He was about to meet his great granddaughter for the first time. Her name was Isabelle.
In Jasper, Alabama, I dined with Lexington. He had a twin brother who drowned when they were ten years old. He had chili and I ate a grilled cheese sandwich. It was the anniversary of his brother’s death.
George and I met at Durbin Farms in Clanton, Alabama. He and his wife Delores had been putting up peaches for over forty years. He didn’t think two less peaches would hurt, so we sat together and ate two of the most perfect peaches ever grown. While peach juice dripped from our sticky fingers, he told me about his daughter. She had become addicted to pain killers after a car accident that had taken her husband’s life. She had been addicted for years. She had tried several times to get help, but things were never the same.
Bobby and I met in Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee. His son had been killed in Vietnam. He still had the flag that the army gave him at the funeral. It was on his bed-side table. We ate ham and cheese sandwiches.
Reginald and I ate home made fried chocolate pies at a little gas station in Sand Rock, Alabama. He was a carpenter by trade. When he got married, he made his wife a bed out of cherry as her wedding gift. Two years before we met, he had built her casket.
On the river bank in Augusta, Georgia, I had a liquid lunch of cheap vodka with Sanford. We shared a game of chess and talked politics. He told me about how he learned to read sitting outside the window of the white school house. He beat me badly at chess.
Richard and I ate barbecue at the Smokehouse at the Pineapple/Greenville, Alabama exit on I65. He thought his son was gay, but was too embarrassed to bring it up to him and tell him that he loved him anyway.
Charles, “I just hate the nickname Chuck,” was finishing his meal in Fort Deposit, so I joined him for a slice of ice box lemon pie. He had been a high school football coach. The Hornets were undefeated his last season.
Robert was a “dealer of formerly cherished, fine antiquities.” He had the best junk store in Mentone, Alabama. He found early on, that if you word things just right, that people will pay more for something. “They buy the story just as much as the furniture.”
Jerry was having tomato soup in Leeds, Alabama. I just had a soda. His daughter was married to “a real jackass, but their kids are real cute.”
Fourteen lunches later, I can remember these mens faces. I can remember their stories. They are forever burned in my memory. But the face that I see more clearly than them all is the one that belongs to the story that I never knew. It is the most intriguing one of all – the cutest little man sitting quietly alone on a hot summer night in New York City slowing eating a strawberry ice cream cone. I think if I could have one “do over” in life, I would go back to that street that night, walk into the ice cream parlor and simply ask, “Mind if I join you?”