The Serendipitous Encounter
Loud engines whirred as the chilly air blew from overhead vents. I grabbed my travel sweater and socks to bundle up as usual in the frigid airplane starkly contrasted from the hot, muggy September day in Atlanta. I sat in the middle seat, hoping that one or more of the spots would stay empty, dutifully holding my boarding pass to prove I was sitting where I was assigned, but ready to move to the window if I was so lucky. I wasn't. A girl smacking her lips with chewing gum and only removing one earbud in order to interact with me cheerfully bounced down the aisle, stopping at my row. "Oh, this is me."
She tossed her lightweight canvas bag in the upper bin and all but climbed over me as I tried to exit the seat in order to let her in. I smiled, taking my seat again next to her as she gave me a friendly nod and put her other earbud in. Got it. No talking. I figured it was time to buckle up, take a book from my purse, and get lost in a story for the next couple of hours. I settled in. A tall figure with massive shoulders cast a shadow over the pages. I looked up. "I believe this is my seat here," he smiled.
His head was full of silvery-grey hair, only revealed after removing a black fedora. It was odd that he would be wearing a light trench coat already, but maybe he suffered from the same affliction as I do when traveling. Ice-cold air-conditioning that makes the bones ache. A young man from across the aisle helped him lift a brown leather bag into the overhead, and the slow-moving pillar of humanity ducked his head to sit in the seat next to me. "Hello, there."
He caught me staring at him. "Oh, hi." I was captivated not only by his size, but by the appearance that he was the epitome of a character from another time. As if he'd never left the 1950s, maybe even a decade earlier. I love it when people choose an era to represent themselves and have a certain look. But this didn't seem like a gimmicky fashion statement, but the essence of who this man was. He was smartly dressed in a cotton button-up layered with vest and blazer which he uncovered when taking off his coat after the harsh air-conditioning subsided, preparing us for take-off. He sat quietly, eyes closed, trench neatly folded and draped over a knee, stacking his hands one atop the other. They were broad hands, wrinkled and spotted with the color of age. I grinned at the thought that each mark probably represented something pretty special in his long life. He looked happy. And there was something about him that I couldn't shake. I felt as if I was sitting next to someone who could teach me the secrets of life. God knows, I was searching.
The Gamble to Connect
After the jolting and bumbling of the ascent, the man who could probably sense a million thoughts racing around in my head leaned over to me and extended his hand. "I'm Roger." His voice was low and friendly. "Roger Haberdash."
"I'm Nikki. Nice to meet you." I wanted to ask him a thousand questions, but I hesitated. It was the journalist in me. I couldn't help the swirling intrigue going on in my mind, eager to learn what was true about the man despite my speculation. I knew that there was more than meets the eye. There always is. I shook his hand firmly.
"So, Nikki, headed home or away from it?" he asked. To me, it was an open invitation. Cool. Talking allowed. Let's be friends.
"Neither, really. I'm headed to Chicago for the first time in a few years."
"So, you enjoy my hometown, do you?"
"I do. I went to a school of journalism right outside the city. Not one of note, just one I could afford," I laughed. "But after graduation, I headed to Atlanta to do as much reporting as I could. Mostly, I've ended up writing online articles about things that are newsworthy, I suppose. Just not what I want to do forever. Anyway, one of my friends is house sitting for her parents over the next six months, and she invited me to join her. I only have to help pay the utilities. It's a pretty sweet deal that I couldn't pass up." I caught myself mid-babble. "Sorry, that was the long answer, I guess. Originally, I'm from St. Louis."
"Are you?" He laughed a short one-breath chuckle that affirmed a there's-something-I'm-not-telling-you tone. "I knew a girl from St. Louis once."
"Hm. Sounds like a story," I probed.
"Ha! Maybe there is. But it wouldn't interest a young girl like you, now would it?" His grin turned into a smile, and he raised his eyebrows titling his head toward me revealing every line in his wide forehead.
"It's exactly the thing that interests me. I want to interview people like you; write stories that matter. Real ones. Not only about the things that happen in our world, but about the people they happen to. How often do we just report what is going on, what people say, what people do, without knowing who they are? Don't you think some of the bad things that happen in this world would change if only we could relate to the people behind them? I don't know..."
The Beginning of Friendship
"Sounds like you've seen a bit of this world." His voice felt compassionate. I missed my grandpa in that moment. "Well, St. Louis, what do you want to know? Bet you can't guess what I did for a living."
"Linebacker?" I grinned.
"You would think. Nope. Much to the chagrin of every coach that ever approached me, mind you. I liked to stay active, but I never had a real interest in sports. My parents didn't encourage it much either. With a name like Haberdash, I was slated to run the men's clothing shop in downtown Chicago that my dad started in the late 1800s. At least, that's what he always told me. 'We were destined for our calling through the name we were given at birth.'" He glanced at me with a smile. "I suppose you don't know what that word means. Haberdashery?"
"Um...Men's clothing?" I guessed.
"Ah, you're astute, St. Louis. I do like you." He pointed his wide finger toward me with a nod and a wink. "That it is, indeed."
"So, your father's store was in Chicago during the 1800s?" I was hooked already.
"Yes, it was.1893 to be exact. He was only 21 years old when he opened the store. It was his father's wish before him. To come to America and open up shop. But he didn't survive to see the day. I'm sure my father made him proud. He fulfilled the dreams his father had, unlike what I put him through." His voice trailed off as he looked down at his hands, then glanced at me with a smirk. "I wasn't all bad."
"I'm sure you made him proud. What was it about the store that you didn't like?"
"Oh, the store? I loved it there. Nothing like growing up in a place where you could smell fresh fabrics, run through rows of linen, and operate a cash register as soon as you were tall enough to peer over a countertop." He paused and chuckled. His shoulders moved up and down as he tried to stifle a full-blown laugh. "Oh, the adventures of my childhood."
"It sounds like maybe it did run in the blood. Did you ever come back to run the store?"
"What makes you think I ever left?"
I was getting ahead of myself and assuming. Not the best attribute in a reporter. We are supposed to stick to facts, and I was always wondering about the things that no one was saying, or the possibilities I would imagine could be true. Maybe I had missed my calling. “Sorry, I do that sometimes. I just assumed…”
His broad teeth appeared in a slow-moving smile, as we shared a moment of understanding. He gave me another wink and nod.
“No, it’s all right. You assumed correctly," he smiled. "I left to pursue my dreams.” As he leaned to the side to allow himself enough room, he turned to look me straight in the eye. “There’s nothing wrong with following your dreams, St. Louis. But it doesn’t define a person. It’s only a part of who you are. There are so many pieces.” Straightening his shoulders to rest himself against the back of the seat, he stared at the tray table in front of him.
“I was a chef.”