What I've Learned From My Travels

A young man talks to a stranger in a diner.

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1. I sat down at the counter with a soft sigh.

 

My feet were sore, and I was thirsty. I sat my canvas bag down on the stool next to me, then swiveled around and watched the crowd.  

The lights were loud and the voices were dim. Each conversation was held at a normal volume, and the collective noise was strong, but not aggressive. It was dinner time. The diner was busy.   

An old couple sat together on the same side of the booth. He had his arm around her shoulder, and they shared a pie. He said something quietly, I couldn’t hear what, but she laughed. Their clothes were old, with colors faded. Their wrinkles moved as they laughed. They were in love. I could see it in their eyes, their smiles, and the way they held each other. I smiled, then looked elsewhere.  

“What’ll you have?” The man behind the counter asked. He eyed me with suspicion, smelling the air.  

“Water, please. And a chicken pie.” I replied. My own voice surprised me. I expected an accent. I had heard so many accents recently that my own lack of any odd pronunciation or foreign tone surprised me. If you are new, people will either ignore you, or talk at you. They rarely talk with you. Many people had been talking at me.  

“You got money for that, son?”  

I reached into my bag and took out a few coins. “Will this cover it?”   

“Just makin’ sure you're no bum.”   

“I understand. Times are tough.”  

“It’s just that you don’t see many people who carry their lives on their backs. You seem clean enough, ‘n you’ve got money.” He was trying to make up for any insult he would have caused me. Money was all that mattered. As long as you can afford your food and your rent, no one cares what you do. But if you can’t, then you’re a problem. No one wants a problem. If someone assumes you’re a problem before talking to you, they’re worse than being a problem.   

“What’re you here for? If you don’t mind me asking.” He poured water from a pitcher into a glass and sat it in front of me.

“Just traveling. I want to see the world before I go to college.”  

“A college guy? You’re fancy.” He placed emphasis on ‘fancy’ . “I’ll be right out with your food.”

He went into the back of the diner.  

I turned back to watch the tables.  

Across the diner sat a young boy and girl, probably of about fourteen.

The girl sat awkwardly in a floral sundress. She looked at the boy, watching him eat. The boy hunched over his food, letting crumbs fall onto his brown corduroy jacket. He had large glasses which did not match anything he was wearing. He sat up from his food and said something. The girl forced a laugh. He smiled and dove back into his food. They were both rather ugly, but the girl’s dress looked new and sharp. They were both unpolished and uncomfortable, but their uneven grooves seemed to fit together. They would eventually overcome their awkwardness. If they are lucky they will end like the old couple. 

I sipped my water.  

The bartender came back with my pie.   

“Thank you.”  

“Any time.” He looked at me. I stared back, looking at him as I ate my pie.  

“Where’re you from?” He asked me. “You don’t talk like someone from around here.”  

“New Hampshire.”  

“You’re a long way from home. You drive here?”  

“I walked. My options were to spend 18 cents on either food for a day or so, or a gallon of gas. I choose food.”  

“You walked from New Hampshire? What the hell is wrong with you, boy?” The counter tender laughed. He wiped some crumbs from the counter.  

“I haven’t walked the whole way. Hitch hiking gets me across some places. I sleep in hotels and inns. Eat at diners and places. One guy just outside Illinois let me spend a two days in his house. They were nice, but his wife was an awful cook. I taught his son to tie his shoes.”   

The counter tender smiled. “That’s plenty nice of him. Are you goin' to walk back?”  

“There’s a college in California I’m going to. I’m using this time to walk there. Eventually I’ll probably ride a train back home.”   

A negro walked into the diner and sat down a few stools from me. The counter tender moved to take his order. After he did so he returned to speak to me.  

“You serve negroes here?” I asked with surprise.  

“Yes we do. Just about the only place in town.” It was a small town. “You got a problem with that? I thought they were all niggerlovers in New Hampshire.”  

“No, god no. I‘m fine with them.” I said quickly. “It’s just been a long time since I’ve seen a man judged by any more than the color of his skin or the size of his wallet.”  

“Or the size of his father’s wallet.”  

I agreed. Money or race. These two factors power everyone’s opinion of you. Whether you like it or not. Money can overpower race, but only in extremes of wealth or poverty.   

He brought the negro his food and I finished my pie. I took the time to enjoy my water.  

The counter tender returned.   

“So, son, what exactly is the size of your father’s wallet? You’re goin’ to college, but also have money to walk across the country.”  

“My father and I were going to travel together. He died last year. I’m finally done with school, so I’m doing it by myself.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” The counter tender said.   

“He was a great man. He was a business man. Just high enough up in the company to give us some extra money. We were comfortable. He got sick. He went fairly painlessly.” I sipped the last of my water.  

“That’s too bad.”  

“Yeah.”   

We stood in silence for a while. The conversation was dying. The ugly girl had left her ugly date to go to the bathroom. The old couple were standing up to leave. The negro was enjoying his food.  

“Well, that’ll be twenty eight cents.” The counter tender said with finality.   

I handed him a quarter and three pennies.   

And that’s how the conversation ended. I handed him money. Then I left. There were no goodbyes. I wiped crumbs from my lap as I turned away from the counter.   

It was now dark. I stayed the night in a hotel in the town. The next morning I returned to the same diner, but the counter tender was not there. It was his day off, according to the woman standing in his place. I ate another pie, then hitch hiked out of town.  

It’s always odd how you meet people, build a friendship from nothing but a misunderstanding and a glass of water, then they leave your life. I will never meet the man in Illinois again, but his son will remember me as the young man who taught him to tie his shoes. I never asked this counter tender his name. He never asked mine. Now I will never see him again.   

But such is life. You have to move on. You can’t dwell on people from the past, and you can’t let events from past hold you back. Use your past to push you into the future. All my father ever wanted me to learn was that I control my own future, that I can do it alone, that no one but me decides what I do with my life. But the people you meet in your life help you shape the future you want. That is what I’ve learned from my travels.  

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