Last week I wrote about Writing in the Open, doing character sketches in public places. I said then and I’ll say it again, I don’t use those sketches for my fiction, but they serve as wonderful writing practice. That does not mean that people I meet by chance don’t turn up later in my writing. For example, I took a Memoir class a few years ago from a wonderful woman, Sarah Cortez, author of the poetry collection, How to Undress a Cop. Thanks to one of her excellent writing prompts, I got to revisit a gentleman I met by chance at the Lexington Market in Baltimore when I was living there in the early 80’s.
Here is that story:
Soon after graduating from college, a small group of nurses from the hospital decided to go out to lunch at Lexington Market in downtown Baltimore. Since I was new to town, Susan gave me a ride to keep me from getting lost.
As soon as we went in the double-wide glass doors, the cacophony of hundreds of voices bargaining their way through their weekly shopping list enveloped us. One of my feet slipped against the worn pastel tiles, and I grabbed the steel railing next to me. Grubby with the touch of all those people, I quickly turned it loose. My friends were a couple of steps ahead of me, intent on the soft shell crab they’d whispered about all through the morning’s in-service session.
I took a step forward, and was jostled yet again. I wound up next to the fish stand, where lean sleek bodies of sea bass lay prostrate next to rainbow trout on the shaved ice. I began to worry that the crab would come with eyes as flat as those in the fish case.
A light touch on my arm proved to be an old man. Worn woolen hat on his head despite the heat of the day, he smelled worse than the fish. After establishing that I would not give him a dollar for a lunch which I suspected would be as liquid as the sour odor on his breath, he touched my arm again.
“I was an engineer,” he said.
Before I even realized it, he’d told me much of the sorry story of his life. Hidden behind the fading blue of his eyes, lay an intelligent man, whose life had been ruined by drink. As I stood there listening, my friends occasionally waved at me from their table.
On the way home Susan asked me why I’d listened to him so long. “You’ve got to learn to be tougher, no more Aunt Julie,” she said, unknowingly using the nickname boys and girls in the dorm had bestowed upon me when I became their designated shoulder-to-cry-on. I’d given him an hour of my time. It cost me nothing.