A nice guy I met in passing

I met Gene Robinson yesterday. He came at me the way a hummingbird zips up to a flower, flits around from blossom to blossom and then is gone before you can take its picture.

“Merci beaucoup,” he said cheerfully as I exited a box store and held the door open for him. I turned to him, smiled and said, “You’re welcome!”

“Do you speak French?” he asked.

“No, but I know what you said,” I replied with my smile still in place, and that was all it took.

Gene Robinson told me he’s 73 years old. “Really?” It surprised me. “I’m 65 and I look like your grandpa.” He grinned and acknowledged that he doesn’t have much gray hair and that his face is portly enough to avoid creasing. Then he explained that his mother was white and his father was black. “I got my dark complexion from my father,” he said. This also surprised me because he was about as black as black skinned people get. I didn’t say that, of course, but I couldn’t have if I had wanted to because Gene continued: “I got my features from my mother, which is why I have thin lips and a white man nose.”

And indeed, he did.

“My mother’s people were from France,” Gene told me. “That’s why I spoke to you in French.”

Gene is the kind of person you meet throughout the South. He’s a talker and he never met a stranger. I know you can find those people everywhere but there are many more of them here in Texas than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. If you’re in a line of three people at a market checkstand you’ll be swapping recipes by the time you pay for your groceries.

Gene told me he was born and raised in New York City. That surprised me, too. I’ve never been there but my experience with folks from the Big Apple (and mostly from movie stereotypes) has led me to believe people there tend to mind their own business and are unapproachable. That thought no sooner crossed my mind than Gene confirmed it:

“In New York people keep their heads down,” he said. “If you’re on a train or a bus you pretend to be reading something or you pretend to be asleep. When you walk you look at the ground. You don’t look around at other people because you’ll make them nervous and you can wind up with trouble for no reason.”

Gene told me he has lived all over the country.

“I don’t mean to brag,” he bragged, “but I’ve bought seven new houses over the years. My wife and I are supposed to be on our way to Phoenix to live there for awhile but I don’t know if we’re going to make it. Our daughter lives here and we’ve been visiting for a couple of months. She likes having us here and she really likes having live-in babysitters,” he laughed.

I laughed too and Gene continued.

“So, I don’t know when we’re leaving for Arizona or if we’ll ever get there but it’s nice here. People are nice. You don’t find that everywhere.”

That gave me an opening: “I know what you mean,” I agreed, “I’m from California. People are nice enough there but they don’t talk to strangers or even their neighbors.”

That was all Gene needed to flit over to another blossom.

“Yes, people are different,” he agreed. “When I was in the Army I met guys from all over and they were all different.”

I had noticed that when I was in the Air Force but as I was framing my reply Gene just kept talking.

“I got shot in the leg in Vietnam,” he continued, pointing to his right thigh. “I was drafted. That was a bad deal. I mean the war. Getting shot is a bad deal, too.”

I nodded in agreement.

This continued for another three or four minutes, two elderly men who have never met standing on a sidewalk, smiling and looking each other in the eye. It was weird but oddly exhilarating.

Then Gene seemed to be finished for the time being.

“Well, I got other things I need to do,” he said, “so I guess I’ll say goodbye to you. It was nice meeting you. My wife says I talk too much. She says, ‘You’re always talking to total strangers as if you were their best friend. Why do you do that?’ I tell her I don’t know. I just like people, I guess. But I’m respectful of people’s wishes. If you hadn’t answered my question I wouldn’t have bothered you, I’d let you go on about your business.”

“It was no bother,” I assured him with a sincere and gratifying smile. “I enjoyed talking with you.”

Then Gene stuck out his hand and told me his name. I took it and told him mine.

“Merci beaucoup, David,” he laughed. Then he waved and walked away.

When I got home I told Carolann about my meeting with Gene. She thought it was nice but asked, “Did you talk to him, too, or was he one of those guys who just likes to hear himself talk?”

I hadn’t considered that.

“Was it a two-way conversation or was it all about him?” Carolann asked.

It was all about him, I admitted. I’m shy. I can never think of things to say to people until later, after they’re gone.

Now I wonder. Could it be that more than five minutes with Gene would seem an unbearable eternity? I’ve known people like that. Is he one of those people who thinks the world revolves around him or am I to blame for not holding up my end of the fleeting relationship?

“Well,” I said, “I can’t say for sure. I was barely able to get a word in edgewise but you know me, I can never think of anything to say to people.”

“Getting you to talk to people you don’t know is like pulling teeth,” she agreed, “but there are people who are exactly the opposite, you can’t get them to shut up and listen.”

My wife is so smart in ways I am not. She sees things quickly and clearly.

I’ve been thinking about all of this for the past 24 hours and now I wish I had asked Gene to meet me for a cup of coffee this morning. I liked him a lot but I had missed the moment. I didn’t ask him out when I had the chance and now I will never know if he’s potentially a great friend or just a nice guy I met in passing, and maybe a close, personal pain in the ass.