Coming Home

The Guitar Man and the Lady from Frisco

They are a vanload of pilgrims, climbing through the swirling snow of a late December night from the Denver airport up toward ski country -- a family from Missouri, another from North Carolina, a couple of college kids headed home for the holidays.  And the Guitar Man.

He wears jeans and a faded leather jacket and his luggage consists of a duffel bag and a battered guitar case -- a six-stringed Martin or Gibson, probably, wood worn bare by the brushing wings of a million notes and chords.  He's in his late 20's and he has a nice smile.  But he has a road-weary look about him, sort of like his guitar case. 

The van driver is a jolly sort who keeps up a running conversation with his passengers -- partly to relieve the boredom of the trip he makes up and down I-70 so many times that every boulder, every snow-crusted pine is etched in his subconscious; but also because he's genuinely interested in people and he's full of the holiday spirit.  He's got Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops playing "Good King Wenceslas" on the stereo.  And he wants to know who the pilgrims are and where they're from.  That's how they get to know that they're Missourians and Carolinians and college students, trading names and places and bits of personal background here in the warm temporary intimacy of a rubber-tired cocoon.

The last to speak is the Guitar Man, who says he's a folksinger.  He's been traveling the East, playing coffee houses and college campuses and small bars, trying to figure out if he can make a living with his music.  He's soft-spoken and engagingly modest and the rest of the passengers can hear the music in his voice -- a traveling troubadour, a man who tells stories in song.  And he has a story of his own.

There's a Lady in Frisco, a little mountain town just off the interstate.  A rather special lady, or at least she used to be.  She and the Guitar Man were more than friends once upon a time not too long ago, until the music took hold and pulled him out on the road.  The Lady in Frisco begged him not to go.  But it was something he just had to do.  The music was strong inside him -- stronger, he thought, than love.  So he went, hoping that maybe love would wait.  During these long months while he was out there in the coffee houses and bars, the Guitar Man and the Lady in Frisco haven't spoken or written, not once.  That was the way she wanted it.

Now, on this snowy night just before Christmas, the Guitar Man is headed back to Frisco, back to the tiny apartment where the Lady lives, carrying his duffel bag and his guitar and his heart.  The Lady in Frisco doesn't know he's coming.  And he doesn't know what he'll find when he gets there.  Maybe there's someone else.  Maybe she's so hurt and disappointed, maybe she thinks he's so unreliable, she doesn't want to see him any more.  She may not let him in.  But he's come all this way to try.

The Guitar Man's fellow pilgrims are all but struck dumb by his bittersweet story and by the anticipation of what's to come.  The Guitar Man will be the first passenger to disembark, and all of the others will get to see if the Lady in Frisco turns him away.  If she does, he'll ride on to the next town and find a place to crash for the night.

The van climbs on, past the meadow where the buffalo herd hunkers against the frigid night, past the rocks where the big-horn sheep scramble by day, up and over the Continental Divide.  The driver and the pilgrims are quiet, lost in their thoughts, considering the Continental Divide of the heart where east meets west and sometimes the altitude and the bitter wind are too much, where even the most resolute traveler has to turn back and seek shelter elsewhere.

On the stereo, the joyous strings of the Boston Pops ring out, "Oh Come All Ye Faithful."  But the pilgrims hear another song of another season:

Rambling man, why don't you settle down;

Boston ain't your kind of town;

There ain't no gold

and there ain't nobody like me.

And then they're in Frisco and the van is crunching along a back street, pulling up in front of a row of one-story apartments.  Inside the van, you can hear a pin drop.  The Guitar Man climbs out.  "Good luck," the driver says.  The Guitar Man smiles, then closes the door behind him, hoists his duffel bag and guitar case, and climbs the steps.  There's a Christmas tree in the window, all decorated with colored lights and tinsel.  But for the pilgrims in the van, their faces pressed to the windows, it won't be Christmas unless…

The Guitar Man knocks.  The door opens, the rectangle of light framing a young woman in a bathrobe.  The folks in the van can't see her face very well, but they can imagine surprise, shock, maybe even anger.  Or maybe nothing.  That would be the worst.  "Come on lady," somebody in the van says softly, "let him in."  But they stand there in the light for a long moment, the Guitar Man and the Lady from Frisco, oblivious to the cold, the rest of their lives hanging in the balance.

Then she steps back from the door, making room for him.  The Guitar Man turns and gives the van folk a thumb's up and then he enters and closes the door behind him.  In the van, they're cheering and crying.

The pilgrims move on into the night, now lovely and silent and at peace with itself, all of them touched in some deep place of the soul they had forgotten was there.


The Games Southerners Play

I am driving along a narrow two-lane rural road somewhere in the South.  My front-seat passenger is from another part of the country.  As we pass other vehicles, the drivers, without fail, wave to us.

My passenger is perplexed.  "Why are they doing that?"

I explain to my passenger that they wave for one of three reasons:

  1. they assume that if you're on this road, you must be from around here or know somebody who is;
  2. they assume that you're lost and they sympathize;

College athletic contests define a great deal of what life is about in our southern states.  But southerners also engage in social gamesmanship with equal devotion and fervor.

A southerner's favorite social game is WHO ARE YOUR PEOPLE?  And by "people," the southerner means:

  1. the vast array of relatives, friends and acquaintances that make up a person's human universe;
  2. all of their relatives, friends and accquaintances;

It is the southerner's primary objective in life -- beyond food, shelter and football -- to establish some sort of connection with other human beings.  It is not enough that I meet you, shake your hand and engage in conversation both trivial and profound.  I must find out who you are.  And that encompasses where you came from and who you know.  In other words, WHO ARE YOUR PEOPLE?  Assemle any group of southerners, especially people coming together for the first time, and you will observe this social phenomenon -- this joyous game-playing -- in its full-blown glory.

Some of it, of course, amounts to snobbery: unless you came from the finest stock, you're not worth knowing.  But for most southerners, it's quite the opposite -- an attempt to reach out to another human being on the most elemental level.

Southerners will play the game almost to the point of desperation, grasping at the tiniest glimmer of a connection.  Let's say, for instance, that you are from Minnesota, have never been south of Chicago until today, and don't know anyone else who has.  I will gnaw at you like a dog worrying a bone until I finally establish that your great-great-grandfather fought with a Minnesota infantry brigade at the Second Battle of Bull Run and may have exchanged shots with my great-great-grandfather, who was one of Stonewall Jackson's North Carolina infantrymen.  There, now.  We've established connection.  I know WHO YOUR PEOPLE ARE.  I will not be defeated in this.

I have a friend in another southern state who takes this business almost to the extreme.  His hobby is going to funerals.  If he is driving along a narrow two-lane rural road and happens upon a church where a funeral is in progress, he will stop, enter, take a seat in the rear, and sit quietly through the service (even, on occasion, shedding a circumspect tear for the deceased).  He will accompany the mourners to graveside for the interment.  And then he will mingle with the crowd, playing WHO ARE YOUR PEOPLE?  He will work like the dickens to establish some kinship or acquaintance, however remote.  He's usually quick at making genuine connection in his own southern state, where everybody seems to know everybody else and half the folks are kin to each other.  But he has wandered across the border into neighboring states and enjoyed similar results.  If all else fails, he will make up something.  As he departs, I can just hear one of the mourners: "Oh, you know, that's the boy that went to the Citadel with second-cousin Irene's neighbor's sister's youngest child, the one that crash-landed in the Simpson's pasture back yonder."  Oh, that one.

When I tell people who are not from the south about my funeral-attending friend, I get odd looks and comments like, "That's truly strange."  But my friend is simply the fringe expression of a basic, native southern impulse: I am prepared to like you and would be honored to be your friend, but first we must establish some basis upon which to take that leap of faith upon which all friendships depend.

Durham novelist Reynolds Price says that in the south, our families are our entertainment.  As a lifelong southerner, Mr. Price knows that we stretch the concept of "family" to its utter limits when we play WHO ARE YOUR PEOPLE?  We are all each other's people here.

The quintessential southern social occasion involves two strangers who sit next to each other at a college football game.  By the end of the first quarter, they will have satisfactorily have completed a game of WHO ARE YOUR PEOPLE?  By halftime, if their team loyalties lie on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage, they will have come to blows.


Delbert Earle and the World of Work

"You don't work, you're a writer," says my friend Delbert Earle.  His idea of work is anything in which you lift, tote, fetch, hammer, dig, explode, or stand around a hole in the ground watching somebody else do one of the above.

"But writing is hard work," I protest.  "I sometimes sweat profusely when I'm writing.  I lose sleep.  I have occasionally broken down in tears.  Have you ever had to use a jackhammer on writer's block?"

"Okay," says Delbert Earle, "maybe writing falls into the general category of work, but it does not fit my definition of honest labor.  Have you ever shed blood in the course of your writing work?"

"Well," says I, "I do sometimes cut myself on the edge of a sheet of paper.  It is a very painful sort of wound, Delbert Earle."

"Sonny Boy," says Delbert Earle with a chortle (I really hate it when he chortles), "that doesn't count.  Nothing less than something that requires stitches really qualfies as a job-related injury.  Have you ever filed for workmen's compensation?"

"No," I admitted.  "I never have."

"Well, then."

This is one subject on which Delbert Earle, who is my very good friend and a person I admire and respect greatly, have never been able to agree.  Ever since I quit my day job to stay home and write, he has been skeptical.  Since  then, he has taken to calling me "Sonny Boy."  We are about the same age, so it's not like an older fellow calling a younger fellow "Sonny Boy."  No, I think it has something to do with his regard for my vocation.

So it was with some trepidation that I rushed over to Delbert Earle's house to tell him that I have finished a large writing project on which I invested more than three years of sweat, tears, and occasional paper cuts.  Give Delbert Earle credit, he was gracious.  Congratulatory.  He looks forward to reading what I have written.  But then he said, "Three years?  You must have had a lot of writer's block."  There is no use in trying to explain.

Maybe I bear some responsibility for Delbert Earle's skewed opinion of what it takes to write.  He once asked me, "Sonny Boy, how do you write a book?"

I replied, "You stare out the window until you think up something, and then you write it down.  Then you stare out the window some more, think up something else, and write that down.  You keep doing that over and over until you've thought up everything you're going to think up, then you write THE END and send it off to your publisher."  Did I create a false impression here?

Well, as I say, Delbert Earle was gracious and congratulatory.  And he had some news of his own.  He got a promotion where he works.  I, too, was gracious and congratulatory.

It seems that his boss called him in and told him to show up the next morning in dress shirt and tie, because they were going to make him a coordinator.  He rushed home and took his wife and boy Elrod out to dinner and bought Elrod a pair of Air Jordans.

The next morning, he showed up properly attired.  He spent a couple of hours in Human Resources, where they signed him up for a 401K and a Stress Management Course.  Then after lunch, he started his new office job.

There are two kinds of people in this office, expediters and coordinators. An expediter, he learned, is someone who takes confusion and turns it into chaos.  And a coordinator sits between two expediters.  All afternoon, these expediters sent folks galloping off in all directions, and Delbert Earle spent all his time trying to get them straightened out.  At the end of the day, Delbert Earle went in to see his boss.  "Bossman," he said, "we need to get rid of these expediters."

"Well," said the boss, "we paid a management consultant thousands of dollars to study the place, and he said we need expediters.  So we'll have to keep 'em until we get our money's worth."

So Delbert Earle said, "Bossman, if it's okay with you, I'd just as soon go back to what I was doing before."

The boss said, "All right, but if you'd stick around a few more days, you could have my job.  I'm retiring on disability."  And it was then that Delbert Earle noticed this bad tic his boss has.

So Delbert Earle went back to doing what he did before.

When he recounted the story to me, I said, "Aha!  So you took a job in which you didn't lift, tote, fetch, hammer, dig, explode, or stand around a hole in the ground.  You weren't doing honest labor!"

"Yeah, Sonny Boy," said Delbert Earle, "but it didn't take me three years to figure it out."