When I was a little girl—three or four years old—I believed that the hill above my grandmother’s house was the end of the world. The road was a dead end, and so I thought you couldn’t go any farther.
There was a young man who lived on that hill who was well on his way to becoming a “rough character.” He would eventually get involved with drugs, be an enforcer for a drug dealer, go to prison. As a child, I’d stand in the front yard and wave to him as he sped up the road to his house. He’d wave and sometimes blow the horn. We were buds.
My best bud at that time was my cousin Bobby. He stayed with us while his mom worked. We were so close that we shared an imaginary friend named Miss Witch. Miss Witch lived in the basement and made us chocolate chip cookies. We loved her. And she loved us.
When I started elementary school and had to ride that big, scary, yellow bus, I’d go all the way to the back and sit with a high school senior named Bo. Bo was a large young man, taking up very much of his seat. But I was small and there was room for me, and Bo would greet me with a gentle, tolerant smile. And I wasn’t afraid. I was sitting with the biggest person on the bus, and I felt confident that he wouldn’t allow anyone to be mean to me.
Now before you think this is a post about why I love men, it isn’t. It’s about society and how I perceive it. The man who lived on the hill has returned there, or so I’ve heard. My cousin and I are lucky to see each other once a year. And the last I heard about Bo, he’d tried to commit suicide. I was so very sorry to hear that—didn’t he realize how special he was? That he’d been a symbol of strength to a frightened little girl? What had scared him so badly that he hadn’t wanted to live anymore?
When I was that little girl growing up in rural Southwest Virginia, the only labels were those I put on people. That “rough character” was the boy who had a car and drove fast and waved back at me. My cousin was the only boy I’d ever love (well, yeah, that changed). Bo was the giant who was nice to me. My friend Jacky could wear shorts anytime she wanted to because her legs weren’t white.
As I grew up, my experiences taught me empathy and compassion. I learned to look beyond the labels and try to see the person. When I was in high school, there was a little girl who would get on our bus every afternoon and sit beside me. I would inwardly groan—probably much as Bo had done—but smile at her. She would smile and sometimes rest her head against my shoulder. That was okay—I had a debt to pay forward.
I have a lot of eccentric characters in The Calamity Café. But I can safely say, they’re probably more realistic than the “normal” people.
By the way, some of those lessons we learn when we’re young really do stay with us. I was in the airport in Chicago once. I’d gotten off the plane, bought a sandwich and drink, and went to the gate to wait for my connecting flight. As I sat down, I noticed sitting across from me the largest, scariest man I think I’d ever seen. His head was shaved and tattooed, and he was intimidating to say the least. He glanced over at me.
I smiled. “Would you like half of this sandwich?” I asked. “It’s huge.”
“No, thank you.”
When I boarded the plane, there was an older lady sitting beside me. “Did you see that man with the tattoos on his head?” she asked.
“I did,” I said. “I offered him half my sandwich.”
“Why?” she asked. “He probably thought you were hitting on him.”
“The way I had it figured,” I said, “he was either as frightening as he looked or the complete opposite. I decided that if he was a bad person and maybe planning on blowing up the airport or something, he might spare the one who showed him a kindness. And I really want to get home to my kids.”
By the way, wanting to see beyond the surface of people is one of my favorite things, which is why I fell in love with Humans of New York Stories by Brandon Stanton.
- OVERVIEW of Gayle’s new book: The Calamity Cafe
First in a new cozy mystery series featuring Southern cooking that is to die for.
Aspiring chef and small-town Virginia native Amy Flowers is ready to open her own café offering old-fashioned Southern food. But her dream may go up in smoke when someone kills the competition…
Tired of waiting tables at Lou’s Joint, Amy Flowers doesn’t just quit—she offers to buy the place from her bully of a boss, so she can finally open the café of her dreams. Amy can’t wait to serve the kind of Southern, down-home treats and dishes that her grandmother always loved to the kooky cast of regulars at the restaurant. She knows her comfort food will be the talk of the sweet, small town of Winter Garden, Virginia.
At first Lou Lou refuses to sell, but when she seems ready to make a deal, she tells Amy to come see her. Showing up at the eatery ready to negotiate, Amy is shocked to find her former employer murdered. As the prime suspect, Amy will have to clear her name by serving up the real killer—and with Lou Lou’s stack of enemies, that’s a tall order.
Includes delicious Southern recipes!