When an old friend asked me if I’d write something for her blog about moving to a small town, I wasn’t sure what to say. I’d been thinking about the difference between Atlanta (where I lived for 26 years) and Lafayette, Indiana (where my husband and I moved in April) for weeks. But I hadn’t yet organized my thoughts and wasn’t sure where to begin.
I didn’t want to talk about not missing Atlanta’s traffic. Though it’s true, it hardly seemed worth writing about. And I didn’t want to count the ways I missed my friends and the luxury of being able to meet somebody somewhere for a walk or movie or drinks at nearly anytime of the day or night. Also true, but not very interesting.
And then I met Dwight.
This morning, he walked into Oliverio’s – the greasy spoon about a mile from my house that I’d finally decided to check out. I looked up from my book when the door opened and he smiled on his way to the counter. With his full head of white hair and slow walk, he looked to be somewhere in his 70s. He had on a dark blue plaid shirt that looked to be flannel and black pants. We exchanged that nod polite strangers use and for a second, as he walked by my table, he looked as if he might speak. But he didn’t. Just took his seat at the counter and started talking to the waitress as if he were a regular and his order – oatmeal with brown sugar and milk – was something he got all the time.
I turned my attention back to my eggs and potatoes and book, looking up only to nod whenever the waitress asked if I wanted more coffee. At some point, she placed my bill at the end of the table. Before I’d found the right place to stop reading, Dwight grabbed the slip of paper and headed for the register.
“This is on me!” he said over his shoulder, to which I replied thank you and aren’t you sweet and that was so kind. I was surprised and touched and a little flustered. It wasn’t like we were all weary businesspeople sharing quarters in the kind of crowded hotel bar where you wouldn’t be shocked to have the bartender put another round of whatever you were drinking in front of you, noting it was compliments of the gentleman over there, who he’d point out with a subdued nod and if you accepted it, you wouldn’t be surprised if the gentleman appeared at your side to try his hand at small talk. This was a breakfast dive, nearly empty. Two plumbers ate breakfast at the far end – I’d noticed their truck in the parking lot on my way in – but the tables around me were empty. The manager and cook chatted in Spanish and the waitresses dusted the blinds and wiped the menus with damp rags.
But here was Dwight, who stuck out his hand told me his name on the way back to his spot at the counter. I said mine and we shook hands. He had deep laugh lines around his eyes, which were the blue of early morning. He didn’t ask me where I was from or say anything else. Just let go of my hand and sat back down on the stool.
I thanked him again, grabbed my things, left a tip and headed to the car.
I sat in the parking lot for a minute and thought about unexpected kindness and the pace of small-town life. Just yesterday, I’d stopped in an office supply store to buy packs of reading tabs and wound up learning about the owner’s life and family and places he thought I should see.
It’s the people who keep surprising me the most. The woman at the copy shop who takes way more care with my orders than I’m used to. The guy at the camera store who has all the time in the world to talk about film. The post office worker who, if no one else is in line, will talk about stamps or his volunteer work or where he and the wife are going on vacation this year.
I decided next time I stop for breakfast at Oliverio’s, I’ll get there even earlier. That way I can be at the counter when Dwight arrives and tell him this time, breakfast is on me.