I spent the past week traveling through my home state of Mississippi. I read from my latest novel at bookstores in Oxford, Greenwood, and Jackson, before heading to New Orleans for the Tennessee Williams Festival. My mother and my husband stuck with me through Mississippi, but I am on my own in New Orleans. I don’t mind traveling alone. When you explore a city on your own, you can do it any way you please. And it’s a good way to meet people and hear their stories.
This morning I jogged down to Woldenberg park and ran along the pedestrian path overlooking the river. The sun was bright, but the air was cool. The Natchez steamboat sat waiting for passengers. Jackson Square was quiet, though some of the artists and palm readers were beginning to set up for the day. A few tourists wandered around taking photos and drinking coffee. I ran for a few miles and ended up at Cafe Du Monde.
As I sat in the open air cafe drinking my coffee and spilling powdered sugar across my lap, a woman asked if she could share my table. The cafe was just starting to bustle and she didn’t want to take up an entire table by herself. We chatted as she waited for her own order of beignets to arrive. She’d come in on the train for a quick getaway from Chicago. I mentioned I was from Denver and here for the festival. She said she planned to take one of the walking tours offered by the festival. She told me she’d written a book about baking and midwestern food. I mentioned that I was novelist, but that I once worked as a baker. There is always common ground.
I enjoy these random conversations. I have the sort of face that encourages strangers to share secrets. When I grocery shop, people are always asking my opinion about the produce or the bulk foods selections and then segueing into some story about the party they are throwing or their plans to adopt a stray cat.
Two weeks ago a man entered an elevator just after I’d gotten on. He said, “I’m not a stalker.” I was startled and said, “Pardon?” He explained that he’d been walking behind me for the past block and that he almost waited for the next elevator because he didn’t want me to think he was following me. “I’m staying in this hotel,” he explained. The idea that he might be following me hadn’t occurred to me. I told him as much. “I wasn’t worried about you,” I said, “until now.” I was making a joke, but he got flustered and apologized. He told me about how he’d been reexamining his behavior around women in the wake of the #MeToo movement. He said he had daughters and he worried about them.I told him I understood. I reassured him that he didn’t strike me as creepy, but said he should stop apologizing for things he hadn’t done. “You might cause people to wonder what you’re planning,” I told him.
I’m glad people feel free to talk to me, though occasionally I learn something I’d rather not know. If you are planning to divorce your spouse, you should tell him or her before confessing it to a random stranger on the street. But if you have a funny story or a happy story or an ordinary life story, feel free to share it with me. I’ll be the one sitting alone at the cafe with powdered sugar all over my lap. I look forward to chatting with you.