Learning Great Stories From People You Randomly Meet

He was tall and lean, his bald head dotted with age spots. But the way he moved – the way he rested back languidly in the patio chair – spoke of a youthfulness that belied his 80 years. Maybe it was a smoothness borne of decades of athleticism. Or maybe a military career. Something. …

He moved his hands to swat the pigeons away, and his long fingers gave away more of his story. Something involving wealth. Something involving elegance. Something involving shiny automobiles, perhaps. …

“You’re a cool chick,” he yelled to me across the patio.

The waitress walked away as I squinted back at him through the heat. I pulled my chair in and set my purse in an empty seat.

“Pardon?”

“You’re a cool chick,” he repeated. He smiled when he said it this time. He directed his oversized sunglasses more pointedly toward me, but maintained his languid pose, one elbow draped over the chair beside him. He motioned again with his hand toward the empty patio. “It’s hotter than blazes out here, but you’re sitting outside.”

I laughed politely. “Well, let’s see how long I last.”

The heat truly was oppressive. Over 100 degrees. But the shade, the patio, the dryness, the slightest of breezes, and perhaps the willingness you take on when you’re purposely spending a weekend in a high desert made it all somehow bearable. Challenging, even. Maybe that’s what he meant. …

He turned back to his own companions – two women, possibly his daughter or granddaughter – and I turned toward my menu. My husband arrived, and we ordered our lunch. A lull set in between our two tables, ruffled only by the pigeons that waddled through the heat. My husband waved them away.

“I think my bald head might be scaring them,” the man said to my husband.

My husband isn’t normally the type of person who makes conversation with strangers – he’s typically rather shy and reserved – but, to my surprise, he turned slightly toward the other table, as if to encourage the gentleman to continue. There was just something about that man. He looked like a walking fable.

“When I was in Blackbird Jungle, the same thing happened,” the gentleman continued, smiling. “The director made me stand in the back because I scared the birds away.” His two female companions looked up at him, clearly familiar with this story.

My husband’s shoulder turned further toward him, in a way that would have been imperceptible to anyone else, but to me it was interesting. His usual suspicion of strangers was being relaxed, for some reason, with this man.

“So,” my husband said across the patio, “next time I watch Blackbird Jungle, whose name should I look for in the credits?”

The man smiled, shaving off another ten years. “Oh, you probably don’t know that old movie.” the man said, waving his hand again. “It was a silly thing. Almost a ‘spoof,’ you know, but I’d do anything for a buck back then. I was just an extra. I mostly drove the cars.”

My husband’s chair was almost fully turned now. “Drove the cars?”

“For the actors.” The man lifted a cap off his table and put it on his head. It said “Paramount Pictures.” “Now the birds will start bothering us again,” he added, laughing.

We spent the rest of our lunch chatting with our new friend. (I’ll call him “Russ,” since I don’t know how much he may want to be Googled, although he told us his real name.) We pulled our chairs closer. The other two women were, indeed, his daughter and granddaughter – they were in the desert delivering paintings that his daughter had painted for one of her clients.

Russ told us he had gone to Hollywood High in the 1940s, which is right down the street from Paramount Pictures, so he had a part-time job driving the actors to their homes up Mulholland Drive, like Errol Flynn. He kept telling us we were “too young” to know the actors he was naming, but my husband knew them. Russ married his teenage sweetheart after spending years serving in WWII – all of which sounded about right for that era – and then came home to make his life in L.A., living with his young wife near the beach and learning to make balsawood surfboards for a new thing called “surfing.” (The ‘40s and ‘50s surfers often talk about how small the surfing community was then – they could leave their boards on the beach and come back to find them untouched the next day.) Russ ended up making a career of designing “Woody” cars for the surfers.

My husband – Mr. Reserved – was suddenly like a cocktail party dynamo, chatting away, asking questions, submitting his own tidbits of info about the eras Russ described. It reminded me of the good times I’d have when I wrote marketing material for an assisted-living community that housed some of the famous folks from Pasadena. They all had the most interesting stories – young (and long!) marriages, war years, big-band playing, the “coming up” of Los Angeles, chairing the young Tournament of Roses parade – the stories always intrigued me. I’d always lean in, asking more questions, and they always loved to tell their tales.

We had the best time that afternoon, sipping our drinks and eating our lunch in the desert heat. Russ is currently writing a book about his surfing life. I’m sure it’ll be fascinating. And, apparently, he’s still surfing (“Those young kids call me ‘Hey, Pops,'” he said) and he’s still making mischief – he whispered that he had his bathing suit on under his clothes so he could take a dip at his daughter’s client’s huge pool up in the hills.

Don’t you love running into interesting people?

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3 thoughts on “Learning Great Stories From People You Randomly Meet

  1. Loved that story, Laurie. You had me hooked from the first. And yes, I love meeting fascinating people who’ve had interesting histories. My favorite are hearing the WW2 vets talking about their experiences. I love getting insight from the people who were there.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Yes Laurie there was just something about this man; I couldn’t have described it but you did so beautifully. He draws you in. The devilish yet charming and innocent smile. His obvious but understated confidence. That was probably our best and most memorable lunch there in that hot city that we love!
    Get me with people like that and you won’t get me to even shut up!
    Thanks for writing about him! Brings back some wonderful memories of my birthday weekend there!

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