From time to time if you drive down Broad Street in Richmond and glance over at Hardee’s, you’ll see a woman sitting in the window. Pale, late fifties, writing in a pad, white cup of coffee alongside.
It’s me. Because whenever I’m working and don’t have much to say, I head over to Hardee’s and just sit and lollygag, waiting for ideas to pop in my head. Watching the world go by. For writers sense of place is important and there is nothing I like better than to describe a scene and start adding detail. Just like a painter.
One of my friends likened me to Harriet the Spy and I guess she was right.
All these years I’ve been listening and watching people. It’s almost as good as a movie.
It’s 3 o’clock, Wednesday afternoon. In between rain showers. Warm. There are only a few people in the restaurant besides me: A group of men who work for the public utilities, an old man running figures in a spiral and a woman just off her shift and having a sandwich. It’s too late for most people to have lunch so the staff are telling stories and laughing while they work, cleaning, filling up the fry bags. Sounds like a party. It’s a different atmosphere from when I worked in restaurants insofar as I remember long looks and sad faces though that may have been my attitude.
It served me right for eavesdropping on the men behind me. I couldn’t understand a word they said because of murmuring and thick accents. Here’s what I heard, all broken up with good strong laughs: Slur. Mumble. It does. Hah, hah. F-bomb. Slur. Mumble. Lots of laughter. F- bomb. Uh, oh. Hah, hah. Then, finally something I could understand: “Small feet, small hands. . . ” so I quickly tuned out and focused on the woman who rushed in for her forgotten umbrella.
Help me Rhonda, Help help me Rhonda . . . Help me Rhonda, Help help me Rhonda. . .
Richmond is still small enough that if you sit some place for awhile, you will see someone you know. Someone you went to cotillion with or stood behind in swimming lessons. Sure enough, some relatives of some kids who attend my daughter’s school drove by. I think they were going to Chipotle.
Mama told me not to come. . . Mama told me not to come. . .
I’m always amazed at what people do when they’re driving. They talk, text, eat, read, daydream, spit: it seems they do anything, but pay attention to the road. Dented vans, shiny trucks, cars I can’t afford, zippy efficiencies – about half the drivers speed. It’s more fun and we’re all in such a hurry. Women drivers seem calmer; most men look tired and angry. And it’s no better on the interstate. Once I saw a woman driving 60 miles an hour, tweezing her chin.
I have a beautiful coffeetable book called Writers of the American South, Their Literary Landscapes and it amuses me to leaf through the shiny pages with photos of Hemingway’s palm-draped home in Key West or Faulkner’s majestic Rowan Oak in Oxford peeking from behind the cedar trees. I like the idea of seeing me in this pantheon, text and photography making me look smart and pretty, as I gaze out of a window at a fast food joint. Right up there with the literary lions.
A few days later, I returned to Hardee’s. Ordered a turkey burger, surprised to see a staffer taking a break, napping with her head down on a table. And ugh, she was coughing. Just as I was getting anxious about that, I noticed the same old man in the Billboard camp sitting in the corner. Same spot. But he wasn’t working on his budget, he was doing a crossword. I tried to take my usual seat in the window except a young man in dreadlocks was there so I went further towards a window.
Did the cashier recognize me as I had recognized the old man? Perhaps he thought I always ate alone because no one liked me at work. Or I hated my job and was so darn glad to have an hour away from those #@%! people.
It was time to go. I had to get back to my other life. I stuffed the steno pad in my handbag, crumpled up my napkin, gathered up the trash. As I headed out the door, I glanced at the old man doing the crossword puzzle. Head dipped. Lost in concentration. He was asleep, so sweet and sad, the quiet reassurance being no one minded that Hardee’s is where he liked to take his afternoon nap. After all, we will all be his age one day.
My whole life as a writer, well-nigh 40 years now, I’ve spent so many hours observing people, taking notes, or just listening – audio running in my head. This does raise an interesting question. Who has been watching me?