We sit around a long table in a restaurant on Nashville’s Music Row, five women and seven men, eating, drinking and talking. A meeting is in progress.
But this meeting is not one called by any of the usual functionaries; it’s more important than that. It is a meeting of friends sharing the simple joy of companionship, the comfort that in its better moments, human society sometimes provides.
Susan, in fact, called this meeting. We gathered thirty minutes ago this Saturday night at her boyfriend’s apartment, a short block from here; then we walked to this restaurant for supper. After supper, the plan is to walk back and sample some of Susan’s homemade dessert.
Susan and her boyfriend, Hal, a music publisher, are bothered by over-use injuries which curtail their running. But they miss seeing their little training group. Susan decided why not get together anyway. So she sent out invitations to their running buddies and to some of their friends.
And here we are.
Being friends of friends, some here didn’t know the others until thirty minutes ago. But no onlooker would guess that; there is an instant friendly connection between runners. I’m here because Albino, a member of their little group, is also a friend of mine. He visited me earlier today at my Cookeville, Tennessee home for a morning run.
Originally from Seville, Spain, Albino now temporarily lives in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where as an accountant he monitors the financial matters of a Spanish-owned company there. Three years will not pass before his work calls him back to Spain. But on the summer night of this supper, he doesn’t yet know that. At 33 he is perhaps the youngest at the table; at 64, I am easily the oldest.
Hal, the publisher, originally from Oklahoma, sits at the center with his back to the wall. He is tall and slender and his graying hair sweeps back stylishly; his kindly manner and soft voice suggest serenity. By his side sits Susan, a Connecticut Yankee, educated in Florida, an intense young woman whose wavy auburn hair frames a finely featured face you’d likely call beautiful. Hal tells about how she became his girlfriend.
“We went running four or five times. She kept talking about how her love life was all screwed up,” he says.
Susan jumps in quickly: “I’d gotten so used to talking about it on runs with Stan that I didn’t realize I was still doing it!” she explains.
After a few runs spent listening to her lovelorn tales, the Oklahoma boy began to get ideas. As a result, Susan’s troubles flew away like gray birds.
By “Stan,” I reckon Susan is talking about the man sitting on Hal’s left, one of her running buddies. Stan, in his fifties, is a songwriter from Massachusetts; he’s accompanied by his friendly wife, Joy. Stan is a strong man with close-cut hair and a neat mustache. He seems perfectly comfortable, always at ease. The surface calm masks the fire in his poet’s heart. He brought his guitar to Hopkinsville for Albino’s 33rd birthday party a couple of months ago and sang some of his songs. A favorite of this Massachusetts man is Flatt and Scruggs’ Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy (written by A. P. Carter) a song about a poor boy who sells the morning paper to help his mother. Though not his, Stan sang that song at Albino’s party, too.
I admire Stan for his songwriting. Songwriters have precious ability to wring emotion from just a few words. Henry Mancini’s A Slow Hot Wind says more in the title alone than some books I’ve read.
Jimmy Brown connects with me, too. I used to hear Flatt and Scruggs sing their songs every morning on the AM radio that set on top of the refrigerator. Momma listened to their program while she cooked breakfast. The Hot Rize theme sang me out of bed before daylight. It was like my alarm clock. Into the dark and cold I went to feed the livestock and milk the cows. Shoot a monkey! I remember those mornings.
That was long ago. Here at the table tonight, a dozen people are having a roaring good time. Teasing questions and snappy answers fly back and forth; stories spin out.
“What time you running tomorrow, Dallas?” Lu asks me.
His crooked grin tells me he’s teasing. Lu is from Vietnam; he smiles easily. In his mid thirties, he would have been around seven years old when Saigon fell. If growing up in that ravaged country left a scar, you won’t see it in his smile. He seems genuinely content.
“The war scattered everyone,” he says pleasantly.
“The war scattered everyone,” I reflect. “And now it’s a tourist destination. I have a friend who just left to go there.”
“Really?” he says, smiling, pleased to hear someone say something good about his homeland.
Lu goes back to Vietnam frequently, even though the trip is expensive. Later he will tell me about his best friend. On his last visit home, he and his friend made a 1,000-mile trip together on their motorcycles. “He’s 63 years old, but he’s still my best friend,” Lu tells me.
That comment touches me. His friendship with the old man is like Albino’s friendship with me, somehow bridging a gulf of nearly two generations.
Lu has come to the party with Luz Maria, a 33-year old engineer from Mexico—she has a beautiful name that I love. Sitting between Lu and Albino now, she exudes charm and strength equally. The strength is real too; she runs a blazing marathon.
Sitting next to me is Tammy, an engaging woman with bright eyes and short blond hair, originally from Smithville, Tennessee. She’s telling Susan and me a lively story about how she met her Tunisian boyfriend. At first sight she had been smitten by the man. But because of timidity, she had missed her chance to get acquainted. She was crushed by the loss, angry with herself.
But providence intervened for her, and she found her nerve—both later that very same night! She was a passenger in a friend’s car. As they backed out of their parking spot beside a convertible she suddenly saw the Tunisian man getting into that convertible. Defying improbable odds, their car had been parked beside his.
“Wait, wait! Pull back in!” she yelled to her friend.
She wasn’t going to miss another chance. She jumped out of the car, ran up to the man and pressed her phone number into his hand.
“Call me sometime!” she told him, and quickly ran back to her friend’s car, leaving a very surprised man sitting in a convertible.
“By the time I got home, I had a message from him,” she says.
She finishes the story. Her eyes sparkle as she laughs at how wickedly bold she had been, surprised at herself still.
The man from Tunisia sits beside Tammy now. As she finishes the story, he strokes his chin and smiles shyly. Tall and handsome, with wavy black hair, he works in telecommunications and fluently speaks a number of languages. But he had never had a chance. The woman from Tennessee reeled him in like a largemouth bass. They’ve been together a year and a half.
Sitting at our table is only one person who admits to being a homegrown Nashville native—Nick, who looks strong enough to drive fence posts. His supportive wife, Carla, loves going to Bell Buckle when Nick runs that annual race.
Suddenly I’m startled by a remarkable thought: These twelve humans come from places flung across the globe. They represent five countries. And that’s not counting Massachusetts. Four continents! Grounded in academia, I’m accustomed to a cosmopolitan crowd. But this is not an academic setting; it’s a casual gathering of friends, here by choice rather than institutional imperative.
This group shatters every boundary of culture, religion, politics, geography and rearing. Backgrounds vary from urban to rural, from aristocratic to red-dirt poor. Some are Roman Catholics; I can estimate a Muslim, a Buddhist, maybe a backsliding Baptist, and a heathen or two. And who knows what else?
And who cares? That’s precisely the point. Because, the most amazing thing about it all is this: no one here seems to notice. Despite all the walls erected by politics, religion, and even tectonic plates, we are happily gathered here tonight. No one thinks it’s unusual that we are. In microcosm this group represents the world John Lennon naively dreamed of in Imagine.
These friends have been convened here by a thing as innocent as running, by Susan and Hal reaching out to their training buddies. In this, I find reason for hope. Running, the most elemental of all human athletic skills, has trumped all the hate-engendering bugaboos contrived through millenia of humankind invention and generalized bungling.
It seems child-like to notice.
Running can’t stop war. It can’t reverse melting of the Arctic ice shelf or stop the dogwoods from dying. It can’t prevent world hunger or cure HIV.
Running can’t save the world.
But on this Saturday night it has brought together a dozen souls in a harmony of goodwill, friendship, joy, and even love.
And that’s a lot.