I typed away on my laptop, waiting for my burger. I used the time to catch up on my travel journal for Driveabout 2014. My section was pretty empty, so the only person I’d talked to was my waitress. “Are you writing?” asked the pony-tailed man in an apron, catching me by surprise. I explained that I was on a drive around the country and was just catching up on a few days of notes. “I’m writing a book,” he said. “That’s cool,” I replied, then excused myself to the bathroom. I really didn’t feel like inquiring any further.
It was then that I heard the voice.
Ok, I stole that line from Field of Dreams. In truth, the little voice in my head told me I should find out what his book was about. Not in so many words, but that I should be my father’s son and talk to the stranger.
I got out of the bathroom and saw him still talking to the waitress. “So what kind of book are you writing?” I said. I would never dismiss someone and say, “Well, good luck with that,” unless it was the dreaded Sci-Fi/Fantasy novel. Hearing about the hero’s journey atop his talking mammoth through the hills of blah-blah, in search of the orb of what-ever. Torture.
He was writing his life story. I was in no hurry, so why not hear about it?
The Luxury Diner in Cheyenne, Wyoming had been around for decades. High Yelp ratings got my attention. It was hard to find, but well worth it. My burger covered in green chili didn’t disappoint. Neither did anything else about the place, including this man’s story.
He was very tan, but I couldn’t tell if that was his complexion, a suntan, or both. Though he had no accent, his brown eyes made me think he was of south-of-the-border decent. His shoulder length hair was pulled back in a ponytail. His smile was bright, wide, and genuine. The scars on his arms…odd in their abundance.
I’ll call him Lonnie, but that is not his name. As a lifetime gang member, he‘d appreciate the anonymity. It was another life in northern California. In Cheyenne, he cooked at the diner and one of the happiest, most gentle people I‘ve ever met.
Our conversation covered an array of topics. Family, felonies, serial killers, the Latin language, and a certain bunny.
If he had a nickel for every scar on his arms, he’d have close to a dollar. My words, not his. “I was a member of [A GANG] in California,” he said. It’s global organization of which documentaries have been made. The name doesn’t matter, so I won‘t advertise it.
As is a common story, Lonnie didn’t have much of a family life. “My parents didn’t give a shit what I did,” he said, his eyes still carried the disbelief that parents could care so little about their child. Of course, he found others who filled the family void.
“It still amazes me that I never once got arrested,” he said. By arrested, I’m pretty sure he meant a felony. Too many scars to have not sat in the back of a police car.
“I treated it like a 9 to 5 job and my neighbors had no idea what I was doing.” He sometimes sold drugs out of his house, but anyone purchasing there arrived carrying a case of beer. “My neighbors knew I partied, so if you wanted to leave my house with drugs, first we’d sit outside and drink a few beers, then you’d leave with the drugs in the case.” We‘re not talking ounces. I then learned a kilo equals 2.2 lbs. Like a felony-sized bag of sugar.
At some point, his voice told him to leave, to escape and go far, far away. Perhaps it was the company he was keeping. “There were these three brothers and I think they were serial killers. They were always doing crazy shit,” he said. Obviously, some of the crazy was murder. He was pretty sure they were in prison for life. I volunteered to check online, but he couldn’t remember their last names. Better to just take his word for it. I never asked if he’d killed anyone. If he did, it was likely a rival gang member. No need to discuss things with no statute of limitations. Regardless, the man in front of me wasn’t a drug-dealing, murdering gangster. He was a gracious man excited about the future.
“I’ve always wanted to learn Latin, so I’m taking a class at the college this winter,” he said, smiling as if he’d won the grand prize. Reminded me of the child in a third world nation who is excited because he gets to go to school.
Lonnie was hungry for life.
After nearly 20 years, he made his first trip back to California. “I was afraid if anything happened while I was there, I’d get blamed for it.” Funny how I’ve never used that criteria when returning to my hometown. He was relieved to find that his former co-workers were either dead or in prison. He chuckled and added, “If I stayed, that’s where I’d be.”
So I took a picture with him, gave him my email address, and said farewell. Before I left, I had to have his picture with The Cranky Bunny, my puppet traveling companion. After a brief explanation, he put him on and I said, “Look at the bunny like he scares you to death.” He turned his hand so he and the puppet were face-to-face. With that he let out a laugh Santa Claus would envy. He laughed with no end in sight.
I laughed, too and finally, he shook his head and said, “I’ve been afraid of a lot of things in my life, I just can’t be afraid of a puppet.”
Everyone has a story to tell. Sure, some meatier than others. Had I not asked, I would’ve missed out on a scarred man healing his life, embracing each day, and most of all, laughing along the way.
It made for a much better picture.