The scene below starts in a crowded bar in San Francisco’s North Beach.
Italian Man (IM) asks me where I got my eyes? He wants to know how I can stand the noise around me?
I quickly learn that he’s from Rome……he confirms this with his eyes although it would have been an easy guess.
What else could I say? What were we both doing there? Ah yes, the friend’s birthday party.
IM’s eyes span the crowd.
IM: It feels so bland to me……this place. So generic.
IM: It makes me feel older than I really am…..the generic.
I find myself continuing to agree. Ah yes, the generic. Is he going to continue that thread I wonder? I find that I cannot allow him to get away with the reference to old, worse when I learn that he is only 32.
IM: Maybe a 32 year old Italian is older than an American. (his tone is casual but not in any way pretentious). I smell cigarette smoke on his breath as he moves in closer, raising his voice so I could hear him over the ‘generic’ music.
Me: Yes, it’s called old soul. (I grin as I say this. It’s clear that he has one – its written in his eyes, his face, the way he lifts his arm to scratch his head……every inch of him exudes old soul).
An old soul, one which looks at you and through you and you just feel, in every way, that you’re present in time. You cherish the present, embrace the future, and don’t let any of it restrict you.
After learning that I love creamy buttery chardonnays, the kind that nearly all my European friends growl at, he returns with two. I later learn he drinks red – most of the time. On a land that isn’t his soil, he has what I’m having, as a way to make me feel connected and comfortable during our first human exchange.
IM grabs my hand and pulls me away from the speakers we’re couched under, around the corner to a clearing, one with better light, less noise and clutter. We are now further away from the 21 year old blondes who are bouncing unevenly to and out of synch with the music, yearning for a glare, a stare, a wink, some attention. Any.
IM: What is your work?
How can I avoid talking about technology? There’s no way around it, for failing to mention it means I need to hide behind something in my next response. But with IM, we don’t have to stay in that place.
I respond but my mind is off to a far away place; a river bank on the south part of Germany and amidst the dust and noise of generic and bland, I can hear the sound of the river flowing past me, perfectly flowing in its own natural rhythm, without force, without effort.
He starts to drag me through the crowded room briskly but gently, as I continuously bump into bulky purses, fat barrettes, and large youthful breasts as I plough through. He doesn’t notice. As we make our way to the exit, he pulls out a cigarette.
But I travel back to Europe again and since the air swallows the smoke and it quickly dissipates, I begin to ignore the sight of it. Presence wins.
We walk. It’s cold but I don’t feel it. He takes my hand and twirls me under his arm and I need to skip like a ten year old child to return to the front. We do it again.
We pass a young man who is walking face down punching numbers or ‘something’ into his Blackberry. I try to forget that I see him. I hope I forget.
IM pulls my hand up to his face and studies the rings closely, with care. He asks for an explanation of and history behind each one. He wants to know the story behind the stones. He assumes there is a story and of course there is………..Old souls take the time to read. Details are part of an initial glance, part of the cup of the coffee, someone’s life story.
Surely I must play the piano, he says as he studies my fingers. I acknowledge this with a ‘but of course.’ My grandfather once told me that old souls find those who embrace music. Not by the fingers, no. It’s always in the eyes, he said.
IM: Music is the essence of life. It’s the honey. It’s the soul.
Nodding, I’m agreeing again. He goes on.
When I feel a connection with a person in the same way I do with music, I go there the moment it pulls me. For me, it’s the difference between living or dying. Here, out here away from that generic place full of lifeless music and movements, I can breathe again. I feel alive.
He is not wrong tonight, I’m thinking. Energy and oxygen or stagnant energy and nothingness.
IM: Coffee? A funky bistro is open on the corner, with heat lamps hovering most of the tables. We huddle around one since it is noticeably colder once we stop moving.
We exchange stories of where we sampled the most fabulous coffee around the world and what made it so. We talk about our best cups in each Italian city and town we’ve ever been to – some I knew, some I didn’t. He had never heard of Tuscany’s Greve where I spent many glorious weeks a few years ago.
We talk about the regional versus the urban. And then we move onto community. Having lived in so many countries, towns, villages, cities, I have begun to realize that you can in fact, establish a sense of community anywhere you go. I tell him so.
He worries as he contemplates with both excitement and hesitation, his forthcoming year abroad in Los Angeles. He tells me about his home town, not far from Rome – I learn about the baker, the tailor, the mechanic. I can see their smiles, know the color of their clothing, and what they care about — all from his story.
I gaze beyond him momentarily. Growing up in Richard Russo’s small town America, I relate. When I look back at him and re-engage his eyes, I discover he is looking directly at me, through me. I gaze beyond him again while I collect the right words, and then look back at him with a soft smile and remind him:
Me: You can find your village and community wherever you are. This city. This block. In this café even.
Now IM is the one to agree and while nodding, he asks about my move here. I realize how much community is increasingly being designed around the digital world. My mind jumps around like a scattered and frantic bee after realizing he is trapped in the corner of a closed room with no window.
My mind starts to see the old coffee bars in Amsterdam, where we spent hours reading poetry and talking about world philosophers into the night. Then it races to a lit screen with logos of Dodgeball, Flickr, My Space, LinkedIn, Friendster, Yahoo Messenger, and Skype.
He looks dazed. Confused.
Time to drop IM off at his hotel, as I realize the café is closing around us. When we arrive at my car in the nearly barren parking lot, and I notice the bright colored glare from the street above us, he asks me if I have any Frank?
As I open the door, I laugh. Frank? As a swing dancer, of course, I own Frank and fish for it while he looks up into the night and also notices the brightly lit glare above us.
I open the roof and the doors, and I Get a Kick Out of You starts echoing into the night. He grabs my hand and swings me around and under the arch he creates for me to make feminine expression be known to him and the stars above us. We kick between each others legs and laugh out loud.
IM: Dance with me.
I thought we were…….
IM: What’s your favorite Frank line?
I have to think about this and then I remember that English is his second language. It’s not an option to dismiss his question, so I begin to sing over the lyrics of another song: (remembering that Tony Bennett perhaps had a better version).
Fly me to the moon
Let me sing among those stars
Let me see what spring is like
On Jupiter and Mars
He pipes in as I trail off:
Moonlight and love songs – never out of date
Hearts full of passion – jealousy and hate
Woman needs man – and man must have his mate
That no one can deny
We sing together:
It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by
I notice a slight sadness in his eyes, but also wonder.
IM: You’re not really American.
I’ve been told that countless times, so many that its hard to remember the first time. Back to the eyes. Is it really about being American or not-American, or Italian or anything else? Isn’t it just that old souls occasionally find each other and share a beautiful moment or two?
My grandfather often talked about the eyes; how they showed us how a person loved, respected, spent money or wouldn’t, felt about animals, children, nature, music. All in one look, one moment, without any conversation at all.
As I leave him on the street corner of his hotel, the last of Frank’s songs finish playing. He gets out of the car, purposely tangling his arm with mine, slowly walking away from the open door backwards until his arm finally breaks with mine completely. He blows me a kiss, turns and walks into the night.
Two drifters off to see the world
There’s such a lot of world to see
We’re after the same rainbows end
Waiting round the band
My huckleberry friend, moon river