The conversation over breakfast is so good that we stay at the table for three hours. When the sun rose this morning, we will pulling into St. Paul, Minnesota.
I have now met the Mississippi at both its beginning and end. We crossed 135 feet above it when we were in Louisiana. Now, it’s a frozen, brilliant white expanse separating Wisconsin from Minnesota.
There are four of us at the table this morning. Becky, the Air Force veteran who works in Afghanistan, along with a tall man named Steffen and an older woman named Pat.
Steffen now teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he’s headed. Before that, he worked at Covent Garden for years with the ballet and opera companies. Then he spent years in Prague as a theatre critic. Pat is 81 years old, retired from the University of Miami, and then moved to Olive Branch, Mississippi, to be near her son who works at the FedEx headquarters in Memphis. She is a petite woman with a gentle Southern accent that I could listen to all day.
Becky starts to talk about her home in southern France, where she can go mushrooming and then take her finds to the local pharmacist who tells her which are safe to eat. While she’s talking, Pat begins to cry. “Are you all right?” I ask. “Oh!” she answers, “Don’t look at me. Look away.”
Eventually, she explains that she spent all her life surrounded by brilliant, worldly people, and “I’ve spent 15 years in Olive Branch without any conversation about France or theatre or opera. This is just so wonderful.”
I ask Steffen for a story from his time at Covent Garden. “I’ll tell a nice one,” he says, adjusting his cardigan. “There was a woman at the Garden named Joan McKenzie. She been there for decades and held all the institutional knowledge for the theatre. She was a very elegant woman, always dressed beautifully.”
One day at rehearsal, Steffen tells us, Joan hears a young man singing and is instantly smitten with him. She makes a point to find him later and tell him how great she thinks he is and that she believes he’s going to go far. “And,” Steffen says, “A young Placido Domingo says to her, ‘Thank you so much, Miss McKenzie. I appreciate that.’” McKenzie takes the young tenor out to lunch because, at that time, she had considerably more money than he did. “But ever since that meal, when Placido Domingo was singing at the Garden, he would come to take Joan out to lunch,” Steffen says. “She always dressed well, but you could tell when it was Placido Day, because she would pull out the stops.”
“Oh!” Pat cries, “Please don’t leave until I get off in Chicago.” Steffen and I start to trade stories about celebrities who are difficult to work with and Pat says, “In Mississippi, we’d say they have a cob up their rear.”
Pat loves her little town of Olive Branch. She volunteers at the library and started a garden club, but she doesn’t seem to fully fit in there. “I’m a vegetarian, you know, and people just don’t know what to do with that,” she says, “I voted for Obama but I didn’t put a bumper sticker on my car because I didn’t want my little VW Beetle to be defaced.” While Obama was in office, she sent him an email that said, “My dear, darling president, don’t let the turkeys get you down.” While living in Mississippi, she says she’s learned to be very quiet in groups.
Pat asks Becky why she works in Afghanistan and Becky explains that she’s training pilots. “How are you greeted there,” Steffen asks, “As a female instructor?” Becky says she’s never had a problem in all her years. “We’re near Kabul,” she tells us. “They are very cosmopolitan there. Their wives are teachers and doctors and lawyers.”
“Are they sweet to you?” Pat asks. Becky smiles. Yes, they’re very sweet.
At this point, a pair of Homeland Security officers pass, all in black. “Lord have mercy,” Pat cries, “They found out.”
My grandfather was born in Woodville, Mississippi, and I explain that my grandfather fled the town with her infant son after her husband, my great-grandfather, was murdered by a group of white men. (My family was black and this was 1895.) Pat says her best friend is Chinese and when her friend first moved to Mississippi all those years ago, people would spit on her as she passed in the street. “But her family opened a grocery store in the black neighborhood and issued to credit, so people could pay at the end of the month. They did very well. Now, their family owns both sides of the street.”
We’ve been chatting for three hours at this point and the Amtrak servers are very discreetly eyeing our table. We part ways and I send them all a copy of the picture I took. Pat is tearing up again. “This has been the best conversation I’ve had in years,” she says, “Maybe it’ll hold me for another fifteen years.”