I met Gene Robinson a year ago and haven’t seen him since.
He came at me the way a hummingbird zips up to a flower, flits around from blossom to blossom and then is gone before you can take its picture.
“Merci beaucoup,” he said cheerfully as I left a box store and held the door open for him. I turned to him, smiled and said, “You’re welcome!”
“Do you speak French?” he asked.
“No, but I know what you said,” I replied with my smile still in place, and that was all it took.
Before he told me his name Gene Robinson told me he’s 73 years old. “Really?” It surprised me. “I’m 66 and I look like your grandpa.” He grinned and acknowledged that he doesn’t have much gray hair and that his face is portly enough to avoid creasing. Then he explained that his mother was white and his father was black. “I got my dark complexion from my father,” he said. This also surprised me because he was about as black as black skinned people get. I didn’t say that, of course, but I couldn’t have if I had wanted to because Gene kept talking.
“My mother’s people were from France,” Gene told me. “That’s why I spoke to you in French.”
Gene is the kind of person you meet throughout the South. He’s a talker and he never met a stranger. I know you can find those people everywhere but there are many more of them here in Texas than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. If you’re in a line of three people at Kroger you’ll be swapping recipes by the time you reach the checkstand.
Gene told me he was born and raised in New York City and that he has lived all over the country, and he continued to flit from topic to topic for another three or four minutes.
There we were, two elderly men who had never met standing on a sidewalk smiling and looking each other in the eye.
It was weird but oddly exhilarating.
Then Gene seemed to be finished.
“Well, I got other things I need to do,” he said, “so I guess I’ll say goodbye to you. It was nice meeting you. My wife says I talk too much. She says, ‘You’re always talking to total strangers as if you were their best friend. Why do you do that?’ I tell her I don’t know. I just like people, I guess.
Then Gene stuck out his hand and told me his name. I took it and told him mine.
“Merci beaucoup, David,” he laughed. Then he waved and walked away.
Five minutes a year ago. I still miss him.