“That sure looks delicious, ma’am. May I ask what it is?” the man asked me, the way we all might do when we’re trying to decide what to order from a varied menu. His lunch companion arrived just then. They began to converse, and I began to eat.
I couldn’t help but overhear snippets of their conversation as I ate. When the waiter took their order, his companion ordered breakfast. The man who had been chatting with me ordered only coffee. As their conversation continued, it became clear these men knew each other only slightly (through connection with a distant cousin who’d recently died), and the breakfast-eater had fallen on hard times. The host for the meal was the man I’d talked to.
My 1:00 o’clock concert was coming up, and I was getting full. I looked at the huge half-sandwich remaining and the mounds of fries I couldn’t possibly eat and was inspired to ask a question I’ve never asked of any stranger before. His answer was affirmative.
“Why ma’am, since you asked . . . I don’t want to be rude . . . why, yes, I would love to have it.” By the time the waitperson brought it to him in a box, we’d struck up a real conversation.
“What brings you to Charleston?”
“Oh, ma’am, you have a treat in store! Will you hear “Paradise Interrupted” [a new opera by Huang Ruo commissioned by the festival]?
“No, I’m too late for it—I just got here last night, and its last performance was yesterday.”
“I got to hear it rehearsing and it was wonderful!”
He went on to explain . . . and this accounts for my knowing anything about him, “I’m the sexton the church where they rehearse and I’ve never heard anything like that music in my life. And. . . in Mandarin! It was so beautiful, and I met the man who sang high, like a lady.”
“Yes, he’d be what’s known as a countertenor. There are only a handful of men in the world who sing those operatic roles.”
“I had never heard such a perfect voice before. That opera was beautiful. And the other one, too . . . in Italian ["Veremonda, L'Amazzone di Arogona"]. I’ll never forget it.”
His comment almost made me cry. I thought of how many people go through life without ever having a chance to experience the arts at their most sublime—and how salvific that experience can be. We continued to talk—the Seahawks, the people of Charleston, the tourists to come for the festival—and I don’t think I’ve ever heard, “Bless you, ma’am, thank you, bless you,” so many times—over and over from both gentlemen.
As I left the restaurant I realized the tide in my heart had turned. When I was first seated in the restaurant and handed a menu, I was wondering why I thought I this week in Charleston had been a good idea. . . why I thought traveling on a weeklong vacation-trip by myself was doable this soon into my widowhood. I was feeling mightily sorry for myself. I’d been walking through the city to get my bearings, locating venues for the many performances I had tickets for. I was hot and tired and lonely.
Then “the incident.” That little conversation took me out of myself and put me into another’s shoes—just for a couple of minutes. But that’s what happened, and no longer was I feeling down. I was feeling extraordinarily happy, thinking about the extraordinary ability of the arts to touch us all because of that serendipitous sharing of food and conversation.
As I settled into the Dock Street Theatre, about to hear the program of chamber music played by the gifted musicians at Spoleto USA, I had no inkling as to how rapturous the next hour-plus was going to be. But I was ready for it. I’d stopped thinking about myself and my heart was open.