A small encounter I had on the road
It was a small cozy restaurant on the street right by the water. There were rows of large brick buildings seemingly used as warehouses or boat storages. The street was nearly deserted and there was a cold mist in the air. I remember it was drizzling later that night when I got to the room I booked by Airbnb. Arriving at Minneapolis that afternoon, I was craving for ramen. So, I searched for a ramen restaurant with my iPhone. I got a hang of searching and navigating everything with my phone: accommodations by Airbnb, transportations by Uber, and restaurants by Yelp. I was quite aware that this dependency was actually taking away the fun of spontaneity out of the road trip I had been on the past few weeks, but I couldn’t help it. I was craving for ramen. In Minneapolis, MN. At night.
The restaurant was surprisingly packed, with a whiff of warm and tasty air welcoming me as I opened the door. “Table for one,” I said. A young waiter pointed at the only open seat at the counter facing the kitchen. There was an old guy with white hair sitting at the end. I took the open seat next to him. There was an outlet on the wall right next to the guy. I hesitated a little, but I could not afford to get my phone to die. “Can I just plug in my phone, sir?” I asked. The old guy turned and looked at me for a while, probably trying to access me. A young Asian girl with a huge backpack and a dying phone. Is she traveling on the road? But this is a weird place for her to end up, a small Japanese ramen restaurant in the city. After a few seconds, he let me plug in my phone.
We started talking. I ordered ramen and a beer. He was already drinking a beer. That might be why he started talking to me so casually. Quite honestly, I do not recall most of our conversations. He probably asked what I was doing. I probably answered that I was traveling from New York to California, stopping at a number of cities along the way. “Why?” he probably asked. “I had lived in the U.S. for the last twelve years and not seen most of it yet,” I probably answered.
I enjoyed my ramen. My craving was satisfied. The guy, a regular guy with white hair, wearing a long sleeve t-shirt and a fleece vest, I remember, was curious about me. “So, you are from Japan, I see. Do you know that Japanese troops killed a bunch of Chinese back in the 30s?” “Yes, I know of the event, but I am embarrassed to say that I am not that familiar with details.” “Of course not, it was long before you were born, even your father was not born yet I think.” “Well, he was born before WWII, so I am not sure.” I remember his eyes grew wider. Seriously, that was the only thing I remember distinctively from that night. “Really?” “Yes, he was born in 1939.” He probably thought that this girl may not be as young as she looked. I did not want to discuss war or politics, so his confusion worked best for me. We drifted back to topics more trivial.
It turned out that he was a driver of the cable car running through the city. There was a station right outside of the restaurant, so he probably stopped by to get a quick dinner and drinks after work. “Where are you staying tonight?” “I booked a room through Airbnb.” “You can do anything with your phone these days.” I am not sure that was what he said exactly, but that sounds like something he would have said. I told him the location I was staying. He started telling me the best way to get there. “It’s okay, I can search it on my phone.” “Well, do that. What does it say? No, no, I think this bus takes you there faster, believe me.” I gave up arguing. Besides, why not believe a local? “I will take you to the bus stop,” he said. “It’s okay.” “It’s right there, I can take you there. Is your phone charged? Yes? Good, let’s go.”
We walked on the dark street towards the bus stop. We walked by the cable car station. “That’s what I drive,” he said. It might not have been a good idea to walk on the nearly deserted street with a guy I had just met at the obscure restaurant in the city I had never been. Yet I was not scared. I somehow felt safer. It felt like walking with my own grandpa. He was very keen to take me to the place I was supposed to go. We arrived at the bus stop. The bus was already there. He talked to the bus driver. “Does this bus go to the corner of this and that?” he asked. “Yes,” the driver answered. I stepped onto the bus. “Thank you so much, sir,” I said. “You take care now,” he said. Then he walked away.
I did not ask his name. I did not think it mattered. In fact, I preferred not knowing his name. This little encounter, the conversation at the restaurant, the walk to the bus stop, his small act of kindness, would they all change if I had asked his name? No. In fact, I encountered people like him countless times on that trip. Albuquerque and Taos, NM. Louisville, KY. Rapid City, SD. Even though I did not get their names or contacts, I still remember them once in a while. Those nameless people somehow appear more vividly and lively in my memory than many others. I wonder how they are doing right now. These encounters might be the best ones you can have on the road, because they are spontaneous, amusing, and you can always sense a little kindness from those who do not expect anything in return.
He did not ask my name either. He probably does not remember me or that night. Or, maybe he remembers me once in a while, as he drives the cable car or eats ramen at that restaurant. How is that young Japanese girl with the dying phone doing now? I am doing fine.