I don’t think this really fits in the NTM blog. But, in any writing the author reveals something of himself to his readers and I have certainly done that in NTM – or tried to. So, after agonizing over this for a few days, I decided to use this NTM post to share some really crazy things that have happened in the last 3 weeks or so. I feel like maybe I can let go of thinking about them all the time if I get them off my chest. I feel odd writing about it publicly because I am still not sure I believe my own eyes or my own ears. In any event, regular readers of this blog either (1) already think I am crazy and keep reading anyway, or (2) don’t think I am crazy and keep reading. This post may cause some movement from category 2 to category 1. Fortunately for me (and perhaps unfortunately for the rest of the world), the older I get, the less I care if anyone thinks I am crazy.
Several weeks ago (maybe even a month or so) I had a text message that was waiting on me when I picked up my phone one morning on my way out the door. The text message simply said “Acres Homes – What’s Good?”. I’d heard or read the words “Acres Homes” somewhere before. I get and send lots of texts and I just ignored this one and didn’t take note of the phone number. A week or so later, I again woke up one morning to an identical text. I glanced to see what number it came from – “Private Number”. Again, I ignored it. My texts come to the “inbox” on my Blackberry, which I regularly clean out in bulk so those messages have long since been deleted. A few days later, the messages started coming each night. I would wake up each day and have one waiting on me. One night, I was up late typing up a NTM and heard my phone beep right at 2:00 a.m. It was the same message “Acres Homes – What’s Good?”. I looked online and found instructions to block “private” numbers. I thought I followed the steps provided exactly – but the texts were still waiting on me each morning (technology is not my strong suit). I called Verizon and explained the situation. It probably won’t shock you to hear that I spoke to a not-very-helpful person there who said that they had no records of any texts from a private number to my phone. I should have had my people make the call! Since I am required to carry a Blackberry for work, my invoice gets paid by my employer so I never see it. I called our office manager and asked for a copy of my last invoice. I sorted through the long list of texts. No incoming texts from numbers I did not recognize and no texts in the middle of the night at all.
I googled Acres Homes about that time. It’s a neighborhood in northwest Houston – outside of 610 and between Hwy 290 and Hwy 249. Its residents are about 84% Black according the most recent census. It was established during World War I. It was once a separate unincorporated area outside of Houston’s boundaries and, for a time, was the largest unincorporated Black community in the southeastern U.S. It still has large portions of undeveloped land and not much commercial property. It’s one of the poorer areas of the City. It is a pretty high-crime area – 13 homicides in 2008. It is also sometimes referred to as “44″ apparently because the main Metro Bus route that runs through it is the #44. I recalled that I had considered visiting it for my MLK Day NTM, because there were some civil rights struggles in Acres Homes. I skipped it, because it wasn’t actually part of Houston until the 1970s. Of course, this told me nothing about the texts – in fact it sort of confused me even more. Why would I be getting a text about Acres Homes? I think this was on a Monday or Tuesday.
The texts continued each night. The next Monday evening I did not have anything planned for NTM and thought I would drive up to Acres Homes and see if maybe there was anything interesting that I could do there for a NTM. At the very least, I thought it would be good to be familiar with another part of town. It was raining really hard that night and I got stuck in some traffic and got to Acres Homes around 8:00 p.m. I joked to myself that the text gods wanted me to go to Acres Homes so I should go come hell or highwater, right? I drove around and confirmed what I had learned from Google – there are a few nicely kept places and also some really run down parts. Many of the businesses are boarded up and the only really nice or relatively new non-residential buildings are fire stations, schools, post offices, etc. There are still large parcels of undeveloped land scattered throughout the neighborhood and some of the small homes sit on large parcels. I saw homes with chickens and even a few goats in some yards. I just sort of kept driving around and taking it all in and lost track of time. In case you are wondering, a white guy driving around slowly looking at things in the rain and waving to folks is apparently a rare enough event in these parts to cause people to look at you funny.
Around 9:00, my stomach reminded me I hadn’t eaten – it does that – and it can be very persistent. I had already decided that there wasn’t much that would serve as a good NTM in this neighborhood. But I figured if I found a hidden gem of a restaurant that would make the trip all worthwhile and could be my NTM. It was just about dark. I turned a corner near the edge of Acres Homes and saw what looked like a little diner. It actually looked like an old Denny’s that had closed and been reopened as something else – windows all along the front with a counter near the kitchen and booths everywhere else. You could see part of the kitchen through the serving window behind the counter. I knew it wasn’t a Denny’s because there wasn’t a La Quinta in sight. The place looked pretty run down and old – and there was something sort of old-fashioned about it – I couldn’t put my finger on it . There were no cars, but a handmade sign in the front said “Open Late” and when I pulled in I caught the first glimpse of the larger sign above the door – I did a doubletake. The place was called the “What’s Good Diner”. This did not exactly look like the kind of place that would be sending mass marketing texts to me?
I parked and ran in dodging puddles in the old parking lot. There was no one visible in the front of the place but I could see someone moving back in the kitchen. A voice called out from the kitchen – “have a seat young man – sit wherever you like.” It sounded like an old man’s voice. I grabbed a seat at the counter near the kitchen and picked up a menu. About that time, a young Black man walked out from the kitchen – I’d guess he was about 25 but he sounded like he was older. He smiled and said he was sorry but he was the only one working that night so he might be a little slow but he’d take good care of me. His smile was sort of a half smile – like he wanted to be welcoming and kind, but just couldn’t quite get to happiness – like something was missing. It was a sad smile if that makes any sense. He had very dark eyes. I don’t really recall exactly what he was wearing but I remember thinking he was dressed in a way that reminded me of the way my grandfather use to dress for church- and he had an apron on over his clothes. Still smiling his sad smile, he said his name was George Smith and he was the owner and head cook and added “but, my wife is the brains of the operation.” What can I get you? I told him I needed a minute to look at the menu and he headed back to the kitchen. I had forgotten about the text message but then it came back to me and I sort of laughed to myself – the text was the perfect question for me to ask right now – maybe the universe was sending me text messages to help me know I should ask George what to have for dinner.
I could hear him and see part of his head through the serving window back into the kitchen. It looked like he was working on something and had his head down. I said loud enough so he could hear me, “George, what’s good?” The noise of work in the kitchen stopped, but I heard no response. The place was so completely quiet – it was like the whole world had gone quiet. George slowly turned and came out of the kitchen. His smile had disappeared and he just sort of stopped about 10 feet from me and looked at me. I couldn’t read his face at all – and usually I am pretty good at that. I felt a lump in my throat – had I said something wrong? The only interpretation I could come up with was that he seemed sort of confused or like he was thinking of something a million miles away – as if he was staring right through me. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just said “I’m sorry if I said something wrong.” That snapped him out of it and he slowly said, sort of choked up but with a liveliness in his voice, “young man, my wife Ella died years ago – when it was time for me to head home in the evening, Ella would walk down from our house and when she came in she would yell to me in the back and ask ‘what’s good.’ I’d answer in my loudest voice ‘quittin’ time and going home with you, baby!’” He explained that the place had originally been called “Smith’s Diner” but he changed the name to the “What’s Good Diner” after a few weeks of being open because her asking that question was the best part of having the restaurant! I offered my condolences and said I was sorry for bringing up a painful memory. George said no apology was necessary and that the memories of his Ella weren’t painful – it was the quiet where she used to be that is painful, he said. I still felt like a real jerk for bringing it all up – all because of a stupid text. Nice job, Springer.
I asked how long ago Ella had passed away and he again seemed to drift off. After what seemed like a long time, he said “you know, it’s been so long ago now, I can’t remember exactly – I suppose I’ve spent all my time – years now – trying to remember what it was like having her here. It was a rainy night like this one when I lost her. I know it was a long time ago but I still expect her to walk through that door and I guess I’m sort of waiting on that. I guess that’s why I keep this place open and keep working nights. I’m just waiting for something.” ”She was the most beautiful, sweetest girl ever.” “There will never be another one like her,” he said. He spent at least 30 minutes telling me about her, what she looked like, how she laughed, how wonderful her hair smelled, how she had a beautiful singing voice. He told me how she loved flowers they’d come across on their walks but never let him pick any for her. She just wanted to see them but then leave them behind so everyone could love them, he said. He winked and said she was quite a kisser, too. He told me loved dancing with her and about how they used to take long walks every Sunday afternoon. It was a little uncomfortable, but I figured he was just a lonely guy and he needed someone to talk to so I listened and smiled. You’ve never heard anyone so in love. It was like he was describing someone he could still see and feel – like his feelings were not in the past but were what he was feeling right then. He told me about their first date and said they sat on her parents porch all afternoon – seemed like a strange first date to me. He told me about her wedding dress and how they could not afford wedding rings when they got married. After a while he paused and chuckled then said, “I never told anyone all that.” He smiled – a full, real, nothing wrong, smile. He said “thanks for listening” and shuffled back to the kitchen quickly.
I still had not ordered anything but I figured maybe he just needed a second to gather himself. I fiddled with the saltshaker and my phone – still feeling like a jerk for bringing it up. After a bit, I realized that I wasn’t hearing any sounds from the kitchen. I called out to George and heard nothing. I waited and called out again. I waited and yelled for George – louder this time. I was getting a little concerned. I got up and walked around the counter and back into the kitchen – calling out along the way. The kitchen was really just one big room and I could quickly see that he was not in there. There was a big walk in freezer and I thought he must have locked himself in accidentally. I opened it and it was empty. I opened the back door and it creaked as if it hadn’t been opened in years. George wasn’t out back either. I began to feel very creeped out being in this kitchen – in this building all by myself, but also very guilty. I wondered if I had upset him so much that he just left. I decided to leave a little tip on the counter with a note that said I was sorry and that I loved hearing about his memories of Ella and then I left. I had no way to lock up and did not know if I should turn off lights or anything. It felt so odd but I didn’t know what else to do.
I headed home, thinking about George and wondering how Ella died. I felt like maybe after spilling his guts to me he got embarrassed and just decided to slip out. I figured he knew by that time I wouldn’t steal anything and that he probably lived nearby and watched until I left and then went back and closed up. I did not sleep much that night….but I got busy and George (and Ella) sort of left my mind or at least weren’t on my mind all the time – it’s not like you can just forget when someone shares so much. The text messages stopped. I almost feel like I knew Ella and like I will somehow always carry her memory with me. I considered going back and visiting George just to tell him again that I appreciated his story and maybe just to give him someone to talk to. A few days later, I was sorting through some photos from my Olivewood visit. I was just flipping through and it popped up….it freaked me smooth out….
As I’ve said on NTM before, I don’t believe in coincidences, so I decided that this meant I was supposed to go and talk to George again. I went back out to Acres Homes a few nights ago to talk to George. I got there before dark and as I approached the corner I was completely shocked. The place where What’s Good had been was a vacant lot. The place had been torn down. I immediately felt like I had somehow upset George so much that he had his restaurant torn down. Good grief – I felt awful….but then something dawned on me – the grass was all grown up in the lot – there couldn’t have been a building here 10 days ago. I must be in the wrong spot – I breathed a sigh of relief and drove on figuring What’s Good must be at the next intersection. It wasn’t and I drove back to the vacant lot….I was sure this was the place. I don’t often get lost, but I was beginning to think I was just a fool who couldn’t remember where he had been just 1o days ago. I’d like to point out that I had not had any beers leading up to this. I drove around in circles some more and each time I drove past that intersection I became more certain that the vacant lot was the spot where What’s Good had been. I parked and got out and walked around a little on the lot. About that time, an old Black man came walking along. He had a cane and was carrying a grocery sack.
I asked if he knew what happened to the restaurant that had been there and he said “they tore that down years ago, son.” Weird. I said I was talking about the What’s Good and he looked at me, confused, and said I was not old enough to know about the What’s Good. What a strange thing to say – I began to think this old man was a little crazy. I told him I was there just a couple of weeks before and he looked at me like I was crazy. I usually love strange encounters, but I was wishing I had not stopped this man. Then he said, well, sort of stuttered “I can tell you a story about the What’s Good if you like.” We stood there on the vacant lot with the sun setting and he explained:
There’s a story that’s been told around these parts since I was a little boy back in the 1940s – and I know at least some of it is true. When I was a boy in this neighborhood there was a place here on this spot called the What’s Good Diner – it was boarded up and falling apart even in my earliest memories. We use to play there in the lot across the street where the coin-op laundry is now. The older kids would tell us younger kids the story of the man and wife who used to own it. They lived just over there and ran the diner together. It seems that late on Christmas Eve he went down to the What’s Good to get her Christmas gift, which he had hidden there. He had waited to sneak out until she fell asleep, but she awoke while he was gone. There was a terrible storm that night and the thunder and lightning woke her up. She was worried that he was not in the house. She could see from their front window that the light at the What’s Good was on and she figured he must have gone to work on the books a little. They were newlyweds and were poor and had opened this place and were struggling to get it off the ground. They both worked so hard on it. But it was their first Christmas together and she didn’t want him working so late on that night of all nights. Shortly after midnight, early on Christmas Day she put on her raincoat, went out in the nasty storm, and began to run down towards the Diner to get him to come home. She was hit by lightning running across that street and died right there, so the story went. The older kids would tell us that he headed home shortly after and came across her laying there. People found him the next morning, still laying there with her in the street, but when they approached he ran for the Diner and locked himself in. No one could get in and he didn’t come out for days. Finally, the police decided to go in because they were afraid for his safety. They found him dead in the kitchen clutching a small gift-wrapped package. They told us that on stormy nights his ghost still walked around and worked in the Diner waiting for his wife to come for him the way she had every night. The older kids told us he went crazy when his wife died and was so crazed that he died locked in that restaurant. They would dare us to go peak in the windows. As I grew up I forgot all about these silly, scary stories. They tore the building down sometime in the 50s.
My grandfather was a minister at the church just up the road there and had been since about 1932. He died in 1985, and I was his last living relative so I had to go through all his stuff. I came across some notes he kept about the lady who died after getting struck by lightning and her husband who died soon after that. The story the kids in the neighborhood told had been mostly true. When the police went in, they asked my grandfather to go with them in case the man needed a minister. He mentioned he and the police finding the husband dead and that he was clutching a small package. His notes also said that the words “What’s good” had been scratched into the wall with a large knife. The police seemed quick to determine that the man had died from shock. My grandfather’s notes included his observations that the man died of sadness and that he wished he had been able to get to the man before he died because he felt like he might have been able to help.
You can imagine that at this point I was a little freaked – this was all too weird and I was beginning to wonder if I had somehow dreamed up the What’s Good Diner visit 10 days ago. How could I have dreamed something that was real, but was 60+ years old. This man was standing in front of me telling me this stuff and it was obvious he believed it. I had not written any of this down yet so there was no way he could have somehow gotten to my computer and made up this story to match my thoughts of George from 10 days ago. My mind was swimming and I almost felt a little lightheaded. Against my better judgment, I asked if his grandfather’s notes had the man and woman’s names. He said, “George and Ella Smith.” Good grief – this doesn’t make any sense. Am I losing it? Should I go see a doctor? I had no idea how to end this conversation but I was ready to do so and go have a stiff drink (or multiples thereof). For some reason (like not knowing when to shut up), I asked “what was in the wrapped package?” The man said “matching wedding bands.” Oh crap….you have got to be kidding me. Someone is messing with me. I couldn’t figure out how someone could pull this all off on me. I had to get out of there and I know the man sensed I was freaked out. I thought about my recent ghost hunting and a quote popped into my head (I think it is from Nietzsche)- “When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” Maybe I had asked for this by joking about ghosts recently – maybe this was the Universe telling me to tread lightly in the areas I don’t understand. I had to get out of there. I said “thanks, sir” rather tersely and without shaking the man’s hand and headed towards my truck.
The old man called out and said “young sir, my grandfather’s notes said something else you might want to know.” I asked what and he said “sometime later, my grandfather noted that a old woman had come to see him and told him that he should go visit the What’s Good the next time it rained – alone. According to her, the person who went to visit George’s soul had to be a man.” The old man remembered this local lady believed to be crazy by most of the community. She claimed to be able to see and talk to spirits and all the kids were afraid of her. He went on “she explained to my grandfather that she knew the man’s soul still resided in the restaurant and would not be able to leave the earth until it completed a task.” The man added that his grandfather seemed to have dismissed the idea.
I was really ready to get out of there and started again backing toward my truck – but I said “what was it the soul had to complete before it could be free?”
The man said “according to my grandfather’s notes on what the old woman said, George’s soul needed to tell someone all about his wife and how wonderful she was and how much he loved her. He died of sorrow before he could do it and he had to leave something of her memory here on earth. Only another man could understand the beauty and love of this woman. The old lady said George’s soul needed to leave behind something of his wife, his memory of her, for others to love, the way one might refuse to pick a flower and instead leave it behind so everyone could love it.”
For this NTM, I wrote and shared with you my first fictional short story (other than the ones I would tell my folks as a child when they would ask how something got broken or why I got in trouble at school). Those were not well-received. I hope you liked this one. Happy Halloween, All Saints and Dia de los Muertos.
P.S. – Olivewood Festival is this Saturday October 30, 2010 – bring your kids (or your inner child) – 2-5 pm at 1300 Court Street in Houston. If you can’t stay, swing by and clean out the change in your pocket, purse, murse, ashtray, fanny pack or satchel (Indiana Jones carries one).