October 6, 2012 9:53:39 PM
He was the last passenger to get on the plane. A tall black man in a dark pinstriped suit, elegant white shirt and expensive shoes. His eyes landed on the empty seat beside me.
We were on a 6 a.m. flight from Birmingham to Washington D.C.
After he had settled in and what seemed to be an appropriate amount of silence, I asked if he'd watched the presidential debate the night before.
"No, I took my mother out to dinner," he said.
"You had the more interesting evening," I replied, wishing I'd been in a restaurant with my mother instead of watching a debate that was more a kabuki performance than a meaningful exchange.
As a radio commentator had said the day before, we're going to be watching two politicians promise they will do things they have little control over.
"Where did you eat?" I asked. I'd just finished a travel piece for Catfish Alley magazine and was brimming over with enthusiasm about Birmingham restaurants, of which there are a surprising quantity and quality.
"Red Lobster," he replied. He almost sounded apologetic. "Hey, it's my mother. What Mama wants is what we do."
Mama grew up in Birmingham. Like many African Americans of her generation she went north where there was more opportunity, better pay. She raised her family in Massachusetts, and after retirement and the children were grown, she returned to the place that had never ceased being home, the South. "Where her people were."
For some reason, I thought of the old man I had talked to the night before. He was fishing in an oversized ditch separating a large parking lot and soccer fields a rock toss from University of Alabama at Birmingham. He was essentially feeding minnows with his bait of stale bread. The most promising thing I could see moving in his ditch was a lone crawfish.
"You must have grown up in the country," I said.
"Been here all my life," he replied.
I blurted out what I was thinking, something I wished I had time to do: "Someone needs to take you out in the country to a lake or a creek."
"Yeah, I'd like that," he said.
My seatmate was in his early 50s, retired from the foreign service. His postings had included the Republic of Georgia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jordan (his favorite) and South Africa.
Now he's a consultant on international relations, something I expect he does well.
As for Birmingham he fells little connection; he gets there about once a quarter to see his mother, he said. One of his siblings lives in Maine; he lives in Virginia outside D.C.
I told him about the paper, that it had been in my family now going on four generations. That bit of information never fails to astound strangers. And just as often, they never fail to offer words of encouragement. The concern for the future of newspapers is widespread, especially local newspapers.
"This isn't a newspaper," he said, slapping the U.S.A. Today in his hand.
He asked me where I was going when I retire. I replied that I couldn't imagine myself anywhere other than where I am now. In Mississippi.
He was casting about for ideas. He still has children at home and his wife heads an organization that works with faith-based communities to improve the education of children in economically disadvantaged communities.
"In Florida all they talk about is the weather and what they're going to eat next," he said. "It's la-la land."
He mentioned North Carolina. The Research Triangle. "Asheville is interesting," I offered.
We talked politics. He didn't reveal who he was supporting, and I didn't ask.
We both bemoaned the intransigence of Congress.
"I know Mitch McConnell," he said. "And he's a good man. But when he said right after the 2008 election the Republican Party was going to do all it could to see that Obama is not reelected ..."
He shook his head.
As we started our descent, he looked at his watch.
"We're going to be early," he said. "Good, I have an 11 o'clock."
On the ground, we exchanged contact information and shook hands.
"Why don't you email me some restaurant suggestions in Birmingham," he said. "Maybe I can talk Mama into trying something new next time."
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.