I’m a natural born snoop and like to schmooze strangers, which is why I was a pretty good reporter until I was demoted (with a pay raise) to editor. They have to pay editors more because editors don’t have any fun.
I got some of my best stories by schmoozing strangers. One day I took a TV to the repairman and it was raining like hell, so I hung around and asked the old guy behind the counter in his one-man shop if he had any news for me.
Turns out he was flying to Europe next week to meet the 50-year-old daughter he never knew he had. The old dude has been a paratrooper in World War II, jumping behind enemy lines to set up contacts with the French resistance. He fell in love with a guerrilla and got her pregnant — though he never knew it until about two weeks before I met him.
My new pal had tried to track down his love when the war ended, but Europe was in chaos. He said the U.S. government eventually told him that she was a suspected Nazi collaborator and was in an internment camp.
“The hell she was!” the trim, fit, 75-year-old TV repairman told me. “She was collaborating with me!”
Their daughter knew his name, from Mom, and when the internet was born, used it to track him down. She called him at home in Brownsville, Texas, asked him a few questions and then told him she was his daughter. And what had happened to her Mom.
Now he was going to meet her. What a great story. From chatting up a stranger.
Here’s one I got in another town from the pretty checkout cashier at the Kroger. My edition had an early deadline so I got off work at 10 p.m. and stopped for beer on the way home. Early days of the craft beer movement. There was a red one from California …
So I ask the young lady I’d been buying beer from every night if she had any news for me, and she said her wedding dress had been stolen.
The reason I called her a pretty woman five sentences ago, in these days of #MeToo and #AlsoHim, is because she was worthy of a Michelangelo statue: a lovely young brunette glowing with health, a woman you know at a glance you could trust with your life.
Well, she’d got engaged and decided to sew her own wedding dress, with satin and lace and pearls and everything. Then she got breast cancer. She was about 24 when she got the diagnosis. She lost all her hair to the radiation and got sick as hell, but, she told me: “I told myself I was going to get better, and I was going to get married, and I was going to finish that dress.”
And she did. She told me the story at her pleasant house in a Southern California suburb, her two kids, 2 and 4, running around the living room between us.
This story’s not over yet. After the wedding, she’d taken her dress to a bridal shop to be cleaned and packed, so she could pass it on to her daughter. She’d accepted the box and never even looked into it. When she finally did, in their new house, she saw that it wasn’t her dress — with the pearls and all.
She did her own sleuthing but couldn’t find the lady who’d stole her bridal gown. She’d done it five years ago and moved on. Turns out she’d stolen other women’s bridal dresses too.
I devoted half a week to trying to find that thief, and came up empty. But what a story. Now tell me, is it a sad or a happy one?
I inherited my schmooze from my Mom, who can, and has, made lifelong friendships standing in a checkout line at the Kroger.
My favorite Mom story is the day she got a phone call from a friend whose voice she recognized, and who recognized my Mom’s voice, so they chatted away for five or ten minutes, until the lady said something my Mom didn’t understand.
“Oh, come on,” the caller said, in response to Mom’s follow-up question.
Turns out they were complete strangers. But they both assumed they were talking with an old pal. Our Mom told this tale to me and my brothers and sister on her 80th birthday.
As we were marveling, our Mom said, “Do you think she’ll call back?”