People Watcher

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SEAN DIETRICH

By SEAN DIETRICH

The hotel lobby is about the size of an aircraft hangar. It’s like a city unto itself. They do things big in Atlanta.

There are restaurants, cafes, gift shops, arcades, boutiques and a glass elevator that brings to mind “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

I am sitting at the bar, watching people wander through the lobby in clots.

My bartender is a youngish woman with a pronounced drawl. She pronounces “dance” as “daintz.” She brings me a beer and asks how I’m doing, but my attention focuses on the throngs in the lobby.

“Are you a people watcher?” she asks.

As it happens, I am a longtime people watcher. You can put me in an airport, beer joint, train station, school or Holiday Inn Express, and I’m at a matinee.

“I like watching people,” I tell the bartender.

She nods. “Me, too.”

So here we are. Both of us. The bartender and yours truly, people-watching.

“I like to look for old couples,” she says. “I like to see old people who are still in love. They remind me of my parents.”

“Where do your parents live?”

“North Georgia. They’ve been married 52 years. Good people.”

A group of young, dark-skinned men walk by. They are wearing traditional African garb, rolling suitcases. Long tunics. Wild colors. I can hear them talking. Their accents sound melodic.

“Those guys are from Kenya,” says the bartender. “I waited on them yesterday. Happy guys. They’re here for a wedding. They’ve got more money than Jesus.”

More hordes walk by. A girls soccer team. Midwesterners with shopping bags. Young men in sports coats and Guccis. A mass of older women, all wearing matching T-shirts that say, “Happy birthday, Caroline! You turned 35 twice!”

“How did you end up in Atlanta?” I ask.

“Came to Atlanta with my husband, who is now my ex-husband. He had a job here. He left me the day after my 40th birthday. He married a girl who was 22 years old.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Water under the bridge. We sort of divorced for religious reasons, anyhow.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. He thought he was God, and I didn’t.”

A small group of businesswomen walk by. They look like classy professionals. High heels. Skirt suits. Deathly serious faces.

“Those business ladies were in here last night, too,” the bartender whispers. “Complete witches. Everything had to be just so. You know what I mean?”

“I am familiar.” I took a sip. “How old are your kids?”

“Two boys. Ten and eight. My oldest is whip-smart. He’s going places. My youngest is a typical boy. He only cares about fishing and sports. Kids need their dad, you know, but my ex never comes around. Never even calls my boys.”

I nod. Because I get it. I had a father for a brief period. I had him until I was 11, then he was gone.

“My youngest is always asking me when Daddy is going to take him to a Georgia game. My sons are always texting their dad, but he won’t answer them back for weeks sometimes. Breaks my heart. So I try to be both Mom and Dad.”

“You sound like a great mother.”

A cluster of high-school kids walk by. They are emitting sine waves of hormonal energy. Trying hard to impress one another.

“I took my boys to Disney this year. That’s where they wanted to go. It was tough because I work three jobs, and I had to take time off. Few of my bosses got mad about it. One boss almost fired me.”

“Did your boys have fun?”

“Does the pope go in the woods?”

I sipped and nodded.

“I have tried to give my boys a good life. Took them to Austin, Texas. Took them to Virginia Beach. Gatlinburg. Atlantic City. And next month, I’m going to take them to the Rocky Mountains.”

We watch more crowds pass. People of all shapes, creeds, colors and persuasions.

“You want to see a picture of my boys?” she says.

“Please.”

She removes a phone. She shows images of her kids. They are dressed in University of Georgia shirts. Smiling to beat the band. Their mother holds them closely. One boy in each arm. And I am reminded of the single mother who raised me.

This world doesn’t do nearly enough for mothers. But it does even less for the single ones.

While looking at a few dozen pictures of her children, the bartender smiles at her photos, lost in the kinds of warm memories that only mothers hold.

She says, “I’d give my boys the world if I could, but I can’t afford the world. So I just give them myself, you know? I give them all of me, and I pray that’s good enough.” Yes. They’re doing just fine here in Atlanta.

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