This Thanksgiving there was not enough room at the “inn,” our oldest daughter’s house for my wife and I to stay on site as it were. We ended up in a massive guest hotel on a busy new byway in the Durham area that did not exist at all only a few years ago. In fact, the entire area we stayed in was all new to us and reflected the explosive growth in the corridors between Chapel Hill and Durham. and Durham and Raleigh, the area called the RTP or Research Triangle Park. However, nowadays, the abbreviation acronym “RTP” is now disconnected from the Park itself and means the huge area that is now growing together among the three cities.
The hotel we were installed in by our host daughter is massive, several stories tall, has every amenity imaginable from high tech to healthy exercise facilities, pools for the young grandkids, coffee shop for the caffeinating set, and of all things a super high end corporate steak house national chain, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse where the price of a meal starts in the three-digit range. But all this courtesy of lots of discount plan points courtesy of daughter and we are paying thankfully a fraction of the daily inn price which would be obscene and a budget breaker for us.
Every morning when I travel, I arise very early leaving my wife to sleep in which is in keeping with her gender tied sleeping pattern. I can shower if need be, quietly, dress and go down to the breakfast area for a healthy morning meal, read all the area newspapers, catch up on my email, and talk with whomever I can engage who looks interesting. AT this hotel I found that the “chef” who cooks the omelets and waffles and such, knew off some past figures in the black independent community health center I had consulted at as the psychiatrist for this wonderful facility and group of providers. So he and I hit it off and we talked for nearly half an hour in between customers ordering omelets and such. It was great.
I sat at a row of s mall tables third from the window but out of the direct blinding morning sun’s rays, next to a very distinguished white-bearded, neatly dressed elderly man who had given me some of his personal history the morning before, that he was 84 and a past lifelong resident of the famous but nearly gone black district of Durham known as “Hayti,” pronounced ‘Hay-tie,’ not as the country. He had talked of its history the morning before and I knew he was indeed a former resident there from my own knowledge of the famous community wiped out partially two decades before by urban renewal and the cutting through of an important feeder highway that led to the RTP.
I had also noticed that my new elderly acquaintance would side in the row of tables always next to a black couple and talk in pointed asides to them. He would act as though he knew them and would call the middle ages and younger man “son” in an off-hand manner. Also when the wait staff or manager of the morning breakfast facility would come to be he would suddenly change his style of speaking and act confused and demented always looking toward the black couple in a dependent manner.
It took me a few cycles of this unusual behavior for me to catch on that something was playing out in front of me, that the elderly man was in no way related at all to the black couple he had latched onto in this subtle manner. I then thought that I caught him craftily wangling out of the couple their room number verbally but acting as though this was already known to him. As the couple made preparations to leave he quietly signaled to the waitperson that he needed a bill and signed the couple’s room to it. I was flabbergasted at what I had witnessed. It was so subtle and slick I had to run quickly the sequence of almost sleight of hand progressive steps the elderly man had effected. The black couple had no idea that they had been taken advantage of and were paying for his bill.
He saw me peering owlishly and knowingly at him at the end of all this and there was a moment of realization on his face toward me of “uh oh he knows,” but I nodded with a subtle acknowledgment signaling I was not going to rat him out. He put on his nice corduroy sport coat, grasped his cane and out he went behind the black couple to the outside. I watched carefully as he did not enter their car but took the city bus that came in a few minutes.
So this morning the old man and sat next to each other and he very obliquely acknowledged to me his entire act saying basically a poor old man has got to do what he can do. In a very sideways manner as I told him that 90% of all the explosive growth in common area among the 3 RTP cities of Raleigh Durham, and Chapel Hill was new to me since I had left the Duke teaching and private practice orbit over 20 years before, he listed dozens of hotels that he “visited” in cycles to grift his breakfasts. I was constantly thinking of safe ways to ask him more details about himself and gradually learned by elimination that he did not live in a nursing home, did have a daughter and her family who helped him but that he lived in some very modest solo circumstance he would not elaborate fully.
Also, this second day of conversing with him and observing his now apparent act, I realized that he would act mildly demented and deferential and dependent upon the black couple that was his foils for a family whenever the hotel staff would be doing their waitperson duties nearby. It was also very subtle, but effective and had the desired effect upon the hotel staff of inducing them to take care of him, never suspecting that they were being “had” in an ingenious manner. This second day, the old man knew I was fully on to him. By this time I had revealed to him that I was a psychiatrist. I had told him that I always tried to make friends and talk with anyone I met and that I had been reared in a family that taught me to be open to strangers, and that “everyone has a story worth learning.” That further reassured him so he continued his act, suspending it to converse with me when the hotel staff was not around. All the while he would include the black couple in the converse with remarks that sound innocent such as “isn’t ‘that right son?”
I bid him adieu this morning, still not knowing his name knowing I had been in the presence in the master of a craft designed for survival in this new world and realizing I had stumbled upon a man who was making his way in a way I felt I likely would not have been able to come up with were in his shoes.