People Along the Way by mia hinkle

“It’s the people – the memorable people – who make certain places stick in our minds forever. Look for those people, wherever you go. How do their stories intersect with yours? Look for those people who make the room come alive. And write about them.” William Zinsser

Some people just seem to fill the room with their very presence. Such was the case with the legendary Johnny Cash. My husband Karl and I met him in 1981 in Minneapolis. In fact, Karl’s band sang back-up on the gospel song “Rain” at a performance at the Carlton Celebrity Room in Minneapolis. Johnny Cash had a knack for writing, choosing, and delivering a song in a way that connects one person with another on a deep and authentic level.

Growing up we had all heard about the Man in Black and listened to his music, or should I say poetry. We knew he was a star—a real celebrity—but nothing could have prepared us for that moment when we looked up and saw him walking through the door toward us.

The hotel was located between the airport and the Carlton Celebrity Room, along the I-494 belt. It was a bustling place. Businessmen, traveling salesmen, families, vacationers, conventioneers…all coming and going…all tending to the details of their day-to-days. Hurrying to meetings, grousing at the hotel clerks, grabbing a bite, running, running, running. A din of activity swirling about the lobby.

The door opened—it had incidentally been opening and closing all day, but none of us had given it a second glance until now. Suddenly a dark 6’2” shadow filled the doorway. There was no mistaking. It was Johnny Cash. As he moved toward the front desk, he leaned forward, as if walking into a strong north wind; his long black duster floated behind him in obedience. Black western shirt tucked into dress black slacks, black western boots, and black rimmed shades. There he was. He really was the Man in Black!

A hush fell over the room as all eyes watched him sidle up to the desk. It was an involuntary sort of hush, a deafening hush. Men with briefcases stopped. Women looked up from their magazines, eyes widening. Children stopped twirling and stared. Forks hung in the air in the dining room. Conversations paused mid-sentence. Clerks in the sundry shop lost count of change. Reservationists fell silent on the phone. For one brief moment in time, all of these divergent paths focused on the same point; time stood still as they memorized the moment. The whole room held its breath, waiting to exhale.

Then, just as quickly as he had appeared, he disappeared into the elevator. The doors closed and he was lifted somewhere to the upper floors—you know, those floors where you need a special key to get off.

The room took a collective breath, and gradually the volume of the lobby turned back up. The bustling returned, but the room had changed. We tried not to, but in time we moved past that magical moment and back to our day-to-day details.

In the years before and since, we brushed up against other celebrities a time or two, but none of them filled the room the same as Johnny Cash did for us that day. We never again heard his poetry in quite the same way. In that brief moment, we saw the true stuff of life that finds itself written on the heart and connects one person to another in a deep and authentic way.

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