They swarm Jeremy. They tell him stories. They touch him. They hug him. Everyone gets their turn.

They are old, but they love singing. So on Sunday afternoons, Jeremy sings to them. The residents who can still sing, do.

Jeremy visits the nursing home after playing piano at the Methodist church. He sits at the upright in the cafeteria and plays the classics.

Wheelchairs roll in by the dozen. Residents park in rows. Early birds get seats up front. Stragglers sit in the nosebleeds.

Jeremy has been playing music at nursing homes since age six. He can play any tune in the hymnal like a bona fide Cokesbury jukebox. He does it with a smile.

He sings “Old Gospel Ship,” “I Saw the Light,” and “Church in the Wildwood.” When he finishes, the residents of the nursing home clap. Some louder than others. And after the song singing is done, the real fun begins.

They swarm Jeremy. They tell him stories. They touch him. They hug him. Everyone gets their turn.

“I was a logging man,” one old man tells Jeremy. “I cut wood in

South Alabama, did I ever tell you that?”

“No sir.”

An old woman touches Jeremy’s face. “You look just like my son, you’re so handsome, just like my son.”

Another lady wheels toward Jeremy in an electric chair. She hands him an old envelope. “Would you autograph this? You’re going to be famous one day, I just know it.”

He’s puts his John Hancock on the paper. She wheels away like she’s just confiscated Elvis’ underpants.

It’s lunchtime. The cafeteria comes alive with smells of canned corn, Salisbury steak, and creamed potatoes. I sit with Jeremy, we talk over plates of lukewarm apple pie. But our conversation is cut short because Jeremy has more people to see and he only has a little time left to make his rounds.

He jokes with the old man who is from New York. He laughs with the elderly…

I was not a cheerful person. I was a quiet kid. I was lonely. Friends were hard to come by. Good friends were a myth. I sat in my bedroom eating a lot of peanut butter.

It’s late. I am staying at a small inn. There is a wedding rehearsal dinner in the courtyard outside my room window. It’s a big shindig. There is a loud band. A crowd. Laughter. Twinkling lights.

I am eating peanut butter from a jar, watching the whole thing through my window.

The party band is playing “Benny and the Jets.”

It is 10:21 P.M.

The people in the wedding party are dressed snazzy. Men wear Sunday clothes. Ladies look like they’re ready for prom.

Everyone sips red wine from tall glasses in a sophisticated way which tells me they are not sipping Boone’s Farm Blue Hawaiian. I’ll bet it’s expensive wine.

I am in my bathrobe, standing by the window, sampling a fine vintage Smucker’s Crunchy Natural. Light bodied, with piquant overtones of Dothan.

I am a well-noted peanut butter lover. I eat several jars per week. The day before my wedding, my friends pitched in and bought me Sam’s Club gallon barrels of JIF. They wrapped them in red ribbons and

attached notecards.

My friend Bobby wrote: “This should last you a few days.”

The party band is playing an encore of “Benny and the Jets.” People are dancing. Friends, family, and happy people.

It’s hard not to smile. Because there is nothing more holy than friendship. Not to me. I grew up in a broken home. My friends were, are, and always will be the closest family I have ever had.

For example, earlier today I had lunch with one such friend. Her heart is gold, and she has the audacity to believe in me. She has believed since I first met her, not long ago.

You don’t forget people who believe in you, not for a hundred years. They don’t even have to say anything sentimental to tell you how they feel. All they have to do is give you…

The sky is wild, with vivid cloud shapes that would make Picasso look like a hick.

FAIRHOPE—I am having supper at a bar, watching baseball. The food is superb. The baseball is not. The place is crowded.

Louis Armstrong is singing overhead, “What a Wonderful World.”

I love this song. I wish I could tell you how much I love this song. The elderly man to my left loves the song too. He is singing along. His date is not impressed.

“I’m on a date with my granddaughter,” he tells me.

He looks ninety years old. His date is ten. She’s eating a cheeseburger.

He finally winks at me and says, “My granddaughter hates it when I sing in public.”

I finish supper and follow the sidewalks, carrying a to-go box. It’s sunset. The live oaks hang over the winding streets, and there is an epidemic of pink flowers.

No matter where you go in this town, the bay is nearby. I stop and sit on a park bench to admire it.

I wrote a college essay about the Mobile Bay

once. Ships have been sailing this water since the 1500’s. Hernando de Soto and his men first named it “Bahía del Espíritu Santo.” Which, when translated literally means: “Dude, I Think We’re Lost.”

It’s a beautiful sunset. I see a boat with running lights glowing. I hear the distant sound of music. The Temptations, I think.

The squirrels in the trees are trying to fit in the rest of their steps for the day.

The sky is wild, with vivid cloud art that would make Picasso look like a hick.

Though, I have never particularly cared for Picasso. I suppose I’m not smart enough to appreciate such high-brow art.

I’m a Norman Rockwell man, myself. I once made a weekend trip just to see a Rockwell exhibit in Birmingham. I spent two hours admiring his work. I went back the next day to…

“That’s when I realized, maybe I’ll never change the world, but I can be a friend. I could show her I didn’t care about her grades as much as I cared about her.”

She is older. Past retirement age. She stands in the Walmart checkout lane with a full cart. In her basket: Kleenex, paper towels, notebooks, number-two pencils, Scotch tape, staples. The works.

She teaches ninth grade. And she’s been doing this for thirty years.

That’s three decades of lesson plans, spitballs, my-Labrador-ate-my-homeworks, senior pranks, and pep-rallies. She is a living saint.

“When I was young,” she says. “Had this idea I was going to be a wonderful teacher and change the world.”

Her first year of teaching nearly killed her.

Ninth-graders are their own breed of domestic skunk. The children drained her youth and drove her toward a nervous breakdown.

“Almost gave up,” she says. “I actually wrote a letter of resignation after my first year. It was that bad.”

It was that bad. But she didn’t quit.

There was a girl in her class. The girl’s mother had died. She had no father. She was living with relatives.

The girl was quiet. Sad. She didn’t try in class. She had no friends. She was a D-student, a poor reader, and a lost child.

“I knew she needed me. So I told myself, ‘I’m gonna win this girl over if it’s the last thing I do.’”

She worked with the child after school hours. She ordered pizza delivery while they studied. She introduced the girl to the simple pleasures of Nancy Drew, and helped her with math homework.

She listened. Sometimes all she did was listen.

“That’s when I realized, maybe I’ll never change the world, but I can be a friend. I could show her I didn’t care about her grades as much as I cared about her.”

The girl’s grades improved. In fact, that year she made A’s in every subject. Her disposition got sweeter, too.

Her life was on the upswing. She dated her first boyfriend. She joined school clubs. She played in band.

And on the last…

I had always wanted to sail. I started looking in the classifieds for boats. I visited everywhere from Mobile to Panama City looking at them.

FAIRHOPE—I sat on the docks in the late afternoon and watched the sailboats do figure eights. It made me smile.

I once had this crazy idea that I wanted to take up sailing. And when I get ideas I can’t be stopped. I don’t want to say that I’m stubborn. So I’m not going to say it.

I had always wanted to sail. I started looking in the classifieds for boats. I visited everywhere from Mobile to Panama City looking at them.

I finally found a twenty-six footer in Fairhope. It was old, and ugly, but seaworthy.

It was a big step for me. I’d never done anything notable except once, when I slid down a bannister with the wood grain facing the wrong way.

This does not give you the same exhilaration as sailing.

The man on the sailboat was waiting for me. I waltzed along the dock and I declared that I would buy his boat. Then, I handed him a check.

“But you haven’t even seen it yet,” he said.

“No, but I’ve seen enough bad boats to know when I’ve seen a mediocre one.”

That man took me on my first voyage. I sort of discovered myself on that Fairhope water. I didn’t think it would be that easy to find yourself, but sometimes it is.

For three months, that kindhearted man gave me lessons. He taught me to raise the main, to trim the jib, and he taught me to sail single handed.

And after my first successful solo sail, he handed me a cigar and said, “I bought these for celebration.”

“No thanks,” I said. “I don’t smoke.”

“You do today.”

In the following years, I would use the boat with my wife, my dog, or some unfortunate friend. And I would demonstrate my newly acquired knowledge by sniffing my nose…

Somehow I felt like I belonged in this colorful world. I was a lost boy with a dead father. Boys like me don’t often feel like they belong anywhere.

MOBILE—When you take in a deep breath, the salt air hits the back of your throat and you know you’re near the Gulf of Mexico.

I am eating a cup of gumbo for lunch, writing you, spilling food on my shirt.

There’s a saying about gumbo: “The longer it sits, the better it gets.”

I don’t know who said that. My wife, maybe. Or maybe it was Abraham Lincoln, or Engelbert Humperdinck.

I never knew what the phrase meant until my wife made gumbo for a bridal shower. The gumbo came out good. But after sitting in the fridge for two days, it became poetry.

Mobile and I have history. When I was younger, all my teenage friends wanted to visit New Orleans to sow their wild oats.

But not me. Mobile was the siren that called to me. And I didn’t have many oats.

I remember visiting here for Mardi Gras when I was seventeen. I clocked out from work, I stood on

a curb with a duffle bag, waiting for a truckload of my friends.

My mother had given me a twenty-dollar bill and told me to stay out of trouble. I promised her. She made me look her in the eyes and promise again.

The city was full of things that kids from nothing towns haven’t seen before.

For instance, Mobile was once a baseball town, the home of Satchel Paige, and Hank Aaron. The old mansions are worthy of Margaret Mitchell’s words. Dauphin street looks like an oil painting. And the azaleas.

One of my friends pointed out the truck window and said, “Look, a band!”

A brass band played “O When the Saints.” We saw old ladies with umbrellas strutting on the sidewalk. Their dance looked like a cross between the Funky Chicken and a seizure.

Somehow I felt I belonged in…

Thank you for picking up a hitchhiker outside Anniston, Alabama. Even though modern wisdom warns against this, you followed your heart.

Thank you for holding the door for an old woman at Cracker Barrel. You must’ve been fourteen, you were with friends. You were laughing and carrying on when you saw the old woman, pushing a walker. You jogged ahead. You beat her to the door. You held it open.

She thanked you. You yes-ma’amed her. And you made my day, kid.

My whole day.

And thanks for giving money to a homeless man in Birmingham, Alabama. You don’t know me, but I watched you.

I was at a stoplight. You were outside UAB School of Medicine campus. You wore green scrubs, and carried a backpack. You gave money. Then, you gave a cup of coffee and a fast food to-go bag.

Thanks for sitting with that young girl after work. She was seated on the sidewalk outside the bar. She was waiting for her ride.

It was two in the morning. She didn’t need to be alone at that hour. So you sat with her. You might not think you did much, but you did.

Thank you for filling that backpack with food, then leaving it in a tenth-grader’s locker—anonymously.

You know who you are.

Thank you for picking up a hitchhiker outside Anniston, Alabama. Even though modern wisdom warns against this, you followed your heart.

When the hitchhiker stepped into your car, you could tell he had mental illness. But you didn’t try to fix him, you didn’t try to be a hero, you didn’t try to DO anything. You were just nice to him. And he appreciated that.

Thanks for driving a kid named Peter to baseball practice. After his father died, his mother has been working double shifts. Peter has been babysitting and cooking supper for his sisters since his mother started working longer hours.

Peter had to drop out of baseball because he didn’t have a ride.…