I’m in a convenience store. I’m standing in a long line. Ahead of me are three boys in soccer uniforms, several construction workers, and one UPS man. I know this sounds like a great opening line for a joke, but it’s not. There are no nuns present.

Anyway, I remember stopping at this store every morning before work when I was on a landscaping crew. Back then, there was a young guy who worked behind the counter named Doug.

Doug was about ten-foot tall and several thousand pounds of muscle. I don’t know how he fit through the door because he was built like a General Electric refrigerator. And he had the tender heart of a Beanie Baby. Doug would never let me pay for my coffee.

“But Doug,” I’d say, “I don’t need free coffee. Let me pay for it.”

“Nah, I always pour out the old coffee every morning, it just goes to waste. Just look at it this way, you’re drinking waste.”

“Doug, please.”

“Your money ain’t no good here.”

I’d keep trying to pay.

He’d keep refusing. Round and round we’d go until I finally accepted the coffee. This is a ceremony of sorts among decent people. A ritual dance. Nobody ever accepts free things without protest.

I never knew Doug outsider the store, but after he quit working here I missed seeing him.

For years, I also stopped at another convenience store like this one, on the other side of town. Usually on Sunday mornings. I had to wake up early for church because I helped clean the chapel before service. I was sort of a glorified janitor you could say.

I straightened hymnals, adjusted microphones, and made sure the Baptist choir loft didn’t have any liquor bottles or racy magazines hidden in the tenor section.

An hour before service, I would fly into the convenience store to buy gas, coffee, and a honeybun. One…

She was eating dinner by herself. White hair. Five-foot-tall I’d guess. She was staring straight forward, chewing in silence. The hostess sat us beside her table.

My wife and I were there for an early dinner. I was scanning the menu, but couldn’t figure out what to order.

“Get the calamari,” the white-haired woman suggested. “It’s the best in town.”

“The best in town?” I said.

“Best in town.”

She was pure Lousianna. You can tell a Lousiannan accent when you hear it. It sounds exactly like a Jerry Lee Lewis record played at half speed.

When the waiter asked what we wanted, I ordered the calamari.

“You won’t regret it,” she said. “It’s the best in town.”

We started talking. Her name was Maria. Her job is sitting with people. Elderly people, sick people, and the unwell.

“Sometimes I sit for ten hours with folks if they need me. Just listening is really all I do.”

She was married once. For thirty-six years. Her husband died unexpectedly. Now she lives alone.

“He died from gallbladder surgery,” she said. “The surgeon nicked him.

He was gone pretty fast.”

When she met him she was nineteen and he was twenty-three. It was just one of those things, she said. When you know, you just know.

“He didn’t even have no wedding ring, he just gave me his class ring until he could afford one.”

This makes her laugh.

They got married in ‘65. It was a big year for America. Johnson was in office, the Cold War was getting hot, Sandy Koufax was pitching, Bob Dylan went all-electric.

And Maria was in love. They moved all over the U.S. He worked in retail, she had a slew of jobs. It wasn’t easy, but they made ends meet and had fun doing it. Some people only dabble in marriage. These two were professionals.

Our calamari came.

And Maria’s story was just getting…

I have here a letter from 19-year-old Chase Waters. The handwriting is messy, just like mine has always been. This letter could have come from 19-year-old Me.

“Sean, I don’t know what to do with my life... My mom wants me to stay in college but I hate it and if I drop out now I’ll probably never go back and she’ll kill me. I know I should follow my passion but I don’t know what career path to choose.”

Chase, the important thing to remember here is that I’m a painfully unqualified guy to ask. You’re talking to a major dork who when he was 8 years old owned two pet rabbits named Fred and Ginger.

Still, this phrase about “following your passion,” it stinks. So does “career path.”

For starters, “passion” is a trendy word used by hip advertising executives who strongly want you to have passion for everything, including automobiles and filing income taxes. The underlying message is that the only things in life worth doing are FUN things.

Well, bologna.

Case

in point: I am not ecstatic about walking my dogs. My dogs sniff every square inch of earth between Here and Eternity before finally deciding to poop on our kitchen floor. But I do it. Is it my passion? No.

The thing is, 70 years ago, I don’t think the word “passion” was said much. Back then it was generally used to describe either (a) Harlequin romance novels, or (b) the crucifixion.

I’ll bet your grandparents didn’t have much career passion. They probably just went around doing ordinary stuff like everyone else.

When the motor oil in the ‘51 Nash Rambler needed changing, your granddaddy simply did it. And it was the same with everyone’s professional lives, too.

Not so long ago, people had jobs, not careers. Jobs were something you did, not who you were. Many folks worked jobs with the same attitude you’d…

“Go! Go! Go!” shouts the guy at the bar.

“Run! Run! Run!” screams another.

“Touchdown!” says the rowdy behind me.

“Aw [bad word]!” shouts the bartender, throwing a wet rag across the room.

The people in this joint are going nuts. Even my wife is part of the pandemonium. Half the patrons in the room are wearing Clemson University orange, the other half wears Louisiana State University purple-and-gold.

I glance out the window. I scan the parking lot to make sure my truck is still there. This is an old habit of mine.

Tonight is the National Championship college football game. And in our part of the world this is the height of our year.

In other nations, the most important calendar days are religious holidays. But in the sleepy hamlets and electric burrows of the USA, football is religion. And the National Championship is high mass.

My wife and I are in a typical bar. It’s dark. Ugly wood paneling. Long ago, I remember when they still allowed smoking here. This room used to be

nothing but fog from unfiltered Camels. Now it just smells like French fries and stale beer.

Everyone leans on the bar and watching the television. During crucial plays many scream. Some cheer. Some boo. Some pound chests and make Tarzan calls. It’s great.

I walk to the window again to make sure my truck is still there.

Several years ago, I watched a National Championship in a crowded big-city bar with friends. The University of Alabama was playing the Texas Longhorns. Three of my pals were Alabama fans, the other two were Texas sympathizers. I will never forget it.

That night, I was the designated driver—which is why I still remember the night with clarity.

At halftime, two of my friends (the Texans) snuck outside. They told me they were going to make a phone call. This seemed odd since nobody in these parts—not…

A newsroom. I was in my mid-twenties. Unruly red hair. Big nose. A necktie that was suffocating me. Don’t ask me how, but I had a job interview. I was pure nerves.

I had no business being there. But then, I have a well-documented history of being in places I shouldn’t be.

“No journalism degree?” the editor said, squinting at my resume which read like a Hardee’s breakfast menu.

“No ma’am.”

“So, what’s your degree in?”

I explained that, at the time, I was in my ninth year of community college. And I was showing true potential as a promising liberal arts major.

“Aren’t you a little old to be applying?” she said. “What exactly do you want?”

It paralyzed me. I didn’t know how to answer. She waited. I made no human-like sounds. She asked me to leave.

Goodnight John Boy. Thanks for playing.

I loosened my necktie. I ordered three tacos from a Mexican dive downtown. The tacos came doused in a red sauce that would forever burn the protective lining from my lower gastrointestinal tract.

I sat on a curb.

What DID I want?

I saw a group of young men, walking the street, wearing suits and neckties. They did not look like me. They were cleancut, perfect teeth.

They probably had vocabularies which did not contain words like, “y'all,” and “twelve-pack.”

I was interrupted.

Across the street, I saw a young woman struggling to lift a wheelchair from her trunk. I offered to help. She asked if I’d lift her sister from the vehicle and place her into the chair. I did. I sort of had to bear-hug her sister to lift her out of the passenger seat.

And this did something to me. I discovered what I wanted.

And I’ll share it with you, if I may:

First: I want my friends to feel important. I want children to feel loved—all children. I want dogs…

It’s raining tonight in the Florida Panhandle. My wife is sitting on our sofa watching television. Our two ninety-pound dogs are asleep on her lap. There is no room for me on the couch. I am sitting on the floor.

Long ago, our couch was a nice-looking one. I should know since I’m the one who bought it for fifty bucks from the newspaper classifieds.

The ad read: “Nice leather couch, $50, OBO.”

Fifty bucks. What a deal. There’s nothing that the men in my family loved more than bragging about our good deals. My father, for instance, would drag innocent pedestrians into our garage just to show off his used Ford station wagon because he got a good deal on it.

He would say, “Can you believe the deal I got on this heap? IT WAS THE DEAL OF THE CENTURY!”

Everything was always the “deal of the century” to my father. Even clearance spaghetti sauce at the supermarket.

Anyway, when I bought this sofa I had just recovered from lower back

surgery. The surgeon warned me not to lift anything heavier than a ham sandwich. To move it I enlisted the help of my buddy, Lyle, and my wife, Jamie.

We all arrived at the enormous high-rise condo across town. The unit was located on the 22nd floor. It wasn’t the highest floor, but it was high enough to wave hello to low flying aircraft from the balcony.

The place was grungy and looked like a frat house apartment. No sooner had we walked through the front door than we were greeted by a pile of stinky laundry the size of Mount McKinley, several old pizza boxes, and a half-clothed female.

A young man with a ponytail introduced himself as “Shark.” He smacked the upholstery and said, “She’s a good little sofa, bro. Lotta good memories on this little baby.”

Then he removed a stale slice of pizza…

I am in a rundown breakfast cafe. The kind with torn vinyl seats and Formica countertops. The TV above the bar plays news headlines.

One of the TV’s talking heads shouts, “HOW ARE WE GONNA SAVE THIS WORLD?”

At exactly this moment my waitress appears. She places a plate of hot biscuits before me. She turns off the television and says, “This is how you save the world. Biscuits.”

She laughs at her own remark and walks away. And I am left looking at steaming biscuits, wondering if this woman isn’t correct.

Biscuits are one of those mysterious things that bring out the best in mankind.

Think about it. Have you ever seen anyone rob a bank or hotwire a car while simultaneously eating a biscuit? No. But you’ve probably seen plenty of career criminals eating Miracle Whip. Thus, we can conclude that Miracle Whip is of the Devil. Also, low-fat cottage cheese.

But biscuits? They are downright holy. There are too many varieties to name, but here are a few:

Rolled biscuits, fried biscuits, beaten biscuits,

drop biscuits, angel biscuits, shortcakes, widowmakers, heartstoppers, eye-poppers, Alabama sin cookies, Mississippi mantrappers, Georgia homewreckers, Texas tummy-tuckers, Louisiana lard pellets, buttermilk biscuits, sourdough biscuits, Dutch-oven biscuits, and of course the immortal cathead biscuit.

When I first started writing in earnest, my work was published in a tiny regional newspaper. The editor asked for professional byline—which is a mini biography. But I had no byline since I had never written anything more than a classified ad about a 1986 Ford.

So the editor tried to come up with a few words on my behalf. She asked, “What’re some of your major achievements?”

Achievements? I thought long and hard. “Well, I can swallow my tongue.”

“No, that’s not what I... Wait. Really?”

“Wanna see?”

“Yes. Actually, I would like to see that.”

So I did it. She stared into my open mouth then made a…

It was a cardboard box in my garage. It was marked, “Sean’s Stuff.” That was it. Two words. It’s been sitting in my garage since the construction of the pyramids.

My garage looks like the aftermath of an atomic explosion. There are boxes everywhere, along with wounded furniture, elderly lawn mowers, arthritic hand tools, dead tennis rackets, and an asthmatic GE refrigerator.

I don’t even remember what I was looking for when I found this box. There were spiders inside. I am a well-noted spider hater. I released the spiders outdoors instead of killing them because it just didn’t seem sportsmanlike.

Also inside the box was an old deck of cards, comic books, a baseball cap, and an empty Schweppes ginger ale bottle. Then I found it. My old teddy bear.

He was a good bear. Actually, he was my best friend once. It is a natural thing for boys to call stuffed animals close friends. I have even met grown men who admitted to almost making a teddy bear the best

man at their wedding. Don’t force me to start naming names.

My bear was named Teddy just like every kid’s bear probably was. I should have named him something original like “Herman,” but there was a factory tag on his butt that read “Teddy.” So who was I to change it? A man is entitled to keep his name.

When I was a child, I remember one time I was sick with the flu, and I held onto this bear for dear life.

Late that night my father told me the story of how the American teddy bear got its name. At the time, I was borderline delirious. Hot. Sweaty. Out of it.

My father suggested that I drink ginger ale to calm my stomach. This was his answer for any ailment. To my father, if it couldn’t be fixed with castor oil, Mentholatum, or ginger ale, you…

WINFIELD—If you’re just passing through, you might not even notice this tiny Alabamian town. But the people here are great.

I once had a friend from Winfield. Every time we saw each other he gave me a gift, without fail. I once asked why he did this.

He shrugged and said, “‘Cause that’s just how people from Winfield are.”

Which isn’t hard to believe. The town is roughly twenty-five miles from the Mississippi line, and about as wide as it is high. Let’s just say that if you took the population of Winfield and crammed them into a football stadium, you’d fill up one row. Maybe two.

The downtown is nice and maintained. You could pitch a baseball from one end to the other.

A few months ago, Winfield celebrated Mule Day Festival, an annual tradition. A mass of jack Mules parade up the streets towing wagons, getting showered with affection.

The festival started as a downhome parade. Today, it draws nearly 25,000 people from across the southeast who come to honor the American Mule.

“Mule Day’s great,” says

one old man. “Lotta people forget, but our nation was built by a lotta purebred jackasses.”

He laughs at this. Because like my pal once said, that’s just how people in Winfield are.

Well, yesterday afternoon the good people of Winfield were lining the quiet streets. They had gathered to see a different kind of parade. Some held banners or balloons. Others were bundled to fight the chill. Everyone was there.

They were waiting for Wyatt.

Wyatt Spann is four years old. Last year, he was your typical toddler. He loved dinosaurs, cartoons, and especially trucks. Then he took ill. When he wouldn’t quit vomiting his parents took him to Children’s Hospital in Birmingham.

His mother said, “We thought he had a stomach virus that had been going around.”

That’s what doctors thought too. But the blood work came back normal.…

I hope this doesn’t come across wrong. Yesterday I hung out with college kids, and to be perfectly honest, I’ve had more fun eating raw papier mâché. Which I actually did once when I was nineteen.

I was expecting to have a wild and crazy time since these were, after all, nineteen-year-olds. It was anything but fun. It was sleep inducing.

Don’t get me wrong, these sophomores were great kids. Well-behaved, good grades, nice-looking, polite. It's just that they were too busy thumb-typing on smartphones to notice me.

We were at the mall because my wife and everyone’s parents were seeing a movie together. It was a romance movie and I didn’t want to go. Mostly because “romance movies” are rarely about real romance. They are usually about two people who yearn for three hours then kiss right before the credits.

That’s not romance. Ask any married guy. Romance is when a man, acting of his own free will, picks up his dirty laundry from the bedroom floor and places it into a hamper without

being asked. When a man does this he is transformed from a North American sasquatch into George Clooney.

So the college kids and I were wandering around a shopping complex. But nobody was talking. Which brings me to my main point (and I promise I will be sensitive when I say this since teenagers might actually read it):

Get. Off. Your. Phones.

Don’t even finish reading this stupid column. You’re not missing anything worthwhile, I promise. Just put the phone down and go find some papier mâché.

Of course I have no room to judge. Who am I to point the finger? Nobody, that’s who. My parents used to warn me that TV would turn my brain into slush, but did I listen? No. An jus lookit me noww.

But when I was in this crowded mall, I noticed almost everyone beneath age ninety-seven was…