By Tom Ehrich

HARDY, AR -- it was lunch time. The sign pointing to an "historic downtown" gave me hope of finding a good meal. So I ventured onto a narrow road and into this town of 772 souls along the Spring River.

In a tour of downtown, I found a noble effort to turn two dozen old storefronts into an attraction for summer tourists. Most of the shops were closed on a bitter February day, a few vacant.

I did spy an open restaurant, however, and became their only customer. No credit cards, a sign said. "Let me count my cash and see if I can afford to eat here," I told the waitress. "Looks like $19."

She laughed. "You won't have any trouble eating here." They had two specials, one for $4.50 and the other for $6.50.

A couple of regulars walked in. The waitress asked them to tell me about Hardy. They gave me a virtual tour of what "used to be." For Hardy is a town of used-to-be.

An old woman used to live in that big house, she said pointing to a photo on the wall, and she kept guinea hens as protection against intruders. The high school used to be up there. The shops used to be real shops, not tourist places.

The today material was bleak. Tough times in town, she said, as the tourist money dried up after Hardy starred in a reality TV show and the actual lives of locals gave the wrong kind of notoriety to Hardy. Crystal meth came in, too. Now it's just some summer tourism, mainly canoeists who take float trips down the river and drink heavily. Plus BNSF (Sante Fe RR) trains that go by every few minutes hauling coal from North Dakota to Memphis.

I enjoyed listening to them talk. I have had similar experiences in other restaurants, where locals were happy to talk about their towns. I have been the story-teller myself. I am always on the lookout for someone who wants to hear about the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race or Indiana high school basketball. I rarely meet such people but am always glad when I do.

We all see things differently. What matters to me might not matter to another. My response to something might be skeptical, whereas theirs is enthusiastic. That's the fun of talking to people. I love hearing other points of view.

I also think that talking about what interests us is a way out of the isolation and loneliness that befall all of us at one time or another.

God is our most patient listener. Even though legalists and religious imperialists try to portray God as relentless enforcer, I find God ready to hear my sketchy praying, my clueless meditating, my shallow writing, as well as those times when I go deep.

God's readiness to listen enables me to say more. The impatient and defensive want only to shut me down.