That’s him in the corner: Michael Stipe sighting launches R.E.M. pilgrimage

Journeys sure do start unexpectedly sometimes.

If you follow them, they can take you to sacred moments from the past and then on to new places and discoveries of things you might have missed the first time. It’s risky, though. Trips to the past can bring joy but can stir up old heartbreak too.

This one started in an oyster bar in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. These are not places I frequent often — Manhattan or oyster bars in general. But Jennifer and I were near the end of a visit to the city earlier this year and enjoying our drinks amid the echoing clatter of food being served and the crunch of ice serving as temporary bedding for oysters.

We were deciding whether to add oysters to our order when the host seated a man several tables behind Jennifer who wasn’t quite as pedestrian-looking as the rest of us in the restaurant. He sported a bushy, gray beard, black horned-rim glasses and what in Alabama we always called a toboggan — you might call it a knit cap — covering his bald head.

I barely noticed those signifiers and focused mostly on the man’s nose (or septum) ring. It very gradually started to dawn on me I might be having a New York celebrity sighting. I asked Jennifer to Google to see if Michael Stipe wore a nose ring. A quick image search showed that he did, indeed, sport one — and horned-rim glasses and a long beard.

For me this wasn’t just any celebrity sighting. I described it to the kids this way: Think of your all-time favorite band, and then imagine the lead singer walking in and sitting a few tables over. I hadn’t really listened to R.E.M. much in a while, but the answer to “who’s your favorite band of all time,” would certainly, if I thought hard about it, always be R.E.M.

I didn’t bother Mr. Stipe, who was sitting alone at a small table near a window before being joined by someone a short time later. But boy did the R.E.M.-related moments and connections and missed opportunities and meaningful songs start stirring.

The posts that follow are what I imagine I’d have told him if he’d invited us over to his table for a chat.

Next up: Murmurs of new music in Tuscaloosa