I must have been around 27.
Living in a shared second-story apartment with my buddy, Chad, in the heart of the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago.
If you’ve ever seen the movie High Fidelity with Jack Black, that was Wicker Park in the 90s. Hip, gritty, a block from “dangerous” in any direction.
I was lonely then.
Searching for what would come next.
I’d had my ass handed to me in Los Angeles. Naively hauling my Oldsmobile-trunk-sized life all the way to the Pacific only to find that talent was far inferior to connections there, and I was still too insecure to properly develop either.
So, at this point, I’m back in Chicago because my best friends and best times were there, but now isn’t then anymore and I’m existing in this sort of half-dream in between of knowing who I am or what I should be trying to be.
Roaming the sidewalks of Wicker Park, searching.
One freezing day, I slipped through the door of a recycled clothing store and started aimlessly sifting through the racks for something cool and affordable.
The shop was warm inside with a mix of late morning sunlight creeping in the front window and lamplight towards the back.
The savory scent of a single stick of incense blending into the fading memories of well-worn fabrics discarded by their once proud owners, or their heirs. Estate pickers maybe?
A woman emerged from the back to greet me with the casual confidence of a shop owner who is there to help, but not to sell.
She’ll be here all day, every day. This is her space. You are welcome, but not needed.
She had a kind of subtle beauty that runs deeper than aesthetics. Her looks represented her full being. No show. Pure presence.
I said hello, “Cool shop.”
“I like it,” she smiled. “Take your time. There’s more in the back, if you need a certain size I can look for you.”
“Thanks,” I muttered.
When you exist in a time of your life with no intimacy, you constantly dream of intimacy.
Inside that relaxed shop, the lone visitor, in from the cold, soaking in the snug reality this lovely stranger had created from her very soul…
I felt a moment of intimacy that sent my curious mind reeling into fantasy.
Not a creepy “show me the backroom” fantasy, but a hazy longing for connection.
Silent riffing dreamlike scenes of slow dinners, easy conversation, laughing through long stories; those rare and beautiful moments of intimacy that appear through joyous happenstance and drop a rainbow bookmark into the gray reality of our unpolished memoirs.
As I stood there, browsing aimlessly, immersed in deep curiosity about the fanciful shopkeeper; her actual life, her quirks, her joys, her demons, her opinions, her history, her ambitions…
Jeff Buckley’s “Lover You Should’ve Come Over” began playing over the lone speaker wired above a shelf of carefully curated old books.
The song’s first heartbreaking accordion notes fading into the languid snare snap that establishes the gut-wrenching feel of Jeff’s moaning lyrics.
Looking out the door I see the rain
Fall upon the funeral mourners
Parading in a wake of sad relations
As their shoes fill up with water
Building to the crushing pre-chorus:
Sometimes a man gets carried away
When he feels like should be having his fun
Much too blind to see the damage he’s done
Sometimes a man must awake to find that
Really he has no one
Hardly anyone knew about Jeff Buckley then, beyond the fact that, at 30, he had drowned in the Mississippi River taking a celebratory swim before recording his next record.
That this angelic shopkeeper kept a deep track from Grace on her playlist codified in my wandering mind that we were cosmically locked in a magical moment.
Time melted away in that comfortable shop as the cold wind whooshed outside the door.
Two strangers soaking in the perfect mix of sounds, scents, and the sanctimonious energy of the moment.
I wanted desperately to break the silence with words that might match the moment but knew I wouldn’t.
The risk of crushing this sacred fantasy with a failed quip meant to sound cool or clever, or even genuine or meaningful, was simply too daunting.
My brain has a history of locking in situations like this. Why would this time be any different?
Better to take the gift of this melancholy moment and carry it through the door and into the biting breeze to wear like a scarf.
One I could forever hold to my face and breathe in the fading aromas of this passing fantasy; sparking anew the wondrous curiosity of all that could have been.
If only there were words.