In the late 70s I found work at an antique store on the corner of Perry and West 4th St. It was a small, stuffy, poorly lit hole in the wall – squeezed between a café where the hippies would critique capitalism within clouds of smoke, and a dentist office.
I had just graduated from Columbia with a degree in English. Other guys in my class were marching in a single file line into Goldman Sachs, their pale white chins shaved cleanly. I’m not sure where or when I missed that train but remember feeling a deep sense of relief as I watched it fade into the foreground. My thrift store pant pockets were empty and I could roam the streets freely, bearing no extra weight.
I took my first morning shift in early September, a month after beginning work at the shop. The city was newly energized, families having returned from Long Island in time for the kids’ first days of school. The only residual signs of summer were freckles, tans, and traces of hot humid air that mixed in with the crisper fall breeze. The wind chimes jingled as the door swung open, the day’s first client making her way into the dusty shop. She greeted me with a smile and walked between the rows of antiques with a gentle confidence. Her plaid skirt, knee–length socks, and crisp white polo told me she was on her way to school. One of those expensive private schools for girls that guaranteed chemistry as well as they taught it. But her dirt-stained, tattered sneakers suggested she didn’t.
“Let me know if I can help you find anything,” I finally mentioned after realizing that I had lost my train of thought in her luminous presence. She asked what kind of paintings we had. “My friend’s birthday is just around the corner and I know she wants this one dress from Bergdorfs… but I also know she’ll appreciate something less ephemeral… with time.” It was the sort of thing my Mom would say as she strapped me to the kitchen chair until I finished my broccoli… Or to her Volvo wagon’s backseat as we drove to Connecticut for four years of boarding school. I pointed her to the back wall where several paintings hung scattered, creating a mosaic that blurred temporal and geographic boundaries: the portrait of a seventeenth century
British chancellor hung next to what resembled the paintings my roommate had been banging out while on LSD. She looked at each one carefully for the next thirty or so minutes before telling me she’d like the one of a young African American ballerina, poised in a rebellious plié. I took it off the wall, wrapped it in bubble wrap, slipped it into a paper bag, and handed it to her in exchange for two twenty dollar bills. I watched her walk out of the store, noticing that her hips moved with a dancer’s grace.
I started taking the morning shift when I could. In part because I liked waking up and walking along the West Village’s broken sidewalks while the hippies slept off their hangovers. The leaves changed color then fell off the tree’s thin branches, but the shabby brownstones and dirty storefront windows did not change. I’d make three right then two left turns without thinking, a calm cast over the city’s otherwise busy streets. I also thought she might stop by again on her way to school.
It took five months of morning shifts for this to happen. I heard the wind chimes jingle and felt the cold winter air before looking up to see her standing in the doorway. This time she was wearing thick tights and a knee length wool jacket. But snowflakes coated familiar eyelashes and rosy cheeks brought out her distinctly green eyes.
I wanted to ask if her friend had liked the painting but figured most shop attendants don’t remember the client they helped five months ago. “Hi. Let me know how I can help.” I showed her to our selection of old pipes, my stomach turning as I imagined her presenting a valentine’s day gift to an older boyfriend. She picked one out quickly and with much less thought than before, handing me a few dollars before heading towards the exit. Hand on the doorknob, she turned around and looked me in the eye. “She hated the painting by the way. Hung it up in her room for about a week and then slid it under her bed. But she’ll appreciate it soon.” She laughed quietly and slipped out of the store before I could say anything in return. I looked out the window and watched her walk along the street for as long as I could before she disappeared into the snowstorm.