I went to a shopping plaza today. A brisk, spring afternoon. 72 degrees. A perfect Saturday. Not a mall of today with countless chain stores; or kiosks selling trinkets, knock-off designer sunglasses, or cell phone plans or accessories. A quiet place built on old money; a place that never quite caught up with the times. At it's mouth is a quaint bookstore. The kind with tall wooden shelves and ladders on tracks to reach the highest shelves. No corporate name tags, no signs advertising the latest best seller. I walked among the shelves, looking at books that I wouldn't have before. Books that would normally have no character, getting lost among the fluorescent lights of Barnes and Noble.
I sat down at the cafe and ordered a gelato. The young man behind the counter, no older than high school or college, offered me samples. "If you try a car before you buy it, why shouldn't you with ice cream?" The Dark Venezuelan Chocolate, despite it's name, was flat and lacking distinction. It was piled high in the bin. I picked it's more colorful counterpart, Blueberry Butter Cookie. A group of people sitting next to me discussed politics.
Another girl, of a similar age, seemed quietly distressed as she was talking with her much older co-workers before going to lunch. "Do you want me to get you something?"
"Where are you going?" the older female employee replied.
"I don't know." They walked to the circular counter together.
I left a tip of half of the price of the dessert without blinking an eye.
Before leaving, I noticed a young man purchased a copy of The Fountainhead along with two other titles as I stood in front of a table strewn with stacked and displayed Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama titles.
The store was fairly busy. A group of college kids were in travel section, surely planning their summer programs. Or maybe dreaming of the trips that they will take, someday.
A single columned list detailed all of the stores in the plaza. Next to the store was a location number. However, listed on the individual suites on the map were the names of the stores. "I Love Sushi" was nestled on the third floor between two tech school offices. Between the ground floor and the restaurant were many empty shop windows with "For Leasing Information Call:. . ." signs. But it never felt unsafe.
A solitary woman sat outside of the sushi restaurant, eating. I couldn't tell if she noticed me. I looked through the windows into the enclosed desolate counter, noticing the prices on the menu. I stepped inside and read more, while looking at the tools of chefs sitting on the counter. Three empty place settings were in front of the counter, complete with plates and chopsticks. I stepped to the register. I studied the canned and bottled sodas in the cooler while peering around to the back for an employee. After a moment, I stepped away and stepped out of the eatery. I turned to look back at the shop and the woman finishing her food.
An employee in a worn, white apron was now behind the counter and we made eye contact, and his face made a suggestion. A raised my hand to him, and continued past some struggling businessmen and playing teenagers down the escalator.
I stopped at one of the art galleries downstairs. It was mostly the same average art work that you see at art festivals and state fairs. Pieces here and there caught my eye: winding paths, mysterious women, and hand carved sculptures and vases. I very much wanted to look at one piece, but a woman was sitting a away in front of it, looking at the booth. She said hello, and continued to write in her notebook. I later saw that she was writing the price tags of the items, hanging them.
A sadness washed over me as I looked at the works in the gallery. These pieces go for no less a few hundred dollars each. I imagined the artists, working at home in their studios, bedrooms, offices, or garages. Do they believe that someday they can "make it?" Or do they submit these pieces, put on a price tag, and forget about it until a phone call comes? If the phone call ever comes. In the meantime, do they work behind counters, sit behind desks, drive company vehicles, or have one more argument with those that take care of them? I was reminded of a section in the bookstore dedicated to writing and how to get published.
A few pieces were like things I rarely see. Beautifully hand carved tables, faces where they don't belong, figures looking at something the viewer cannot, wood-burnt nymphs on a hand-carved vase. Who were these nude women? Staring at the viewer, at the artist, or looking away. Were they even real, to begin with? What kind of stories are behind these canvases, these paints, these frames?
If I had the expendable hundreds, I would want to purchase one of these works. Maybe I could meet the creator. I wonder how things would change. Eventually, it'd sit and just become something else that I pass everyday. The special moments would come when it catches my eye one day and I spent thirty minutes marveling at how beautiful it is and why I am glad that I had purchased it. That item that I "had to have", however, was not in that store on that day.
Each store was riddled with no less than two out of the way alcoves or secluded rooms. However, the stores continued on, filling these rooms, hungry for every square foot that was afforded to them. Random sinks and counters were also in these places. Not a single other soul were in these alcoves. There was barely even more than three people in each gallery at a time. In the second gallery, each item was red-tagged, 75% off.
Also in the second gallery was a girl with whom you couldn't tell was a little rounded or completely normal sized. She was sitting at a table in the middle of the gallery, studying a PowerPoint on her silver laptop. She wore a short green wrap, showing her long, tan legs. Her face was the kind that looks like someone else's. She looked up from her studies all of one time that I was in the gallery.
Hidden in the front of the gallery, with it's back to the window, among other pieces and without a price tag was a printed copy of "Desiderata" by Max Ehrmann. Printed on the framed, faded yellow sheet was a statement that it was hung in Old Saint Luke's Church.
I walked through the bookstore one last time before leaving. The still distressed employee had returned from lunch and was talking to a tall boy with curly red hair. As I passed them, he looked at me before the weather enveloped me again.
The weather was beautiful and my mind wandered. How does a place like that stay in business? Who pays for the lease and how can they afford it? On a peak shopping day, the plaza was amazingly empty. Many people walked around by themselves. A couple was found here and there; very, very few families. It made me wonder if someone with benevolence watched over this plaza, and enjoyed its retreat as much as I had.
It was a place that belonged to another place and another time. Before life was too complicated. Before things happened so quickly and there was so much to catch up with. With every year that escapes us, there is another year to remember. People can only remember so much, and world will always push something new onto your soul. Except for the people that loved it, everyone, including the troublemakers, had forgotten about the plaza.
I unlocked the door to my car and looked around. There was not a free parking spot to be found. A shopping mall across the street had embraced the future, with a proud LED marquee advertising its stores. An Olive Garden sat within a stone's throw. Before getting into my car, I looking to the sky, to see the plaza impaled by a high rise building. Quite literally, the modern era had stabbed at the heart of the plaza.
There was once a road-side cafe across the street. It had been demolished before I got to visit it. In its place will be a designer clothing store. I went to the cafe's new location and it was a modern building haunted with the ghost of the old cafe. The employees were obviously human and less than completely attentive. But, the pancakes were real. Robust, almost as good as homemade. I'll never go to IHOP again.