It’s Donation Drive time again! If you have ever considered donating, this is the time to do it (donate here; you can make a one-time donation or click the little box to make a recurring monthly donation). So far, we’ve raised $1010 — over 20% to the goal! Thank you so much. Your donations help cover some of the costs of running this site, including a small editorial budget to pay guest writers for their contributions, like the following essay, written by guest writer, Matthew Van Colton. As he prepares to leave Chicago, his home for the last 17 years, he realizes that even the relationships with the more minor characters of our everyday lives — the doorman in our building and the barista at our favorite coffee shop and the guy selling newspapers on our block every morning–can be meaningful and will be missed when their place in our landscape shifts or closes.
Growing up in rural Missouri, my landscape was trees, cattle, horses, fences and fields. The daily, sometimes barely perceptible shifts in horizon, driven by the season or by the market, provided mystery and tested my powers of observation: those Oak trees never lost their leaves; the shiny corn is ready for detasselling. Sometimes the scenery offered more esoteric lessons: Where did the cows on the big hill go?
Living in a city, my landscape has become people. Well, strangers, actually.
There’s the trainer at the gym, who, though otherwise gruff, smiles at me. He notices me doing crunches — my face tense and sweaty–and glances my way for what is always a moment too long as he absentmindedly teaches an elderly woman to use the lateral pull-down machine. At first I thought he was gay (he often wears a light green Aqua Man t-shirt), but about six months ago he showed up with one of those very hetero, shiny gold wedding rings on his left hand. So, who knows? Maybe I’m the guy he allows himself to look at, to consider. I’ve never spoken to him. I like creating the story for myself — the comfort in the unknown.
I remember an old roommate telling me about a homeless woman — Mary they called her — who occupied a spot outside her office. Whenever she walked by, Mary would shout: “You fucking whore!” Initially, this terrorized my friend, of course, but then we laughed about it and eventually she came to expect Mary as part of her environment. One day she came home, deeply concerned; Mary was missing. We pondered her fate; had she been arrested, forced to relocate, something worse? Several weeks later, a co-worker had finally spotted Mary a few blocks away, shouting obscenities at a brand new person, now a player in their daily drama.
Occasionally, as we shift views, apartments, lovers, and jobs, we’re treated to those strangers we get to observe up close, their brushstrokes visible, but still up to the interpretation of the beholder.
I don’t recall when I first noticed Ruth; she’s been at the coffee shop down the street as long as I can remember, either its owner or manager. She is perhaps a child of the late fifties, but not fully convinced it is time to age; her Jackson Pollack-spattered bifocal readers are always perched atop her head, ready for their intended use but devoted to the more utilitarian effort of keeping her curls at bay. Even on quiet days, she is a woman of movement, wiping down the counters with a pungent vinegar solution or yelling at a vendor on the phone.
The first time I saw her really smile was when I paid her a compliment. I’d been something of a regular for the better part of six months. She had colored her hair a shade between salmon and fire, more Strawberry Shortcake than Christina Hendricks (perhaps her inspiration), and one couldn’t not notice. Ruth was glowing nonetheless, and I couldn’t help but tell her it looked nice. She beamed, and our tacit alliance was formed.
Our exchanges have been mundane, polite, mostly meaningless: “This blend is from Costa Rica.” “Are you closed on Easter?” She doesn’t know what I do for a living or if I have a brother or whether I hate snakes. I don’t know if she worships a god or if she grows ferns or if she’s ever been to Spain.
And yet we are conspirators, allies. She knows my first name and my order — a small with room for skim milk. We share a smirk when the woman with the yippy dog comes in. I know she gets to the coffee shop at six most mornings and that she has a tattoo on her left wrist. With a nod, she is the guardian of my laptop when I use the restroom and she notices that I put a $5 bill in the tip jar every other time (my penance for lingering and rarely ordering anything).
As I packed up my things yesterday, I realized it might be the last time I would be in that coffee shop: I’m leaving this city, changing my perspective again. I looked at Ruth, busy rearranging the collection of shitty ceramic mugs-for-sale that never sell. Here was a woman I saw more often than many friends — a person who, in the last three years, I’d spent more time around than my family. It felt like betrayal to depart without saying something, a callous thief or a lover escaping in the middle of the night leaving a heart behind to wonder.
“Hey Ruth, I’m leaving.” She stared at me blankly. “Chicago, I mean. I’m headed to New York at the end of the week.”
For a moment, she didn’t say anything. Then in an instant she had come around the counter and was standing in front of me. “Oh my goodness, that is so exciting!” her voice sounded heartier, different, as if her usual words (“Room for cream?” “Will that be it for you?”) were part of some rudimentary programming and this language was another, more intimate one, reserved for friends.
“New York! Do you know I’ve never been?” In fact, I didn’t know this, along with her surname, place of birth, or ten thousand other details. But we stood and talked and shared a bit of ourselves, nonetheless; two strangers becoming less strange, less abstract, more human.
A customer came in, my cue to leave. I saddled my backpack upon my shoulder. Ruth neared me and, to my surprise, took me in her arms, enveloping me in a forceful, warm hug. I gave over to it, engulfed in her taller frame. I breathed in — she smelled like sweet clover — and I was momentarily awash in the scent memory of my youth, of the country. She pulled away and I dabbed at my cheeks, the unexpected bit of intimacy extracting my breath. Her eyes were wet too.
“You take care of yourself.” She said, her best Bacall to my Bogart. I nodded and she turned back to the counter and the customer waiting. It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that I had been a part of her view, and that it would be changing along with mine.
It is the toughest, but most exciting, part about leaving one setting to go to another — less of the familiar, more of the puzzle, with a whole new set of strangers and questions, mysteries and stories. On the other side: a whole new landscape to be discovered, and relationships — however minor or fleeting — to be made.
If you enjoyed this essay and want to see more like it, please consider donating to DW to help continue paying guest writers for their contributions.
Matthew Van Colton is a New York and Chicago-based writer & performer. He loves the smell of pine trees, he’ll never turn down peanut butter with chocolate, and he thinks the idea of having his very own stalker is both romantic and flattering. More at www.matthewvancolton.com.
ktfran September 23, 2014, 12:29 pm
I think I know who you’re talking about, in regard to Mary. Or, there’s a very similar women that sat on Jackson close to Union Station in Chicago, If you’re, in fact, talking about Chicago.
RedroverRedrover September 23, 2014, 12:39 pm
Beautiful, thank you!
Lianne September 23, 2014, 12:49 pm
Really loved this. We rarely think about others’ perspectives with regard to how we fit into their lives. I think it speaks to the egocentric nature in all of us. But now I am definitely thinking back on past “backdrops” of my life and the various people who were part of them, although we never spoke, and I wonder if they wondered what happened to me, even though I may not have given them another thought. So interesting to think on – thank you for this perspective!
Addie Pray September 23, 2014, 12:53 pm
I enjoyed this essay a lot. Really well written and making me think about the unimportant yet important people that fill my life, if that makes sense.
peppers87 September 23, 2014, 1:24 pm
Wow this made me tear up in a weird way. My favorite guest essay-writer is you, Matthew!
ktfran September 23, 2014, 1:47 pm
Yeah, I had tears as well. This is something I think about quite a bit. I have several “Ruths” and others sitting on the peripheral. I’ve lived in the same apartment for just over six years now and when I think about moving, I do get sad to think they’ll no longer be in my life.
I have my dry cleaner. I cool asian dude who always ask about my family and my dad’s fishing. Last time I dropped some clothes off, he was outside smoking. He was getting ready to stop and go in the shop for me, and I told him don’t worry, I would just leave the stuff on the counter. I love that kind of familiarity.
There was Manny, who worked at the soup/sub shop down the street. We always exchanged pleasantries, and he always had a kind thing to say, even when I’ve been at my worst. Like, when I had the flu and stopped by for some homemade chicken noodle soup. I picked up several containers, they ended up being free. One day I stopped by and he was gone. I frequent that sub shop a little less now. It’s just not the same.
There’s the cute guy on the bus. I’m always happy when I see him. One evening, I saw him at a brewpub. I’m not sure if there was a flicker of recognition, but I hope there was.
There’s the bus driver, who will wait at a light for me if I’m running behind. He doesn’t have to do that, but I greatly appreciate it. I always say good morning when I get on and thank you/have a nice day when I leave.
IDK, there are so many people that I don’t really know, but do make my days a little better. I hope I have the same impact on others. It just feels nice.
AllegroFox September 23, 2014, 7:25 pm
I feel the same way about the security folks at my last condo – we’ve been moved out since January, and I still wonder how they’re doing…the one guy from Trinidad whose accent always reminded me of my carribean great-aunts and uncles, and the lady who always remembered our friends and sent them up, and set our packages aside. Just before we left actually, we heard that she’d been having trouble with her visa (she was actually a political refugee) and was worried about having the money to hire an immigration lawyer. We were able to give her a little cash gift toward it, and when we gave it to her she hugged us and cried. We’d lived there for three years and she’d done so much for us, we felt it was the least we could do as we were leaving. We did eventually hear that she was able to raise the money, but we don’t know what happened beyond that…and yet I’ve never thought to go back and see how she’s doing. Maybe soon 🙂
jlyfsh September 23, 2014, 1:29 pm
Loved your essay. There are a number of background people I often wonder about. I think about where they might be or what they’re doing now. Or if they think about me. If the places we interacted together look the same or how the place has changed.
mylaray September 23, 2014, 1:48 pm
This is one of my favorite essays. I’ve been going through this recently, but I only moved to another part of the city. But it’s still weird not seeing the security in my old building, the people that knew me at the local grocery store. And then after getting a new car, I no longer go to the same repair shop, and it’s all these little things that add up and I wonder what has happened to some of these people. Sometimes I still feel like stopping by.
othy September 23, 2014, 4:30 pm
I call these people familiar strangers. I see them on a regular basis, but I couldn’t tell you anything about them. Maybe their name, but not often. The girl who checks me in at the gym (who I swear is judging me silently when I come in after a break, even though I know I was working out outside, or was sick). The waitress and waiter at the Indian restaurant who are always so nice to us, remember our orders, and were pleasantly surprised when we came in with friends of ours who were also regulars (I believe her exact words were “You guys are friends? Of course you are!”).
One of my favorite stories of a familiar stranger happened to my friend. When he lived in town, he had a coffee shop that he went to every day, and always got the same thing. He moved out of state, and came back to visit about 6 months later. He went back to the coffee shop, and the girl at the bar asked him “The regular?” without missing a beat..
Jennylou September 23, 2014, 5:27 pm
This essay was awesome. It totally brought back a similar moment for me. The week before I moved overseas, I went to my favourite coffee shop every day, hoping to catch the barista I’d been chatting with day after day for four years. She wasn’t there and I wasn’t able to say goodbye. I ran into her when I came back 9 months later and was overjoyed! She remembered me too and it was just lovely. I work in that building again but I don’t go to the coffee shop often – it just isn’t the same without her. I like Othy’s term – familiar strangers sounds just about perfect!
bittergaymark September 24, 2014, 7:24 pm
Increasingly, I feel like my time in LA could be drawing to a close and I feel very odd about it. So this piece resonated with me. Though I, for one, WISH all of my neighborhood’s homeless would up and disappear. I don’t know what the fuck happened, but Los Feliz is crawling with human garbage to the point where it is gross to walk around and not at all safe.
MsMisery September 25, 2014, 12:48 pm
Aw… this was nice. I, too, may be leaving Chicagoland in the near-ish future. But there are Chicagoans everywhere, I find.