Chelsea, sometime in the mid-90s. A grey, overcast day in mid-December. Dirty snow mixing with a drizzle of rain. I’m on my lunch hour wandering up 5th avenue looking for a single, solitary xmas present. I’ve long since abdicated all of my holiday shopping duties to my wife who seems born to be the mistress of all things gift related. She starts sometime in the midsummer heat of July with idle musings about matching friends and family with sweaters and video games and Chanel Nº 5. By October we have multiple piles of perfectly gift wrapped boxes spilling out of the limited closet space of our NY apartment. That said, I still have to buy at least one gift of course, that’s the one for her. So today I’m out on the hunt. She’s notoriously tough to shop for and is the first to admit it. There are apparently, extra dimensions visible only to her that determine how well and how much she might like any given gift. After years of marriage, what any of these qualities might be are still completely opaque to me.
I wander into one of those stores that sell things that nobody particularly needs and everyone seems to want. Executive toys. Overpriced radios. Fancy picture frames of impossibly happy families with magnificent teeth. So close to the holiday break, it’s packed with people, mostly like me I guess, picking things up, doing a mental calculation against an internal database of friends and family to see if any item might be a match before moving on. The muzak this year seems shrill and particularly desperate. Some recycled holiday tune is begging the shoppers to buy something; please, something, anything… IT’S THE HOLIDAY.
Quite unexpectedly, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong come on. Ella is as smooth and sweet as a milk shake. Louis’ rasp of a voice, a survivor of every smoke filled club and juke joint he’s ever played in. Like cream and strong black coffee they’re feeding a hunger I didn’t even know I had.
Louis even manages to add syllables where there aren’t any.
He-e-eav-en, I’m in heaven…
All of us shoppers start to move with some singularity of purpose. A rubenesque, older woman in an expensive looking fur takes me by both hands, apparently delighted to have so easily found a willing dance partner.
And the cares that hung around me through the week…
Whatever spell that’s affecting the two of us is metastasizing to everyone in the store. The usual array of angry, sullen and over scheduled New Yorkers, already out late past the end of their lunch hours, start to melt into the arms of total strangers. They waltz and glide across an improvised dance floor, racks full of ominously fragile looking merchandise be damned.
Seem to vanish like a gambler’s lucky streak.
The dirty snow that was blanketing the city now seems crystalline and magically white. Now, we’re just miniature figures in a snow globe. Waltzing, pirouetting to notes spinning from a music box.
When we’re out together dancing to cheek to cheek.
And just like that, the music stops. A new couple comes in from the outside, the open door letting in a blast of arctic air. They stand at the entrance perplexed at the tableau of what looks like a scene from a Noel Coward musical. We all stop, looking a bit guilty and self conscious for no particular reason. My dance partner gives me a wink and wraps her coat around her before moving on.
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