[A letter to someone who made me a better writer...and introduced me to the best version of myself.]
There is a place in Chicago, high above the streets I can tell you about. I’ve only been there once.
There is a place in Chicago, high above the streets I can tell you about. I won’t tell you the name, because it’s not important. But it’s there, believe me. High above the hustle and bustle of a street named after a state, some of the most world’s most talented musicians have met their destiny.
It is more treasure chest than shop. A landing pad where string instruments arrive like long-awaited foreign dignitaries with names like Francois and Annalinda. Some of them are named after artists or constellations, others named after lovers lost between the pages of the world’s greatest unwritten love stories. Each one has a history. Many of them, if not most, are centuries old. One sat in the corner, listening to gossip at Marie Antoinette’s ball. One recalls the first breath of fresh air after years passed hiding in Amsterdam. One of the youngest is rumored to have a distant cousin that continued playing as the ship went down that night.
When you meet the dignitaries your instinct is to hush. You want to believe they will whisper their stories if you can be quiet enough.
The dignitaries do not know how to whisper, but if you are lucky they will sing for you.
There is a sadness to the dignitaries. They have lost – and survived – everyone they ever loved and every hand that ever loved them. They have lived a series of lives, a constant reincarnation marked by the passing of time and a ticking clock. Dutifully, they have sung again and again under aging hands, having lost as soon as they are found. They serve faithfully. They endure knowing others cannot. The dignitaries mourn. You can hear it if you listen. Like putting a seashell to your ear. Every last breath, final farewell and swan song captured in the grooves and swirls of their scrolls.
There are families that bring small children to meet the dignitaries. And though the children do not know it, their families have also brought them to meet their destiny. The children politely bow and greet the dignitaries. One by one, down the line, they raise their tiny fingers and tiny hands until they stand before the one singing in their native tongue. And in a split second, a path is cleared through the brush and a golden light momentarily shines brighter through the 48,000 crystals hanging from the ceiling of a sacred hall in New York City.
There is a place in Chicago, high above the streets I can tell you about. You would never find it were you not looking. It’s through a door with a brass handle and across a marble floor to an ancient elevator, the kind you see in old movies. A black man with kind eyes will help you now. He’ll pull aside a brass gate and ask which floor you’re headed to. Going up. Tell him the 6th floor or maybe the 8th. It could have even been the 9th, I can’t quite recall. Then down a short hallway, take a right to the long corridor. If you hit the water fountain you’ve gone too far. Now is the time to stop, look and listen.
To your right you will see a series of leaded glass windows. Some will be propped open. Step toward them, take a deep breath and see - really see. In the middle of this building in the middle of concrete, nine stories below there is a garden thriving in a city. Almost nobody knows. But now you do.
Take a seat on the old wooden bench worn from years of visitors coming and going and close your eyes. Somewhere in the distance the click of a woman’s high heeled shoes on the worn tile floor coming nearer, then further away from you. The gentle jostling of an ancient glass doorknob turning – just a little bit rickety.
It’s quiet now and you are aware of the sound of your breathing and heartbeating high above a city that does not know of courtyard gardens or dignitaries or of your existence. Nor does it care.
At the end of the hall there is an arched doorway. You can see it from where you sit. A single, short step leads up to an arched doorway and an old wooden door. Light escapes through a crack between the floor and the base of the door. Beyond the door you hear voices, muffled but jovial. Then the click of a door beyond the door.
And then the singing begins.
You are hearing a familiar song as though it were the first time. Every memory rushes back to you. Discovering toes. The comfort of being tucked into bed as a child. The infinite weightlessness soaring through the air on a tire swing. The touch of your grandfather’s hand patting your back. The smell of July at 10:30 p.m. The feel of a paintbrush in your hand. The taste of vanilla ice cream and South Carolina peaches. The exquisite sensation of slipping beneath the surface of the water in a swimming pool. The exact moment a ride on a bike with no training wheels finally makes sense. The electricity of the first kiss. The rebellion of the first beer. The people you know and knew are laughing and smiling and waving as they go sailing by on a brilliantly colored carousel. Every dream, every hope, every wish is coming back to you now. Each one a lady bug landing gently. Feel the flicker and tickle of their wings on your skin.
Open your eyes.
Turn away from the arched doorway. Walk down the long corridor. Take your time. Turn left down the short hallway. You’ll find the elevator and your friend waiting to return you to the lobby from the 6th or the 8th or the 9th floor. He’s quieter this time.
When the elevator stops and the doors open, step out and cross the marble floor. Relish the feeling of a cool brass handle in the palm of your hand.
Pull open the door and step outside. Let the sunlight envelope you as you squint upward seeing only white light.
To your left, a yellow taxi paused at stoplight. A child passing through the crosswalk leading a yellow balloon.
High above a bow is lifted from strings.
And a familiar life begins again on the sidewalks of Chicago.