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A Hidden Portal, A Pizza Shop and A Pigeon... // Adventures On the Way to Nowhere

In an effort to shake off the cabin fever and make sure as much of the cost my meal went to the restaurant (and not to an app developer…) I decided to conquer the hot, sweaty, lazy summer Saturday evening and drive 10 minutes to pick up my order from the local pizza shop.

“Hello Faz” is the kind of mom-and-pop joint whose idea of decor is wall full of dusty, sun-bleached photos of celebrities —both global and local — who have stopped by for a slice. In the best way, it reminds me of my favorite pizza and deli haunts in NYC.

When I pulled up and saw a few folks already standing inside the cramped store, I decided to stay in my car and wait for the place to clear out. Windows down, NPR blasting, mouth-watering with excitement at the prospect of spending the evening eating pizza and watching TV, I felt like my 14 year-old self would be both proud and slightly disappointed to see this ghost of her future self.

As the realization that the “new normal” is now becoming just normal, my artistic mission to find the extraordinary in the everyday is being truly being tested. Sitting in that hot car waiting for bio-hazard clearance to pick up a pizza on a Saturday night at the height of the loneliest and most politically tense summer in modern history, it was hard to believe that anything extraordinary was going on — at least in a good way.

The scene was somehow desolate, familiar and uniquely American. Looking out at the cracked asphalt that connected a motley group of strip mall shops, I watched as a lone, masked employee walked a bag of trash to the dumpster. As he lifted the lid high into the air to make way for the large, heavy bag, I suddenly noticed the perfect cerulean blue sky framed between the gap lip of the can and the lid.

Michigan is famous for grey skies and hazy days, but tonight, the sky was the color of a robin’s egg. A few puffy clouds hung in the air — the kind that seem to be playing silent charades; begging you to guess what people, place or thing is hidden in their shape. A line of telephone poles marched off into the distance, a few of the wires ran above the parking lot like a set of string lights that someone had forgotten to add bulbs to. A single grey dove (for my New York readers, that’s what we call pigeons here in Michigan) sat on one of the lines looking skyward. Perhaps he was guessing that the thin strip of cloud above him was a worm. After a while, another smaller bird joined him on the wire below.

I questioned if I should add yet another drawing of a bird on a wire to the universal collection, but the store was still full of people, so I reached for my sketchbook which was sitting in my purse on the passenger seat.

As I drew, I had no choice but to find the beauty — or at least the poetry — of this scene. No choice but to stare up at the bright blue sky, to contemplate the ingenuity and invention that built those telephone poles, to wonder how far they stretched, to consider the way the light, now softening as it dipped into early evening, illuminated the body of this simple grey dove, revealing a pearlescent sheen of soft peaches and pinks hidden in its plain grey feathers.

For a moment, I tuned into the scene like a song on the radio: if I didn’t stop to listen I’d never know it had ever played at all.

By the time I finished my drawing, I felt that familiar rush of elation that comes from fully dialing in to the moment. Drawing from life is like finding a portal to a faraway land of zen that can only be accessed by diving deeper into the mundane world of "now." It’s a bit like finding a magical doorway to Narnia hidden at the back of wardrobe in a forgotten bedroom.

My reverie was broken by the sound of crunching gravel as the car next to me pulled away, taking with it much of the crowd which had been waiting in the store.

I was clear to go inside and claim my pizza.

I tossed my sketchbook back into the passenger’s seat and headed into the shop. An electronic ding announced my presence and a tall, thin girl appeared from behind the counter. She asked my name and set about packing up my order.

As someone whose entire life has been changed by the practice of drawing strangers, to say that I have been starved for faces I don’t already know would be an understatement. I stood there kicking myself for having left my sketchbook in the car and began tracing the lines of her face in my mind instead. I realize that this sounds strange, and perhaps even a little creepy, but this kind of observation is like a prayer.

Have you ever really noticed a stranger? It’s a fascinating and affirming process to consider the existence of another person. In a time when we are more isolated and divided than ever, the act of seeing someone — and considering them — feels especially sacred.

The girl placed the pizza box on the counter and stepped away for a moment to tabulate my bill. The shop is so old-school that this process involves a calculator and consultation with sheets of paper which calculate the tax for each item on the menu. I watched her as she tapped on the keys and scribbled a few numbers down. I guessed that she was a rising senior working what should have been a boring summer job before her last year of high school. I wondered if she was a dancer because of the way she naturally stood in fourth position and wore her hair in a high puffy bun. A length of silky leopard print fabric wrapped around her head, belying the meekness suggested by her plain black mask.

As I contemplated her, I noticed the empty white space on the pizza box and the cup of ballpoint pens sitting on the counter. In the ten seconds it took her to swipe my credit card, I jotted down this little memory on the lid of the pizza box.

I was too shy to share it with her. I was barely wearing what could be defined as “outdoor clothes” and even if someone thought they weren’t my pajamas, they could probably detect that these were the same shirt and pants I had lived in for the last few days. Instead, I left a generous tip on my order, walked out and tossed the pizza box on the passenger’s seat next to my sketchbook.

I rolled down the windows and scanned the radio for a good song to listen to on the ride home. As I watched the strip mall disappear in the rearview, I wondered if anyone else had discovered the magical portal hidden inside of it. A place where extraordinary works of art reside, but only for those who are willing to tune in.


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