I was walking through the village Saturday night. Part of my stroll took me across the newly completed bridge that binds together the two halves of Winnetka. It was early in the evening and the weather was almost British. Fog clung to the wet surface of the streets as an ambient drizzle gathered out of the cool night air. I was alone on the sidewalk. The only noise was the tread of an occasional car as it made a sound that resembled the tearing of paper. My view was directed south by the axis of track leading toward the city of Chicago. At the distance of a short city block stood the train station perched in darkness on the edge of the ravine, while below the tracks were illuminated in the amber glow of vapor lamps. On the weekends the train schedule is much reduced so the station stood there just as empty and quiet as the tracks below.
It was a beautiful scene. It suggested more than emptiness―perhaps something like solitude. As I leaned on the railing I imagined that spot as I had seen it so many times before, with a crowd of commuters bustling through the station on their way to the train. Too busy for breakfast they scurry down the stairs holding briefcases and paper cups with little points of bakery paper sticking out of Burberry coats. The whole scene takes on the appearance of an hourglass. A crowd routinely gathers at the station above and then gradually filters through the narrow stairway landing on the platform below. I saw that same vista now utterly vacant in the way that only a place usually crowded can be. The fog, the cool mist and all that emptiness consumed my thoughts for a moment. I set my camera on a tripod, took a picture, and then wondered, “What could be so wonderful about being perfectly alone?”
Eventually I turned and looked toward the far end of the bridge. There on the corner to the east was a bright patch of light at an intersection of closed shops. The Café Pacifico looked like a painting from the canvas of Edward Hopper. It was a pool of light arguing with the darkness. Within you could see people elegantly dressed and partying, completely oblivious to a town closed for the evening. Curiosity caused me to complete the arc of the bridge and as I approached the café I quickly realized what was going on inside. Originally just a nice coffee shop, the café had undergone a remodeling and was now reopening as an upscale restaurant―complete with an elaborate bar and works of art to decorate the walls. This was their grand opening and they were hosting a chic soiree to celebrate the event.
As I peered in I saw my good friend Gloria Connan. She is a blond, slender woman of about sixty who has lived a splendid life. Once a model, she married a Frenchman and lived in Paris for decades. Ultimately she divorced, moved back to Illinois, and became an artist of some renown. A sculpture of her own creation was paid for by our State Department and now graces a prominent square in downtown Tokyo. Gloria divides her time between Winnetka and Paris, but when she is here she includes me in her circle of friendship. To say the very least she is an expansive personality who is not easily forgotten.
Though I was a bit underdressed in a pair of khaki pants and a damp leather jacket I decided to step in and say hello. My game plan was to be both brief and discreet, but to quote Yogi Berra, “I forgot to remember.” Being greeted by Gloria is never a subtle event. As I walked in the door she was at the far end of the restaurant holding court near the fireplace. A throng of people surrounded Gloria and a quick inspection of the walls informed me she was here as more than a guest. The artwork was mostly her own, and the event was equally a grand opening and a showing of her oils. From across the restaurant she called out, “Bonjour Georges!” and most of the guests turned expecting to see someone of Gallic demeanor―perhaps Parisian, but certainly someone of sophistication and refinement. Instead they saw me, standing there cold and wet holding my camera in one hand.
I smiled weakly and made some gesture hoping to conclude my status as the center of attention. But Gloria would have none of it. In her best imitation of Carol Channing she glided across the room in my direction. Finally arriving at her undistinguished destination she extended her arms in either direction. I could not help but notice our remarkable symmetry; in her hand she carried a flute of Champagne, while in mine was a point and shoot camera. Like a swan on the ascent she turned her neck and offered a cheek in greeting. Moving forward I applied myself to the front of her evening dress like a damp sponge and gave her a kiss. It would be nice to think that I had now suffered my fair share of humility. But such was not the case. Moving back for a brief instant she resumed her flight in my direction and offered a second cheek.
Once the second kiss had been applied Gloria spun around and draped one arm around my shoulders. With a grand gesture she raised her glass in the manner of a toast and said, “Let me introduce George Pence the writer.” I stood there aghast looking out on this immense void of blank faces. Slowly each expression became more quizzical than the last as everyone tried to recollect my name from the New York Times Best Seller List. Unable to bear the consequence of so much confusion my gaze drifted above the entire assembly and in the direction of a large window. Through the glass I could see the very bridge I had left just a few moments before. It occurred to me that in the midst of this quandary my own primal question had finally been answered. For the rest of my life I would never inquire, “What could be so wonderful about being perfectly alone?”