When my favorite job came to an abrupt end due to the store closing, I followed my manager and friend to a new place in the arts district of Kansas City. Though only twenty minutes away, I had never been to this part of town and when I went for the interview it felt a wee bit like my working days in Chicago (minus a big lake). A deal was struck and I accepted the job.
The area was known for its funky, bohemian vibe for artists of all types. Somewhat neglected for years, it was experiencing a revival of sorts with lots of interest in that part of town and the old buildings. The store was located on the street level of a unit that had many condos and lofts right above us. Our space had previously been a home goods shop and the owner of the company I would work for would spend months putting her funky stamp on it to sell women's clothing. Massive windows lined the street side which turned out to be a good thing. Though the area was well-known for many things, it was not a shopping destination and hours would go by without a single customer. Watching the comings and goings out the window helped with what at times was overwhelming boredom.
After a few months of us arriving a new tenant moved into the building. He was from Kansas City but had lived in New York for many years. He decided to move back to be closer to his family - particularly his father who was getting on in years.
We got to know him well. He didn't know where his mailbox was. He seemed to always miss the UPS man who would drop his packages off with us. He couldn't figure out where to park or how the movers should go about getting down the crowded one-way street.. The first few weeks of his new life seemed to be in constant confusion and he would pop in the store for help on a daily basis.
Nobody minded helping him at all. He was gorgeous. Fiftyish, silver haired, lean and blue-eyed, he walked up and down the sidewalk in the sweltering heat of August in his cargo shorts, tshirt and flip flops without so much as a drop of sweat. If you didn't know better you'd think he walked off an ad for Ralph Lauren and his horse was tied up around the corner.
He was always grateful for the advice and help but never lingered. He went about his day with a purpose and many a time I could see him out the window going to his yoga class with his mat tucked under his arm. I would find out later from some customers that he was an artist. When I waited on them they kept talking about the art classes they were taking every week from Robert.
"Our Robert," I asked. "The Robert around the corner?"
"That's the one," they said. "And isn't he gorgeous?" We all laughed and I would find out from them that he also taught ballroom dancing in that loft of his and occasionally hosted art shows.
Our Robert was a true renaissance man.
One day Robert came in to ask me something, turned to leave and came back and said, "I think you have a real unique look with your hair and eyes. Would you mind if I took some photos of you?" If Our Cute Robert made my heart flutter when he asked if the UPS man had delivered anything, imagine what it did when he asked to photograph me.
"Sure," I said like this was a common request and something that would never come to fruition. Little did I know that he'd appear ten minutes later with a camera.
"Just act normal, pretend I'm not here and I'll take the pictures." How does one act normal when they have a camera a few inches from their face? How does one do that when this sort of thing has never happened to them before? I did my best which means I tried extra hard not to be a dork.
"I'm not sure yet what I'm going to do with these yet but I'll let you know," he said as he left the store.
A few weeks later I left that job for something closer to the house and so the photos Robert took of me slipped my mind. Occasionally I would stop in the store to see my old work friends but I never stayed long enough to catch up on everything in the neighborhood.
It was more than a year later that I recalled the photos and so the next time I was in the store I asked about Robert. "He's still in the building isn't he? Does he pop in once in awhile?"
"Oh," my friend and manager said. "You wouldn't have known. Robert died a few months ago."
"Robert? Robert died?"
"Yes. We hadn't seen him in awhile and then this woman came in and introduced herself. She was his sister. He got pancreatic cancer and she took care of him until the end. It all seemed so fast. It was as if he was here one day and fine and then gone the next."
"Oh. Oh. I wasn't expecting you to say that. I can't believe that. Our perfectly good-looking and talented Robert? That doesn't seem possible." But it was true. The silver-haired art teacher who was oblivious to the fan club all around him had moved on. So had the customer that day who told me she was in his art class.
I left quickly after that. I had to process this news I heard about Robert - as if sitting in my car in disbelief would make the outcome any different.
Once in awhile I wonder about the photos he took of me that day and if he waved his magic artist wand over them and made them into something special. I'd like to think so but mostly I wonder what it would have been like to have him twirl you around that loft on 18th St.