I could smell the Spice House from half a block down Wells Street; even the wood of the huge, old doors is infused with scents of curry and cinnamon and black pepper. I was the collateral damage as a wave of warm, heady fragrance rushed toward the cold outdoor air as I walked inside.In my shin-length North Face, I was channeling the Michelin man and barely had room to shimmy around the rickety old displays, spice mixing tables and stumbling spice-drunk patrons as I looked for the gift boxes I'd come for. I found the boxes, one for my mom and one for my dad, and a couple of other things, including a jar of peppercorns and a bag of cocoa mix for myself. The man at the register told me he favored a 4:1 gift-giving ratio — one treat for yourself for every gift purchased — to cut down on buyer's remorse.
The little boy behind me in line told his mom they should just steal their spices so they wouldn't have to wait in line. I turned around to waggle an eyebrow at him, and complimented his plaid hat with fur-lined earflaps. You'll shoot your eye out, kid.
Four-to-One likened himself to a Christmas elf, stuck in Santa's workshop while everyone else bustled around buying their gifts. But he didn't seem to mind. Huddled behind the counter with the other employees — they had three registers going, and the line was still halfway to the door — he had a little red sound-effect machine that he used like Jim Cramer on Mad Money. He pressed the little "cha-ching" button when I handed over my credit card, and he followed a co-worker to the stock room, pressing the fart button repeatedly.
I didn't want to leave, go out alone into the cold again. Inside that cozy oven of a shop, we were all baking together like little Christmas snickerdoodles. My iPhone's battery was dying, and I knew I'd lose my Christmas soundtrack before too long. As expected, the phone kicked the bucket — just as I stepped into the Southern, a comfort-food restaurant back near my apartment. I hadn't eaten all morning, nor had I eaten a real meal all weekend. So I ordered chicken and a biscuit — a buttermilk-fried breast with a homemade biscuit, swimming in a thick, rich brown gravy with tasso ham and rosemary — and sipped coffee and orange juice as I finished writing my holiday cards.
Everyone else at the restaurant was brunching with friends, celebrating the holidays with mimosas and shrimp and grits, exchanging Christmas gifts. No one seemed serious, or stressed out, or even hung over. Just bright eyes, hearty laughter and full bellies as they got up to leave.
I wasn't envious; I wasn't lonely. I'd spent my weekend outside my comfort zone, with cocktails and conversation and unexpected new friends I hope to see again.
And as I paid my check, I watched a little girl discover her reflection.
She'd been nestled in a booster seat in the corner booth, and her family bundled her up in a pink hat and boots, and a houndstooth coat with a ruffled bottom. While her mother fussed with her own coat and the mess of bags she'd brought in with her, the little girl wandered over to a tall mirror leaned up against the wall. She furtively glanced around, looked closely at the other little girl in the mirror then put her hand up to the mirror. She admired the pretty little girl in the black and white coat and pink winter hat, pondering her good taste. Then she spotted me. She watched me in the mirror, and I waved at her reflection. She smiled her gap-toothed, jack-o'-lantern smile and patted the mirror to say hello back.
All packed and ready to go, her mother joined her, showed her how to dance along to the bluegrass music gently keeping time with the muted football game. They were still exploring the mirror world as I gathered my own things and made my way to the door and home to my little apartment.
As she discovered her reflection, I discovered that my Christmas spirit hasn't gone away; it's just been in hiding. My busted tree and the same old holiday tunes couldn't bring it out this year. It needed a little coaxing: warm, rich scents, the kindness of strangers, fried chicken, and a toddler getting a new perspective of her own.