The song remains the same

(Psst. I have an e-mail newsletter. You should totally sign up for it. I might surprise you with stuff you don’t get to see here, or anywhere, for that matter. Okay, on with the story….)

This past week I was sitting in a coffee shop, as I am wont to do—and there’s a phrase that doesn’t get used often enough, “wont to do.” And to be honest, until I just typed it here, I never have bothered to look up the origin of “wont.” As it turns out, it’s of Germanic origin, coming to us through Old English, and means “dwell” or “be accustomed.” You’re welcome.

Where was I? Oh, right. Coffee shop. Because life doesn’t happen until caffeine happens. So there I was, drinking an Americano and trying (but failing) to write, when the song “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” came on. Immediately, I thought of Cathie.

Cathie worked in the office where I had my first summer job, for the Air Force, between senior year of high school and freshman year of undergrad. It was in the Pentagon, which probably sounds cooler than it really was. I drove to work with my dad at the ungodly hour of five thirty in the morning along with two other Marines, scoped out an Adirondack chair in the courtyard, and usually napped until the cafeteria opened and I’d get breakfast. This was in 1987, the building itself was finished in 1943, and in the intervening 44 years things had declined a bit. Most days I had to skirt around parts of hallways that were shrouded in plastic while they removed asbestos. Still, working there was cool. How many high schoolers get to say they worked at the Pentagon, right?

Cathie was the secretary in the office where I worked as a clerk typist over the summer. She was a blonde twenty-something who pretty much took me under her wing and showed me how to work in an office. She gave me responsibilities, let me tackle some things on my own, but was always ready with advice or a hint or the number of who to call when we needed something.

I hadn’t thought about Cathie for years, probably decades, before that song came on in the café, but it all came back to me. I remembered a whole lot more about her and the office and the two summers I spent working there, people I met, mistakes I made, and much more. All of this came back because of a black sundress that Cathie used to wear that showed off her blonde hair and fantastic tan, and because when we had the radio on low in the office and this song came on, we’d turn it up.

This isn’t exactly a writing prompt per se (and I love it when I can use the term per se and be confident I’m using it correctly), but hopefully it’s a reminder to pay attention to these cues in our environment that compel us to draw associations that we might have completely forgotten about. I can see a gardenia and immediately think of a friend from college. I can smell this strange combination of dust and carpet and be in the Sears at Southgate Mall in Yuma, Arizona, looking at Star Wars toys and wishing I could get them all. Or I can hear a song and immediately come up with a character for a new story. The stories are all there if we’re ready to pay attention to them.