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Epiphany in a rummage store

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last in a series. Sidewalks are concrete conveyors that link physical places. Sometimes they connect places in time.

Something planted a seed for Sidewalk Chronicles a long time ago. More immediately, the series came about because outdoors editor Terry Tomalin and I went to Lake Maggiore one November sun-up to count alligators. It turned too windy to canoe, so we went to breakfast at the Chatterbox Grill.

Ever bursting with ideas, Tomalin suggested a series of vignettes. Walk around, he said, to places within a mile or two of the Times at 490 First Ave. S. Find everyday people and spend time with them.

I've been hanging downtown for (gulp) nearly half a century anyway. On an early excursion, perhaps 13 years old, I wandered into a rummage store near the State Theater. Behind the counter was an elfin child about my age with wide, light eyes. For a few seconds, we stared. Smitten, I nearly swooned on the spot. "Hi," I croaked. To the gaping swain, she said the same.

At that instant, a man I took to be her father called. "Eloise!" She scurried off, vanishing into the forest and shrubbery of dinged metal pipes, rusty curtain rods, tattered baby carriages, dress racks.

We never met again, although I came downtown a lot for a few weeks. Slouching past the store, shy, I risked furtive glances from the sidewalk. The front windows carried lettering, something like Richards Second Hand. One day the door was locked, the windows dusty. What, I wondered, was the story?

The quest to find out soon dissolved. Downtown, it turned out, had lots of other pull: Martinelz, a shop full of mystery and magic tricks; shadowy arcades stretching from avenue to alley; fire escapes to climb. One adventure led to another. One day I began writing about them for newspapers. But I never forgot the fleeting encounter in a Central Avenue thrift store.

People shared stories for Sidewalk Chronicles. I couldn't write about everyone. But faces glimpsed vaguely became dimensional humans with beating hearts and brimming souls. During December's reflective days, people handed over pieces of their lives like gifts.

One day I thought of Eloise. Pursuing a half-century's memory based on a half-minute's encounter seemed like a very long shot. Maybe it was all a leftover adolescent daydream. But an obscure entry in an old city directory led to a computer name search in Times archives. Then I made some calls.

In the early 1960s, Lovell Richards had a bargain store at 736 Central. The family lived a few blocks away on Fourth Avenue S. There was a daughter named Eloise. She wed at age 17. Ronald Ferguson said he was married to her for 36 years, 8 months and 21 days. "While she was here, she affected a lot of people's lives," he said. She was a teacher's assistant. She was 4 feet 11, maybe 100 pounds. Friends called her Weeze. She fought cancer and died at her Pinellas Park home in 2001.

A five-story office building and its parking lot make up the Central Avenue block where a row of storefronts once offered entry. The address on Fourth Avenue S is now an apartment building in a neighborhood called University Park.

It is hard to define the chemistry of a chance meeting, or understand the power of memory, or measure a moment's impact. Years ago, a child awakened in another a sense of wonder and mystery, speculation and faith. Whatever happened that day has lasted a lifetime, and oh, how I wanted to say hi.