As a young social person in Chicago who’d heard many firsthand accounts of other young social people in the city meeting R. Kelly, I’d always hoped it was in the cards for me too. Considering the R&B icon and Chicago native isn’t afraid of a party, I assumed that I might bump (n’ grind) into him at some after-hours thing at a club or maybe at the Rock N Roll McDonald’s on Ohio & Ontario where my friend Molly randomly met him once at 3 in the morning. Never did I imagine he would move into the recording studio down the hall from my office. Or ask me on a date.
My coworker Tristan came rushing into the office one morning. “I’m pretty sure there’s a homeless guy in the bathroom,” he said in a panic.
“Oh, god.” Not again. Prior to our structural engineering firm moving into our new building, we were one of the last tenants in our old building before it was torn down. We’d occasionally run into various riffraff looking for loot in the vacant suites — my wallet was stolen once, and Tristan found a homeless guy in the bathroom. What were the odds?
“Are you sure he’s homeless?” I asked him.
“I think so,” Tristan told me. “He doesn’t have any shoes on. He’s only wearing socks, and there’s a ratty gym bag outside of the stall. And he’s, like, singing to himself.”
“Ugh, OK. I’ll call Mitch.” As the office manager, it was my job to take care of such things. I called the maintenance guy, who said he’d be up right away to handle it.
Five minutes later, a group of three men were storming through the double doors in front of the reception desk where I sat. One of those men was R. Kelly.
“HOLY SHIT! HOLY SHIT! HOLY SHIT! HOLY SHIT!” is what I was screaming in my head. But on the outside, I played it cool. R. had just moved into the recording studio down the hall from our office. Tristan recently saw him in the lobby, so I knew my own encounter with Kellz was imminent. Finally, it was happening.
R. Kelly rested his arm on my desk and leaned in close to my face. “Do we have a problem here?” he asked.
Oh no. That was not the pick-up line I was expecting. Also, I had no idea what he was talking about.
“What do you mean?” I managed to reply, stunned.
“In the bathroom,” R. said. “Do we have a problem in the bathroom?”
Oh, shiiiiit: Tristan totally confused R. Kelly for a homeless person. And now it was my job to explain what happened to R. Kelly without actually telling him what happened (that Tristan thought he was homeless). Where was Celine Dion? Because I needed an angel.
“Oh, yeah. Uhhhh, my coworker said there was…suspicious activity going on in the bathroom —” Pro tip: Do not use the phrase “suspicious activity” around R. Kelly. He is not a fan.
“Suspicious activity? What kind of suspicious activity did he say was going on in there?” R. asked.
I was getting red and splotchy, a thing that happens any time I’m nervous or excited or being accosted by R. Kelly. “Well, he said the person didn’t have shoes on… They were wearing socks —”
R. Kelly hoisted his shoeless foot onto my desk, pointed to it and asked, “You mean these socks? Since when is wearing socks in public illegal?” This is when I noticed that R. Kelly was not only wearing socks, but also silk pajamas and a robe…as one is wont to do in a professional office building at 10:30 a.m. on a Wednesday.
This was not going well at all. I was so nervous, and R. Kelly was so mad. Instead of him yelling at me, I imagined my first chance meeting with Kellz going much smoother: I would see him running for the elevator, and I’d stick my hand out to hold the doors for him. He’d get on and nod his head thanks. The air would be thick with sexual tension as the silent car descended to the lobby. We’d pass each floor… 7… 6… 5… 4… Right before the doors opened, I would make my move. “Just to let you know,” I’d say with a subtle arch of the brow, “‘Ignition (Remix)’ was my ringtone all of freshman year.” Kellz would turn his head, wink, blow me a kiss, and vanish into a cloud of Cognac-scented smoke. The “I’m a Flirt” remix would play as the credits rolled.
“It’s not illegal,” I reassured R. Kelly about his socks. “And I’m sorry for the inconvenience, but you have to understand it’s my job.” I had no idea where these words were coming from. “If my coworker says there’s a problem in the bathroom, I have to do something.” Rules are rules, R. Kelly.
“OK, and I respect that. I understand that,” R. said as he started to calm down. “But you need to understand that what that man did to me — what that man did to me — was illegal! That is an invasion of privacy!”
“I have 10 lawyers!” Kellz declared. “One for every situation!”
Obviously. In 2002, a video surfaced that allegedly showed R. Kelly having sex with (and urinating on) an underage girl. He was indicted and later arrested, but in 2004, the charges were dropped. It’s the thing people might remember most about R. Kelly. That, and all 33 genius chapters of his hip-hop oeuvre “Trapped in the Closet.”
“What that man did to me was illegal!” R. repeated.
“Again, I’m sorry. I’m sorry this was a misunderstanding, but Mitch was just doing his job,” I told him.
“Oh yeah, who’s Mitch?” R. demanded.
“He’s the maintenance guy.”
“The maintenance guy? Mitch? Is he who walked in on me? OK, Mitch. Let’s get Mitch up here.” R. Kelly does not like the name Mitch.
I called Mitch while R. and his two friends watched every word of my conversation. My antiperspirant was waving the white flag.
“Hi, Mitch, it’s Nicole on the eighth floor. Yeah, hi, listen. So, the…tenant down the hall has an issue with…the bathroom situation. Would you mind coming up here?” Mitch hesitantly agreed and I hung up the phone. I looked at R. Kelly in the eyes and he looked back at me. He softened.
“By the way,” he said. “My name is Robert.”
“I know who you are,” I blurted out. R. smiled.
“These guys are Shorty and Joe,” he said, pointing back to Shorty and Joe. They waved.
While Mitch made his way up to our office, R. Kelly took a seat on the bench next to my desk as Shorty and Joe saw themselves out. R. crossed his legs, put his arms over the back of the bench and took a long look around the office. He noticed the full-scale model of a building next to the conference room. He admired the professional photos of finished projects displayed around the reception area. He glanced at the name on our door — [Redacted] Structural Engineers — and then back at me. “So…” R. said. “What do y’all do here?”
“Uhh…structural engineering?” Hey, he wrote “I Believe I Can Fly”; he doesn’t need to know what structural engineering is.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get more uncomfortable, Mitch walked in. R. Kelly shot up, crossed his arms, and began his line of questioning.
“Are you Mitch?”
“My name is R. Kelly,” R. Kelly said. “Robert. I’m Robert, and what you did to me, sir? That is illegal! Do you understand that?”
Mitch is a Polish immigrant in his sixties who, I’m fairly certain, has never heard of R. Kelly. He was confused. He glanced at me while R. demanded answers, and all I could offer him was a weak shrug. I knew what it felt like to be yelled at by R. Kelly, and it’s not fun.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. Tristan was behind me. He bent down next to my chair and whispered, “Ohmigod, is this about the bathroom?”
“Yes, you fucking idiot!”
“Ohmigod, should I say something?” Tristan was terrified.
“No. Tristan, please. Seriously? No! Do not say anything! Just go back to your desk, it’s fine! I think they’re almost done.”
Tristan tiptoed back to the studio, and Mitch apologized to R. Kelly for invading his privacy. They both left the office. I was covered in hives and had sweat through my shirt. As fast as my fingers could type, I updated my Facebook status immediately letting everyone know that God is real.
Over the next few days, I’d see R. making his daily bathroom trips. Wearing robes around the hallways became commonplace, and we even started to smile at each other. Then he waved at me — I waved back.
R. Kelly and I continued our pleasantries for another week until one day when I was feeling extra courageous. He was on his way back to the studio and I waved him into the office. He came in quietly.
My plan was to ask for an autograph for my friend Rob, who was the biggest R. Kelly fan I knew. He’d been commenting on every Facebook status I’d left about the situation and begging for more details. But before I could get a word out, R. started talking.
“Listen,” he said in that sultry croon, reminiscent of his work on “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know).” “I feel really bad about the way things started between us. I wanna make it up to you. You ever been to my restaurant?” He told me the name of his restaurant, which I don’t know if he owned or just frequented regularly, and I told him I’d been there before.
R. Kelly had a plan B. “That’s fine, then. That’s fine,” he said, keeping his voice low. “We don’t have to go out. We could stay in. You like Chinese food?”
“OK, good. We could go to my house, watch movies, eat Chinese food… Does that sound good?”
Does that sound good?
Does that sound good?
“Yeah, that sounds good,” I muttered.
But actually, that didn’t sound good — I didn’t want to go on a date with R. Kelly.
Much to the dismay of all of my friends who constantly remind me that going out with R. Kelly would have been the single best story of my life, far outshining the current best story of my life (this one), I didn’t go. The simple truth is, I didn’t like R. Kelly like that. Of course I love his music — “Ignition (Remix)” really was my ringtone all of freshman year — and as an avid pop-culture voyeur, I think his public persona is equal parts fascinating and incredible. But it’s one thing when a date with R. Kelly is just a figment of your imagination — it’s an entirely different thing when R. Kelly is standing in front of you in a velour tracksuit requesting your company for “Chinese food and movies,” which we all know is code for “climaxing 500 times on a sex swing in his soundproof basement while three manservants hand-feed us fresh grapes and deep-condition our hair as Coming to America plays in the background.” It just wasn’t for me. Plus, my dad has never given me a reason to do something like that to him.
I couldn’t turn down R. Kelly to his face. So I did what I always do when I don’t really want to go out with someone: I take their phone number anyway and totally act like I’m going to call them.
“OK, then,” R. said. “I’ll have my manager come in here and give you my number.” (PS: R. Kelly might not know his phone number.)
“But, oh yeah…” Kellz suddenly looked concerned. He turned back around, lowered his eyes, and asked me one more very serious question: “How old are you?”
“Actually, I turn 28 next week,” I said.
A huge smile broke out across R. Kelly’s face. Like a cartoon hip-hop superhero, he mouthed, “Phew!” and wiped the fake sweat from his brow. He walked out the door, and I never called.
Nicole James is a writer and Chicago transplant living in New York City. Her go-to karaoke song is Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Please don’t tell her she looks like Miley Cyrus.