As I walk from the metro station to work one Monday morning, I see a guy at the curb, watching the traffic and sweeping his arms as if conducting an orchestra. He wears a bright red sweater, dress slacks, and wing-tip shoes. But everything’s dirty, and the sweater is far too big for him. He also needs a shave and has greasy gray hair. As I walk past him wondering if I’m going to notice an odor, he glances at me and crinkles his nose.
I see him every day. One morning, I can’t help saying something. “You seem to like this spot.”
“You’re early,” he says, staying busy, barely looking at me. I can almost see his imaginary baton.
I start to tell him about the extra work my “buckling-knees” boss has assigned me, but catch myself. I don’t think some guy playing orchestra with the traffic is going to be too interested in my job woes. “Keeping everything in sync?” I say instead.
“What do you think?”
I don’t think he’s being sarcastic, but I’m not sure so I shrug my shoulders and continue on my way. Actually, the traffic does seem to be flowing more smoothly than usual.
He’s at it again the next morning. It’s rained overnight, and the cars are hissing by on the wet pavement. There’s a puddle along the curb near him. I cringe as a taxi roars toward the standing water. The man in the red sweater increases the tempo of his motions, and, at the last moment, the cab veers to the left.
I go up to him and point at the puddle. “You’re lucky he gave a damn.”
“Maybe,” he says, still conducting.
I’m really behind at work, so on Saturday I drag-ass out of bed and go into the office. The man in the red sweater isn’t there. Nor Sunday. When Monday comes, I hurry up the stairs from the station and am relieved to see him at his place.
“Good day, maestro.” He doesn’t acknowledge me. Must be a particularly challenging piece. I clear my throat. “You weren’t here this weekend,” I say loudly.
He sighs. “I take weekends off. Don’t you?” He keeps his eyes on his musicians as he talks to me.
I have to chuckle at the idea of him taking weekends off. “I used to. Now I work as many as not.”
“Your choice.” He begins making slow, fluid movements with his arms. The traffic calms. I can hardly believe what I’m seeing till I notice a squad car stopped across the street.
That night’s another bad one. Two a.m. and I’m wide awake thinking about work. I consider going into the office, but put the idea out of my mind and the pillow over my head, determined to get at least a little sleep.
At three, I’m at the bookcase in the corner of my bedroom. I’ve started a small collection of old, rare books. Most aren’t in great condition so they aren’t valuable, but I still enjoy their company and fantasize about opening a book shop. I make my typical middle-of-the-night vow to quit my job and start a new life. By six I’m stepping out of the shower mentally planning my day at the office.
The weather’s turned cold, and an icy rain has fallen. I climb up from underground and see the maestro at his usual spot. He wears no coat, just the red sweater, as he conducts his orchestra of rubber and steel. Today, two boys are on either side of him, mocking his actions. Suddenly he shakes his open right hand over his head as if he’s calling for a crescendo. As he does, a black SUV swerves near the curb and throws a blanket of salty slush. The two boys stalk off cursing and sloughing the watery crud off themselves.
“Here, this is clean.” I start to hand him my hanky then notice he seems completely dry. “How’d you manage that?”
“Lucky, I guess.” He continues waving his arms.
Suddenly there’s a gust of wind, and I turn my coat collar up. “Aren’t you cold?”
“You get used to it. You can get used to anything. Even things you shouldn’t.”
I keep mulling over his words the rest of my way to the office.
An hour or so later, I’m headed back home feeling freer than I have in ages. It’s starting to snow, and the maestro’s waving his arms expressively. I walk quickly, anxious to tell him my big news. But before I can get the words out, I slip on a patch of ice and fall into the street. A horn blares, and I close my eyes. Then I feel weightless. Is this what dying’s like?
Next thing I know, I’m back on the sidewalk, the maestro standing over me, his arms lowered, palms up. “You need to be more careful,” he says.
I’m so shaken I can barely talk. “What happened?” I finally manage to say. “Thank you. Thank you! How did you do that?”
He gives me a funny look.
“I think you might have saved my life.”
“If you see it that way,” he says, then turns and walks away.
“You’re leaving? Where are you going?”
“Somewhere else,” he says. He begins conducting his way down the sidewalk. I swear I hear him wish me good luck with my book shop as his red sweater slowly disappears in the crowd.
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