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I must have been staring at the child. They were such an unlikely pair: the boy clean and neatly dressed, the man unkempt. For a moment our eyes met; his were frightened, seeking help. Or was it my old lady's imagination gone wild? No, I understood children. All those years of teaching elementary school, I knew this child was afraid. The man seated next to the boy nudged him and the child lowered his eyes.
As usual, the Broadway/Seventh Avenue local at Sheridan Square was crowded; I stood to one side to allow passengers to exit but the man pushed his way on, dragging the child behind him. A new rush of passengers hid them from my sight when the subway stopped at 14th Street.
Such a darling boy; why did he seem familiar? Of course! The child was the spitting image of that little tyke in the Cowboy Bob's Big, Bad Burger commercial. The commercial where the boy, dressed in chaps and a ten-gallon hat, twirls a rope and dances a hoedown with animated French-fried potatoes. Big blue eyes and a warm smile people returned. But this adorable child wasn't smiling.
The train stopped at several more stations. Where were we? I couldn't see a thing with that portly gentleman standing directly in front of me. I craned my neck to see around him but garish sprays of graffiti obscured the sign indicating the station; I could barely decipher the lettering. This stop was Columbus Circle; the next would be Lincoln Center. Folding my unread magazine, I clutched my purse and umbrella and murmured, "Excuse me. Pardon me," over and over again as I tried to make my way through the throng. I managed to reach the door just as the train announced its arrival at the 66th Street station with a nerve-jangling screech.
Two extremely rude teenagers blocked the door. One was lost in the cacophony of sound that leaked from his oversized earphones. The other was engrossed in paring his fingernails. A gentle thrust with the tip of my umbrella and I was able to make my exit.
The child and his companion were about fifteen feet ahead of me. When the boy looked back, I thought I could see his lower lip tremble. Impossible, he was too far away and my vision, though I hate to admit it, is not what it used to be. The man placed his hand on the child's shoulder; they picked up their pace, reached the stairway and melted into the crowd.
Was it the young actor who performed in the commercial or was it someone who looked very much like him? And why wasn't he attending class this morning? Today was Tuesday, a school day. A very special Tuesday for a retired gentlewoman like me; at 9:45, Alan Gilbert was scheduled to conduct the New York Philharmonic in an open rehearsal of Strauss "tunes" at Lincoln Center. The public was invited to attend. I eagerly awaited a morning spent with Mr. Gilbert and was pleased to have obtained a $10 ticket. It wasn't often I could afford such a treat. My concern for the boy abated as I thought about the music, Maestro Gilbert and what was reputed to be the maestro's "blazing heat and power. "
The traffic light turned yellow, then green. Car horns blasted the air with impatience. I checked to see if the vehicles flowing past would obey the signal, since at my age the body slows a bit, and was about to step off the curb, when the little boy tugged at the sleeve of my jacket.
"Ma'am." The child gasped, then took a deep breath. "Help me."