The Maestro

Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you about a concert I attended one night in the lonely city of New York. It was, to my mind, the most memorable of the Monday night concerts given by my neighbor, old Benny Bloom, a retired presser, in his furnished room across the alley from my furnished room. I had, as usual, the best seat in the house, out on my fire escape.

About 8:30, Mr. Bloom, a little sparrow of a man, appeared at his open window , smiled and bowed. I applauded. His only tuxedo, a maroon silk bathrobe, shone resplendently. So did his only high-gloss shoes, a pair of cracked leather bedroom slippers. I could tell from the ebullient way he was twirling the tassels of his sash that he felt in particularly good form.

What would he give us tonight? Another opera by Rossini? A violin concerto by Bach? I took a deep breath of the hushed air in anticipation.

Lovingly on the only piece of furniture he owned in the room, a highly polished wooden stereo, he placed one of the records from his lifelong collection and turned the switch on. Then up he jumped onto the bed, very nimbly for such an old man, and raised his baton, a sprig from a tree in Central Park, just as the music began.

Ah, so it was to be a Beethoven symphony tonight! The music of his beloved Ludwig, that sublime soul whose greatness takes mankind by the scruff of the neck, lifts the weary head above the daily soup bowl, and says, behold, poor clod, what life could be!

And there, on top of the orchestra, strove Mr. Bloom, once a man with the steam iron in his hand, pressing down, and now a man lifting up. His hands going a la Toscanini, his stringy hair flip-flopping over his eyes, his whole maestro-self was bouncing up and down on the bed. You could hear the bedspring creaking, like an instrument grieved to be left out of such a fine performance. You could see the light bulb that hung on a cord above the bed sway with rapt forgiveness every time he bumped it with his head. On his face was a smile that broke your heart to see it go, and then mended your heart to see it return. He was a picture of someone trying to make the world over into something more beautiful and noble than it ever could be.

During the intermission (when the record had to be turned over) he helped himself to some thirsty gulps of mineral water. I don't know what mineral water does for other people, but for Mr. Bloom it was a veritable fountain of effervescence. When he resumed conducting he was bouncier than ever. He was practically hitting the ceiling and crashing through the bed. Finally, at the trumpets' last blast, he just tilted over backward on his pillow in a kind of swoon of spent accomplishment.

When he didn't arise and come to the window for his final bow I knew he'd fallen from swoon to deep sleep. So I didn't disturb him with my usual burst of applause. I went over and, climbing through the window, shut off the stereo and covered him with a blanket.

Before I pulled the string of the light bulb, bringing the company of darkness to the misery of silence, I saw from the look on his face that he was hearing sweet applause after all; I imagined that I could hear it, too. It came from his dream. In Carnegie Hall he stood, with his orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, drenched and exulted with music, accepting the world's starved thanks for love.

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