It was The Summer of the Bad Commute. Construction on Highway 101 followed destruction on Highway 101 as the old road was removed and replaced. Sometimes it seemed that con- and de- were structioning simultaneously in a dusty, roaring nightmare.
Road crews jackhammered up chunks of blacktop while umpteen-billion cars sat waiting for "pilot vehicles" or gesturing flag persons to rescue them.
If you were there, you might have seen me. I was that glowering, hair-braiding, radio-fidgeting person perpetually the 29th in line in my little red Honda. My daily half-hour commute streeeetched into an hour and 15 ear-blasting, just-sitting-there, cranky minutes.
From the rubble, it was plain - as day followed endless day - that any ultimate good from the roadwork was but a distant glimmer of a daydream on the horizon.
And then he entered my life. Just another flag guy - or so I thought at first. You've seen one, you've pretty much seen them all. They scowl or smile or blankly lift and flip their signs.
But when this fellow turned the stop sign to SLOW, he slid a little dance step sideways. Slipped another, backward. Tapped a leisurely shuffle and swiveled a graceful pirouette. He swept his arm and bowed, gesturing us on - like a Fred Astaire in blue jeans, orange safety vest, and hard hat.
My lower jaw dropped onto my chest. Someone yahooed. I had the urge, for the first time in my life, to whistle through my fingers. Fortunately (since I can't), someone else did it for me. And I drove on, at 2 slow, dusty miles per hour.
And here's the amazing thing: I was smiling.
The next day, there he was. A little box step, followed by a somehow-dapper work-booted toe behind the heel to turn a sharp 180 degrees. The finale was a batonlike wave of the SLOW sign. All topped off by a courtly, hard-hat-sweeping bow, while a long line of audience-filled cars clapped, whistled, cheered, and hooted.
And so it went that summer, one slow dance after another. I quit dreading the drive. I thought about the flag man at odd moments during my day. I wondered where he learned to dance: reluctant ballroom lessons as a kid? Inheritance from flag-dancing father to flag-dancing son? A desperate antidote to boredom? The kind of itchy feet only Nureyev or Kelly could relate to?
I pondered the ribbing a dancing road-crew member might have to endure from his co-workers. Was his orange vest stitched of Teflon, deflecting possible snide remarks? Did he hum "Singing in the Rain" instead of tuning in to taunts? Or did he manage to draw some admiration from the other road-crew members? Would some perhaps take soft-shoe lessons in their work boots?
ONE day, when all the alder leaves had long fallen and crumbled to dust beneath my wheels, I drove to work in half an hour. Never lightning-quick on the uptake, it was only after I parked that I realized 101 was no longer a work in progress. It was remodeled. Done. My ride had been smooth, clean, quiet, and quick. But no one had danced for me.
Years later, my husband and I are traveling. He groans. "Oh, no ... road construction."
I sit up. My lips are saying, "Uh oh." But some little thing inside me takes a quick step sideways and pirouettes, lightly. I've got my eye out for an orange construction sign saying, "Caution: Flag Man Dancing Ahead." Or maybe even the fox-trotting flagger himself.
You might want to watch for him, too. Those of us who saw him dance could never repay him. But we'll never forget him.
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