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Time catches up to walking man

I saw him as I turned the corner to walk south on Lexington Avenue. First, a bare back, then pajama bottoms of white cotton with a pale navy stripe and _ bare feet.

At 8 in the morning, in vibrant New York, the air was still cool; damp and chilly, somewhere around 40 degrees.

He was 5 feet in front of me, and the back, supple and slim, was tanned in those places left bare when wearing a tank top and covered with a good supply of large and small freckles. The shoulders were square and straight. His feet were about a size 9, with clean ankles and charcoal city-dirty bottoms, which I could see as they moved toe to heel, heel to toe, in the rhythm of a determined walk.

He was striding, trying to pretend that he didn't care about the people coming toward him, about the snickers. I even saw a man throw up his hands as if to say, "What is this world coming to?"

The smells of the florist and the restaurants, the littered sidewalks and the dank fumes of garbage were as familiar as on other mornings. The bag lady sipped her Chock Full O' Nuts coffee and warmed her hands on the cup at a concrete trash bin. Another wanderer slept over a warm subway grating under a blanket of newspapers.

As we continued down Lexington Avenue, I saw that the young man was clean except for the bottoms of his feet. He had a small knapsack slung over one shoulder. His backside was small and neat, his hair dark, with small waves that hung to just above his shoulders. His head bobbed slightly as he moved steadily forward.

Whenever we came to a curb and the light was against us, he moved his shoulders in such a way as to say, "I don't want to stand so people can look at me." He kept moving south, and I was behind him, 5 feet here, 10 feet there. I never saw his face, just his back. His arms swung, and once in a while his fist clenched.

I made up stories about him as we maintained our course, that he was locked out, that someone had played a prank on him and had stolen his clothing. When we got to 42nd Street, I darted diagonally across to my turnoff point and lost him for a couple of minutes.

On the south side of 42nd, I spotted him continuing south and got a glimpse of a sharp nose and a dogged chin.

I never knew the beginning of his story, or the middle or the end.

A dozen years later, I flew to Casablanca to attend a travel agents business convention.

At an afternoon session, a Jim Waters presented a talk with slides on the mountain region of northern Pakistan, around the Khyber Pass, that was informative and witty. He looked somehow familiar.

We had more seminars and some free time. Our group shopped in the modern Medina and marveled at the unique crafts and many-faceted cultures. We visited the Casablanca piano bar reminiscent of the '40s and Humphrey Bogart.

On the last day, several of us were relaxing poolside. I glanced up, and it came to me. The man in the black trunks striding to the high end of the pool was the man in the pajamas. There was a dimple near the top of his trunks. The feel, smells and sounds of our morning walk down Lexington Avenue came rushing back.

That evening, I put on the dangling, gold filigree earrings for the Casbah feel. When I was 20, I purchased a green silk, fringed, Henri Bendel dinner dress at a thrift shop. I wear it at least once a year with my grandmother's gold clips at the wide neckline. A drop or two of reliable Chanel, and I feel like a million bucks.

Jim Waters was one of 10 at our round table in Dar Beida, a traditional Moroccan dining room in the plush Hyatt Regency, with a maroon-tented ceiling, low sprawling chairs, lanterns and candles.

Dinner was seven courses adroitly served to the left and taken away from the right by waiters in billowing trousers. The cuisine included couscous, tajines, rich pastries and a refresher, somewhere about the third course, of exotic fruit.

Throughout the meal, there were undulating belly dancers and sporadic dancing to a potpourri of music by a small orchestra.

Our animated conversation at the table helped to define our various backgrounds. I reminisced with Mimi Marcello about learning to disco at a Roman nightclub and congratulated Solid Sam, the super salesman from Akron, so enthusiastic about the world. Then there was Jim Waters, who worked out of our Boston office and was to be married in a few months.

"Would you like to dance?" he asked softly as he helped me to rise. I followed him in a moderate tango.

"Where did you learn this?" I asked.

"My fiancee insisted we learn together."

"I'm so glad she did."

As we ambled back to the table, I sprung it on him.

"I saw you once before."

He smiled. "When?"

"When you were hurrying down Lexington Avenue in a pair of striped pajama bottoms."

"Oh my God!" He closed his mouth.

"What happened? That is, if you want to tell me."

He sighed. "I went to a party on the East Side and got very drunk and very sick, and woke up and couldn't find my clothes. They were someone else's pajamas."

"I remember you had a knapsack. What was in it?"

"My books from college. Columbia."

Finally, the pieces fit.

He was a lovely dancer.

Margaret Austin has retired from the travel agent business. She never saw Jim Waters again.

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