The Gray Lady

Across the street, at the foot of a soaring tower of granite, steel and glass, there is a long, narrow, sharply-cut stone flower-box. It is filled with a multi-colored variety of pansies this time of the year. In the daytime, when the sun slashes between the slender shafts of the skyscrapers, the pansies put on a brilliant show with their large and tender purple, white and yellow petals. The office-workers, secretaries and clerks add their laughing conversations and bright smiles to the delightful scene as they sit on the flower-box ledge eating their bagged sandwiches, apples and candy bars. One item of talk is the sheer largeness of the friendly flowers, which are like no others down here. No one seems to know why. At least, that’s what the day watchman tells me. Only, I know why.

It is four o’clock in the morning in the financial district. The cleaning women have all departed. the expectant quiet period before dawn and the early arrivals—the delivery trucks, the restaurant people, the news vendors, and others—is here, holding itself in, waiting for the deep-breathed exuberant release. And here she comes, right on time. She is very short and very old and very slow. She walks with a cane, bent over, hunch-backed. Under her small gray hat her short straight hair is white. She wears glasses with gray rims. Her long coat is gray, too, and she carries a medium sized gray canvas bag in her left hand.

Every Monday morning she comes tottering along and stops at the flower-box. She leans her cane against the side of it and puts a shaking right hand into her bag, brings out a tight little fist, and reaches over to the base of a flower, opens her hand, then moves it around and pushes down. One week she does the flowers in front, the next in the back, stretching her tiny bent body as far as she can. She moves her cane along with her as she goes, and when she comes to the end, some thirty feet distant, she turns around, looks, smiles, raises her cane and lightly taps the ledge, as if conferring knighthood. Then she turns about and totters away.

Today, when she’d finished and began to walk around the corner, she stopped and suddenly turned back, as if she had remembered something. She had almost reached the flower-box when a dirty-faced man rounded the corner, sped up behind her, grabbed her bag, and ran off down the street. I opened the window, pulled out my revolver, aimed for his legs and fired.

The little gray lady stood calmly as I handed over her bag. The skin of her face was a thousand harmonious wrinkles. Her light blue eyes twinkled. She was the perfect picture of a happy old pansy, if there was such a thing. She said, in a sweet soft voice, “You do a good job.” I replied, “So do you, ma’am, so do you.” Whereupon she lifted her cane and lightly tapped me on the shoulder. Then she turned and tottered away into the dawn.

I am the night watchman at the bank. I watch, and I see, and I act.

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