The flight is delayed—and I stare at the big glowing screen in growing alarm, wondering why the other arriving flights seem to be on time. Though I’m eager for an explanation, I skip the airline counter, where there’s a line, and head to the nearest café for a cup of coffee that I don’t really need. The reason for the delay will be straightforward, I think. Or maybe not.
Possible explanations: Bad weather. Staffing issue. Unruly Passenger.
“Wow! How serious is it?”
“No cause for concern, sir. Things are under control. We’ll provide an update soon.”
Sipping the hot coffee, which I know will only add to my jitters and make me go to the men’s room, I return to the bank of ever-flickering monitors that loom over travelers as they walk briskly in both directions, sometimes pausing to anxiously check the flight times.
Looking up at the screen, I almost drop my cup. The plane isn’t late, after all, and is already at the gate! How could that be? Earlier, did an unexpected attack of dyslexia make me transpose the digits of the flight number? I abandon my still-hot cup in a trash bin and hurry down to the gate. Some passengers, having already emerged from the jet bridge, are heading towards baggage claim or the exit doors. Standing in a spot that the maestro couldn’t miss, I wait until the flight crew walks out, but there’s no sign of the maestro. We haven’t met, it’s true, but I’ve seen his pictures, and none of the passengers who got off the plane looked even remotely like him. Is it possible that he disembarked and left before I got to the gate? Unlikely. But even if he managed to get out early, why isn’t he waiting there? After checking the men’s room and the waiting area more closely, I head to the airline counter near the gate.
“We’re not open yet, sir,” the agent says in surprise. “The aircraft has to be cleaned and refueled. Please have a seat. We’ll make an announcement.”
“No, no, I’m not going anywhere. I just want to know if the maestro was on the flight that just arrived. Everybody got off, but I don’t see him. I’m supposed to pick him up.”
“Maestro?” Frowning, she looks at me as if I’m speaking a foreign language.
“Sorry,” I say with a sheepish smile, reaching for the piece of paper on which the maestro’s name and flight number are written. “I meant to say his name . . . it’s a little long.”
“How did you come to the gate, sir? Only passengers are allowed through security, as I’m sure you know. Did you get permission?”
“No, I came on a different flight some time ago. So I just waited. Please, this is important. He’s a visitor from overseas. I have to find him.”
“All right,” she says, typing furiously. Then, looking up with a thin smile, she briskly adds, “I’m sorry, sir. He wasn’t on the flight.”
I’m taken aback, to say the least, but I remember to thank her before moving away.
Staring at my phone, I wonder if my boss texted the wrong flight number. The maestro, having performed in another city, would be taking this flight to our city, the boss said. Since I would be arriving on an earlier flight, could I stick around in the airport to meet him? Sure, I responded, as if I had a choice. And I asked if I should bring the maestro to his house.
“No, no, take him to the hotel. The usual one. Unfortunately, I can’t meet him.”
It took me only a few seconds, as I reread his text, to realize why the boss couldn’t—or rather, didn’t want to—meet the maestro. He’d been planning to invite him, as he usually did when a dignitary or notable artist from the native country was visiting. What changed was that another son of the native land—a telegenic young pop star, with a zillion followers on social media—had decided to come to our city for a hastily arranged performance. An unexpected change in his schedule had made it possible. Having two musical concerts at the same time, while unusual, wasn’t considered a problem, for the audiences would be vastly different. The larger venue for the pop star would be teeming with screaming fans, while the maestro’s venue, a community hall, would be quieter, more intimate.
My boss, clearly, has no time for the smaller venue. But that seems to be bothering him. As our local diaspora organization’s current president, my boss—a generous benefactor—is responsible for receiving visiting artists. Which he has been doing enthusiastically at his palatial residence, where the artists often end up staying for a day or two. Never a big fan of classical music, the boss has chosen the pop star as his honored guest. Hosting both of them at the same time would be awkward, so the boss has delegated me to take the maestro to the hotel. Having paid for the maestro’s room, my boss no doubt feels less guilty about his decision.
“Maestro didn’t arrive,” I carefully type. “Not sure what happened. Gate agent says he wasn’t on flight. Do we have updates? Please advise. Thanks.”
I almost called the boss to inform him, but a sudden nervousness—what if he was in a bad mood?—prompted me to text, which I saw as a safer option. The early evening hours, just as he is about to have his first drink, would be a tricky time to deliver unwelcome news. To my surprise, the response is immediate, as if the boss has been waiting for my text.
“Maestro missed the flight,” his text reads. “Bad traffic. Person who dropped him at airport sent new flight info. Will forward. Didn’t text earlier because I had to take an important call. Maestro has no phone, so stay there and go to the gate when the plane lands.”
When the phone pings again, I note the flight number and walk up to the bank of monitors to look at the new arrival time. Turns out, I have another hour to kill! Will the maestro emerge from the jet bridge this time? Slipping the phone into my pocket, I head towards the food court, marveling how words like “sorry” and “thanks” and “please” are missing from my boss’s vocabulary. I’m a little ticked off, mostly because I’m tired and hungry.
Taking a bite of my overpriced chicken wrap, I gaze at the travelers—carrying bags of various sizes and clad in a variety of outfits, from shorts to suits and flowing dresses—as they stream past me in both directions, their faces reflecting the excitement of impending departure or the inevitable exhaustion of arrival. Normally, people-watching on the concourse is a pleasant diversion for me, but today, having arrived on my own flight, I just want to leave the airport, with or without the maestro, and go home.
Having eaten, I make sure my phone is properly charged before searching for the only video I’d seen of the maestro. It’s incomplete and somewhat grainy, with a modest number of views and no comments below. Most likely, it was recorded and uploaded without permission, because the maestro is famous for not allowing the use of electronic devices at his concerts. He doesn’t perform much now, in any case, his heyday having ended before smartphones became popular. Without the urging of older fans, I’m sure, this overseas trip and the concert series—which is being promoted as his farewell tour—wouldn’t have happened.
I click on the link to watch the video, keeping the volume low. The introduction is meditative, almost like a prayer, and the maestro’s mellifluous voice is suitably even-keeled. Then comes the middle section, with soaring music, as the maestro’s head bobs to the rhythm of the development and his now-throaty voice gains resonance and depth, its power obvious despite the recording’s poor quality. Though my phone’s speakers are feeble, I can sense the specialness of his voice, which one critic grandly called “a divine instrument.” To a random observer, without the audio, the maestro’s gestures and facial contortions might seem clownish, but once the sound—or more specifically, the maestro’s sonorous voice—is restored, the majesty of his performance would become immediately obvious.
Alas, the clip ends abruptly, breaking the spell. I have to get one of his CDs or audio cassettes. I’m not too disappointed, though, because I plan to attend his concert.
Putting my phone down, I wonder how much of the maestro’s mystique is linked to his, as another critic caustically put it, “listener-be-damned approach,” which could be uncompromising. The same article said that being reclusive and standoffish was perhaps the right move, though there wasn’t anything deliberate about it. The maestro didn’t change his approach, regardless of what anybody said. He barely looked at the audience or smiled, even after the performance, choosing to retire to his room rather than mingle with his fans and hosts.
Shunning social media might seem counterintuitive, but the maestro’s indifference to publicity is a smart move, according to this critic, because performers these days are too slick for their own good—and the constant need for self-promotion makes them come across as fame-and-fortune hunters, not musicians and artists. The maestro, on the other hand, is above it all.
I’m not convinced by this argument. If the maestro is being clever and strategic, even if unintentionally, why aren’t more people flocking to see him? Why is he not performing in bigger venues? The fact is that the maestro chose to undertake this arduous foreign tour because he needs the money, and the only people coming to see him perform are nostalgic old-timers with fond memories of him. And those fans are a fast-dwindling group.
The community center where the maestro will perform is not far from the huge downtown venue where the pop star is expected to draw a full house. Conveniently, for the boss, both concerts are on the same evening, allowing him to avoid the maestro.
I reach the gate just as the plane—with the maestro on board, hopefully—is pulling up to the jet bridge. Again, I plant myself in a good spot so that he won’t miss me. This time, thankfully, he’s one of the passengers and it doesn’t take long for him to emerge through the doors, pulling a blue carry-on suitcase. Portly and bald, the maestro is shorter than I expected and he has an awkward gait, making him walk slower than the passengers who got out at the same time. He moves to one side, huffing, and allows them to quickly overtake him. When he gets closer, I notice that his face is flushed, with glistening pinheads of perspiration on his forehead, as if he has come from the tarmac below rather the interior of a plane.
He stops, and there’s instant recognition when our eyes meet. I doubt the maestro has seen my picture, but he knows who I am. Nodding when I greet him, he doesn’t speak right away. His clothes—a gray jacket over dark slacks and a cream-colored shirt—are crumpled, and he seems to be wobbling. Concerned, I ask if he needs a wheelchair.
“No, no . . . I’ll be fine,” he says, shaking my hand with unexpected vigor. “There was some turbulence, you see. Maybe we can get tea and sit for a bit. I’ll go to the toilet first.”
“Of course, that’s a good idea,” I say, and take his suitcase before leading him to the men’s room. “They have tables at the café I went to . . . it’s close by.”
Having washed his face, the maestro looks more alert, though his eyes are still red and his gait still unsteady. Maybe he has an ailment that makes him walk that way. I’m surprised that he travels alone and, given his condition, maintains such a hectic schedule.
“Nice of you,” the maestro says when I hang on to his suitcase. “I was just pulling it. The person who sat next to me helped. I was grateful.”
My ignorance of his music was making me anxious, but I feel better now. He is far from intimidating, contradicting the articles I remember reading. Of course, those days—when he was apparently dismissive of people who didn’t speak knowledgeably about his music—are gone. And age has probably mellowed him. Still, what a letdown it must be to get such a mater-of-fact reception from a novice. Great artists are usually received by adoring fans. But having long been out of the limelight, the maestro is perhaps used to dealing with folks like me.
Once he safely makes it to the hotel, a musician will take over and they’ll be able to discuss matters that are more professional and less mundane. My job will be over.
At the café, I bring two steaming cups of Chai Latte to the table—and for a few moments, without talking, we sip our beverages. “Wonderful,” he says, sighing, and puts his cup down. “Life’s little pleasures. Thank you for this . . . I feel better now.”
“Of course,” I say. “My pleasure. This drink always cheers me up.”
There’s a sudden commotion in the concourse, and I turn around just in time to see the flash of a camera. For a sickening moment, I think the pop star has just arrived. But, no, it can’t be unless his travel plans have changed! According to the boss, who will be picking him up from the airport, he is coming tomorrow morning. Must be another celebrity or VIP, but the entourage has already moved on, and I can’t see the person’s face.
The maestro, watching quietly, seems indifferent. Strangely, my first thought is to wonder if the maestro has been garlanded by ardent fans. Many times, I’m sure, at least in his prime. And what about tomorrow? Will my boss felicitate the pop star with a garland or a bouquet? He certainly will, even if it’s only at the concert avenue after the performance.
“I had a fascinating conversation with a man,” the maestro says, after draining his cup. “This was before I boarded the plane. We were sitting at the gate for a while, you know.”
“Did he get on the same flight?”
“Yes. He’s a frequent traveler, I believe. He told me about a person who was living in the airport. They’d even talked once.”
“What! Isn’t there a movie that was inspired by him?”
“No, no, this happened recently . . . in fact, the traveler I spoke to said that they’d chatted just before the man got caught.”
“Oh, yes,” I say, remembering the incident. “I did read about it. It happened at a domestic airport, unlike the earlier incident which inspired the film. I should have known. He seemed harmless, as I recall. Maybe he was eccentric. Didn’t he find an airport employee’s ID?”
“Yes, he did. That’s how he escaped detection for weeks. But he wasn’t trying to scam anybody. The traveler I met said the man had been unthreatening and friendly. Even unworldly. They’d talked easily . . . about life, culture, philosophy.”
“Philosophy? Life? How odd. Didn’t he want to return to his country? Was he afraid?”
“No, no, he wasn’t seeking asylum or anything,” the maestro says, waving his hand. “Of course, he was breaking the law. But he was naïve and, as you said, eccentric. Not a criminal. He was, you know, just spreading his thoughts, ideas, whatever you want to call them. Not through indoctrination, mind you. What I heard was that he wasn’t trying to convert anybody.”
“Sure. Nevertheless, it was bizarre. I don’t know what compelled him. It was risky . . . he could have gotten into big trouble. How did he survive?”
“The people he spoke to seemed to have liked him. He was gentle, personable. And I guess they liked what he had to say, because many of them shared food with him. He kept a low profile and slept in a waiting area where there wasn’t much activity.”
“I’m surprised he escaped detection for so long,” I say. “Do you know how he got caught?”
“No. The traveler didn’t know, but he thinks somebody alerted security. The airport resident was arrested and sent back to his country. I don’t know what compelled him to do what he did, but I couldn’t help thinking of music when I heard this story.”
“Music? Why music?”
“Because when we sing and share music, we don’t know what people will make of it,” the maestro says. “We hope they’ll like it, of course. But we can’t be sure. And we’re not trying to convert anybody to a way of thinking. All we can do is spread joy . . . that’s our only goal. Anyway, shall we get going? It’s getting late.”
(Murali Kamma is the managing editor of Khabar, a monthly magazine catering to the Indian-American community in the Southeast. His stories have appeared in numerous journals. A naturalized U.S. citizen, he lives with his family in Atlanta.)