Voices in the Wilderness — The Waving Old Man of Upper Main Street

By David Boucher

It was late afternoon in the middle of August in 2011, and I rolled into Berlin’s downtown Main Street after a stressful 2,500-mile journey that had its origin from Houston, Texas. My wife would fly in later that week and we were both to begin the transition from having worked all of our lives in the health and medical research sectors to what we might discover and subsequently engage in once we were settled.

We had found a lovely old farmhouse on Route 16 on the Berlin-Milan town line road affectionately referred to as “The old Conway House.” It was my job as the first arrival to get us initially moved in and settled to await the refinements that only a female spouse can possibly provide.

As I sat at the traffic light at Mason and Main in a vehicle reeking of urine, most of which belonged to our three beloved but now exorcised cats, I spied a frail looking old man with a cane. He’d shuffle a few feet forward and then he would glance back expectantly as if he were looking for something or more likely someone.

The light changed, and as I surged forward, the old man locked his gaze on me and started to wave in my direction with considerable intention. I slowed down and tentatively waved back at the old gentleman figuring he simply mistook me for someone he thought that he knew. Driving on, I would have thought little of it, but a backward glance in my rearview mirror confirmed that he performed the same forward shuffle, backward glance and enthusiastic wave to a succession of passersby. I had encountered and had been welcomed back to Berlin by a person that I would simply know and refer to as “The waving old man of upper Main Street.”

In the intervening years, I have seen "The Waver” hundreds of times, and for me he has become a most welcome fixture and a reminder of all of the things that are caught up in the human condition. At the beginning of our relationship — yes, I consider it a relationship despite the fact that I didn’t even know the man’s name until two days ago — I would reflexively return the courtesy of the wave and simply go on. But over time I found myself looking for him rain or shine, season to season, and every time that I would see him he never disappointed, and I would be the recipient of a continuing and hearty wave, and I would smile to myself and think, “Only in Berlin.” It’s a concept and a reality that informs my existence because, after living all over the world, I know that Berlin and places like it are rare and precious and special because most places in the world would never see or be touched by the wavers in the streets.

I can’t pretend to know what is in the mind of my first Berlin friend, “Francis,” encountered almost six years to the day, but I know this: He likes to station himself above Mason Street across from the Old Albert Theater building. He seems to like looking at that building, and I like to think that he likely spent some time there and probably was around during the heyday that was Berlin and when this small city was a world leader in paper manufacturing.

So, as I see him walking and looking out at the seminal landmarks in this faded but still beautiful city I am reminded that, “All glory is fleeting.” However, as long as life and memory remains, as long as people desire to see and to be seen, to respond and to be responded to, then Berlin retains the essential elements that are important to a life that matters. I am indebted to Francis for reminding me of this most important life lesson. Long life and continuing good health to you Francis, we still need you. I still need you.