Nameless friends, where art thou? For so many years, you were ubiquitous and you fascinated me, but now you have vanished like migratory birds flown off to some unknown land.

Where is the Flag Man, I wonder? For a decade or more, I saw him almost daily. He bounced along the downtown sidewalks with that funny beard and the John Lennon glasses. He wore a flag emblem upon his back and flag pins stuck to his rumpled coat.

Almost daily, he’d pass me on the sidewalk, grinning an old man’s grin and thrusting a finger up at the sky. I used to stare upward as though he were warning me of a fast-falling asteroid or sky writing with my name in it. But there was nothing up there. This was his greeting, a simple yet passionate gesture that meant “God is with you,” or perhaps, “Things are looking up.”

I vocalized a greeting of my own before I realized the man was deaf. He would pump a hand against one of his flag pins and raise a finger to the sky but he never heard my responses. Nor did he need to. I only had to point at his flag and gesture toward the clouds to make him happy, and he’d go bounding on down the sidewalk again.

I haven’t seen the Flag Man in months, maybe a year. I wonder where he has gone and whether he is properly equipped with the American flag that so comforts him.

I don’t see the Twirling Lady so much, either. Since 1994, I watched her floating along the sidewalks, moving with a concept of time that is wholly apart from what the rest of us know. Every 20 feet or so, she would pause and consider the ground beneath her. She would spin in a lazy circle there on the sidewalk, her quiet charm to ward away whatever evil she had spotted.

I know her name is Nancy and I know she likes grilled cheese sandwiches. But I don’t know where she goes for long stretches anymore than I know where butterflies go when it rains. She is there one day and gone the next, another phantom with a back story I might never hear.

Every time I get to believing the Magic Man is gone for good, he is back again, stomping along the streets on both sides of the Androscoggin River with that hard pirate face and eyes like flint.

I call him the Magic Man because he does tricks with time and space. I have seen him walking at the far end of Auburn and then spotted him minutes later in downtown Lewiston, still afoot. The Magic Man defies physics the way he defies the cold. You will see him bent into the wind on College Street (and maybe along Center Street miles away) wearing only a windbreaker in biting cold. The Magic Man never shivers. Perhaps it is not cold in the dimension in which he dwells and into which he occasionally disappears for long periods.

I haven’t seen the Smoking Lady since spring. A tiny thing with an ancient face, she rides a massive bicycle and keeps a cigarette clamped in her mouth as if for balance. She stops at any roadside lawn sale she happens upon and then she is gone, pedaling off with the cigarette pointing the way like the dragon at the front of a Viking ship.

I have not seen the timid man named Gordon hauling his treasure of returnable bottles since the early part of summer. I have not seen Long Beard Man and his weird walking stick for many moons.

Some of them may be back without explanation, I presume, because that is what mystery people do. Some of them may not be back at all and I might never learn what became of them.

But Merry Christmas to all of you zany phantoms, wherever you walk, stalk, pedal or twirl.

Mark LaFlamme is the Sun Journal crime reporter. You can e-mail him your own phantom stories at [email protected]


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