the pigeon man of lincoln square
the police called me last night. a few times.
they were calling because an old man, an old bent-over man, one with a black canvas satchel slung over his shoulders, too-big janitor’s pants held up by suspenders, was shuffling along on a sidewalk, beside a busy city street, on a cold december tuesday, yesterday, at 2:15 in the afternoon.
probably, he was headed off to the fire hydrant, the red one, just by the bank at lawrence and western, where the pigeons, for years now, have counted him one of their flock.
the old man was walking, past a bank parking lot, when another old man, one driving a chevy van, pulled out of the lot. must not have seen him. the man in the van hit the one with the satchel.
the old man died.
the old man was joe zeman. but most everyone called him the pigeon man of lincoln square. cops couldn’t tell who it was. except for a newspaper story, one laminated, tucked in the satchel, one with a little rectangular label up in the corner, scribbled with the words, “for who ever.”
except for that story, one that showed him, in color, feathered with pigeons, one that told his story, the cops and the doctors who pronounced him dead at the hospital had no clue who he was.
the pigeon man’s life was like that. barely a soul had a clue who he was. mostly, only the pigeons.
that’s why the cops called me. they knew i knew a bit of his story. i wrote the one they found in his satchel. two years and three months later, almost to the day, and he still carried it–maybe half a dozen laminated copies of it–wherever he went.
the cops needed someone to call. needed to know if there was a soul in the world who might care to know what happened to joe.
there was no one, save for the pigeons. and me.
here’s just a bit of the pigeon man’s story, the one he carried till he fell down and died:
“except for the lips, you would think he was made out of stone, the man who sits, hours on end, on the red fire hydrant on western avenue, just north of lawrence, pigeons by the dozens perched on him.
“pigeons on his head. pigeons on his shoulders and right down his arms. pigeons poised on each palm. pigeons clinging to his chest. pigeons on his lap. pigeons on his thighs. pigeons, of course, perched on each foot.
“the pigeons peck and coo, occasionally flutter their wings. sometimes even scatter. but not the man, the man is motionless. you might mistake him for a statue.
“joseph zeman,” 77 when he died, “can sit for hours, barely flinching a muscle,” i wrote. “except for those lips.”
i wrote how he cooed right back to the birds. how he kissed them, right on their iridescent necks, flat on the point of their sharp little beaks. how he nuzzled them, rubbed his nose in their wings, the herringbone of feathers all black and charcoal and pewter and white. how he called them by name, his favorites. how he worried when one was missing in action.
i wrote how up in the attic where he lived a few blocks from the hydrant he kept track, in a neat little ledger, of whatever dollar bills might have been slipped in his hand, dropped by the side of his hydrant.
how he used the money for his pigeon supplies, the unpopped popcorn kernels, the bags of white rice, the loaves of deerfield farms enriched white bread, the maurice lenell oatmeal cookies, the plain old birdseed that comes in 50-pound sacks, which he broke down, each night, into zip-top plastic bags.
i wrote too, because he took me up to his attic, because he was proud to show off his deeply-thought method, of the old baby food jars he filled, each morning and night, with rice or popcorn, seven jars in all, and tucked in his satchel, each time he shuffled off to the hydrant.
twice a day, at least, once in the morning, once in the late afternoon, the pigeon man returned to his roost.
but the part of the story that’s stayed with me all these years was the part where he explained why he was drawn to the pigeons.
“all my life i had so much backstabbing at home, real problems there. i got to love the animals more, so trustworthy. fifty years, all i heard was ‘shut up, shut up.’ i needed help at home ‘cause i was handicapped. they took advantage of me. epileptic fits since the day i was born.
“because i had so much trouble at home, i learned not to say nothing, keep to myself. so they came up to me [the pigeons]; i appreciated the friendship out of a bird more than a person. they’re wordless. they come up with pure appreciation.”
zeman, who for 47 years ran a newsstand downtown, said that he considered sitting on the hydrant the most important work he had ever done.
“i’m really advertising to the public how easy it is to be good without an attitude; it’s just as easy to show decency as it is to hate today.”
zeman, a man without much schooling, understood how when he took to the hydrant, raised both his arms, palms upward–the veneration pose, really–as thousands of cars and trucks and smoke-spewing city buses rumbled by, drivers craning their necks to take in the sight of the stooped little man covered in pigeons, he really did resemble a modern-day st. francis of a city.
matter of fact, up in his little attic, he had boxes and boxes of st. francis postcards, each one printed with the peacemaker’s prayer: “lord, make me an instrument of your peace. where there is hatred, let me sow love…”
matter of fact, zeman once grabbed a stack of the postcards, maybe a hundred or so, and gave them to me. i tucked them all in the drawer of my desk, here where i do all my typing. i keep them, right there, to remind me of the wisdom of the lost soul who found his peace with the pigeons.
just yesterday afternoon, before the phone rang, before any cops called to ask what i knew, i had reached in my drawer for a calculator, and my hand ran into the stack, spilled and scattered, making a mess in the old pine rectangular drawer.
i started to shove the cards back into a stack, but then, for some reason, i picked up the top one, and i read it through to the very last line, which just happens to be, “and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
thinking back on the day, i know that the clock ticking beside me had to have been just after two in the afternoon.
that was the hour when the pigeon man of lincoln square breathed his last breath.
that was the hour the great gray raincloud of pigeons, the ones who for nearly 10 years had kept watch on the hydrant, had fluttered down as soon as a little stooped man slid off his satchel, settled onto his cold metal roost, raised both his arms, palms upward–the pose of st. francis–that was the hour the birds must have let out a most mournful coo.
this morning, for almost the first time in a decade, the hydrant is empty. the pigeons are perched. but the little man with the gentlest heart is not coming.
not ever again, amen.
oh, goodness. i’m back from my respite. and thank heaven there’s a place where i could tell joe zeman’s story. carry it close to your heart, maybe. scatter some seed for the birds today. think of the man who found solace only in the birds of the city, birds often shooed and thought to be pests. the picture above is my desk drawer. i too had a laminated copy of the newspaper story, one the pigeon man gave me. i keep it off in another drawer. but last night, i nestled it next to the prayers of st. francis. seemed the right thing to do, as i remembered the man who taught me so much.
i’m thinking i’ll pull up a chair, meander, at least every wednesday, smack dab in the thick of the workweek. but as happened today, what i thought i would write got nudged to the side so i could tell the pigeon man’s story. that means i’ll be back friday to tell the one i intended to tell today. we’ll find a flow here, as we settle into a rhythm that’s new. till then, just wander back when you can, you might find something waiting.
oh, and one other thing, thank you so much for the beautiful thoughts you spilled as the chair wrapped up its whole long first year. i am touched. deeply.
well, i wondered just how long the chair would sit vacant. what a fitting return to share this story and honor the heart of an everyday saint. thank you for that. it’s exactly the reminded of true giving, of not racing past the details or the quiet ones in the corner needed this time of year.
Paying attention, there are so many things happening in the world, things that don’t make the headlines and pardon me BAM, are so much more than “all the news that is fit to print.” We would wear ourselves out if we asked around every corner, after each intersection we drive through, after all of the mere misses and fateful connections, what does this mean? There have been too many moments in my life, where I have come to see there is so much more to life’s story than I know now, but in those moments I have caught glimpses of something beyond a thin veil that points to the interwoven nature of humanity and creation. Yet in the midst of tragedy, somehow there is something that connect Joe to St. Francis, to you and to others. I wonder was the world not yet ready to receive the wisdom of a man who didn’t sit under a bodhi tree, but on top of a fire hydrant instead. He is known by the heart of the universe for sure.It is interesting that this modern St. Francis, walked away from all the hard ways of being in his family of origin and did the most extraordinary yet ordinary act, he sat still. I hope that his story, his way of seeing the world remains close to your heart.Why did you pick up the prayer cards yesterday? In this season of darkness in the northern hemisphere in these waning days of Advent where we are invited to sit, watch and prepare for coming light, I believe that Joe could be a patron saint of Advent.I hope in my heart of hearts that I will find it in myself to take on the radical act of sitting still in this frenetic world. I hope that the distance between my head and heart is never too far apart, that I am unable to receive glimpses of everyday happenstances which point to the interconnectiveness (i think this is a new word, created for pull up a chair by slj) of this world.
my will read aloud from the paper this morning about the bird man. you were the first person i thought of. it’s so sad, and i knew you would be sad. thanks for pinning a story to the man we passed so many times on the street. thru you we saw the gentle soul who sat there with his only friends. we’ll miss him.
ah me….I have been checking in but going to a year ago…and taking one day, one year ago, to read….it is interesting as I did not pull up to table until late spring. It is an interesting and inspiring way to stay with the table. It is also interesting to read familiar names and learn more about those about the table. Anyway…I had read the story in the paper today about Joe and carried it with me through the day, little knowing that my table hostess was the journalist who wrote about him…should have though. If there is a service for Joe, I would like to be there. It would be an honor to be present to his memory. It is a blessing you are Bam, that you gave him such a sense of place and dignity inthe world. Those are invisible concepts, but it is the invisible things that carry us through – an interesting thought at this time of year when much energy is being devoted to the visable. So nice to pull up a chair today…..
Ahhhh. After visiting every day, a little too often (but without the purpose of lamcal above) like some kid in a dorm who walks hopefully past the lounge, out of her way perhaps, just to peek in and see if anyone is hanging about–here you are again.And what a story! I can’t believe that you ran into those St. Francis cards in that hour. What poetry. Our lives are all filled to bursting with poetry, if only we stop and listen and look. Thank you for listening and looking for us, with us! I didn’t see the initial article on the bird man, but what a guy. Practically a prophet, an odd prophet–but aren’t they all odd? Odd behavior is sometimes the only thing that will make people stop and reconsider their basic assumptions. And he was so right: It is just as easy to show decency as to hate. It is not hard to show, to demonstrate love, respect, and decency. It just takes a complete brain turnaround for some of us. Simple, and revolutionary, and a perfect, perfect meditation for the end of Advent. Thank you for this.
It saddens me to think that no one knew his name. Scripture tells us that God takes notice when a sparrow falls from the sky … you can be sure He took notice of Joe even though few did.
As soon as I saw the article about Mr. Zeman I thought–that was an article Barb wrote–and this man was carrying that article with him when he was hit by a car! Poor Mr. Zeman, but so sorry for your Barb, too. Yet, how poignant it must be that you were with his St. Francis cards and he was with your article at the time of the tragic accident. Boy, or boy. Powerful.
I am so glad you were with him when he died, and he was not alone.
ho mom is a great story
I received several copies of the article – links to the article sent to me by people who saw it in the Tribune and knew I would want to read it. Reading this hit me in a very deep and profound way. Haunted me for several days. Despite Mr. Zeman’s unusual expression – your article and your own understanding of what he was doing gave him validation – recognition that the public was interested in someone who contributed to our community in an unique and good manner. Thank you Mr. Zeman and to you BAM for recognizing why what he did was important.