they came on foot and on wings. one hobbled on a three-pronged cane. one pedaled her pink-and-white old-timer bicycle. a whole flock finally came down from the soupy gray sky.
they all were drawn to the fire hydrant, now empty, now nothing but a bulging spout where firetrucks would hook up their hoses should a fire ever come to the dingy gray block of western avenue, across the way from lincoln’s statue, on chicago’s north side.
but for nearly 10 years that hydrant more or less belonged to joe zeman, the stooped old man best-known as the pigeon man of lincoln square.
nearly three weeks ago, joe died. was killed when a van pulled out of a bank parking lot, and the elderly driver didn’t see the man who so often–when not covered in pigeons–faded into the shadows.
the hydrant belonged, too, to the pigeons, joe’s pigeons, the dozens and dozens who fluttered down, found peace on the sturdy limbs of the man who made like st. francis of a city.
the pigeons roost–then and now–up on the terra-cotta brow of an old boarded-up bank, or down by the corner where the street lights blink all night and day. but they don’t circle down to the hydrant anymore.
some say the pigeons are crying. some say that in the days right after joe died, the pigeons circled, cooed in a way that sounded like wailing, then dropped their heads, flew away. kept watch, but wouldn’t come down to the hydrant.
the sadness that swelled their hearts–people and pigeons, alike–could no longer be contained. nor the yearning for a proper goodbye.
so, on a balmy january sunday, just yesterday, friends and strangers–even the pigeons–came back to the hydrant.
there was no clergy at this fire-hydrant funeral of sorts. and no coffin; joe had been cremated at his family’s request, and they promise to hold a memorial in a few months. communion came in the form of squishy white bread, on sale at the aldi, passed out in single slices to the dozens who wandered by for the better part of an hour.
a city bus pulled to the curb, so the driver–who told me he whispers a prayer every time he rolls by the now-empty hydrant–could pay his respects. another one honked, from across three lanes of traffic.
even a city cop, in her squad car, pulled up to add her blessing. she was the beat cop who’s worked the precinct for the last seven years, and she used to stop by each day to visit with joe. not once, she said, did she respond to one of the callers, the complainers, who wanted joe hassled for feeding the pigeons.
before she drove off, she told me joe died with a copy of a newspaper story clutched in his hand, not tucked in his jewel bag as i’d first imagined when told by the cops he’d died with my story right there.
this whole sidewalk benediction for joe, for joe and all that he stood for, was the idea of tara theobald, a woman who sports a faux-hawk–that is a semi-mohawk, close-cropped on the sides, curly and longer in a stripe on the top–a woman who never once met or even saw zeman, but read of him, and mourned for the hole now in the weave of the city.
“he was an icon,” she told me. “he was someone taking care of the community, the animals, the corner. he showed the neighborhood what it means to care.”
hers was a simple idea. on facebook, no less, she put up a post, asking hundreds of folk to come pay their respects.
“bring bread and/or grain, and any kind words,” she wrote, “to commemorate zeman’s philosophy of charity and consideration he long evoked in the lincoln square neighborhood.”
and so, under a gray sky that seemed to be dripping fine mist, a small knot gathered. the pigeons, nearly a hundred, and the people, no more than seven or eight.
in all, there were nine loaves of bread, a bag of cracked corn, and 200 black-and-white cards that theobald had designed, printed and photocopied. each one showed a photo of joe, covered in pigeons, with the word compassion, defined: “deep awareness of others’ suffering, accompanied by the desire to alleviate it.”
beneath those words, she wrote simply: “joe zeman. 1930-2007. be the change.”
she had no solid plans for the simple sidewalk remembrance. just a loose notion to pass out a single slice of the bread, and a compassion card, to each passerby. hoping to stir up the spirit of joe, there at his hydrant.
for nearly an hour, a stream of folks flowed by. out on a warm gray sunday for a stroll, running an errand, chasing a bus, some stopped, some paused, others kept right on walking.
the sidewalk was slick from the mist. the curb was clogged with charcoal gray slush, the last bits of snow, melting.
crumbs of bread and the scattering of corn soon soaked up the spill from the mist and the snow. the pigeons returned, gobbled up bits, then roosted again.
stories were told. a refugee worker remembered how she passed by joe every morning, how his soft gentle ways infused her, reminded her how she ought to be. a young mother out walking her four-year-old stopped to say how many conversations joe and his birds had inspired. how she used him to teach her little ones how to be in the world they were just learning.
one old lady cried. a grad student, one whose teacher had penned a beautiful poem, a poem entitled, “endangered species,” a poem about joe, cleared her throat, turned toward the pigeons and began to read.
the last line of the poem is the one i can’t forget: “who is to say you cannot collect love?”
it was the city at its slushiest, grittiest, there where the pigeons do and mind all their business.
and it was there that a woman who teaches synagogue sunday school dreamed up this holy sidewalk communion, for the birds and the un-winged friends, all so very much missing an old hunched-over man who tried to teach only this:
“i’m really advertising to the public how easy it is to be good without an attitude,” he once told me. “it’s just as easy to show decency as it is to hate today.”
don’t forget joe. be the change.
blessed monday, blessed back-to-the-real-world monday. i needed to take you all to the sidewalk to see what i saw, to hear what i heard. i have a similar story in the tribune today, but i couldn’t say there all that i can say here at the table. so this one’s for you.
long as we’re here, i just wanted to say happy blessed day to mbw, another urban saint among us. she’s my kind of hero, used to leave her car unlocked every night so some homeless folk could find shelter and a soft place to sleep. she was my first best boss at children’s. i picked her to be my firstborn’s godmother, cuz hers is a soul and a wisdom any child would be so blessed to absorb.
at our house it was a rocky beginning to the week. hope yours was smoother. and here’s a prayer that all of us find what it takes to return to the real world, but still hold onto the magic of unwrapping mornings, and twinkling nights. the test is now, to find peace in the long list of to-do’s. hope the story of joe, and the hydrant, brings you a bit of what you might need this january monday.
thank you for sharingas a chaplain, we are told by many denominations that it is all right for a “lay person” to perform a baptism in emergency. Just last night I baptized a sweet little one, and although my denomination ordained me to perform this sacrament, to some, it is not proper to ordain a woman to administer such sacraments. For the family I was with last night, they were of the latter variety, yet they wanted this important sign that yes, their loved one was a child of God. I told them, that as much as they dreamed of having a baptism in a church, today we were extending church to this little one struggling for life.Perhaps the Church didn’t walk from its solid pews out to this sacred hydrant, but some did. Tara, BAM and the pigeons stood in witness to the saint who inhabited Western Avenue. Bless all who felt the urge to say bless you Joe, when so many of us have passed by many Joe’s in this world, not honoring each person’s sacred nature.
A fitting tribute to a kind-hearted soul.A word of caution … if you read the Tribune piece, don’t make the mistake I made by reading some of the comments posted. I was shocked and saddened that some hard-hearted people would say this man was a nuisance. Where is their compassion? bam … your article and the video that accompanied it was lovely. It’s a comfort to know that there are still people in the world that took the time to look into that man’s eyes and feel his heart. There … I feel better now.
geez, pjv, i am shaking, just scrolled through the comments posted after today’s story. i feel sick. i was about to write a note to the head of the internet at the tribune, to ask if maybe it’s not such a good idea to have these forums that poor hatred into the world. i am so sickened. i see joe only as good, and peaceful, and the words i just read over there are some of the sickest…….ever. my heart feels stomped on, for joe. and for a campaign toward kindness. it makes me thank heaven this sacred place is NOT linked to on the tribune site. oh my goodness. bless you all for keeping this a place where gentleness is first and foremost. sadly…..
P.S. to my earlier posting …After reading the Tribune article, I had planned to post a comment on their forum. My intent was to echo the sentiment and that, even though I had never met this man, I was moved by his story, his life and the tragedy of his death.To my surprise, I saw comments there with ugly words from uncaring and rude people. I chose not to be a part of that forum. I prefer the gentleness and grace that presides here. The only reason I posted my earlier comment was that I thought that others reading here may do the very same thing I did and I wanted to spare them.bam … I am so sorry that your beautiful story and gracious words were tramped upon by such uncaring souls. Their opinions are reflections of their dark hearts. Yours is of a different ilk.
pjv, sweetheart, and anyone else who’s interested, i was so upset by the low level–the inhumanity, really–of what i saw in some of the 55 comments on the pigeon story on the tribune website, i wrote the editor in charge of the site and asked him at what point the vitriol is stopped. he immediately deleted the entire comment board for the story, which is double-edged. it’s so sad that what might have been a beautiful conversation, even a place for readers to mourn, was cut off. among the comments, were some truly lovely thoughts, and heartfelt tributes to joe. but the folks who seem to think the internet is a playground for crude, rude, hurtful, degenerating verbal sparring seem to have ruined it. we will not let them win. it was painfully ironic that a man whose life message was gentleness was being bandied about by hard-hearted fools. honest disagreement is a beautiful thing. there was nothing honest or beautiful about many of the comments. but now they’re gone, with the poof of a single button. the editor was most grateful for my bringing it to his attention. he said it takes a village to keep the website at a decent level of discourse…..how very sad. pjv, your reaction was the same as mine. i think we were reading the site at about the same time, and just as i was leaving my reading over there, i stopped here and found your note. please know that i was already aware of what was going on, and shaken by it before i saw your comment here. you only backed up what i was thinking and feeling. all now is–i hope–calm again over on the site. phew.
My only hope is that those who posted those objectionable things come back to find their words erased and figure out that their comments were unacceptable and unfit to print.
I loved waking up to your story in the paper bam, as it informed my day in such a reflective way…..I did go to the online story to see the video and did reatd the comments, but did find them unusual in that I can’t think of a story I have read online that did not have similar crude or angry comments….actually, I was impressed with the people that rose to Joe’s defense. I tend to be a “half full glass, thank you” kind of person. The whole comment column concept allows people to express their (unhealthy) fears and anger in an anonymous format. It is the anonymity that is scary…but this is a bigger cyberspace issue. I am so glad the editor deleted the comment section…did not know that was a possibility! Good call bam….no need to encourage the fear and anger. It also speaks to the beauty of newspapers in that comments must be thought about and written and reviewed by the paper before being shared….reflection is a wiser path.
dearest lamcal, i know, that was/is the sad thing about having to take down the whole comment thing. some of the comments were truly lovely. but i couldn’t bear to see ol’ dear joe bandied about like that. he took all that garbage in his life—it is what put the hard sharp edge to his marshmallow, tender insides. and i could not let even one more jerk throw him or his pigeons around. by the last time i looked, it seemed the nasty comments were far outweighing the good ones. and even if they weren’t outweighing, they were enough to pour salt in a wound. dear joe died feeling finally remembered and i won’t let them have at him. the whole subject of the internet and what it allows is endlessly nettling and fascinating. we are here in the wild west days, before even a stop sign slows the coaches rolling through town. what i have seen on a few of the forums is that hatred seems to breed hatred. in the old days if someone had a horrible thought after reading a newspaper story, well, then, fine it went unheard beyond whoever was sitting across the table, perhaps, or on the next seat of the bus. but now the bile seems to seek each other out, and they mix it up and kaboom! the internet guru at the tribune told me the hardest part of his job is keeping the reader comments civil. the whole rotten soup of reality tv, internet frothing on forums, has truly–i think–led to a disintegration of a moral core. this morning as i was stroking teddy’s back, trying to gently wake him up for the day, i wondered if i was doing him some harm, teaching him to be so gentle in a world that is so harsh. of course i know the answer to that, and of course i won’t change my ways, probably only get fiercer, but geez, isn’t it so sad that we need to ask that. i had an illusion last night of how cool it would be if we could get like a million kind commenters to add their kindness to that tribune forum, and blow the meanies out of the water….kill em with kindness. or something. anyway, it is the real stuff of this day and age that we are kneading through the dough. i’ve said all i need to say.