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.