you never know the lessons you teach
bear with me. it might be worth it.
i had no intention of returning here to the pigeon man, but then i walked to my mail box the other day.
it’s not so common anymore for that little box down at the newspaper where i work to be filled with not just junk, but real live letters. oh, there are always a few, often rather sweet. but not like the one i got the other day, not really an epistle, a letter i keep coming back to, a letter i read and re-read because, on so many levels, it calls out to me.
it was written by a man who grew up not far from where the pigeon man–his real name is joe zeman, by the way–had his first newspaper stand. a little wooden shack, basically, at a busy downtown corner. that corner just happened to be near cabrini-green, the infamous public-housing project in chicago, where life could be, well, hellish.
gunshot was a sound that every child knew, knew to duck for cover when it came. elevators had long stopped working in the 15- to 18-story towers, so you ran for your life up stairwells that reeked of urine, or worse, and prayed you didn’t run into someone out looking for trouble.
the man who wrote the letter–his name is dwight taylor–was a kid there, lived there till he was 17, charged with armed robbery and murder, and went to jail. he sat in jail 11 months, he told me, till they finally let him out, not guilty after all.
here’s his letter, dated december 20, 2007:
my name is dwight taylor. i am a product of the infamous cabrini green housing projects. in the mid 60’s, my friends and i used to walk east on division street to rush street to shine shoes. there was a shack on the northeast corner of the intersection of division & lasalle. a man would always stand outside of that shack and feed the pigeons. there were times we would make fun of that man.
as time progressed, we would walk past that shack and just speak and keep on walking. as i grew older, i began to realize the significance of the man on that corner. i began to think about what he was doing on that corner.
i recall him being swamped with pigeons on just about every part of his body. i then came to the realization that he was not only doing a service for God, he was doing something from his heart. i came to realize his heart was not the size of the average person.
considering the minimal love and affection i was receiving at home, he was a blessing in disguise. mr. zeman will never know what impact he had on my life. as you are probably aware, life in the projects is no joke.
the many times we walked past mr. zeman’s shack, he will never know i grew to really appreciate the presence of him. i began to appreciate the presence of him because of a deficit of love and understanding i never received at home. when i witnessed true love, compassion and generosity being exchanged between mr. zeman and his pigeons, i realized i was truly blessed that God directed me on that path on division street.
my sister called me thursday afternoon to inform me of his demise. when i logged onto your website [the tribune’s], i saw a man i hadn’t seen in many years. nevertheless, it was the same saint i remember many years ago on division & lasalle street.
he will be no stranger to the many wings where he is going. especially considering the many wings he had down here.
i called dwight the other day, told him i was deeply touched by his letter. asked if i could share it here, and with the letters to the editor at the tribune. i asked, too, a bit about his life today.
dwight is 52. he has four daughters, the oldest graduated from purdue university, the youngest is a sophomore at the university of notre dame. the middle two are in collge, too; one at indiana university, and the other at southern indiana university.
dwight says he’s had some financial troubles of late, so his email wasn’t working. said he’d graduated from technical school, worked at motorola, in the cellular division. but then, he said, he’d broken his neck in a freak accident–reaching for something up high on a shelf–and had to learn to walk again.
i asked if he was some kind of minister, or pastor, or whether he did some kind of preaching, because his letter sure read like that of someone who could pack a punch before the folks in the pews got one bit wiggly.
he laughed. said he gets asked that all the time. he’s not any kind of pastor, he said, just a man who says what he sees.
dwight’s story is sticking to me. like the best sort of shadow, it’s clinging all throughout the day, even through the weekend.
i couldn’t wait to let you read it too.
gives me goosebumps to think an old man cloaked in feathers could be a beacon of loving kindness to a kid growing up where love was scarce.
and that kid was smart enough to figure out just what the lesson was, and use it, a shaft of light on his murky trail, to escape what might have been.
but he didn’t stop there: he went on to live a life, and spew a brand of wisdom, that made me think he must have been a preacher, for the lesson he was teaching me.
you never know, sometimes, that you bumped into a teacher, until you realize, you just can’t shake the lesson.
dear mr. taylor, thank you oh so deeply. and mr. zeman, too. you’re quite a pair of wise ones, and you’ve shined a mighty light here on my ever-winding trail.
forgive me for a third take on the pigeon man. but i couldn’t not share the letter. i left it out all weekend for my boys to read. maybe in light of the few sad souls (on the tribune’s website last week) who found the pigeon stories worthy of the smallest thoughts, i found dwight’s letter so extraordinary. i am endlessly amazed by everyday saints, mr. taylor among them. your thoughts, friends.
Your original article on Mr. Zeman was ,of course, right on the money
as you wrote about the sincerity of his vocation. How satisfying to receive and share with us such an impacting and gratifying letter, really.
It confirmed what you had long suspected deep down , that this man
was a special soul here to teach us.
Monday, January 14, 2008 – 09:23 AM
“you never know, sometimes, that you bumped into a teacher……”
I learn from every thought you throw out there, dear bam. (Forgive the sport metaphor)
Monday, January 14, 2008 – 04:28 PM
ahem, ms njk, sometimes you DOOOOOO know when you bumped into a teacher. sometimes you bump into a gym teacher who in the middle of cat and mouse, or cat and cheese, or mouse and cheese or whatever that quintessential lab game was, takes time out for a life lesson. and there you are driving home from far far away school, and your 5-year-old from the back seat pipes up about the wonderful marvelous teacher who was teaching life lessons in class that day, and you just about drive off lake shore drive, because you are soo busy taking in the wonderment of this amazing teacher who you never ever want to lose touch of, because you cannot believe what she is bringing to the life of your firstborn. and then miracle of miracles, you find out you have NOT lost touch. and all along she has been there, at your back, breathing her magnificence into your every day. only you didn’t know it. but you did know, the minute you laid eyes and ears on her, that she was some extraordinary teacher, the likes of which makes you tingle so with blessing……
Monday, January 14, 2008 – 06:11 PM
Oh dear….I am back to reflecting on the beauty of newspapers here…but I just spent an emotional moment supping at “everydaysoup” and reflecting on the beauty and value of newsprint there! Let’s just start with Joe, selling newspapers and providing quiet inspiration to a neighborhood kid… and then we move to Joe providing inspiration to a wonderful journalist who has the exquisite sense of honoring and blessing the odds and ends of our world…and then we go back to neighborhood kid’s sister who reads the paper and calls her brother… and then that “neighborhood kid grown to be a man” who calls the journalist to share the struggles of his life’s journey which was inspired by the man who sold newspapers, cared for pigeons, and carried around laminated copies of the article written by the exquisite journalist……honestly, this all takes my breath away. Life is so wonderfully mysterious and beautiful. Thank you so much Lady of the Odds and Ends!
Long live the printed word and the newspaper…can you imagine not getting it one morning? You will need to go have soup to reflect on that….
Monday, January 14, 2008 – 07:40 PM
Hats off to Dwight Taylor–he raised his own flock with love, as his offspring are really doing well for themselves at their good colleges. And, now we know that Joe Zeman was doing his pigeon work even when he had another business. And, that it had an impact on Dwight and demonstrated love.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008 – 12:09 AM
forgive you? no miss bam, bless you and mr. taylor and the pigeon man. see, the world here spins on a different axis, and i think-percieving the warmth from all-that we’re just so blessed to sit and shine right along. and to think mr. taylor, with his many trials-takes the pieces from such a shattering of an early life, and holds them up in a way to magnify beauty. amazing. hope he reads here too, hope he magnifies more, sweet, wise man. all in the day, such love. thanks. take care-
Wednesday, January 16, 2008 – 07:34 AM
I logged onto your blog for the first time a few minutes ago with the intention of seeking advice, if that’s something one can do on a blog, and was totally amazed to see that familiar picture in front of me. I thank you again for all the beautiful prose you and others have written about Joe Zeman (“Brother”, as he was known in the family). The letter from Dwight Taylor was amazing.
Yes, Brother did have a news stand on Division and LaSalle for many years and I am told had many run-ins with children and adults alike from Cabrini Green. Lacking in social skills, there wasn’t alot of understanding between them. Dwight, I can’t tell you how much it means to know that there was one person there who saw him for who he was, just someone trying to be good and show love to those who rarely received it. Thank you.
I am in the midst of cleaning out Joe’s apartment which is a longer task than I had counted on because he was a “saver”. Some things are going to family, some to The Salvation Army, some to be saved for his memorial service and some that I don’t know what to do with. I guess I too, can’t throw out anything that might be useful to someone.
What I haven’t figured out yet is what to do with all of the wild birdseed and rice that he had stock up on to feed his friends. Could someone help me brainstorm for ideas? There’s at least 2 big bags of wild birdseed and several small bags of rice. Would Lincoln Park Zoo be interested? Ideas will be appreciated.
I’ll check back at this site or I think Mary has my email address.
Blessings to all of you.
Thursday, January 17, 2008 – 05:37 PM
dear dear marilyn, imagine how surprised–and delighted–i am to find you pulling up a chair here. i think the zoo is a brilliant idea. or i’m sure we could find someone who is tending to the birds at joe’s hydrant. or maybe i could ship it down to dwight, wouldn’t that be lovely? i will help you do whatever sounds best to you and your blessed family. can you believe the outpouring? can you believe how many people joe so deeply touched. as i wrote above, you never know the lessons you teach. i imagine joe beaming wherever he is. come back anytime, you are so so welcome here. blessings, b
Thursday, January 17, 2008 – 07:57 PM
In the mid sixties, as we walked east on Division street in Chicago going to shine shoes on the Gold Coast (Rush Street), we would pass by Mr. Joe Zeman. Mr. Zeman had a paper stand at the intersection of Division & Lasalle. He fed the pegions. Eventually, he sold his stand and set up shop in the Logan Square area of Chicago. He would sit on a red fire hydrant and continued feeding his pigeons until his accidental death December 21, 2007. It will be seven years this Sunday since he made his transition to Heaven.
dear dwight, this is SO beautiful. and i remember getting your beautiful beautiful letter….i am going to go back and read this essay, and hold you close to my heart…..
bless you, dear dear dwight. and thank you for coming to find this blessing written to you and for you…..you are truly beautiful….
Thank you bam. My family wishes you and your family a Merry Christmas and a safe and prosperous New Year.