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Tag: pigeon man of lincoln square

musings on sainthood . . .

soon-to-be-beheaded st. babs

i’m actually in amherst, massachusetts, this morning, about to traipse over to the homestead, the butter-yelllow brick house where emily dickinson was born and penned her nearly 1,800 poems, and i’m even hoping for a peek into the upstairs room where it all flowed from her inkwell, a room not normally on the itinerary of those who tiptoe in hushed tones through the hallways of emily’s house on the hill. but with an eye toward next week’s all saints day (a day that’s always captured my imagination), i spent a bit of this week musing on sainthood, just another name for what this world needs abundantly, urgently, in the form of plain old honest-to-goodness holiness, empathy, unheralded kindness, and megadoses of humility.

saint (n.)

early 12c. as an adjective, seinte, “holy, divinely inspired, worthy of worship,” used before proper names (Sainte Marian Magdalene, etc.), from Old French saint, seinte “holy, pious, devout,” from Latin sanctus “holy, consecrated,” past participle of sancire “consecrate.” It displaced or altered Old English sanct, which is directly from Latin sanctus.

i’ve had my eye on the saints since i was a wee thing. in the catholic imagination of my first and second grade, i thought hard about the haloed ones held up in the pages of my religion books. we were schooled to be demure, kind (endlessly kind), and enamored with Jesus (always dashingly handsome with his ambered skintones and long flowing locks in the full-color catechism primers, which wisely omitted most of the stories of tortures to which the anointed had had to submit). 

every night, i prayed to be saintly and attempted what i thought might be a postural shortcut: i began by smoothing my patchwork covers, then i’d lie as still as the mummies that scared me in the darkened chambers of chicago’s labyrinthine field museum of natural history, and then––the clincher––i clasped my hands in my best saintly imitation and hoped to move not even a squiggle during the night, to awake still clasped in prayerful pose. it seemed the first in a series of requisite feats on the dusty pilgrimage to sainthood.

by day, i practiced my fledgling aspirations on a lady bug, my fumbled attempt at assisian communing with all of creation. i built her a village––complete with steepled church––and ordained her high priestess of the cardboard hamlet. i checked on her last thing at night, and first thing in the morning, making sure her wings still opened and closed, and that she hadn’t succumbed to inside air. then i let her go. opened the window and unfurled the chant: “go little lady, go free!” and off into the orchard behind our house she flew, the happiest well-loved ladybug that ever there was. 

since i’ve long been an ecumenicist at heart, and don’t subscribe to any of the ecclesial hoops and tangles that dictate who’s in and who’s out in the saintly department, i go about my saint-watching by intuition and impulse. i know a saint when i see one or sense one. a saint to me is just another name for someone whose deep-down goodness is pure as pure can be. while catholics insist on a step-ladder to sainthood, other world religions seem just as intent on holiness but without the boxes to check. according to page 8033 of the thomson gale encyclopedia of religion (2nd edition):

“Historians of religion have liberated the category of sainthood from its narrower Christian associations and have employed the term in a more general way to refer to the state of special holiness that many religions attribute to certain people. The Jewish hasid or tsaddiq, the Muslim waliy, the Zoroastrian fravashi, the Hindu rsi or guru, the Buddhist arahant or bodhisattva, the Daoist shengren, the Shinto kami and others have all been referred to as saints.”

the best of the saints (hasids, waliys, fravashis, gurus, bodhisattvas, shengrens, kamis), in my book, are the quotidian ones. the ones whose everyday garb keeps them from being noticed. except for their kindness, the certain radiance they leave in their wake, the sense that something holy has just brushed by, you might not notice the saintly among us. 

but they leave behind a mark, a certain mark, a change of heart, a new expanse of seeing. we become better, bigger of heart and soul, kinder, gentler, maybe quieter, certainly softer, because of them. that’s saintly to me. 

among the saints i’ve known in my life, there was the old wrinkled man who perched on a fire hydrant befriending the pigeons. “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,” joe zeman, the pigeon man of lincoln square once told me. 

and there was the foster mother who’d taken in nearly 100 newborns, and who was sitting by a hospital crib when she looked up and told me: “i’m no mother teresa,” she insisted, wrapping her fingers around a metal rung of the crib, as her littlest toddler was being infused with drip after drip of cancer-fighting chemo. “i always think of something i saw in the New World (a catholic newspaper) in which a columnist was saying, `i’d hate to be in line at heaven’s gate behind mother teresa when God looks down and says, `you could have done more.’”

even now, when it’s no longer my job to scour the landscape in search of those sorts of souls whose goodness leaps off the newspaper page, i find saints in the unlikeliest places: behind the cash register at the grocery store; in the catering office of my college kid’s dining hall; at a check-in gate at america’s busiest airport; in the lady down the alley who never dresses in anything fancier than her mud-stained sweats but who routinely writes checks for thousands of dollars for families in trouble, be it escape from afghanistan or domestic abuse. (a secret i discovered only by listening closely, and connecting a dot or two.)

so what makes a saint a saint, or a hasid a hasid, or a bodhisattva a bodhisattva

is it answering to an otherworldly call, the whisper of the holy divine? is it believing that the glimmering lights of the public square are simply distractions; turning instead to a quieter code, one infused with boundless empathy more than anything: love as you would be loved? is it the courage to call out injustice, to muster the chutzpah to say, “this isn’t right. you’re treating her poorly. your words are scarring her, leaving welts where they’ve hit her.” is it emanating a peacefulness, a serenity, that comes from knowing yours is a timeless eternal, a blessing for ever and all time?

what makes a saint a saint, what makes holiness holy? 

it’s a question worth asking, but mostly it’s a question to put to work. what are the scant few things you might include in, say, a manual for the would-be saint, the very title of a poem i left here on the old maple table a few years ago, after coming upon them in a book i was reviewing for the tribune. i’ll leave the first lines here again, as a place to begin your own musings on sainthood. 

Manual for the Would-Be Saint
by Susan L. Miller

The first principle: Do no harm.
The second: The air calls us home.
Third, we must fill the bowls of others
before we drain our own wells dry.
The fourth is the dark night; the fifth
a subtle scent of smoke and pine.
The sixth is awareness of our duties,
the burnt offering of our own pride.
Seventh, we learn to pray without ceasing.
Eighth, we learn to sense while praying.
The ninth takes time: it is to discover
what inside the seed makes the seed increase.

(the poem goes on for 14 more lines…but you might be inclined to pen your own…)

because i’m so worried about the world, and the evils and horrors that seem to be steamrolling goodness, i’m thinking we might put forth a collective effort here, outline a framework for how we might bring a bolus of holiness into this world. have at it. i’ll chime in too…

what do you see or sense when you encounter someone you’re sure is steeped in a certain holiness, another name for the sainted?

emily d., the belle of amherst

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:

hello barbara,

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.

dwight taylor

gary, indiana

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.

fire-hydrant funeral

fire-hydrant funeral

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.

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.