The Bird Man of Central Park

Seventh in a series of vignettes based on my work as an occupational therapist with military veterans in New York.

There was a bird at the window, tapping. The heat pipe radiator squeezed between the bed and the wall had hissed itself awake, as it always did at dawn, steaming the window, which then frosted in overlapping snowflake patterns that would finally melt only when that one glimpse of pale sunlight peaked over the brownstone opposite around noon. The bird was tapping its hard black beak on the frosted window, as if it thought the glass was a sheet of ice covering a puddle somehow stood up vertical. No more unusual, certainly, than other adjustments one must make to survive in the city, an aviary that features electrified perches, daylight at night, noxious fog, hurtling metal boxes on wheels….

Terrence DeKalb lay inside the window on a creaky single frame bed, his enormous bulk napkined by a wool blanket that left his feet sticking out, a situation only partially assuaged by heavy wool hiking socks. He waved a beefy hand at the window and whispered, “shoo,” as if to a lover. But the bird paid him no mind. So he reclined there inches from its insistent pecking, observing the performance cock-eyed. This was a method he’d learned from birds without realizing he had done so.   The frosted pane blurred the bird’s shape, made it just an insistent shadow. He guessed a sparrow, maybe of the white-throated variety. The bird paused, as if listening. DeKalb waited, too. He could never tell if in moments like this there was some kind of communion, sharing for an instant the nature of a feathered thing, the exhilarating emptiness of avian consciousness that must be like some exquisite awakened exaltation. Thought like flight and vice versa.

It was a moment of not even breathing. He imagined himself the mountain over which the blackbird flew in that poem taped to his refrigerator, 20 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. But he could not hold his breath or hold the thought forever. It was so hard to focus. And with that the bird threw open its fisted self and was gone, leaving only the milky window, the gray walls, the hissing radiator, the overburdened cot, and a man exhausted – even after ten hours abed – beyond fatigue.

DeKalb was tired for a biological reason that sleep could not cure. His muscles, even during the night, chewed away at themselves. The chemicals that made up his body had gone rogue, lactic acid eroding the motor cells even of his toes and eyelids.   Any effort at coordinated movement involved a mighty heave of courage. To climb out of bed required a siege mentality. Every morning, he fought this lonely war. But the bird, he imagined, had come as a courier meant to call him forth to the day, and for this herald he would gather his dwindling resources and again attempt to do what was needed.

He followed a routine laid out serendipitously over the years but rigidly adhered to now, each step measured for economy of motion, for energy conservation. Donning his clothes incorporated an evaluation of gas in the tank, a calculation of what might be available today in the way of gross motor skill. If it had only been about him, he would never have bothered. It would have been so easy to just lie there listening to the radiator until the hissing faded away. But wild things with the brilliant energies of flight and song depended upon his appearance on each wintry morning. So for that he gathered whatever momentum he could marshal and sallied forth to the park.

The tedious process of dressing, then daring the negotiation of two rickety flights of narrow stairs, the heavy metal door to the street, and the icy stoop left him dizzy and gasping. But he forced himself to go on until at last his feet found their rhythm, shuffling along with an unthinking regularity. Bundled in his stained and pockmarked down jacket, in his khaki slacks over long johns, the old fedora with ear flaps, water-proofed boots and wool gloves with their fingers cut out for dexterity’s sake, DeKalb made his way to the park entrance where he paused to suck at the searingly cold air and delight at the twin vapor trails streaming from his nose. His old lungs still pumping, pushing oxygen out to the remnant cells that still cared, those that had not yet rebelled against their host.

In his backpack, he hauled a pound of lard, Manteca, suet, whatever you want to call it, wrapped in butcher paper. The front pocket held his medicine bottles filled now with sunflower seeds, kernels of corn, peanut butter and nuts. And in the crook of one arm, he carried a new feeder for a dark corner of the Ramble, meant to replace one torn down by greedy squirrels. DeKalb had spent months perfecting a pest-proof feeder and felt that his latest invention was the simplest, most economical and elegant contraption he had yet devised. But squirrels acting in gangs might still launch themselves from ice-stiffened branches and drag the thing to the ground with relentless, determined leaps, unless he found the perfect place to hang it.

Placement was everything, yet there simply wasn’t enough clear space amidst the boulders, pin oaks, and barberry bushes to deny his enemies a launching ramp. Yes, the squirrels were his enemies, but only because at an early stage DeKalb had chosen sides, recognizing the necessity of narrowing one’s ambitions within the realm of the possible. He had met a young man who patrolled the city with a net, capturing feral cats and seeking homes for them in the suburbs. School children and old maids brought peanuts to benches all over the park to feed the ravening squirrels. But managing the needs of the city’s aerial occupants was not so straightforward a proposition. Each breed of bird had its own proclivities and tastes, its own favorite food. He understood the over-wintering types – the chickadees, the sparrows, the cardinals and jays – and made sure to bring the easy to crack sunflower seeds and grain for them. But his choice entailed attention to the specialized diets of migrating flocks, too – protein-rich grubs for the mergansers and snow geese, sugar water for hummingbirds – though in the dark months of deep winter those flocks were long gone, and it was just the birds he called the residents he served.

It was not enough to bring food, of course. He had learned where to place it, how to shelter perches from careening hawks, how to make this unnatural provision seem to have grown from the earth. So he smeared the crunchy peanut butter the downy woodpeckers loved as high as he could reach in the seams of a hickory, he scattered seeds on the wind, he had even concocted this sling-shot apparatus he would take on its trial run today, hoping to wing a knob of suet far out over the high limb of a tulip tree where it would catch and hang like a spent yo yo only creatures with feathers could reach. It would take a mighty heave; he knew it would tax his last reserve. But then if he could just get to the subway and make it down to 23rd Street for his weekly infusion, then he’d recover. He would lounge idly in the warmth of the infusion room, amidst the other systemically-wounded veterans snuffling and snoring in reclining chairs, as the fiery chemicals pulsed into his veins. For another couple of days he wouldn’t have to face that impending horror, the ending he expected (having seen it happen to others), when he would lapse at last, a mummy slowly stiffening on an icy park bench. And while he was away for his hospital sleep over, his feathery charges would have the sustenance they needed to tide them over from any brewing blizzard.

The epidemiologist called it genetic, this slow muscle-wasting death march of his. Mitochondrial disease. But that was the usual BS, delivered with an administrative wink, since the VA had chosen to treat this incurable and purportedly hereditary illness as 100% service connected. Because a hundred flights dumping plumes of Agent Orange on a tropical jungle, wearing just a bandanna to cover your face when you leaned out the chopper door to tip an emptying barrel…. Even the VA didn’t fuck with that any more. They tagged it a presumptive service connection, edging towards a sideways admission. But that was just the usual bureaucracy. Nothing they were ever going to do would extinguish the sapping fire in his organs, the wailing fatigue in his muscles, the spinning colors or the splitting headaches. And nothing he was ever going to do would pay for the voluptuous rainforest he’d burned to wilted desert with those billowing orange clouds that had stifled the breath from every living thing they touched. Now even with eyes closed he saw them, all the time, flocks of birds tumbling out of the air.

Maybe you ran across him that day down the hill from Belvedere Castle? Say you had finished your jog around the reservoir and chose to add a little fartlek variety to the morning, whipping up and down the narrow lanes of the Ramble? But then you slipped on a shard of ice and thought better of your plan, slowing to a walk with your gloved hands further sheathed in the pockets of your running jacket, as you pretended for one moment that this rectangle of woods compressed between walls of brick was a wild place, laughed at your silly pretension and turned to sorting your plans for the busy day ahead. And there he stood.

Later you recounted how this bear of a man, wrapped in ballooning down clothing so he looked like some giant Eskimo statue or something paused beneath a mighty tulip tree and began with what seemed like great ceremony and titanic effort to turn on his axis, grimly accelerating as a rope with what looked like a bowling ball or something at its end swung out in the air and then with a sudden upturning release the slingshot or whatever it was soared straight up on the energy of the spin, trailing some kind of peg or hook, shot over a high branch above the path, caught in a fork and then hung swinging like a gob of phlegm far up and suspended way out in the air.

And then the man sat flat down in the crusty snow hunched like a melting snowman but breathing hard and vapor rising like smoke from his head so you wondered if you should ask and did that familiar hesitant half step forward with a hand out but then stopped dead in gathering wonder as first one then another bird flitted down and landed right on him. A ragged pigeon, then another, on one arm. A mourning dove, a flock of little brown jobbies, on his knees and shoulders. A seagull that seemed as big as an eagle alighted right on top of his hat and let loose with its caustic laugh. I mean in like one minute this guy was positively festooned with birds! They reached in his pockets and seeds sprayed all around. More birds flitted in from everywhere it seemed. And you’re gonna think I’m nuts, but when he came to a stand again, it was almost as if they lifted him up. They were all flapping their wings and grabbing him with their little claws and their beaks.

Back on his feet he stretched out his arms like a hulking fat scare crow, except it was just to give them a better perch. They ate from his outstretched hands. The seagull hopped off his head and stood squawking for a moment at his feet. It flew around him in a circle, then sailed away. I followed his eyes up to that thing he’d thrown in the tree, and already a couple woodpeckers were perched there, hammering away at whatever was in it. I wanted to say something, to speak to him, but he seemed all wrapped up in his work, and I didn’t want to chase the birds away. He was still standing there, and birds were still coming, when I left. I know you won’t believe me, it was just amazing.

No, stop, I totally get it. I’ve seen him, too. A lot of people have. Congratulations, grasshopper, and welcome to New York. No one knows who he is or where he came from or why he does it, but you can consider yourself baptized.  You have now witnessed one of the city’s great unsung wonders, a street angel.  We call him the Bird Man of Central Park.