Time to Settle Accounts
March 17, 2011: Tuppence a bag.
I left the house and headed out the garage toward the alley on my walk to the office, a thermos filled with a just-blended strawberry-banana-apple juice smoothie in my backpack and a pretzel roll in a bag in my hand, just in case I ran into somebody looking for food, which happens a lot in the neighborhood. Halfway down the alley there was an aggressive flapping of birds above me! A swarm of pigeons and lost seagulls circling overhead, and then darting down toward the ground. I kept my eyes skyward as I walked, wary of droppings, and so it was a bit before I looked ahead again and located the source of the chaos.
A man was standing at a dumpster, his back to me. The dumpster was propped open, and with both hands deep inside, the man was chucking food from the dumpster out to the corner of the alley, where the eastbound pathway from my garage to Damen Ave. meets a north-south alley. Holy cow! I thought. I’d seen bits of old food scattered right at that area many times before, and had always wondered, How in the heck does this happen? Half-eaten pizza, pieces of bread, hot dogs without buns, chicken tenders, potato chips, French fries… this isn’t scraps from one single meal. How does all of this food end up on this little alley corner?
Pieces of the puzzle started to click when I felt confident in the man’s identity, even with his back to me. There is a neighborhood man who, if you’ve spent any time wandering Wicker Park and Bucktown, you’ve seen. He is a short man with matted hair under his ever-present toque, and he shuffles around the neighborhood with a crooked smile, his eyes looking elsewhere. If you say hello, he will say hello and laugh and wish you a good day in his mumbling voice, but even if you are the type to say hello to folks, you still might not say hello to him, because he seems lost in a different world.
The man at the dumpster turned around, and I was right: it was this man. He finished heaving food, and then took a seat next to the dumpster on an overturned milk carton, eating a half-eaten piece of bread. I stepped around the birds as they pecked at the food, and, still curious about the “Why?” of it all, approached him.
“I’ve been wondering for years how that food got there,” I said.
“Just me,” he said.
“You do this every day?”
“Every day,” he said. “Look at them,” he said, and I looked. “They hungry. Look.”
I looked again at the birds, and suddenly they were not a ferocious pack of Hitchcockian killers but a sad bunch of starving kin. The man was smiling as always, a toothy smile with what teeth were there, and he said, “Those white ones are a mudderfucker, man. They can swallow a whole chicken bone, just swallow it, one gulp just like that and it’s gone.” I looked at the seagulls, white with gray wings, big, big birds. “Just gobble ‘em up,” he said. “Don’t know how they do it.”
“How long have you been doing this?” I asked.
A car barreled beeping down the alley, but then the driver recognized the man and flashed a peace sign, and the man said “Alright! Alright!” and the driver turned and barreled down the alley away from us. After the car, my elderly neighbor Josephine and her dog walked past, and she pulled her dog away from the birds and smiled at the man. “Hi Grandma!” the man shouted.
“Boy, they like you, huh!” she said.
The birds continued pecking away at the ground, oblivious of the car or the woman and her dog or me or the sun or anything other than morsels of food. “Yeah,” the man continued, “when you hear them squawking like that, it’s just me feeding them. They need to eat.” He shrugged coyly. “It’s just garbage. Nobody’s eating it.”
I looked down, remembering the bread I was carrying. “Want some bread?”
“Sure,” he said. “It will get eaten.” He tore pieces off of the roll, eating some and tossing some to the birds. “Alright birds,” he said when the roll was finished, “that’s all. No more food.
“They’re beautiful, I think,” he said. “Just God’s creatures, you know? He gave them wings. I think, ‘Why didn’t you give us wings?’ Wouldn’t you love to fly?”
He chuckled. “But no: he gave them the wings. Gave them feet, too. They can walk and they can fly. And fast! Yep,” he said, looking back to the ground, “pretty amazing.”
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