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As I’m taping closed a box of books, contemplating moving to Philadelphia and beginning a new life there with my family, I find that I am reflecting on the eight years I lived in Seattle and the apartment where I proposed to my wife, where we brought our daughter home from the birthing centre, where the three of us lived for Grace’s first three years. A nine hundred square foot two-bedroom apartment in a turn-of-the-century building.
From our apartment in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood you can walk to two grocery stores, and a variety of restaurants—Ethiopian, Indian, Mexican, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and more. You can walk to Cal Anderson Park and its children’s playground and fountain which resembles Mount Rainier, or visit one of dozens of bars—with pool tables, back patios for warm weather, bocce ball, shuffleboard, video games, you name it.
For the six years we lived in the apartment we witnessed on an almost daily basis The Bird Man rolling his cart to the parking lot behind Dick’s Drive-In and tossing chicken bones and bread crusts to seagulls, crows and pigeons that swooped down to the rutted lot and pecked at what the Bird Man fed them.
Now, as I write these words, that parking lot is being excavated. A new building full of new “units” will be there the next time I visit the city. Our bedroom windows face the Dick’s parking lot, and we used to stand at those windows while the Bird Man seemed to have brought together every bird in the city. The screeching of the bird calls and the fluttering of their wings made for wonderful theatre — as if our lives were a play: The Bird Man Cometh.
The other night the parking spaces on either side of Dick’s iconic Drive-In were roped off so that Macklemore — the stage name for the American hip hop artist Ben Haggerty — could shoot a video. Hundreds of young people gathered on Broadway to watch the police shut down Broadway from Denny to the Olive-John intersection and formed a boundary that made room for the Macklemore crew. Fifty people were partying on the roof of our apartment building. Hundreds more congregated on neighbouring rooftops. It was almost as if all those people had gathered to say goodbye to me and my little family.
I formed some of the most important friendships of my life here. Halfway through grad school and a year into living in the city, I began working as staff at a halfway house for the mentally ill; after graduating I kept that job and took a variety of second jobs to supplement that income, the worst of which was a job on which I lasted one day only — telemarketing. I manned a phone in an office in the University District and read from a script. Afraid my life might be extinguished if ever I returned to that dreary office, I never went back. Downtown, for several years, I taught a writing class in the King County Jail for no pay and helped prepare student inmates for the General Education Development Tests. In 2008, I accepted a position as managing editor of a scientific journal. I felt fortunate to find that job during the financial crisis that year. Two years later, when the recession was still making life difficult, funding for my position never materialized, and the day after I was laid off, my daughter was born. For a year I collected unemployment and applied, unsuccessfully, for jobs for which I was qualified. This frustrating and humbling experience taught me that work and dignity are so closely aligned they may as well be thought of as fire and air, the one dependent on the other. The following summer, in 2011, after a year of loving my daughter and hating myself for being unemployed, I found a job as an apprentice mason. I kept that job for almost two years, until I was running my own jobs.
Early one morning at a stone yard in Issaquah, Washington, while climbing on a rock pile selecting rocks for the loader to put in my truck, I slipped and felt something pull in my lower back. Up to that moment my body had done a lot of things I’d asked it to. For six seasons I built granite staircases from rocks I quarried from the woods surrounding the trails that streaked up and over the Adirondack Mountains and through the valleys between the peaks. Add to that the two years I landscaped in Albuquerque’s affluent Highlands, and the last two years as an apprentice and then as a mason, and the sum total equaled the history of my own labor.
When I thought I wanted to keep working as a mason, back in December, I sought out a masonry company in Philadelphia, where my wife and I wanted to move, in part, to be nearer our parents, siblings and cousins, and so our daughter could have a sense of the broader family. I met with the owner of the masonry company, who after that conversation pursued me and offered me a job as the project manager for his company. The salary and benefits combined with our other reasons for the move and culminated in our preparations to move across the country.
One evening before the move east, I saw the Bird Man doing his thing. He was chucking chicken bones and small pieces of food into the hole in the ground where the teeth of an enormous excavator hovered motionless over the fenced in construction site. I bolted out of the apartment building and went to talk to him. By the time I caught him he had rolled his cart back to Broadway and was heading south on foot. I mentioned an article that had been written about him years ago in The Seattle Times.
“It was in The Stranger, I think.”
“Maybe that’s right.” I asked him what he thought of the way the neighbourhood was changing.
“I trust the animals more than I do human beings.” As he talked, he waved his right hand in the air. Bits of food were stuck to his fingers. “When animals kill they do it cause they hungry. Man lies, cheats, and kills for sport.”
“What do you think of the new excavation back there?” I gestured to what used to be the big parking lot behind Dick’s.
“That just threw me for a ringer. Now I just toss it right down in there,” he said, meaning the hole in the ground. “They dive in there for it. But I got me five or six spots. They follow me all the way to Harborview Hospital and home. They got me on surveillance.”
“The birds do?”
“Yeah, them seagulls. The crows, too.”
“What got you doing this?”
“I used to have anxiety and panic attacks. I finally got some medication — Zoloft. Used to throw scraps to the birds, and it just turned into this. It’s about fifteen generations of birds I been feeding now for years. I know the owners of the Indian food restaurant down there — they let me take the scraps, chicken bones and that, as long as I don’t leave a mess. Seagulls eat anything — they greedy. If I don’t show up crows will eat the pigeons. I seen it happen. I don’t buy much — cat food and dog food — them birds ain’t prejudiced like some people.”
I laugh at the truth of his joke, and he laughs along.
“Only thing scares the crows is the peregrine falcon. I seen one catch a pigeon. The seagulls like scavengers, eat anything, and the crows get a hold of chicken bones and suck the bone marrow off ‘em. There’s no waste with these birds. They eat everything. Predator and prey — that’s the way the whole world work. And you don’t know how it go. Sometimes a predator become prey. Gets eaten by another predator. One time seen four or five crows gang up on a squirrel, that’s rare, but seen it out in Renton where my father stay at. Whole ‘nother species out there. Still got hummingbirds in Renton. There used to be hummingbirds here in Capitol Hill between Union and Spring. Man has encroached so much now that ain’t no more hummingbirds here. Man is the worst, but when it comes to man versus animal man is going to win.”
“Humans they will plot, steal.”
“They do sometimes.”
“Crows are smart — at UW they did a study said crows are the smartest. Pigeons go after food out in the street not paying attention. My father used to call the crows nigger birds. I call them brothers. They walk like brothers. Crows are the only birds say a prayer for they dead.”
“How do they do that?”
“When one of them dies they say a prayer for it. I seen one hit by a car and the others above it sitting there on a telephone wire praying. Didn’t recognize it first time I seen it but then I seen it again. Sure ‘nough they was sitting there bowing and saying a prayer for they dead. Like they got souls.”
“Maybe they do.”
“Maybe.” He pointed at me scribbling on my notepad. “What you gonna do with them notes?”
“I’m working on some kind of goodbye-love letter to the city.”
“And you want me in it?” He roars with laughter.
“What you do is sort of magical.”
He smiles. “Got to admit there’s some magic in it.”
As I walked back to the apartment, where my belongings were stacked in boxes in the living room, bedroom, and kitchen, I thought about that line — Like they got souls — and it made me wonder if birds could have souls.
Talking to the Bird Man reminded me that the moment my own vision begins to feel too constricted, I only need to look around me and talk to others and ask them how they feel and what they think about the world they encounter when they step outside the room where they stayed last night.
I will always remember the Bird Man. That he wondered aloud whether crows have souls helps me remember to stay awake to the occult in the brief time I have on this earth. We are conduits for one another. The act of walking around the city tossing handfuls of food to small flying creatures relaxes the man who was once overcome by anxieties. By moving to Philadelphia and working hard to build some capital so that my wife and daughter and I can have the material things that we need, I am a conduit, too.
I receive love and hurt and more and absorb these things into my body and heart and mind and soul and then transmit them to you in some new form. This city will be different when I return to it someday. The Bird Man will die and no next-in-line is apparent. Change is here and there’s nothing left to do but let myself get swept up in the transformation and refuse to be afraid of thoughts and feelings and conversations and love and pain and heartbreak and healing and sex and soulfulness and the spirits of birds and people, walking on the earth and soaring through the sky and swimming through the water and driving through new cities, encountering inhabitants of the earth whom I’ve not yet met.
I tell myself, let go. I say, surrender sovereignty, just for a little while. Let go a little more and stop building barricades between my own awareness of the fragility of the self. I am larger than myself, we all are larger than ourselves. We are the sum of ambition and love. At times we wear masks that conceal the love we would otherwise let in. At this juncture I had lived 426 months, and I knew that my months were numbered.
Before we parted ways, the Bird Man asked if I lived nearby.
I gestured toward my apartment building. “Right there, but I’m moving.”
“Where you moving?”
“You get a job there?”
“You gotta go where the money is.”
“Stay strong.” And with that he wheeled his wobbly cart south on Broadway and for a moment I watched him go before he turned and waved, and I waved back, and then I turned back toward the apartment and its towers of boxes that made me think more than once that my home had become some kind of new age temple where the walls had been stripped of their framed paintings and photographs and were adorned by my daughter’s drawing of red leaves on a brown branch, and one more drawing — this one by a resident of the halfway house for the mentally ill where I had worked. This drawing featured an inland waterway navigated by gondoliers rowing gondolas through aquamarine canals while buildings were perched atop the water. Sharp white clouds etched out of the darker blue sky above — the whole drawing made of confident lines and even strokes, the work of a sure hand.
The resident who drew it believed that I was his cousin and that we had been friends back in Wisconsin, where he grew up. On swing shifts, when I served a post-dinner snack, he washed dishes and later, in the office, I gave him wads of loose tobacco and rolling papers. This was an agreed-upon exchange that my coworkers also adhered to. As staff we rewarded the residents hard work with tobacco.
Goodbye, Seattle. Goodbye, old Cha Cha Lounge on Pine before it moved to Pike and farther east, goodbye delicious air and outstanding drinking water, goodbye to The Broadway, closed since April, where August Wilson and Charles Johnson, the playwright and the novelist, used to meet and talk and drink coffee late into the night. Goodbye Puget Sound, goodbye ferries to Bainbridge and Vashon and Friday Harbor, goodbye Bertha the machine tunnelling for the light rail from the University District to Capitol Hill to downtown to connect with the existing light rail from downtown to SeaTac, goodbye to Volunteer Park and the wading pool and the conservatory, goodbye Seattle Zoo and its giraffes, zebras, gorillas, snakes, hippopotamuses, elephants and birds.
Goodbye to The Bird Man and goodbye to Cal Anderson Park. Goodbye to my friend the plein air artist Christopher Hoff, who introduced me to a professional photographer who took photos of my very pregnant wife and me standing together in our home, and who died at the age of 36 from a heart condition. Goodbye to cool and cloudy July mornings in the high fifties and afternoons in the seventies and low eighties, goodbye to July evenings when the fresh air carries salty hints and you don’t sweat through one shirt after another. Goodbye to non-aggressive drivers. Goodbye also to the civility that I find appealing, and to its underside — social niceties fraught with superficiality and platitudes.
Goodbye to my job as a mason, goodbye to coughing up blood after a week cutting and laying paver patio, goodbye to blowing stone dust out of my nose, goodbye to the city where I lived as long — eight years — as I lived growing up in New York City. Goodbye to Long Talking Bad Conditions Blues Reading Series, a quarterly series (named after a 1970s novel by Ron Sukenick) I founded and curated at the old Faire Café and Gallery — at the corner of Melrose and Olive with its floor to ceiling windows and view of downtown — and when Faire closed LTBCB moved to Liberty Bar on 15th Avenue. Goodbye to the city dwelling in expectation of an earthquake. Goodbye air. Goodbye water. I want to say I am going to miss you, but I am already missing you just thinking about you being gone. If you are the city, and I know you are, you can strut like a mean lover tonight knowing you have made another man fall in love with you before the winds came and blew him three thousand miles away.
Zachary Watterson is a writer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, whose essays and short stories have appeared in the Massachusetts Review, River Styx, thestranger.com and Commentary Magazine's 2012 summer fiction issue. His work has received several awards, including a Pushcart Prize nomination and a New Stories from the Midwest nomination. He has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, a 2011 grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, and fellowships from the University of Washington and the Jentel Artist Residency Program. His essay "Open Late Hours" appeared in Post Road and was selected by Robert Atwan as a notable essay for Best American Essays 2013.