I hadn’t seen my old friend Martin in several years, not since his lover Fred died of a heart attack, at thirty-nine, in the parking lot of Ford’s shopping center in Northville. I had flown in on that cold March day, two months after Fred’s death, to celebrate with Martin, and the remnants of our old tribe, Martin’s spare and lovely memorial to our dead friend. There was snow on the ground. The dozen spring iris, sapphire blue, which I had sent ahead, Martin had stuck in the snow on the blank open lawn under the massive old willow, where we had gathered to reminisce and pray. Later, after the last of the guests had waved and retreated behind smoothly rising car windows, Martin and I were to enjoy a few days of indolence in rooms heated with fragrantly burning cherry behind March-frosted glass.
A country gentleman, whose lifestyle the momentum of heritage, and a slowly dwindling family portfolio, managed to barely sustain, Martin wove the deeply frayed edges of his circumstances, on the loom of almost spooky good taste, into gracious living.
After the Vietnam war he had stayed abroad, haunting Asian capitals for a decade. He taught English at university in Laos, studied ikegami in Japan, and brought treasures home to the “farm” in Pennsylvania. His grasp of shibui, the guiding principle of Japanese aesthetics, was firmer than that of most natives. He had a knack for transforming the most humble space into an elegant environment by the placement of an object or two, frequently an object which itself had been found at a junkyard or yard sale. This talent had to do with Martin’s frame of mind, and his ability to make that outlook fill the room—and stick. He projected an aesthetic benevolence into the space around him. And there was more than a little fairy dust involved in it all. You either tuned in or you didn’t.
“The farm,” hadn’t been a working farm in decades, although there had always been livestock around. Pets, really. In the years that I knew Martin, the animal life consisted of a number of dogs and cats, a couple of sheep, a few chickens, a burrow, and a fair collection of ornamental fowl—Martin’s passion.
Now Fred had been gone for six years. It was a brisk and multicolored afternoon in October. We were sitting in faded butterfly chairs on the “silo base” off the barn, the circular concrete floor of a silo long vanished, now a patio. A pair of guinea fowl, in their hounds tooth tweeds, were pecking amongst the feverfew.
“There’s a golden pheasant at the Staten Island Zoo,” I was saying. “I thought peacocks were something. . . macaws. But this bird tops them all. The kind of creature I never expected to encounter outside a fairy tale.”
“Gaudy as hell,” said Martin. “Lady Amherst’s pheasant is much prettier, I think.” An unmusical tinkle, the beaten-copper shards of a mobile hanging from a cedar branch nearby and nudged by a breeze, came and went like windblown leaves.
“We’ll delve into Pringle’s Pheasant Guide after dinner. You’ll be mesmerized. Of course, your universal red rooster is a pheasant. Gallus gallus. Descended from the jungle fowl of Burma and Indo-China. Look at the plumage.”
I looked. And had to agree.
“Pea fowl are pheasants. There’s a breeder in town who sells incubatable eggs for five dollars. Fantastically hardy birds - most pheasant are. The most annoying voice you can imagine.”
“It’s the showgirl syndrome.”
“Except, of course, that the showgirl in this case is a male.”
Martin’s laugh was worldly, limber, agreeable. Years of wine and tobacco had given his already polished élan a deep and lustrous varnish. A starling alighted on the white gate, Martin took the opportunity to describe the origin of starlings in America. The United States population of the feisty grackle was descended from one hundred pair of birds released in Central Park in 1890. “That much,” Martin explained, “is undisputed.” The rest of the legend, that the anonymous ornithologist responsible for the deed had had a notion to bless the new world with at least a pair of every bird mentioned in Shakespeare, is not as certain.
One day, back in the city, I happened to recount the starling story to my friends Evan and Jane while we were walking in Central Park. We were crossing Sheep Meadow, a large open lawn that was the city’s celebration central in those days. Barbara Streisand, Diana Ross, the New York Philharmonic, all had regaled the city with free concerts there. We’d seen Elton John, in the biggest concert ever, and revisiting the site quickly ignited our shared penchant for reminiscing.
“The irony is,” Evan said, “he was way more flamboyant before he actually came out.”
“I counted four costume changes,” I said. “I think it was a record.”
“The satin duck outfit!” said Jane.
“I was watching the video tape the next day. He was singing Lennon’s Imagine. ‘You may call me a screamer,’ he said, ‘but I’m not the only one.”
“The crowd down front cracked up.”
“You had to see it. This was years before he came out.”
“Did you know,” I said, “that in this exact location the starling was introduced into North American one hundred years ago?”
“Starlings?” said Evan, “I thought they’d always been here.”
We climbed up a low outcropping of granite on the periphery of the meadow. A flat plateau, the size of a small living room, tucked under a sycamore’s grandiose canopy, awaited us at the top. From there we could gaze out over the vast lawn surrounded, from our vantage point, by the city’s immense skyline, sliced by the avenues bordering the park into sheer walls of brownstone, glass and steel.
“Nobody is certain of his name. But it was right down there, a hundred years ago, that he set loose flocks and flocks, at least a pair of each bird mentioned by Shakespeare. Among them were one hundred starlings.”
This caught Jane, a high-strung lass, off-guard. She was known to “weep at card tricks,” as the saying goes, and was sensitive to poetic imagery. She released a deep sigh, the crest of a wave that the image of all those ascending birds, I knew, some powerful elegiac moon of her own had called forth.
“Say a prayer for the starlings,” she quietly sang, the Randy Stonehill tune. “There’s no welcome for them anywhere. . .”
The sky had turned bronze.
A couple of months later, on my birthday, Jane came over for breakfast with a present in her hands, obviously a book, wrapped in the Sunday comics and a mass of curly gold ribbon. All The World’s Songbirds was its title.
Over the next weeks, I entered the world of the passerine. The book was lushly photographed, specialized, and like all such books had the captivating power, upon a reader inclined toward its subject, of a hard-core substance. The term “pore over,” is an apt one. The attention toward it that the book evoked from me had the uncritical dilation of a pore.
A Painted bunting, the color of a marbleized Easter egg, was photographed crouched among blades of fresh spring grass. Wood warblers, rust-flecked gold and aerodynamic as darts, hung from branches and fed gaping mouths with tissue-winged arthropods. And there were the starlings. Gregarious, iridescent, pesky, voracious for insects, its worldwide population in the hundreds of millions. “The most dramatic example of the species’ success, however,” the author wrote, “comes from its introduction to North America: about 100 individuals were released in New York in 1890. It is now one of the most numerous birds in North America.”
I began haunting pet stores and aviaries. There were a number of them in New York, a city of eight million which supports an ongoing cultural critical mass. As little as one percent of New Yorkers devoted to any particular interest produces a viable market for that interest, and that reality reverberates through the city’s cultural circuits in a self-sustaining current and pulse. My bird browsing took me on an odyssey to unfamiliar places, and to unexpected pockets of regular haunts. The bird house at the Bronx Zoo was an early destination. There, in a multistoried landscaped setting, a peaceable kingdom of feathered creatures preened and socialized. The Ramble in Central Park was a whole new world when studied in the intimate gazing-pool of binoculars. Thrushes and tits hobnobbed in the gingkoes. Blackbirds and pigeons squabbled. But often a bare human haunch or furtive glance gaped out among the shrubs in this notorious region of the park and I felt, binoculars trembling under wincing brows, like a voyeur. Had I been indifferent to such chance visual encounters, I probably could have simply glanced elsewhere and moved on. But I wasn’t, and the alarmed or resentful glares in the glass banged too loudly on the drum which my incipient lust had stretched taut. Besides, my bird quest was moving into a final stage. I was now focusing on bird shops where the possibility of purchase, ownership, possession, was a drumbeat to which I knew I could dance. Then at a second-hand store on Staten Island, where Jane and I sometimes shopped after a day at the zoo, she saw a bird cage.
There was nothing quaint about it. A wire-barred cube with a removable black plastic tray at the bottom, it had three sliding doors, and two feed cups. One for seed and one for water.
“I’m buying it for you,” said Jane.
“Oh my God.”
The fate of my feathered fling was fixed. By week’s end I’d bought a Zebra Finch at a local shop.
Colorful as a guppy, the tiny creature was inexpensive enough to be... well, disposable, should my skills or temperament for avian husbandry prove illusive. He fluttered out of the pet shop’s cardboard box and landed on the small piece of branch, a long twig, that I had suspended between two walls of his cage. So diminutive was he that his movements lacked all interstice; he looked left, he looked right; he hopped around on the perch, east, west, with no discernible movement in between. His voice had a timbre remarkably like a squeeze-doll’s cry, curtailed into a brief four-note statement, repeated: da DA da da—da DA da da. The call emptied out of his open beak with a force that made his whole body shudder. This was sometimes followed by odd quiet afterthoughts of chatter and chirps, all in the squeeze-doll mode. Feisty, he was an avian Pomeranian, hardly bigger than a plump hibiscus bud, sporting black and white feathers and orange cheek spots. His cage hung suspended near the vast windows in a corner of the empty dining room, a space that I was saving for the baby grand piano that existed only as an archetypal contour in my imagination, but which I vaguely assumed would sire a concrete counterpart in due course. In the meantime, Oscar’s toy-like call echoed across a plain of varnished oak parquet. The home he was to establish in the empty room’s crystal chandelier was, as yet, but a gleam in Oscar’s beady little eye.
One night Jane called, asking if I would like to go to a Labor Day barbecue at a friend’s house on Staten Island. The house was a classic of its type: a sprawling country Queen Ann, cosseted to the point of near-assimilation in gardens both lush and neglected. It was full of people and music. The windows of every room, it seemed, were open; the afternoon was all breezes and beer.
Jane drifted off. I was temporarily pinned, by the music, the social currents, by Jane’s absence, to a comfortable blocky foam chair near a tray of cheese puffs. My attention at first half-consciously diddled, then began to consume, a young man flopped on a couch across the room. Amidst a small group of friends, Doug was descending steadily into an attractive drunk. But he had a drunk’s crafty awareness of the interest he was attracting. He was playfully incoherent. Two of his friends were wrangling over who should drive him home. Meanwhile, he’d caught me watching and began directing a little choreography in my direction.
And then the guests were drifting off and our little bunch had become a private party in a house filled with retreating voices. Jane was off somewhere. His friends, Gene and Gunther, were trying to get Doug out of the couch. He was passive-aggressively toying with their wheedling and coaxing. Doug swerved and landed dramatically in my lap, and was cheerfully abandoned by Gene and Gunther. When we got home, neither of us were quite as drunk as it had seemed…
to be continued
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