Pandemic pets and the Pigeon Man
How COVID birdsong recalls the Pigeon Man of Lincoln Square
I don’t know what made me recall the Pigeon Man. Maybe it was all the cranes in the river. Maybe the birdsong…
When COVID struck, it was downers 24-7 in the news. People were desperate to find something positive to point to, and for a short while animals were the answer. As people became scarce in public due to lockdowns, animals started filling the gap in cities and suburbs—reclaiming their space, so the stories went. Many people could swear the birdsong in their area was louder, whether from reduced human noise or more birds gathering outdoors while they had the chance.
Supposedly, there were pictures to prove it—pumas spotted in Santiago, Chile; red fox pups in Toronto; lions sleeping right out there on the road in South Africa. So maybe such rare sightings weren’t exclusive to COVID time. Well before the pandemic, Chicagoans have spotted many a coyote downtown, as well as one unfortunate cougar and other very lost mountain lions. Maybe we just had more time and less distraction to note the wild animals in our midst during lockdown.
But the birdsong claim—that was for real.
A May 2020 article in the New York Times compared recordings in urban spaces before and during the pandemic. And you can hear the difference. Cities really did get quieter during lockdown. The article explained that the birdsong wasn’t so much louder—in fact, birds may have been singing more softly, since they didn’t have to compensate to be heard over the extra noise. Smithsonian Magazine also published an article that confirmed bird abundance really did increase in many cities and migratory patterns did change during lockdowns.
In Chicago, some ol’ tuxedo birds got to roam free around a museum and on the turf at Soldier Field during 2020’s lockdown. Pigeons took over the ghost town that became of the Loop. Where I live, just outside the city near a woods and across the street from the Des Plaines River, I noted more cranes and hawks while looking out my window, as well as a beaver swimming onto the banks of the river one day, deer roaming the banks (usually they stay farther into the woods), and a coyote running up and down the frozen river.
But was that unusual? Like many people suddenly working from home, I just had more time to spot the wildlife that was always there to begin with, whether I was away in an office building, or on the bus or train, or out running errands.
Working from home also meant people got more time to spend with their pets, who were probably the happiest they’ve ever been. People who didn’t have pets started adopting them for company during social distancing.
And that’s when the news cycle became circular. Back to the bad. When lockdowns lifted, people returned their pandemic pets to shelters in droves, especially puppies and dogs, so the reports said. Then came reports claiming, Nah.
For what it’s worth, I’m inclined to believe the original reports. Especially since The Great Puppy Return has continued into 2021 and 2022, according to many shelters and vets. It’s also completely on brand for humans. Every year, people give pets as Christmas presents and then return them when the baby animal gets a little older and loses its cuteness or the realities of responsible pet ownership start to sink in.
Maybe I’m also inclined to believe it given how people treat other people, and how the pandemic has exposed our tendency to treat certain others as expendable or “no big loss” when they get left behind. I’ve said it more or less in previous editions of this newsletter, and I’ll say it again. The population that has overwhelmingly suffered and whom we’ve lost the most in the pandemic has been the elderly. Stats bear this out, around the world, and yet it still seems as if society wants to shrug this off and shift the attention elsewhere. Anywhere but the old.
Sometimes I think old people hold a similar status in our culture as animals.
Never mind all the animal welfare orgs out there. Even then, the goal is to keep animals largely out of sight, out of human territory, under our control, and dependent on our benevolence. Animals are for nourishing human appetites or for feeding our sense of cuteness or altruism and good will. Even pet animals are considered lucky to have us, rather than the other way around—though the rush to gain their company during lockdowns kind of proves how desperate humans are for animals’ companionship and (what we hope is) love. We forget they’re one of us, and we’re them—we’re animals too. An exceptionally, even grotesquely domineering species.
(Look, with my four cats and a jillion animal pics all over my apartment and in my downloads, I’m guilty too.)
When humans reach a certain age, it’s likewise expected that they’ll begin to remove themselves from public view, to cluster together or self-isolate, to submit themselves to some form of institutional control and dependence or just fade away quietly.
Never mind the occasional beloved grandpa who makes the news or Betty White. Old people aren’t supposed to want to stay part of public life. They’re not supposed to keep working or wanting to work, except maybe at some piddly little job offered to them out of pity-kindness. They’re not supposed to still have romantic feelings or any continuing ambitions or new ideas. They’re supposed to retreat into their memories—but not share them with anyone but a paid and tolerant caregiver. They’re not supposed to express their views, especially political, cultural, religious, or societal. They’re supposed to “step aside.” Which means, shut up and go away.
When old people break these rules, they’re considered greedy and selfish. Or crabby. Boring and tiresome. A burden. Ignorant and out of touch. Out of order. Demented. Foolish. Clinging to youth and the past. Get off my lawnish.
Like they’re pets for the young, rather than our elders. Rather than the ones who’ve graciously and heroically paved the way. The ones who’ve already been there. The ones who know.
I think all the talk about animals coming out, animals coming back, etc, early in the pandemic was also an indication how desperate humans are for some societal transformation. We know most of us around the world are living in unbalanced, unhealthy societies. We know there are all kinds of inequities that need righting. As awful as COVID is, there’s an underlying hope that it will “burn off” the inequity—vanquish capitalism, re-wild our communities, transform our work environments and work codes, re-humanize our health care systems.
Personally, I had hoped there’d be a re-embracement of family, especially notions of extended family and multi-generational households. I also hoped we’d realize we need to look after our elderly better. Stand up for them. Listen to them.
So I suppose that’s why all these newsletters so far have had an “old man” or “old woman” at the center of them. Some older person who had once been young and vital, and who had maybe made a mark then. Or maybe they didn’t hit their stride until they were older. Or even lived out their life in obscurity, and it wasn’t until they were gone—just another old man or woman passed—that someone took notice of them and of what their life really meant. Henry Darger. Vivian Maier. Lee Godie. Vincent, the Suit Guy. Tim Robinson.
This one’s for Joseph Zeman, better remembered by some as the Pigeon Man of Lincoln Square.
The shifting priorities and reduced time for socializing since the pandemic have prompted me to recall people and places from out of the blue of the past. Memories of someone or something from years ago would just pop up for no reason.
I don’t know what made me recall the Pigeon Man. Maybe it was all the cranes in the river. Maybe the birdsong.
For several years, between 2000 and 2008, I lived in the heart of Lincoln Square, on the north side of Chicago. I lived on Wilson between Western and Lincoln, just a few blocks south of Lawrence Avenue. If you know the area, you know that’s close to everything in the neighborhood. On the corner of Lawrence and Western was a Walgreens. In the front of it was a bus stop, a statue of Abraham Lincoln, and a fire hydrant. On the fire hydrant, for many years there was an old man. And some birds. Loads of them. All pigeons.
Joseph Zeman was a former newsagent who loved pigeons and loved to go out every day and feed them in his neighborhood of Lincoln Square. He lived in an attic apartment not far from the intersection of Western and Lawrence. People who lived in the area and shopped at the Walgreens were used to seeing Joseph sitting hunched out there on the fire hydrant in front of the store and feeding the pigeons. The birds flocked to him by the dozens, perching on his head, shoulders, hands, knees. They gathered around his feet. Some would even eat chips from out of his mouth. He’d talk to them as he fed them, kiss their feathers, and he’d stay there for what seemed like hours.
I used to see him. I didn’t mind him and didn’t think anything of an old man feeding birds. I like birds myself. But I knew some people who thought Joseph and/or his birds and/or his feeding them was a health nuisance. (My hairdresser was one.) They’d rather his birds, and likely him, go away. Out of sight.
Joseph was actually one of several noticeable old people you’d see around the Square, especially before the hyper-gentrification and explosion of baby boutiques, knick-knack stores, and cellular phone shops and health clubs took over, pushing out all the old German and Slavic delis and coffee houses, the clothing store for “big and tall” guys, the rundown (and useful) local hardware stores (including one with a bowling alley upstairs), the psychic storefronts and Polish salons operating out of the front room of someone’s house, the weird-looking coffee house and jazz club that was the legendary Nervous Center, the original tiny pre-rehabbed Davis movie house, the old school cheap all-night diners, and the Korean-owned convenience stores.
There were a bunch of old Slavic men (including my building superintendent) who used to play bocce ball in Welles Park like their lives depended on it every seasonable weekend. An older woman selling hot dogs at a stand on the other side of the park. An older homeless woman who used to sit with her bags in front of The Grind coffeeshop early in the morning and sing loudly in one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard. An old homeless man who used to hunt for discarded cigarettes outside the Western Brown Line station. I think he had the clearest pale blue eyes I’ve ever seen. There was a group of old men, mostly Slavs, who’d occupy the McDonald’s further north on Western, by the old Ace Hardware/bowling alley, nursing senior coffees and arguing passionately about I wish I knew what for hours. An old Irish American cop who walked up and down Lincoln in the Square with his billy club hanging from his pocket—half threatening, and half like some B&W movie cop from a Dead End Kids picture. Another old Irishman (Kerry, for the record) and fluent Munster Irish speaker who used to teach the mother tongue at the Irish American Heritage Center further west and shuffle into The Grind on the weekends, always wearing dark clothing and an old black cap.
But Joseph may have been the only one who got a full-color profile written up about him the in the Trib. In 2004, Tribune reporter Barbara Mahany wrote a stellar article about Joseph, telling about his childhood, his St. Francis-like philosophy toward the birds, and his methods for bird feeding. Joseph had struggled with seizures after a stroke at 8 months old—he went unmedicated for his condition until he was nearly 50 and had endured two years in an institution in his teens. His parents had worked as a laborer and a typist. He had a challenging childhood, to say the least, and it sounds like an unhappy one.
He found acceptance with the birds. He’d first taken to feeding them while working as a newsagent downtown. Now, in his later years, he spent his days in front of Walgreens feeding them from stores he kept in ziplock baggies and baby food jars.
There are a lot of wise tearjerker quotes in the article, but the best one may be:
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.
In 2007 Joseph was struck by a van and killed. He had just turned 77 a few days earlier. At the hospital where he was taken to, the only identification they could find on him was a laminated page from the Trib article about him. So the police called its author to break the news. After hearing of his death, Mahany wrote a moving update on her blog and in the Trib—the full version is on the blog.
There was a memorial in front of the Walgreens to him. There have been other tributes online and in art, including a touching poetical short film by Miguel Silveira called Manbird. The pigeons had to have missed him. He did far more than just feed them crumbs. As Joseph says in Silveira’s film, each bird was his personal friend.
“They got a mind,” he says. “They are much smarter than people think.”
I wonder what would have happened to Joseph had he lived to the COVID era. Would he have survived this terrible pandemic so far? Or would he have just become another statistic, another elderly person gone and forgotten, buried without fanfare regardless of whether they had family to mourn them? Would COVID have kept him away from his bird friends? Could anything, but death? A man doesn’t go to the trouble of packing baggies and baby food jars with bird food day after day and schlep them all the way to sit on a fire hydrant for hours out of boredom or sheer whim. He does it out of love and hope.
What would he have thought of the birdsong these past two years?
He would’ve loved it, same as the rest of us. Maybe he would’ve heard hope in it. Hope is not a song only the young can hear—or sing—after all.
Connections: On the subject of animals, everyone has a local shelter worth supporting. One of mine is the West Suburban Humane Society in Downers Grove, Illinois. They have found homes for several kittens I’ve found in drainpipes and my parents’ backyard (my mother’s kind of like the Joseph Zeman of her neighborhood, except cats). They are genuinely good people.
Likewise, there are many local places you can look into to help out the elderly. But one national organization that does important work, one that everyone has heard of and probably gets taken for granted, is Meals on Wheels. They were an important service before the pandemic—you can only guess how necessary they’ve become since 2020.
Public libraries also pick up a lot of community slack regarding service and programs for seniors, especially considering how the “digital divide” affects older adults. Libraries often offer computer and internet training and access to seniors at all economic levels, plus bookmobile service to homebound seniors and those who live in nursing homes. Since the pandemic, libraries have helped find vaccine appointments for seniors and loaned them hot spots and easy to use iPads. Our libraries need support, volunteers, and advocates to keep doing the good work they do. Just a thought.
Feel free to put your favorite organizations in the comments.
Writing this piece, I was reminded of a song from Mary Poppins called “Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag)”. It’s almost Joseph’s story with genders switched and a cathedral standing in for the Lincoln Square Walgreens. It’s a lovely song. But another one I think I like even better is a folk song written by Ralph McTell called “Streets of London.” I learned this song when I was very young, sung by an underrated Chicago Irish group called Brogue (thanks to my brother Brian for sharing their music on YouTube). It’s been covered by everyone from Sinead O’Connor to Glen Campbell to Liam Clancy. But here’s McTell’s original.