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Elaine’s event on Saturday was in Lexington. The best part about it was all this leftover food we had—moreover, what we did with it. Her fundraiser for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation was a 5K walk/run starting at Lexington’s Town Square and circling back. Papa John’s and White Castle delivered to us gads of what any nutrition-conscious person would regard as noxious garbage, but people expect something to gobble down after giving you money and then expending calories on a jaunt through town. Some volunteers additionally supplied groceries. So even after the feeding frenzy, we almost had more than we could pack into Elaine’s car to take away.
A few volunteers made suggestions. Should we take it to the Salvation Army place down on Providence? We weren’t familiar with the area. What about the Hope Center on the corner of Destitution and Abject Poverty Street? One of these would be the case, we decided, but while tending to the clean-up duties, a better solution presented itself.
A six-foot-four black guy walked up. On his rangy green baseball cap, the name BUCK was scrawled in permanent marker, faded by sun and time. The man was large, and very slow. Slow moving, slow thinking, slow eyes—one of them cocked independently toward the Hall of Justice. Immediately I wanted to give him anything he could use.
“You hungry?” I asked him. “Take a pizza. A whole pizza. It’s yours.”
He picked up a Papa John’s box with the caution of a man who doesn’t speak the native tongue, as if wary that the box might house an IED. One of his eyes was on me and one was on the pizza. This is too easy, he was thinking…
Sometimes it was that easy—as a good number of homeless denizens in downtown Lexington came to learn that morning. Before we knew it, the volunteers—white people with money to donate even during the ominous scourge of this recession—had mostly cleared out, and the plaza was replaced with men in threadbare clothes and shoes, a few on bikes, most with backpacks, one with a hernia that prohibited him from carrying away a loaf of bagels. But all had sunny attitudes. It was remarkable how quickly word spread among them—a population who doesn’t rely on Facebook or Twitter. A population whose members takes care of its own in the same way our Depression-era grandparents did. By talking to each other, by pointing discretely and asking politely. A population that most of our society disparages without so much as acknowledging their presence.
As we worked, we watched the pizzas and burgers disappear with haste. Yet none of these men—“Porkchop,” “Buck,” “Charles,” “Trubbs”—none of them ate more than they needed, but took at our insistence what they could carry. It was clear that some of what they carried off, they were taking to friends. In all, there were at least two dozen who enjoyed the spoils of our unwitting corporate sponsors.
A man named Greg pointed to his tattered shoes. “Do you know where I could get a newer pair?”
I paused and considered taking off my $160 Vasque hiking boots, right then and there. It wouldn’t have killed me to give them to him. They were extremely comfortable; I’d broken them in on Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon. But Greg said those kinds of boots wouldn’t be suitable for his (equally tattered) bike. My conscience was off the hook.
Home that evening by 6pm… On the back sidewalk of my apartment a baby bird lay on the edge of the step, dead. Dead-looking but not really dead because I blew on it and it moved. I knew what had happened… My conscientious landlord ordered a roofer to check out the leak that incessantly pervaded the corner of my bathroom ceiling. Not an issue for me—just discoloration and scary black mold that could prove problematic for future occupants… But surely this baby bird laying on my step had fallen thirty-plus feet from the gutter—and I believe deeply that if our roofer were there to bear witness he’d initially express the same grief… In that line of work, though, I suppose you expect some incidental casualties—such as the occasional human falling off a roof…
No less, here was a baby bird, not yet developed enough to fly… just days in growth beyond the fuzziness that comes with hatchlings. His bright yellow bill was the most striking part. If you can envision a really listless Daffy Duck, that’s what his bill was like. Disproportionately big, yellow, frowning and smiling at the same time.
I fetched a Kleenex box and ripped off the top, leaving a small stack of tissues inside. I used an index card to carefully scoop this fledgling into our makeshift triage. (I’d grown up with the notion that you can’t touch a baby bird because its mother will never reclaim it once it’s sullied by your corruptive human scent.)
Atop the tissue, we’d put some grass clippings in the bottom of the box. Green, fresh springtime bluegrass. And the best we could come up with in the way of nurturing this creature was Elaine’s idea: “Let’s give him the yolk,” she said.
So we did. I had some free-range/cage-free eggs hardboiled, the brown kind with twice the flavor for three times the price… The idea was to feed this baby bird although I predicted no chance in hell he’d eat in that condition. This was the only option we saw for nutrients, and although it didn’t seem weird to me at all at the time, we were going to feed it the thing that it had been just a few weeks before, essentially.
Elaine wanted to touch him, to pet his pitiful head or body thinking this might comfort him or something. She kept insisting and I kept telling her no until I had to raise my voice to emphasize that our meager human germs could exacerbate the painful fate of this creature. And we couldn’t touch the yolk either. I dribbled some reverse osmosis water onto a pea-sized bit of yolk on a spoon. The RO water wouldn’t have any chlorine or fluoride in it—or any other poisons—so this was certainly the best we could do. I put the concoction right before his little beak and, to our astonishment, he started in on it right away. He could barely lift his head to suck at the yellowish goo, but he didn’t really need to. I think more than anything he was thirsty so he suckled at it until I put another glob right next to it, within beak-shot.
As we watched him suck this stuff up, I felt the chilling surge of hope that comes with watching an entity overcome insurmountable odds. It could be a friend conquering lymphoma, or your favorite team making an historic comeback. The quiet strength of a hero in a really good movie, putting things right. Disarming words uttered by anyone you believe in. A broken baby bird coming back to life…
We were happy enough with this to let him be and go meet up with our friends at Molly Malone’s as planned—we were late already. I put the Kleenex box in the bathroom where the open window could sweep in an out-of-doors-like breeze, and pulled the door shut so my cats wouldn’t go in there and massacre the poor thing. I figured at least he could die here in some comfort—out of the high wind, off the abrasive concrete where I’d found him, and no longer dying of thirst… Yet a stubborn part of me wanted to come home later and find him standing on both legs.
When we arrived several hours later he lay with his neck stretched out, his tiny gunmetal eyes half shut. Suffering no more. His beak was still bright yellow.
There is a stain on my bathroom ceiling…