The Birdwatchers Of Lafayette Park

I spend a lot of evenings just wandering around looking at things; eyeing shadows slowly rise from story to story in the glint of windows, and across the bricks and cement and fire escapes of apartment buildings: the soft fall of daylight dying on a nightly basis.

Architecture really affects me. The way old, red-brown-veined bricks carry the tarry soot-stained memories of a hundred years; peeling paint and scarred wood; Neo-Byzantine columns; roman-numeral intaglios and seal-head reliefs carved into entryways; deep-set windows, curved bay windows, double-hung barred windows, casement windows, straight sleek tinted windows all in a row; fluted highlights of jester-face motifs; rusted railings and cast-iron grill work and green doors with gold knobs in their center; canted roofs — gabled, pitched, arched, and domed — of shakes and R&R shingles; cement tops covered with pebbles; a few silver smokestacks puffing powdery white dreams into it all. I fall into a trance and go nowhere and everywhere.

My solitary sojourns usually conclude with me at rest, aloof and unattached, legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles, showing off my socks on a rickety wood bench in Lafayette Park — sights set on everything, attempting not to worry, even a finch’s bit, about anything at all.

There’s this fallen branch stuck in a tall eucalyptus in the park. It’s been squealing from its temporary resting place high-up in the wishbone of a few other still-attached branches, waiting to fall. It creaks and groans as the tree sways in sudden jabs of wind: a scratchy, slow, rhythmic cadence that almost lulls me to sleep at times as I sit on a bench far below it, as the earth dwindles down to blasted-apart marbles below me. I sit and ponder. People go by walking their dogs.

I used to know this girl. Terrible speller. Wonderful watcher.

Binoculars slung around her neck, martini in one hand, mine in the other, she brandished oleander in her teeth as she happened upon hidden things like a bottle-rocket prayer.

“Spare me your change.”

“I want stock characters played by unknowns.”

“Bechdel-approved notions as common as Grackles out here.”

Somehow we didn’t say much more than was unnecessary. Grappling with whatever wasn’t timely, mashed in our potato-salad days, kindred with or without the spirits. History unfolding as it should, as it does, as we were.

“Shapes makes sense, but only in the defined area of time. Once we’re outside of our own expectations, living perceptions instead of lobbying for elbow room, well, we’ve had it, you know?”

“No. Wait. There go a few bushels of heaped manure. Not for sale, though. Shit.”

“Maybe next time.”

“Look! A Sparrow Hawk. No, wait, is that a Pigeon Hawk?”

“No. That’s a Peregrine Falcon. You can tell by its mustache.”

A slight flex of wind muscled around us. Strained laughs kept us awake: snoozed returns of a broken way to slouch on a low-backed bench. We were just who we were, just then, and the insects darted and danced in midair.

“I want a House Finch to raise outdoors.”

“A Backyard Finch?”

“Yes. That’s the ticket. And not a rhyme less special than a Killdeer’s last call. A Brown Thrasher for your bird-feed thoughts.”

“Lost as ever, my Scarlet Tanager.”

“Rest un-assured. I’m at my kilter’s most dizzying keel. Peru’s on the horizon.”

“Pour me another of these, but hold the feathers.”

Flitting Allen’s and Anna’s hummingbirds dodged and jousted for quick dabs of nectar in the flowering shrubs while a Wilson’s Warbler plucked grubs from a muddy spot in the foliage, along with a frenzy of Pygmy Nuthatches, roiling and grazing from bush to bush, catching quick baths from a rogue drooling sprinkler.

“A Red-Tailed Hawk begging for food. Listen. Keeeeeer. Keeeeer. Like something’s left out, started but never finished. Lost somewhere up there in that damn eucalyptus canopy.”

“And those squawking parrots are back, too. Perched high in the treetops making all their noise. I want to wake up to an alarm that goes, ‘kek-kek-kek,’ like a Cooper’s Hawk.”

“Sure. From the cypress and pines, red-winged, we’ll go, blackbird chasing, in the migration of our flyway days. Or nights?”

“Clouds like ambulances. Spots of sky like indigo buntings, like little blue herons.”

“Remember, high among spruce and fir in the summer? We had breakfast so far above sea level. Twigs, weeds, grasses, lined with down. We had it all and were having none of it. Glass, please.”

Days, spent. Restive, drink in hand, on to swifter gloamings. We we’re attached at the elbows, spotting cowbirds and screaming, “Milk!” Lost in wonderings over the plight of the St. Regis: the only private residence in a public park in all of America. And Mr. Holladay’s long-gone white Italianate mansion. And that rubbed-raw place at the top of old Clay Hill where the windmill used to go, where the breezes terrorize the tall trees. We unwound in the newly arrived darkness, the streetlights buzzing to blurry life, the buses whizzing and teetering by. Fields of lavender, some ginkgo and Brisbane Box trees, a gust-ravaged palm with shredded fronds, dogs misbehaving, little kids run amok and tumbling down the grassy slopes in a gold-rush fever of delusion. A radio set down in a nook between tennis courts plays, “…and she once was a true love of mine.” Sunbathers lie on towels, drowsy in the afternoon’s last lingering aureate curls. A TV antenna coruscates like some metallic rusted bow and arrow sprouting from a rooftop. Days, spent. Contemplative and laughing. Off to brighter pastures. We’re not so well lit.

“Cases. Tip back another. No more marshes. No more American Bitterns hiding among the reeds and cattails, freezing for safety and pumping their singular song. Let’s go lightly from here, dive with the Pied-Billed Grebes, make our own scratches in the horizon’s junk shop.”

“Empties littering the hull. Careful’s not in our field glasses’ sight anymore. Sites never seen. Warbling from coverts to crown to bill to tail. There is a loon yodeling through my daydreams.”

A V of upwashing birds wing by above like a scissor of breves in the cobalt. Clouds tatter: toilet paper disintegrating in cleanser. In a leafless birch a healthy crop of songbirds jangle, just along for a few measures, the tree’s spindly boughs praying skyward all together as the little poets grace them with quick, sporadic touches here and there. The grass rolls bumpy and patchy down the slope’s meandering soft spots: places to lie and be still. A ruckus and flutter of mating dances and dives is going on in the sycamores and eucalyptus, whose discarded bark covers the plant bed behind my bench. Comfortably sleepy, I gaze out over the century-old Victorian Stick at the blazing tops of skyscrapers and apartment towers and the patchwork of a thousand rooftops set a glow by the sunset’s golden-glaze. Soon darkness descends. Street lights hum and puddle to life. People wake from siestas: those who waltz in half-moon windows at dusk by chandelier light. A tiny Chipping Sparrow — orange Mohawk top and eyeblack lines through its eyes — hops onto my bench. A frenzied startle and then it’s gone off to other hops. The sky clears and purples, and then a skimming sort of honey-colored syrupy distance clings, sighs Egyptian blue, and dies a soft, deep vermilion death.

“Did you know a tern flies with her eyes on the water? But not a gull. A gull always looks forward, never down.”

“You’re my only gull.”

“You’ve got some serious vim there, but hardly any vigor, Grosbeak.”

“Let’s travel sadly beyond some anyplace that no happy asshole could even imagine ever existing.”

“A good place to sit. That’s all we need. Maybe older ways to hold hands. And a White-Winged Junco.”

“…sure.”

I spend a lot of mornings lost in thought. Wasting time. Late for breakfast. The calls don’t come anymore. Resignation’s my default mode. Hardly stripped of worry, care, or any recuperating nags set steady in the fat of my head, I tap my bare feet against the mold and slop of the floor’s warped wood and arise to face daylight like some wounded Red-Eyed Vireo out for a little leisurely revenge. The things I’ve lost; the way they’re never coming back. This tawdry nest lined with fish bones and scales, maybe some bits of twine, hair, wool, moss, dead leaves, tinsel and petunia petals. Whispering through the reeds’ song a bog’s farewell like a Chuck-will’s-widow would, bright orange eyeshine and all, roosting rowdy and unsettled in the pine barrens. Deducing emptiness in the stead of former replete places.

Nothing’s ever what it was, damn it.


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