he old, old man across the shaded, sandy square sits quite still on a flaking green wooden bench, just like mine, but he is dressed in a suit of pigeons.
I have watched him now over several mornings. He is my daily, nutritive bird-serial, providing 20-minute respites between the silent accusations of my home and the usual punishment of my office. I am his spectator behind the International Herald Tribune. I chew a reasonable facsimile of an American bran muffin and drink a gigantic hazelnut latté, discovered one happy day about six weeks ago at a nearly good enough pseudo-Starbucks flanked on both sides by the more traditional Parisian cafés. I have begun arriving early to see his show.
On the pale and dusty gravel, Paris' luckiest birds assemble, the same time every morning, the good word cooing from nest to nest. Until his appearance, they mill around his holy bench, looking duly bored as if in mockery of my gritty, gray pre-job dread. They peck at something uninteresting on the ground and would certainly be smoking if they could. I kick at them if they come too close, which the smarter ones know now not to do, but I never succeed in landing a satisfying blow…and then all at once they all stop moving. One gray head turns, cocks to confirm a sound, and then they whappity-whap and cover every slat of his bench in their premature readiness. Some of them peer at me sideways, to make sure the cretin hogging the muffin watches how wise men treat birds. We were dinosaurs once, baby, and we will be again.
Sure enough, they have spotted their countryman before I could, and only now does he shuffle into range of my too-human senses. He silently clears his bench with a handful of breadcrumbs fanned out onto the sand between us, and in this time he has bought himself he opens the ankle-length coat buttoned at his throat, unties his fisherman's hat, pulls off his rubber boots. The bruiser-pigeons and the manipulatively cute sparrows kick away their unsatisfying appetizer and descend upon their chum (and chum) as he sits. By the time his arms are comfortably up on the back of the bench and his left ankle rests on his right knee, they cover him. A circle of face is all that remains unfeathered.
But for those who were paying attention (which does not include the crusty men sitting near me reading Figaro and Libération, nor the young couple, her straddling him, mouth open, one eye closed, cigarette held momentarily aside), the birdman's near total nudity was plainly visible, tufts of gray hair and feathers notwithstanding. But no one else seems to have noticed, and the scene unrolled so quicklyfrom disrobing to replumingthat I have to replay it in my mind to recall what I saw, what I see here every day. He did wear a rubber bathing cap and perhaps a gray Speedo, though the latter may have been a trick of natural camouflage and age and light. Some days (no pattern I can discern) he wears swimming goggles tinted pool-blue. More relevant to the birds of course is that every surface except his face is covered with dried corn, birdseed, bread crumbs, presumably whatever he had on hand or found in one of these outdoor markets everyone back home pantingly insists I am meant to prefer over grocery stores.
The food sticks to his skin, his Speedo, his swimming cap. One is forced to imagine the attachment mechanism: In some tiny apartment on the rue de Whatever, living off his scanty "war" pension, he rises early and while I am blearily watching the digits on my alarm clock approach the buzzing hour and trying not to disturb my hungover wife, he is spraying himself with… edible glue? Before he then essentially breads his time-tenderized self? Is there a loving or merely tolerant wife, her eyes still heavy with sleep, who daily brushes the homemade fixative to his bristled back, then holds him steady under a homemade, whooshing grain dispenser she herself filled up the night before? She waits until he's dry then secures the corn on his bathing cap and old briefs, gently helps him on with his fisherman's cap and trenchcoat. Have a good day at work, mon chéri. (My own dear Madame sees me off to my firm with a grunt into her pillow, cursing in her morning mist both me and the city of blight to which my overseas tour has dragged her, drugged her with francophobic misery, revealed as brittle and sclerotic the misleadingly flexible wit and heart she flashed when safely Stateside.)
From his arms, from his rubber-capped head, from his spread legs and groin, the birds must work to dislodge their meal, but they seem to savor the exercise. Even when they have eaten, they stay (while other would-be patrons strut about awaiting the second seating). They must be pecking him with some force. Their claws must be at least ticklish if not worse. Thoughts of bird-borne bacterial doom must be unavoidable in his line of work. But his bare face shows no discomfort, just easy relaxation, as if he were doing nothing but exhaling for twenty minutes, resting in his suit of flight, savoring the air and the sensation of blinking. Both of my brothers toil in advertising in New York, for rival agencies owned by the same holding company, and my birdman's usefulness to a print campaign seems self-evident. It's almost too easy: birdseed, IRA's, deodorant, pest control, dating clubs, tailors, zoo annual giving campaigns, airlines. He is every conceivable contradictory selling point: express yourself, get out of yourself, embrace difference, join the club, forego loneliness, the world is forever new. I am tempted to pull out my digital and get a few shots to email to the boys.
Of course I cannot do that, because I see today that he hates me, or thinks he does. I wear my work suit (rather better-stitched than his), I slurp my jumbo java and peck at my bran crumbs and hold my American paper-shield. I make no secret of who I am. And to himfrom what I read of Francethese are all tell-tale tattoos to despise. I am from the self-satisfied, philistine, commerce-mad land without tradition or nuance. I am from the place where the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre are fetishized rather than properly ignored. I am from the land of excess, of the loathed-loved Hollywood, the bluster of military might, the dopey arrogance of the unchallenged, the certainty and dominance that France used to have. He would impatiently inform me, I know, that I, too, would have surrendered to the Germans and that I love the wrong things and hate the wrong things. In my disguise as a consultant I am poisoning French minds with blather about synergies and profit centers. I am swilling the wine and admiring my reflection in the fountains. I am the advance guard for next month's tourist masses and the rear guard for nameless American painters vomiting on the sidewalk and beatniks with bongos on the Pont des Arts and GI's in Vietnam juggling infants on bayonets. Perhaps he can see from there, from under his gray feathers, that my wife spends her days in the American Church basement and her evenings in the Ritz bar, griping to other American wives that the French smell and cheat and leer and shove. Perhaps he sees that twice I have gone up to Place Pigalle by roundabout routes and found nothing you couldn't have found in the old Times Square, except even less appealing with Edith Piaf on the jukebox and Bulgarian bartenders speaking strange English and Gypsy girls with painted red sneers.
It is time to go to work, to piece together jagged, lusterless conversations from bits of my broken French and my co-workers' broken English. I rise and his eyes follow me. To reach the gate, I must pass him. A couple of pigeons flee as I approach, leaving behind pink claw marks and spots of red blood. "Vous êtes américain?" he asks.
"Bien. À demain?" (See you tomorrow?) I have become a Parisian fixture for someone.
"Odd man," I agree in my crap accent, with an astonishing joy that will carry me at least through lunch, and alight again and again throughout the afternoon and long, lonely evening.
Copyright © 2002 by Arthur Phillips.