Driving to work one bright and chipper morning recently, I spotted a red bird squatting in the middle of Delaware Avenue a few blocks from my house. As birds often sit in the road and fly off at the last second, I thought little of it as I barreled along, admiring the first forsythia blooms and searching for the perfect song to set the mood for my day. But the bird didn't dart away and it didn't seem like it was going to. I was about to run over a half-pound bird with a one-and-a-half-ton automobile.
Suddenly, I was inside one of those moments when expectations of what normally happens are confounded by a tweaking of the cosmic script. I use the idea of being "inside the moment" pointedly here. Mostly, we live in "threshold time"—our minute-to-minute experience that feels like being on the verge of some unknowable thing but that something never happens. Then, like a car crash, like falling in love, the unexpected arrives, and it's as if a door slams shut. Whatever we have done, whatever we have failed to do—it's all behind us now. We are very aware of being in a moment. Perhaps this is what deathbed consciousness is like.
In that instant, my first reaction was to keep going and take the bird between my tires. It was small enough that I could pass safely over it, if it didn't move. If. I slammed on the brakes.
Three feet in front of my car, the bird sat, unmoving, implacable as an elephant. We stared at each other for a moment. I thought about hitting the horn but I dislike loud noises myself. And it just seemed rude. I'd probably burst the little sucker's eardrums. There was nothing to do but get out of the car and see what was up with the bird. I threw the hazards on and stepped to the front of the car.
At this point, I noticed a woman watching from a rolled down window in a minivan that was pulled over in the opposite direction. She must have been watching the bird since before I got there. "Oh good, I was going to do the same thing," she said as she drove away. Do the same thing? Lady, what were you planning? I was just hoping that this bird didn't need actual assistance because I was unqualified to help it in any veterinary way and I was not sure I cared enough to help it. What a pain in the ass a bird with a broken wing would be.
The red bird, with a red beak, just looked at me. I bent at the knees to get as eye-level with it as I could and tried to shoo it away. "Shoo," I said, making the universal shooing gesture with both my hands. A grown man, in the middle of the road, trying to shoo a bird. I half expected someone to drive by and shout, "Just drive around!" At this point, I certainly wondered why I hadn't. Regardless, the bird was unshooable. It was either drive away or deal with the bird.
I picked it up without any trouble and raised it eye level as it clutched my index finger with one foot. The other didn't seem to be able to grip. But the little red bird seemed mostly fine—it looked like it would be up and flying in no time. The bird had probably just suffered a dizzy spell, or dissociative moment, or acid flashback. It happens to the best of us.
But as I was walking to the sidewalk—where I planned to set the bird down before driving blithely away—I remembered a stat from Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom: Cats kill over a billion birds a year in the US. And my neighborhood is no different than most, with housecats prowling the streets, conducting an ongoing avian holocaust.
Little Red Bird sat in the passenger seat on the way back to my house, unfazed. I thought about bringing it to the vet, but that seemed like overkill. Let the cure fit the illness. Or so I told myself. I did run up to my neighbor's house—Vicki is a vet tech and would know what to do. Except she wasn't home.
Back at my house, I grabbed an empty wooden wine crate and dropped some sticks in it, as well as some water in a dish. I put Little Red Bird in the crate and he perched one-leggedly on a stick. That was as far as I got with my plan. I had gotten the bird off the road and safely into a box. Now I had to go to work. Should I leave the box inside so the bird would be safe? (Damn cats.) But what if Little Red Bird feels better and starts flying around my house trying to get out? He could hurt himself and shit all over my house as well. (Birds have no sphincters I am told.)
After dithering for a few minutes, I decided the box should be outside so the bird could fly away if he wanted to. I grabbed the plant stand and placed it on top of the patio table and placed Little Red Bird's crate on top of that, thinking for no good reason that being precariously perched five feet off the ground was better than being just on the table. I moved all the chairs away from the table so it wouldn't be easy for any cats to jump up. Instead of two small jumps, they'd have to make one big leap onto the table. (Which seemed pretty easy actually, given that the table was only three-feet high.) Despite my misgivings, I wished Little Red Bird godspeed and left for work.
All morning, I fretted over the fate of Little Red Bird. Was he dying of some internal injury? Did the neighborhood cats get to him? Normally, I don't lunch at home, but a mixture of curiosity and trepidation had me back at my house by noon. Turning the corner of the house, I expected to find a flurry of red feathers raining down on the table and a gang of cats batting Little Red Bird back and forth as if they were playing air hockey. But Little Red Bird was perched on the crate, both feet gripping the side of the box just fine. Before I could reach him, he flew up into a tree. I haven't seen him since.