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Friday, March 8, 2013


A terra cotta keystone on an apartment building on North Clarendon Street in Chicago

Judging by the mounds of dirty snow in my apartment's shady courtyard, it's still the dead of winter in Chicago, but spring has to be close because there are already crocus budding a block away, birds I haven’t seen since Thanksgiving are back in town to check out the available nesting spots in the neighborhood (and, too, probably wondering what happened to the two white mulberry trees that were still in the front yard when the birds left) and here in the shop, customers who winter in Palm Beach and Montecito are starting to show up again--with tans. Those are all good signs, this time of year. I, of course, retain the normal pallor that comes naturally to one who spends most of his time indoors and whose southward travels generally go no farther than Cermak Road. Mayor Anton Cermak--in whose honor 22nd Street was renamed--went down to Florida one year about this time and look what happened.  There's no reason to take unnecessary chances just to soak up a little sunshine.  The stuff's over-rated.    

The view out the window above my bed. Sometimes, it's easy to forget I live in a city of almost three million people. 
Then somebody's stupid car alarm goes off.
No, I'm staying right here, close to home, and in recent days, it’s Chicago's year-round residents that  I’m seeing--and hearing: just  more of them. The raven that hangs out in the ancient cottonwood across the street wakes me up like he does every morning, no matter what the season is, but lately, he seems louder. Maybe I'm imagining it. And just this morning, I saw four fat cardinals in the tree right outside my window.  Like me, like ravens, cardinals stay put when the weather turns cold, but still, I've never seen that many cardinals together before. Then again, Why not? The city's homeless population may be struggling more this year than in years past, but at least the cardinals are being well-fed. To him who has, more will be given, I guess. Soon enough, the noisy sparrows--who never think they have enough--will be fighting over snippets of the colored yarn that one of my neighbors threads through the bare twigs of the barberry hedge out front. The Circle of Life is a wonderful thing.
Meanwhile, down on Grand Avenue, the hyacinths & forsythia are blooming, I’m down to the last dozen or so of Debra’s rubber faux tulips and our Slush Gray walls are splotched with test swatches of green & yellow paint. Winter may have one last blizzard up its sleeve—face it, it is only March, and we are in Chicago—but at SG Grand, it is now officially Spring. Let the nesting begin.
Do a good deed for somebody today: everybody deserves a home.


  1. In NH it's definitely still winter after getting a foot of snow yesterday but like you our summer birds are starting to arrive. A whole flock of finches arrived this week and I'm sure wondering what the heck has happened to their summer home with all this snow. We're making sure the bird feeders stay full until our little feathered friends can find their own. Happy Spring!


    1. For a few years, I lived on the third floor of a 1940 apartment building and my kitchen looked down on the neighborhood laundromat, whose roof was covered with huge dryer vents that constantly billowed clouds of perfumed steam. That's the main reason I took the top floor apartment instead of its near-identical twin one floor down: the view outside my window was like a real-life Charles Sheeler painting.

      But what was merely visually interesting in summer turned into a three-ring circus come cold weather. That is, the rooftop of the laundry turned into a day spa for dozens of starlings. Dripping from vents attached to dryers where wet clothes straight out of the washers were being tumbled, condensing steam created puddles deep enough for the birds to drink from, to bathe in or to just horse around in, which starlings, it turns out, spend a lot of time doing.

      I didn't own a TV, so at lunch time, I would sit at my kitchen table watching the goofball antics of the starlings, which, despite their intelligence, are the clowns of the bird world. Imagine a hundred winged Jim Carreys and you get the ideas. After washing up, the birds' feathers would be soaked clear through, so, conditioned with aerosolized Downy, the wet birds would waddle over to a vent where the cycle was near its end & the exhaust was drier, at which point the birds would fan out their wings horizontally and proceed to strut back & forth like the strip-tease artiste in Edward Hopper's "Girlie Show".

      One morning, after a few days' worth of free entertainment, I started feeling bad about watching the show while giving nothing in return, so I threw them the crusts off my toast. But the wind carried the dry crusts away before before they even hit the roof, so I tried tossing out full slices of untoasted bread. Those, at least, didn't blow away but they still tended to hydroplane across the roof, so I started making them peanut butter sandwiches, which, being heavier, stayed put.

      The problem with sandwiches was that the bullies in the crowd (and there are always a few) would plant themselves on top and dare the others to come close. Of course, any crowd also has a criminal element, so some birds would always sneak up behind the boss bird and rip off a piece of crust while the boss was defending against frontal attacks what he viewed as 'his' sandwich. Then the thieves would fly a few feet away, knowing the boss wouldn't abandon the whole sandwich to argue over one bite. It was like a good football scrimmage--but with laughs. And lots of squawking & whistling.

    2. ....continued

      One time I decided that instead of making sandwiches, I should just start saving leftovers. Of course, anything small would blow right off the roof like the toast crusts did, so I used unflavored gelatin to hold it all together like a moulded aspic, then toss the whole thing onto the roof as a complete dish. There was plenty for everybody--after sinking into the aspic up to their bellies a time or two, the birds stopped trying to stand on top--plus it was easier (and less expensive) than preparing a lot of peanut butter sandwiches every day.

      One time I tossed together a loaf of day-old bread, the juice & skin from a can of salmon I had used to make salmon croquettes, some leftover Cream-of-Wheat from breakfast and a chopped-up hot dog that my friends' three-year old hadn't eaten when they all dropped by for lunch. I mixed it all together with the gelatin, then poured, as susual, the gloppy mixture into the biggest Fiesta mixing bowl I owned (this was when you could still pick up the stuff at Goodwill for a quarter) and put it in the refrigerator to jell so that it would be ready for the birds the next day, when my brother was coming over for lunch. I hadn't yet told him about my crazy starling friends because I wanted hm to be surprised, but I knew he'd get a kick out of them. Unfortunately, he didn't even notice the birds. But he definitely was surprised--although not, perhaps, in the way I had intended.

      I was delayed at my job, and by the time I got home with the box of Famous Recipe chicken for the two of us, my brother--who had a key--had gotten tired of waiting for me, and he'd left again. He also left a note--on top of the Fiesta bowl in the refrigerator: "Mein Gott! What in hell are you eating these days?"

  2. I have not yet seen the brilliant bluebirds that I usually see this time of year but then again, we did just have 7 inches of snow on Wednesday in central Virginia. It was 65 today so the poor things are probably confused. Nice to know that Spring has arrived in the shops at least.

    1. Bluebirds are one species that I've never seen here in Chicago, but you never know. Birds aren't the only out-of-towners who can get confused, either. A few years back a coyote got run over by a taxi right in front of the Art Institute, and it was just a few blocks west of there that another coyote managed to get himself stuck in the soft-drinks cooler of a Loop sandwich shop. I hate when that happens. He, at least, survived his trip into town, even if his dignity didn't.

  3. Connor, the furriest yellow lab in the universe, is always willing to be groomed in the back garden. I just let the tufts (ha) of hair just float into the wind, in hopes that the birds will find and use it to line their nests.

    1. A friend in a small Wisconsin town got tired of county deer nibbling all the budding foliage off the fruit trees in her unfenced yard, so one spring, her hair stylist gave her a loose-woven net bag full of hair sweepings from his salon's floor, which are alleged to repel deer. Well, maybe--if all the neighborhood birds hadn't discovered the bag first and ripped it open to get at the hair. I'm sure Connor's hair was put to good use, and it probably made a lot better- looking nest than random mix of bleached, colored & permed hair the Wisconsin birds got.

  4. the relief of a bird in a nest is spectacular

    the notion of spring.......dismal