If

IMG_0007We found a bird on the sidewalk. One wing splayed out to the side. His eyes fluttered open, then closed. We knelt beside him; I ran a finger down his heaving chest. We protected him from a curious dog and an oblivious human foot. We figured he was dying and wondered if we should intervene, if we could save his life, or at least provide a soft, safe place for him to pass.

Obi pushed the bird’s wing back in towards his body. I lifted him into Obi’s cupped hands. The bird didn’t struggle. He didn’t move. We walked up the block together and that’s where we parted. I went to work. Obi carried the bird to his apartment.

There was something about how that bird looked at us, turning its head from me to Obi and back again. He had no fear and no hope. He surrendered into the warmth of a stranger’s hand as if it was the obvious, the only, thing to do. In a battle between fate and free-will, he surrendered to that which was bigger than him, and kinder than the panting sidewalks and angry cars of Manhattan.

Before the bird, we were drinking coffee, talking about the fine filaments in the spiderweb of life and how we both appreciate the journey we’re on even if we somewhat dread our endlessly impending arrival into the Land of Outcome. We wondered what if we were to discover the Land of Outcome is nothing like how the brochures describe it.

Life is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, we agreed, except once you make a choice and turn the pages, you can only go back to page one and try something different in your imagination.

This somewhat depressed the both of us, so we drank more coffee.

And then, I tried to make him feel better by deconstructing advice someone once gave to me.

Years ago, I was bartender in a fancy boutique hotel. The hotel was a lesson in chaos theory. I don’t know how the bricks stayed put with the disastrous happenings inside. The veneer had a high polish. Any strangers looking in could only see a reflection of themselves. But, on the other side of the pristine facade, the truth hid in plain sight. The place was a train wreck. The managers ran and hid when there was an issue that needed attending to, the cooks were drunks, the customers were drunks, the bellhops – drunks. The front desk people were embezzling thousands of dollars, and we, the servers of ostentatious inefficiency, kept everyone fat, happy, and willfully ignorant.

I quit that job three times with a carefully worded letters of resignation. They kept putting me on the schedule. I kept showing up. I was hypnotized by the specter of responsibility. And I was curious to see what would happen next.

At that time, I thought I knew what success looked like. I was itching for it. And though my imagined success rested on the shoulders of others, I thought somehow, I was driving the car.

My work friend, a beautiful wounded bird of a woman, had been a model in the eighties. She insisted that beauty was a curse. To me, her scars were elegant, beguiling, and mysterious.

I was driven, ambitious, and determined. I wanted what I wanted – and believed if I wanted it hard enough and long enough, I’d have it, no matter the cost. I was speeding down the highway with no map, no clear destination. Just me behind the wheel, foot on the gas, driving like my fender was on fire.

On a night filled with drunk Japanese businessmen drinking single malt scotch like it was Coca Cola, we hid half-eaten platters of sushi and bottles of beers in the back room to eat and drink when the party ended and the place was ours again.

Later, while sipping beers on the hotel balcony, she said, “take the back seat.”

Bad advice, I thought. Terrible suggestion. I didn’t like it one bit.

Turns out, my co-worker’s advice wasn’t a suggestion.

Turns out, I wasn’t driving the car back then. I’m not driving now. And I never have.

Turns out I don’t even have a driver’s license.

“What she was really telling me,” I said to Obi, “was ‘stop being a back seat driver.’ No one likes a back seat driver. And if you stop to think about it, it’s not your car to begin with, but a borrowed vehicle.”

“A borrowed vehicle that’s taking you places you may or may not want to go.”

“Yes.”

“If I’m not driving the car and I don’t get to tell the car where go, or how fast, or the shortest route – why am I even a passenger?”

“You help pay for gas.”

In a noble attempt to change the subject, Obi then launched into a story about he nearly sustained a career ending injury at work. “It was bad,” he pouted, “there’s not even a mark to show for it.

“No one believes you?”

“Nope.”

“They’re assholes,” I said.

“But their car ride’s much faster than mine.”

“I’d rather the scenic route. Even if it is slow, at least it’s never boring.”

I called Obi a couple of hours after we parted to check up on the bird. It was sitting on the window sill, alert and peaceful.

“He hasn’t moved since we got here,” he said. “I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Probably he just needs time to heal.”

“You’re a good person,” I said.

“No, I’m not. But I can tell when something needs a little bit of help.”

“Give him water,” I said, “in a little dish. Or on a rag” I was thinking that if this little bird lived, he might turn things around for Obi. They could become best friends. The bird could teach Obi about the joys of riding in the back seat in the car ride of life.

And if the bird died at least it died protected, in warmth and safety.

When I was twelve or nine or some such age, I held a crow in my lap as it died. I didn’t know what to do, so I sang in lullabies and rocked it for an hour or two. And just before its final breath, there was a surge of energy. Its beak opened, its wings spread, its head arched, and it tried to fly.

After we talked, Obi took the bird to his building courtyard. The bird rested in his palm for a minute or two, then flew to the fire escape. And then it flew away.

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