Bird the Good
It had been quite a while since I’d heard from Bird. He had written a long letter, what he called an epistle, from Italy. He was living among the magicians in Venezia. The epistle spoke of the void. How the empty spaces between people were actually teeming and alive with demons and saints. I had written back, as I always did, urging him to settle down with a good job or woman. “I have trouble standing in line,” he replied, “waiting for orders. There is too much wonderful and exotic music in my head. Nothing is left for me to do but dance.”
There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that my good friend, Mr. Bird, was insane. His insanity, however, was beautiful. It appealed to me even though I did not understand it. He rarely worked or had money. If he got a job, it lasted for only a few weeks before he was fired for some outrageous activity. In Chicago, while employed in a meat packing house, he was let go for leading his fellow workers in singing as they worked. He argued that more was accomplished when everyone wasn’t bored. “Bosses are not difficult to figure out,” he told me later.
Money was a low prioriy with Bird. People, experience, freedom, all rated far above money. He much preferred to trade in order to survive. In his last epistle from Venice, he mentioned trading a novel, in English, for a used but improved suit of clothes. “I am so happy each morning to put on this new look. Italian to a T. It was said of our generation that we loved to try new things.” He eventually traded or gave away everything. I suppose I admired his disdain for possessions, but how long can one exist that way? I worried about him.
I must tell you that Bird had a wonderful quality that I personally miss very much. He had the rare ability to help you get below your skin. To experience the vital emotions and thoughts often trapped inside yourself. He could do this without judgment or prying. It made you feel that the world is a wider, more meaningful place. And that your place in it—what you are, or “your music,” as he called it—is significant and real. It was a wonderful gift. I sometimes felt I was asleep til he returned and we talked. I also knew, however, that I could not endure him on a regular basis. His disorganization and intensity were too much for me.
A desire lurked in my heart that Bird would come back from Italy completely destitute. Having seen the folly of his life, Bird would give up the wayward style for a respectable office job. “I will tell him it is something new to try on,” I thought. I hated so that I worried about him. I had my own life to live, after all, but he made it terribly complicated.
I was, of course, astonished to see him on a wide and exclusive boulevard downtown. I worked near there in a tall office building. On my way to lunch there he was, strolling out of an opulent restaurant and sliding into an unnamable foreign sports car. He, the car, the street were equal in magnificence. Bird was in embarrassingly expensive sports clothes. He sat deep in the rich leather, looking all the part of a college boy on holiday. Even from across the street, I could see his eyes were shining. He seemed to be singing a tune, probably of his own making.
He was just pulling the car away from the curb when he spotted me. I was so dumbfounded that I could not even wave. I did manage to wind through the maze of traffic.
“What do you think? Does it fit?” This was his greeting after a year.
He spun around like a child making itself drunk. “The car. The clothes.”
“You, or I, have gone completely crazy.”
He had just driven down from New York where all the fineries had been purchased. He quickly discovered I was on my lunch break and immediately insisted going back into the fine French Cafe from which he had just emerged.
“It’s too ritzy. Let’s just go have a sandwich down the block.”
“No sweat,” he assured me. “I’m loaded.”
To the haughty maitre d’, he handed several bills and requested his regular table. A crisp continental accent beckoned we follow. Bird grinned lazily and waved me ahead. We passed isles of superbly decked humanity to the rear by the garden.
“I eat here every day. They have the best seafood anywhere. The Choucroute Aux Poisson is heaven. Order anything you want.”
Bird stared into the lush jungle of coconut palms and all manner of elephantine greenery for a second while I adjusted myself.
He turned. “Well, what do you think happened?”
“Giant dope deal?”
“Nope. Guess again.” He beamed happily at me.
“Very good. But not exactly. An old friend of my grandmother was filthy rich in hoarded gold and left me six million bucks.”
“What?” It took my breath away. “Why?”
“She liked me when I was a kid and didn’t have anyone to leave it to. Funny, the way things happen, huh?”
It took me a few weeks to find out if his story was true. Sure enough, Bird was a millionaire. His fortune, I learned, was not six million but closer to three and a half, and not in gold but public utility stocks and electronics. Bird quickly liquidated every possible asset and piled it into several banks. “I love to go into a bank and plunk down $300,000 in cash and watch all the VPs fall all over themselves to grab the account,” he told me with a twinkle in his eye. It also was true that he had bank accounts all over the place. In his spacious new house one day, I counted thirty bank books. It is amazing what one can do with money.
I’ll tell you true, Bird did unbelievable things with his money. By the time I saw him next, he had bought a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice and a one-thousand-acre estate in New Hampshire, all with servants and completely furnished. He only lived in a gargantuan old mansion in Key West. It was as far south as he could go in America. He made sure, however, that all of the servants in all of his residences were paid handsomely. He purchased a helicopter to travel to Miami to see me and shuttle us back to the Keys every once in a while. His style of life was utterly absurd.
In the time we spent together, it appalled me how much money he threw away. At first, I constantly badgered him about it. I was raised to believe that money is sacred. Money should only be used to make more money and the rest hoarded away for emergencies. I had no idea that money was a medium of exchange. Bird thought that money used to beget money bought only slavery. So he exchanged his wealth for things both tangible and intangible. He traded it to sad and ragged children for a smile. He bought fine meals at his favorite café for bums just to delight in their fateful experience. It seemed to me that this disposal of plenitude might set a disastrous trend among the patricians. As I might have surmised, no one imitated Bird the Good.
Bird was in his high-ceilinged library one day, mulling over his check books. The ancient paddle fans were turning dreamily overhead. “Do you see this?” he gleefully said to me. “I’ve only spent about one and a quarter million so far. It’s already been eight months.” He rolled his eyes and shook his head slowly. He was ebullient. Later I learned he was as deviant in accounting as in most normal functions and had actually spent nearly $1,800,00 at that point.
Shortly thereafter, he launched into the publishing business, printing books by previously unpublished authors only. He made sure no one on his staff read the books before they were off to the presses. “Everyone who wants to speak and has the courage to try should have the chance,” he told his staff. Bird published poems from old people in nursing homes in the finest leather bindings. The wild, imaginative drawings of small school children were his favorite subjects. At the release of each new project he would call a news conference—he was getting a great deal of publicity for his eccentricity, primarily ridicule—to announce the first 10,000 copies would be given away free at random shopping malls around the country. Some publishing houses criticized this move severely as a shrewd marketing strategy.
Bird would appear at these giveaways, riding in like some modern Santa Claus in his helicopter, landing in the parking lot. Hopping out of the chopper, which always drew a crowd anyway, he would announce over a bull horn. He passed out the books to children, businessmen, women in tennis outfits, policemen, clerks, tax collectors, winos, hippies, Armenians, bankers, dish washers. Anyone who refused to take a book received $25, $50, $100 to take it. These carnivals gave him such delight. “Spreading the word,” Bird called it.
I had a very difficult time seeing the purpose of any of Bird’s behavior. It seemed to me he was merely being naive. He had the childish neglect of reality cognizant in a true saint. Most everyone thought him committable. For a short while, when his activities were capturing space in the various media, a loose knit cult developed in his name. That is where I get the title Bird the Good. These followers began turning up at his giveaways proclaiming that the essence of happiness was only found in giving away those possessions one loved most. Mothers tried to give away their children, followers passed out their clothing, some offered their bodies. It usually ended in a chaotic scene like sale days at Macy’s, the followers chanting: Bird the Good is God. The police cruisers would roar in, lights flashing, sirens screaming as Bird fought his way to his chopper and escaped into the sky.
The hardest aspect for me to understand was Bird’s disrespect for money. I love money, and I work hard for it. I, thus, treasure it. Bird did not work for a dime of his inheritance and, thus, cared nothing for it. That’s how I reasoned then. Later on, thinking about Bird and the lessons I learned from him, I could at least entertain the notion of how foolish it is to spend the best part of your energy in the search for any commodity. The war goes on in me, however, that to be comfortable and experience many of the exotic lamina of life, money is essential. Sitting on the proper side of affluence, Bird still maintained: Anything that only money can buy is not worth having. I argued with him one day that he would sing a different tune without his fortune. He laughed until I was uncomfortable. “I was just as happy before, maybe more. Listen, my friend, we all want to be successful, that’s all. I am eminently successful whether I am rich or poor.” I can, at least, dwell on this heresy now, although I do not entirely agree.
More of my time was being spent in Miami. My job was requiring more time and energy. I was involved with a new woman. For over a month, I lost touch with Bird altogether. When I did get around to calling, he was never at home in Key West. I finally wrote a letter after three months. Still no reply. Now that he had the means, I worried about him less; besides, it was all I could do to keep my head above water in my own affairs.
The phone rang at home one evening.
“It’s about Mr. Bird,” began Claude, the houseman in Key West. Claude was a gentle, elderly man Bird liked very much. “Today, I received this letter. Mr. Bird says he has disposed of all his property and spent his money.” The insidious worm of worry crept into my stomach. Claude continued, “Mr. Bird left the Key West house to me. He enclosed the deed with the letter.”
“Where was the letter postmarked?” I asked.
“Is there a return address?”
I began investigating Claude’s news and found that all of the bank accounts were closed, the publishing house sold, the palazzo and New Hampshire estate with new owners.
It was another month before I saw Bird. It was late autumn in Miami; a time when the snowbirds begin to arrive. It is the time of year when the weather is perfect. After work one evening, I drove to the beach and walked. Ahead of me in the mist of dusk, kicking sand as he sauntered along, was my friend Bird. For several minutes I trailed behind him. The collar of his shapeless coat was turned up. He was wearing baggy khaki trousers and the heavy plain black shoes of working men. Beside us in the distant horizon, day and night were merging in a burst of purple, blue, and orange. He turned to behold it. I moved up next to him. He shifted his gaze to me and smiled. We stood together, silently, in the vastness of the world watching day and night play like baby wildcats in the forest.
He was much thinner and visibly fatigued, except in his eyes. The eyes were scintillating as always.
“Where have you been?” I finally asked.
“Traveling a bit. My place is close by. Come on.”
We walked to a large, run-down Spanish-style rooming house on the beach. One of those remnants of faded elegance lining the poorer section of Miami Beach. We traipsed up worn flagstone steps to the attic. The room was stark: a mattress on the floor, an arm chair that was ripped in the seat with wads of cotton stuffing bubbling out, an oil heater, a small wooden table with a hot plate sitting on top. I saw no refrigerator or sign of food.
Bird led me to the single chair. He treated me as regally as a visiting king. As I sat, he stood before me, the lean six feet of him, arms folded, grinning. He began, “So, what’s your guess this time?”
That’s what I said, but I didn’t mean it. Bird’s insanity was an appearance, an aspect. The world is full of partial truths. Bird was in touch with an essential, simple virtue; knowing human worth—his own and that of others.
“I gave the rest of the money away. It was always in my way. People wouldn’t touch me anymore.”
“But did you have to squander it like that?” I was feeling jealous that I hadn’t received any of his windfall.
He grinned at me the way he did when I’d said something ridiculous. “It was a test put to me. Now I need to return to my greater task in the service of poverty.” He looked more serious for a moment, then, “Don’t you love this place?”
I was confused. “Wouldn’t your Key West house be more comfortable?”
He seemed offended. “Look!” he said, pointing to the open bay windows taking up half of one wall. “The ocean is moving out there. Can’t you hear it? I can see it in the moonlight.”
I stopped to listen and heard the gentle motion. The moon, about five-eighths full, was striking the water brilliantly.
He threw himself on the bed. “I can lay here on the bed and feel like I have my very own piece of creation.”
I am by no means an aesthete, but I do enjoy beauty. For me the serenity and charm of the view was more than offset by the room in which we sat.
“How could anyone want more?” he sent on. “When I was rich, I owned a lot less. Now I can concentrate on one transcendence.”
He went on talking with rising intensity for some time. Adventures he had experienced in the world. People he had hurt or neglected. Opportunities gained, and lost. His language was descriptive, enchanting. I thought, “Not even death is a challenge for him. He has examined everything.”
“I’ve been rambling. I’m sorry.”
“It’s so beautiful the way you talk about life. But I’m wondering what you are going to do next.”
He became very quiet and dropped his head. His voice came full of pain.
“I don’t know. What can I do?”
I considered practical advice for a moment but decided to say nothing. He sat, quietly absorbed on a threshold like a defendant waiting for judgment, knowing the sentence will be harsh. The room was dark save a light spray of moonlight. After a while, I got up, and when he made not move to have me stay, I left him.
Out on the street, the old people and the vagrants roamed the tiny sidewalks. The tourists never come to this section, unless they are lost, and then only to see it from the protection of their cars. I heard singing on the porch of a house nearby. A guitar playing a Spanish tune. Dirty children ran along the street. I thought of Bird the Good. The young man with the publishing business, with property and servants. It suddenly swelled in me that maybe my friend was not the supremely independent person I thought. Maybe he needed someone.
Back up the steps, I knocked gingerly on the door. There was no response. If he was asleep, I would leave. The room was quite dark, but there was a faint glow from the corner. In the corner stood a tall dressing screen that I had not seen before. The radiance came from behind it. I did not see Bird anywhere. I walked across the room.
Behind the screen was a burning candle sitting in the tangled branches of a massive piece of driftwood. The grayness of the wood shone silver in the yellow light of the candle. By this mysterious altar, on the bare floor, was Bird, bent forward like prayer. The marvelous and humble Bird the Good.
I trekked down the steps once again, this time heading for the ocean. At the edge of the tide, I removed my footgear. I moved in to let the warm water skim over my feet. The five-eighths moon was over my head. It was a cool, clear night. A good night for being alive.
The next time I made the trip up the flagstone steps, Bird was gone. Only a week had passed, but he’d moved out. There was nothing else to do but wait.
From here all I have are two letters from Bird and the recollections of a few people who were with him. Within a month of our last visit, I received the first epistle. Here is a portion:
“It is depressingly hard to comprehend practicality when I am always reaching for tenderness and freedom, hard to be stern and profound when I believe that life is intricate and glorious. I meet so many who put on their impersonal air, and not anyone who feels they are involved in a very personal journey. Everyone seeks to be important. No one seeks to be small and accept the vast wonder of living. Plenty attend to business as usual, but no one who is almost paralyzed by magnificent beauty in infinitesimal things. So, most of the people I cross pursue prestige and wisdom, while I now find fulfillment in sweat and germs of drunks, beggars, and prostitutes.”
He explained in this letter how he was traveling the country working in missions for the poor, Salvation Army stations, seedy bars, wherever the sediment of humanity settled. He spoke with great humor and affection about his friends, usually colorful and kind bums and derelicts.
His second letter followed the first by two months. He now had a traveling companion, a black man he called only Conclusion. Bird and Conclusion together were assembling a new vision.
“You said to me all those times to be careful. It is such a disgusting word. Is there anything more dreadful than being careful and missing the spontaneous love and excitement that exists? We learn to keep to ourselves, never allow the real passions to escape. Life can be a coffin, a living lifelessness.
“With my new friend Conclusion, I have explored the barest essentials of bodily existence. We grovel, beg, work, mop up the vomit of men we meet. We also sing, lie in the sun, care for sad-eyed souls. I am altogether full. I could not be more happy.”
This was the last letter I received. It was written on a brown paper bag. It is the most involved statement Bird ever made. It has subjects, subheadings, arrows, drawings, as well as grease stains, telephone numbers, and random rips in the paper. The ending is concise.
“How we all fear suffering. The very thought of sacrifice and pain drives men to any means of relief. If we could only understand that only through suffering can we ever be blessed with true wisdom. The wisdom of a broken heart and empty stomach. The gain in your soul is worth the temporary discomfort.”
I learned that Bird had many friends. I found this out mostly through Conclusion, who was sent by Bird to tell me. No one as generous with himself as Bird could help but draw people. Some came for selfish, neurotic reasons, but Bird accepted everyone without question. Charity was a quality he never had to learn.
I remember walking with him once and running into a wealthy creep we had gone to college with. He was irritating, constantly bragging even though his life consisted primarily of spending his father’s money. In my book he was zero. I told Bird after the fellow left what I thought of him.
“What kind of attitude is that?” It never occurred to me that he could consider the idiot a true friend. “I suppose everyone that doesn’t suit must go? It’s easy to love the lovable but damn hard to love mean, boastful, shallow people.”
“It’s normal to love a villain, at least for awhile,” I told him, “but it’s unimaginable to me to let jerks like that have your friendship. It’s a waste of time. He’s a gnat.”
He looked at me quite seriously. “You think too much of yourself. You think its okay to be buddies with an enemy. Anyone who feels strong could say that. It’s always been a tribute to make a friend of a strong enemy. It takes more than vanity to love the weak, or the . . . gnats.”
Conversations with Bird inevitably broke below the surface. I was not used to it. Sometimes I would be angry, other times frustrated, often ignoring. For all the life and insight Bird bestowed on me, I must say I missed so much. Like most of us, I survived by retreating within myself.
I shared this feeling with Conclusion as we sat in my apartment. It was almost spring. It was then, sitting in my comfortable, secure surroundings, that Conclusion told me Bird was dead. He had caught pneumonia in a coal mining town in Kentucky. They had been helping the Salvation Army with relief for striking miners. He worked for several days, coughing violently with a tremendous temperature. He waved off attempts to care for him, saying there were many others who needed the medical attention. Finally, he collapsed and died a week later in a tiny hospital in the mountains.
After telling me the story, Conclusion handed me an envelope Bird said must be personally delivered.
“Sorrow is with us always, but so is laughter. It is easier to remember the sad hours than it is to give life to the happy ones. Such a shame that tears should flow naturally, but laughter, genuine rejoicing, require such effort. It is important then to cooperate with the buoyant side of ourselves. Not to stress too much a person’s work, like a biographer. But to focus that energy gathered from another to spark glee in someone else. Remember, my friend, that our struggles will fade away, but the happiness we leave lives on forever.”
As I read this last word from Bird, the light of a spring day was inching into the room. There was sadness and loss, but also there was a smile on my lips. I could not think of Bird and not smile. My mind was saying why? Why is he gone? It was incomprehensible. Then a thought crept in whispering so low I had to be still and listen: “Why are any of us here at all? Is it not so much why, as how.” That, I believe, is what Bird would have said.
This story originally appeared in Dialog magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Dialog.