Chicago, lincoln square, pigeon man

St. Francis of The City

(Tribune file photo / September 2, 2004)

I just read that The Pigeon Man of Lincoln Square was fatally hit by a car yesterday. I have seen Joseph Zeman many, many times sitting on that fire hydrant near the corner of Lawrence and Western. A man at peace with who he was and who loved God’s creation.

In looking for information about him I came across this 2004 Tribune article. Here are some excerpts.

“Soon as I take a seat, they want to be loved and kissed like a mama’s baby,” he says, taking a seat late one recent afternoon, as a raincloud of pigeons alights from a roof and hovers in for a landing. “Like I’m their father, and they’re my child.

“See ’em waiting here now, they know I’m coming. They’re waiting for me so they can say, `Here I am, here I am, do what you want to do with me. We’re not worried about you.’ I just tell ’em all, `You’re my baby, you’re my baby too.'”

“All my life I had so much backstabbing at home, real problems there. I got to love the animals more, so trustworthy. Fifty years, all I heard was `Shut up, shut up.’ I needed help at home ’cause I was handicapped. They took advantage of me. Epileptic fits since the day I was born.

“Because I had so much trouble at home, I learned not to say nothing, keep to myself, just so I can’t be wrong anymore. So they came up to me [the pigeons]; I appreciated the friendship out of a bird more than a person. They’re wordless. They come up with pure appreciation.”

After more than half a century with the birds, Zeman says, he has learned many a lesson. “Stay quiet all your life. Nothing but trust and honesty, low profile all the time, just like I’m another bird, sitting there. They sit on me all day and half into the night. That’s where I got something about me that nobody else has.”

He comes because he sees his sitting on the hydrant as the most important work he has ever done.

“I’m really advertising to the public how easy it is to be good without an attitude; it’s just as easy to show decency as it is to hate today.”

And Heidi Hurtado, who works in a dress shop right across Western Avenue, makes a point of peering out the window to take in the Zen of Zeman.

“Peace, he makes me feel at peace,” she says. “It’s joyful to see somebody so loving and caring to pigeons. A lot of people don’t like pigeons. Through everything that’s going on in the world right now, it’s just nice to see a sight like that.”

When asked if he has ever thought of simply taking the birds home, he answers: “I’ve thought of it. But they’re outdoor birds, they’re meant to be on their own free will. They’d die from grief.

“When they come up to me, it’s got to be on their own free will, not being grabbed or grasped. That’s what makes them so happy when you come back.”

He coos right back to the birds. He kisses them, right on their iridescent necks, flat on the point of their sharp little beaks. He nuzzles them, rubs his nose in their wings, the herringbone of feathers all black and charcoal and pewter and white. He calls them by name, his favorites, Whitey and Brownie. “Sure, sure,” he coos, stroking them with his words. “There, there,” he clucks.

He worries when one is missing in action. “Where you been? Where you been?” he asks when the prodigal pigeon finally flutters back. Like some kind of pigeon dentist, he tenderly plucks a feather that’s stuck in a beak.

He loves them as though they’re his best friends in the world, and pretty much that’s what they are.

Any money he received from people went directly for the birds.  He would buy popcorn, seed, and other feed for them.

So much to learn from a man who some thought ill of because of his preoccupation with the birds. He knew that God’s eye is on the sparrow. He took that lesson and showed it to us.

The pigeons will mourn. They will know their friend is gone. Those of us who learned from the quiet man on the fire hydrant will mourn. We will try to take his lessons with us.

Joseph Zeman, St. Francis of The City, may your memory be eternal.




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