Into the storm: Birds downtown on October 29, 2011

Starlings at Heritage State Park, Oct. 29, 2011. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Everyone could tell the storm was coming.

Just after 10 a.m. a group of men and women stood in the parking lot of a convenience store on High Street trying on coats pulled from one of those clothing donation boxes that looks for all the world like a dumpster.

In the alley behind my apartment a man sitting on an abandoned loading dock asked if I could spare any change. I’d met him once a year earlier, when the governor made a campaign stop at Old San Juan Bakery. As the governor boarded his bus and waved good-bye, the man turned to me and said, “I should run for governor. I could help people — I know what it’s like out here.”

He and a few other men spent the nights out by the river. “We sleep like raccoons,” he told me.

On the morning of the storm I dug through my pockets and found 45 cents.

‘Gracias, amigo,” he said.

“Keep warm,” I said.

“Bless you,” he said, and he folded back into the shadows.

The streets were quiet but the people who were out were enveloped in completing one odd task or another. In a vacant lot on Hampshire Street a man tossed junk into the bed of a pickup truck while a tuxedo-colored cat looked on. On Essex Street a man pushed a big-screen television wedged into a shopping cart. The sky seemed cloudless until you realized it was all cloud, all shapeless and gray.

(c) Greg Saulmon 2011

A man in a bright orange sweatshirt rode a bike under the huge bright orange trees outside the library, and a tabby cat the color of faded beech leaves sauntered toward the burned out Barlow apartment building.

At the end of Division Street, out at the far end of the blocked off parking deck, a single song sparrow sat in a high branch and braced itself against the thickening wind.

Everyone could tell the storm was coming, especially the birds.

Behind city hall, a blue jay swallowed berries in a tree on Heritage Street. It squeaked and squawked in a language I’ve never heard a blue jay use. A robin — that sign of impending hope and warmth when sighted in March — bounced from tree to tree along the cobblestone street, trying to read the signs of the suddenly confusing season.

(c) Greg Saulmon 2011

The pigeons sitting along the upper deck of the parking garage buried their faces in their breasts and shrugged their shoulders hard and looked ready to stay right there and wait out the whole winter.

By the time the snow started falling a few hours later, though, several of the pigeons had taken refuge inside the garage, startling from the rafters and hovering under the low ceiling as I walked through. Outside the snowflakes floated like moths.

The snow had come fast and hard and strong and plenty of people were still out, feeling their way through the streets like they were walking through a milkshake.

In the park the trees blushed and froze like secret lovers caught in the act. Starlings flocked the way they flock in dead winter. Against the sky each bird seemed smaller than the flakes in front of my face.

It’d be a few more hours before the trees started snapping and exploding under the weight of the snow. In the nights that followed the surrounding neighborhoods and towns and cities were dark and the sky seemed suddenly bright. Thousands of us tried to adjust to a world where we woke and slept according to the sun’s shortening cycle; to a world where there seemed little to do beyond trying to find simple food and comfort; to a world that was the only world the birds have ever known.

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