by Jamie Lutton
– For The Capitol Hill Times –
I often hear the gulls noisily gather overhead at twilight, just north of my shop. I had previously thought that they were just gathering for the night, the way that crows do when they migrate to a city park to roost in the winter, but I was mistaken. The gulls were gathering with purpose; they had found a human friend to feed them.
I first saw him when I was cutting though the ally behind Charlie’s on Broadway.
He was a diminutive black man, not much older than me, and down at heels in appearance. Perhaps homeless. I saw him energetically rifling through a dumpster, digging for food scraps, then carefully wrapping them in plastic bags. I watched him for a while, then asked what he was up to. Without making eye contact, he said that he “fed the birds.” I looked around and up. The tops of the walls and buildings near us had gulls perched on them. They shifted their feet, intent and eagerly staring down at this man, creek-creeking now and then, in an exclamation of excitement. The man pointed to the birds and said, “Those gulls follow me around as soon as I get up and out in the morning.”
I didn’t see him again until a few nights ago on my way home. He was a few blocks away, near Dick’s Drive-in on Broadway, with a good hundred gulls in the sky circling about him and making a glorious racket. They hovered over and behind, swooping in great circles overhead. The man stood with a large tall wheeled suitcase in front of him, surrounded by the birds.
The street rang with the cries of hungry gulls that all focused their attention on this man, creek-creeking in excitement, circling overhead, landing and hop-walking in front of him. They seemed to know him well. More and more arrived and settled in front of him as he threw out more food. The cleverest gulls caught food scraps in the air, competing with the others to do so. It was a crashing loud cacophony with many gull voices hungrily calling at once. The scene was reminiscent of a cold winter’s dusk at the ocean, when the sky is filled with hungry seabirds, looking for a meal, nearly drowning out the crashing waves.
The birds surrounded the man on the ground and in the air, all turned towards him. The man twisted in circles, with his luggage full of offal, spinning in a fast circle, throwing messy, bready food bits into the air. As the food was launched, the gulls cried even louder, lunging to catch the food as it was thrown, jostling each other out of the way to catch pieces in the air.
Summoning a few gulls down by the edge of the Sound when eating fish and chips is no big deal, but this was a navy of gulls, like noisy sheep with wings, hopping down to the dark, dirty pavement, then soaring aloft, in the growing February dusk. I did a head count, and tallied at least 80 birds on the ground and in the air, a mix of grey yearlings and adult gulls. All of them were serious about getting food. They dove and rose in the air, gliding, flapping their wings, and staring intently down at the man and his suitcase, creek-creeking loud enough to silence the sounds of traffic.
With so many birds, the screeching must have been them calling out to their friends in distant parts of the city, inviting them to the feast. Feeding a bird so large must require the consumption of copious amounts of garbage and effluvia, and covering huge distances to stay alive. When the man began to feed them, the gulls must have come from all over the city to enjoy his gift of a free meal.
The birds saw him and talked to him, if only while the food lasted. It was an overwhelming sensory experience to see so many birds in one place. There was love there, what my mother would call “cupboard love,” the love of a pet for a treat. These gulls clamored to get food from the man, crying out like it was their mother feeding them. And after seeing and hearing them, I had the sudden, fierce wish to go to the ocean’s side to survey and listen to the waves. I could almost smell the ocean’s saltiness in the loud cries that the gulls made.
Here, in the crowded sidewalks and byways of Capitol Hill, I am so cut off from nature that experiences like this make me long for the solitude of an ocean beach, where only the ocean waves and seabirds would be my company.
Jamie Lutton owns Twice Sold Tales on Harvard Avenue. Read more at her blog, Booksellers versus Bestsellers.