The Words of the Moffitt Family

The Bird King

Larry R. Moffitt
Buenos Aires
8 December, 1998

Two small dogs rounded the corner coming into the park and a thousand pigeons took wing.

The dogs were little short haired no-namers about the size of a rugby ball, irritating little yappers that always breathe like they have a stuffy nose and would give one great pleasure to drop-kick over the telephone wires. As they snarfled into the park, the birds flew, not away from them, but toward them. Pigeons settled on the ground and benches all around. Right behind the dogs walked a man with a small plastic shopping bag and they surrounded him as well.

The man reached into his bag and pulled out a handful of corn, wheat and assorted bird seed and flung it out across the carpet of upturned beaks. He and his dogs were instantly joined by another pigeon battalion.

Son David and I stood beside our bicycles nearby, watching in silence as he strolled here and there tossing bursts of mixed grain into the air. Finally I said, "That guy must be The Bird King." The man’s physical resemblance was about as close to being a human version of those little rugby dogs as a person could get and still look like a person: bald, short, dumpy, drop-kickable. He looked neither threatening nor threatened, a non-combatant in survival-of-the-fittest society. If he hadn’t been feeding the birds, he would have been invisible.

The Bird King ended up scattering a couple kilos of grain as he strolled along the park with his dogs. After it was all dished out, he stood apart and watched them eat. David and I rode our bicycles over to him. He was pleasant and opened to us immediately.

"It’s not me the birds recognize," he said, "it’s the dogs. They know my dogs. I love all animals. I came here once and saw the birds starving, lying on the ground. They need me and so I feed them" We forgot to ask The Bird King’s name so we could call him Good King Alfonso or something. Dorothy Parker no doubt would have called him Onan because he spilled his seed on the ground.

We left the man and rode over to the platform to wait for the train. I thought about what we had just seen and about how the law of love and ownership applies. (The Law: Whoever loves something the most is, in the eyes of the universe, its true owner.) I asked David, "Do you know why he’s the king of those birds? Why he’s their true owner?"

David saw it coming a mile away. "Is this going to be a lesson of life?" he asked.

"I’m afraid so," I told him, "and there’s nothing you can do about it."

We’re standing on a train platform with our bikes. Dad has kicked into bearded sage mode, downloading the accumulated wisdom of the ages, and there’s no place for a 13-year-old boy to escape. I like to think there are plenty worse things to endure than my lessons of life and David has learned this is the rent he pays for quality time. Besides, once we scoot through my agenda, we can get down to discussions more germane to life’s essence, such as…

"How did kissing start? Who invented it?"

"Uhhhh…well, actually…your mother and me."

"Daaaad. You’re not old enough."

"We’re plenty old enough. Nobody was doing it before we started. Go ahead, ask around, you’ll see. Not only did we invent kissing, but anybody else who kisses is required to pay us five cents. Per kiss. Intellectual property rights."

[Note to readers: Taeko and I have never made a big deal out of royalty payments because we’re nice, but if we were to press the issue in court, some of you would be in very deep hock.]

Everywhere you go in Latin America people are standing on the street kissing – not little smacky-mouth kisses, but passionate, tonsil-groping, mutual strangulation kissing – tongues intertwined like fighting pythons. Two couples on the train platform are madly "sucking face," as David would term it. They stand at either end of the station – posted sentries, going at each other like vacuum cleaners.

The train came and we put our bikes on and rode downtown to the office. It was a holiday in honor of the Virgin Mary’s conception (Inmaculada Concepción de la Virgen) – December 8 seems a bit too close to Christmas, even for an immaculate conception but then the ways of God are mysteries aren’t they? It’s also a national holiday in Argentina. People here are not overly troubled by petty church and state separation issues. I like that in a country.

We piddled around the office a couple hours and then rode the bikes home, taking the scenic route along the Rio de la Plata. That’s the name the Spanish gave to this enormous tidal estuary where the Paraná River empties and makes Buenos Aires a port city. The Spanish named it to indicate a river where the silver is. Perhaps they were trying to attract settlers or maybe it was wishful thinking, because there was never any silver in the river. Manipulating place names to fool the crowds is a strategy that goes back at least to the Vikings and so-called Greenland.

As always the river bank was lined with people fishing, and lots and lots of people kissing – leaning against the balustrade kissing, or sitting on the benches kissing. One couple on rollerblades was kissing, obviously professionals; don’t try this at home.

The riverside seems to be a good place to come for kissing, but less so for fishing. In fact, after two years of riding along the river more or less frequently, I have never seen anyone catching a fish. Ever. Not only that, but I have never seen anyone with an already-caught fish. Logic dictates that someone must be catching something otherwise the banks would not be constantly lined with fisherpersons, as they always are, some tending four or five poles. I have come to the conclusion that these people are either meditating or they are waiting for someone to come kiss them. Either way, they are not fishing because fishing involves fish. The rules are very clear on this point.

The lovers, however, are bagging the legal limit.

A darkish man in his early 30s with a heavy black beard looks serenely over the railing, his pole and line dangling over the water. He is portly, more than portly; he is nearly as round as he is tall. He stares into the middle distance wearing the just-attained-enlightenment smile of the beatified, and beside him stands his woman. Her waifish gauntness, wispy blonde hair and pale complexion make her an exact physical opposite of him. Her arm snakes around his wide back as far as it will reach, and she too looks like she has died and gone to heaven. She and he are not talking, or even kissing. They are simply holding one another, fishing, meditating, drowning bait, loving, making peace, being together, stopping time.

I am shown once again that love really doesn’t care what you and I think. Eros is his own Rasputin, keeping his counsel within. Fishermen fish without fishing, a summer afternoon showers inordinate affection on a man and his son. And The Bird King loves whom The Bird King loves.

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