2 days ago
By Barbara Mahany | Tribune staff writer
December 20, 2007
Police didn't know who he was, the old man killed Tuesday by a van near Devon Avenue and McCormick Road.
They found newspaper clippings -- about a half-dozen laminated copies of the same story -- tucked into one of his many Jewel bags.
Cut, copied, pressed between plastic, the clipping showed the man in full color, feathered with pigeons, and told a piece of his story. And except for that clipping, the cops and the doctors who pronounced him dead at the hospital had no clue who he was.
The pigeon man's life was like that. Barely a soul had a clue who he was.
That's why the cops called me, just an hour or two after he died. They knew I knew a bit of his story. I wrote the one they found in his possession. Two years and three months had passed, and he still carried it wherever he went.
After the old man died an hour later, the cops needed someone to call, needed to know if there was a soul in the world who might care to know what happened to Joe Zeman, who most everybody called "the pigeon man of Lincoln Square."
Here's just a bit of the pigeon man's story, the one he carried:
"Except for the lips, you would think he was made out of stone, the man who sits, hours on end, on the red fire hydrant on Western Avenue, just north of Lawrence, pigeons by the dozens perched on him.
"Pigeons on his head. Pigeons on his shoulders and right down his arms. Pigeons poised on each palm. Pigeons clinging to his chest. Pigeons on his lap. Pigeons on his thighs. Pigeons, of course, perched on each foot.
"The pigeons peck and coo, occasionally flutter their wings. Sometimes even scatter. But not the man; the man is motionless. You might mistake him for a statue.
"Joseph Zeman can sit for hours, barely flinching a muscle," I wrote. "Except for those lips."
I wrote how he cooed right back to the birds. How he kissed them, right on their iridescent necks, flat on the point of their sharp little beaks. How he nuzzled them, rubbed his nose in their wings, the herringbone of feathers all black and charcoal and pewter and white. How he called them by name, his favorites. How he worried when one was missing in action.
I wrote about the attic where he lived a few blocks from the hydrant, how he kept track there, in a neat little ledger, of whatever dollar bills might have been slipped into his hand, dropped by the side of his hydrant.
How he used the money for his pigeon supplies, the unpopped popcorn, the bags of white rice, the loaves of Deerfield Farms enriched white bread, the Maurice Lenell oatmeal cookies, the plain old birdseed that comes in 50-pound sacks, which he broke down, each night, into zip-top plastic bags.
I wrote, too, because he took me up to his attic, because he was proud to show off his deeply thought method, of the old baby food jars he filled, each morning and night, with rice or popcorn, seven jars in all, and tucked in his satchel, each time he shuffled off to the hydrant.
He went there twice a day, at least, once in the morning, once in the late afternoon.
He was a couple miles north of that spot at about 2:15 p.m. Tuesday, when he was hit by the van as it pulled out of a parking lot, and he died about an hour later at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston. He had turned 77 on Sunday.
The driver, who said he didn't see Zeman, was ticketed.
After the police discovered the articles and then called me, they found he had an older sister in California and a cousin who lives not far from where he died.
"He had so much to overcome," wrote Charleen Behrschmidt, of her brother, upon learning he had died. She told how he suffered a stroke when he was 8 months old, had grand mal epileptic seizures that weren't controlled from the time he was 14 months until he was 48 years old, and of his 2-year stint at the Dixon State Hospital. She wrote that the hospital was "operating at snake-pit level" when he was there from 1944 to 1946.
But she told, too, how as a young boy he used to sing to the trolley car drivers at the trolley barn, not far from the family's North Side house. And how he shined shoes, mixed paint, delivered telegrams, but lost job after job, whenever he had a seizure at work.
There will be no funeral, the family said. Zeman will be cremated. And when the spring comes, and his sister can travel, the family will hold a memorial service.
Zeman, who for 47 years ran a newsstand downtown, told me that he considered sitting on the hydrant the most important work he had 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."
Zeman, a man without much schooling, understood how when he took to the hydrant, raised both his arms, palms upward -- the veneration pose, really -- as thousands of cars and trucks and smoke-spewing city buses rumbled by, drivers craning their necks to take in the sight of the stooped little man covered in pigeons, he really did resemble a modern-day St. Francis of a city.
Matter of fact, up in his little attic, he had boxes and boxes of St. Francis postcards, each one printed with the peacemaker's prayer: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. ..."
Zeman once grabbed a stack of the postcards, maybe a hundred or so, and gave them to me. I tucked them all in the drawer of my desk, here where I do all my typing. I keep them, right there, to remind me of the wisdom of a lost soul who found peace with pigeons.
Tuesday afternoon, before the phone rang, before any cops called to ask what I knew, I had reached in my drawer for a calculator, and my hand hit the stack, spilled and scattered it, making a mess in the old pine drawer.
I started to shove the cards back into a stack, but then, for some reason, I picked up the top one, and I read it through to the very last line, which just happens to be, "and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."
Thinking back on Tuesday, I know that the clock ticking beside me had to have said it was just after 2 p.m.
Wednesday morning, for almost the first time in a decade, the hydrant was unocccupied. The pigeons were perched. But the pigeon man was not coming.
Not ever again, amen.
Friday, November 30 marked the end of what will forever be remembered as the longest and most courageous battle between one man, a man we all know as the world's greatest daredevil, and death. Robert Craig "Evel" Knievel died in Clearwater, Florida, finally succumbing after nearly a three-year bout with the terminal lung disease, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. He was 69.