Birds of a Feather

Today is the day. After months of lockdown, the Avalon Café is finally open for indoor dining. I order my usual mocha and scone.

“Good to see you again, Janice.”

“You too, Zack.”

I pick up my order and look for a place to sit and read. This morning, I’m not particular; I’m just grateful to be able to sit inside again.

No free tables. The regulars are all here—the businessmen reading the paper on their way to work, the college kids pretending to study, the cyclists recharging after their early morning rides—and nearly every one of them is sitting alone. I study the clientele more closely. Choosing a table to join is a strategic choice. It must be someone who won’t mind the company, but someone who will let me read my book in peace.

Just when I’m about to give up and take my mocha to the park, a feathered jacket catches my eye. Only it’s not a person wearing a feathered jacket—it’s an emu.

The emu is sitting alone near an open window, watching people walk by outside. Occasionally, the emu turns from the window to dip its beak into the large coffee sitting on the table. Next to the coffee is a plate with a half-eaten sesame seed bagel. Of course, it’s something with seeds. What else would a bird order in a coffee shop? No one else seems to notice the emu.

I’ve found the perfect table. The emu won’t interrupt my reading because emus can’t talk. And, an emu is in no position to object to my presence at the table. Birds aren’t allowed inside coffee shops. If the emu doesn’t complain, I won’t notify the health department.

Approaching the table, I point at the other chair. The emu nods and goes back to people-watching. I sit across the table. Perhaps I should be more curious about the emu—it’s not every day you see a large bird drinking coffee and eating a bagel—but I’ll need to catch the train downtown for work in half an hour and I have so little time to read. Instead, I take a sip of my mocha and open my book.

“Good morning,” the emu says. “My name is Emma. Might I ask yours?”

The surprise almost makes me drop my mocha, but I don’t want to be rude, so I try to act as though nothing’s amiss. “I’m Janice. Nice to meet you.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance. After three days in this city, you’re the first person who’s spoken to me. Most people act as if they don’t even see me. I’ve not had a good conversation or made a single new friend since I arrived. What am I doing wrong?”

I don’t know how to respond. On the one hand, there’s a perfectly logical explanation: no one expects an emu to be able to carry on a conversation. On the other, I know that’s not the only reason. People avoid eye contact with each other all the time so they won’t be trapped in conversations they don’t want to have. Why should they respond any differently to Emma just because she is an emu?

“It’s not just you, Emma.”

Emma changes the topic, thus sparing me the unenviable task of trying to explain human nature to an emu. She is surprisingly engaging. We chat about the places Emma has visited and she tells me about some of the people—and birds—she’s met during her travels. I’m not as well-traveled as Emma, but I tell her about Marco, the parrot my family had as a pet when I was a child. “My sister and I taught him to swear, but we never thought to engage him in a conversation.”

“No need to worry,” Emma assures me. “If Marco were the sort of bird who wanted to chat, he’d have initiated the conversation himself.”

I don’t tell her that Marco used to imitate the sound of the electric can opener and our dog’s barking. He was a lovely bird, and I don’t want Emma to think he was unintelligent.

“How long will you be in New York?” I ask.

“Today is my last day. Tomorrow, I’m going to Boston.”

“How will you get there?”

“The train, of course!” She dips her beak in her coffee. “It’s my favorite way to travel.” She tells me about some of her favorite train journeys.

This is the first scintillating conversation I’ve had since long before the lockdown began—so long, in fact, that I’d forgotten how delightful it can be to get past the basic pleasantries and make a real connection.

Half an hour has flown by. I’ve finished my breakfast and it’s time to go to work. I bid Emma farewell and get up to leave. The other patrons remain lost in their bubbles of isolation. No one has noticed there’s an emu sitting at a table drinking a coffee. For that matter, no one has noticed they are surrounded by ordinary people with stories to tell. Their loss. I leave the coffee shop and head for the subway. As I pass by Emma’s window, I look up and wave, but she’s gone.

Rush hour is almost over when I board the subway. There are four empty seats in the car, one of them next to a peacock. I wonder whether he’s an ordinary bird, like Marco, or one who can carry on a conversation, like Emma. An older man with a cane sits next to the peacock, and I make my way further down the aisle until I find a seat between two ordinary commuters. From here, I can see the peacock, but I can’t hear whether he is chatting with the old man.

As the train pulls out of the station, I ask the woman to my right, “Did you notice the peacock?” She looks around the car, craning her neck, then she smiles and nods. The man sitting to my left also looks, but no one else in the car reacts to the peacock.

“Ever seen one in the wild?” he asks.

“No. Have you?”

“Sure. I’ve seen them in Florida, where my brother lives. They’re all over the place down there. Beautiful birds.”

The woman to my right chimes in. “I bet you’ve never seen one in New York, though. Not riding the subway by himself like this guy. Where do you think he’s going?”

“Maybe Central Park,” the man says. “There’s lots of birds there. Pigeons, owls, hawks…”

“Not peacocks,” I point out.

“No, not peacocks, at least not yet. Remember when there was just one pair of red-tailed hawks on Fifth Avenue, and they’re everywhere now?” The woman and I both nod. “Anyway,” the man continues, “There’s enough birdlife in the park for him to feel at home.”

When the train reaches my stop, I say goodbye to the passengers sitting next to me and walk past the peacock to the door. The old man with the cane is engaged in a lively conversation with the peacock. They’re discussing homing pigeons. This makes me smile.

I step out onto the platform and join the crowd of people making their way to the exit. As I walk past the train, I don’t look back to see if the peacock’s still there.

What is it about birds that just seems to bring people out of their shells?