Those who knew him called him Bird Man, although no one really “knew” the man—it was more that they had become aware of his existence either through secondhand happenstance, or after encountering his strange, eccentric behavior for themselves. No one could honestly say that they knew anything about him—not even his real name. Some believe he had been drafted into Vietnam at eighteen and returned a few years later, re-born as a broken-minded man. Though he hadn’t lived in the city as a youth, Bird Man had opted to make it his new post-war home.
He always wore the same clothes: a pair of brown pants, a dark, navy blue button-up shirt, and a denim jacket. The clothes never changed, but they never seemed to tarnish or fray. Some folks claimed to hear dog tags rattling around inside his shirt from time to time, which is how the Vietnam theory came to be. He had no true home and seemed to live on the streets. It was claimed that he actually lived in an old abandoned factory not too far from the places he was usually spotted. One of these places included the corner of 8th and Spruce Streets, where he would flap his wings in a fury at motorists and caw at passersby. He sometimes visited area pubs, where he would either continue his bird shtick, or likewise, merely sit at the bar and remain still and quiet. He never ordered anything, but if the bartender slid him a glass of water or club soda, he would drink.
Small etchings of birds, done in charcoal, appeared all over the city’s buildings. No one ever actually saw Bird Man physically create these etchings, but they always seemed to correspond with places he often visited.
“I think the etches mean that he feels safe in these places,” a local had explained. “He knows he can go there and feel free from predators.”
Bird Man never harmed a single person, nor threatened to; unless he was being particularly loud or intrusive, the police were hardly ever called. He never even spoke in an intelligible language—just strange, guttural bird sounds. Despite this, he became a part of the small city, and the locals accepted him as easily as they accepted one of their own neighbors, or even the mayor. Some of these locals – themselves war veterans – did their best to give Bird Man solitude and respect. Others took innocent and lighthearted amusement in him and would be sure to point him out to others if they saw him on the street. “There goes the Bird Man!” they would shout, almost proudly, as they passed by. “How ya doin’, Bird Man?”
But Bird Man never responded to these greetings. Further, he never seemed happy, sad, or angry. His face was a blank slate, even when he was uttering his strange animalistic sounds. Like a bird, he had no discernible reactions to anything.
A few of the locals weren’t as nice to Bird Man, and they antagonized him when they saw him. They jabbed him in the shoulder with their fingers, or sometimes mockingly threatened him with rolled-up newspapers or other “shooing” objects. They would laugh and jeer and shout insults at him. “Lay any eggs recently, Bird Man?” And Bird Man would caw and shriek at them, much like a frightened bird would, and then run off down the street flapping his arms.
One day, a local man named Morley Herbert noticed that Bird Man hadn’t come around—not to his usual corner, nor any of the bars. After Herbert began asking around, he was able to deduce that it had been at least two weeks since anyone had seen him.
“Maybe he flew the coop!” someone had joked, but Herbert wasn’t laughing. He had always felt bad for Bird Man, knowing that his home was the streets—knowing that he was beyond any kind of help.
Herbert contacted the police and aired his concerns, explaining that he was a “friend” of Bird Man and worried that he might be sick—or worse. An officer came to collect Herbert in his cruiser and the two drove to the abandoned factory where it was believed Bird Man had taken residence.
The factory was years deserted and in terrible shape. Most of the outer structure remained intact, but inside, it looked like a bomb had gone off. Ancient, oily machinery had been hastily disassembled and shoved into a corner, and most of the windows had been broken, either by neighborhood punks or the fire that had brought the factory down in the first place.
In another corner was Bird Man’s nest—literally. A massive pile of bunched newspaper, dry twigs, and single straws seemingly plucked from hundreds of brooms were butted up against the walls. Fast food wrappers littered the floor. Though it wasn’t in plain view, the smell of human waste permeated the air.
Bird Man lay on his side on the dirty concrete floor, his arms tucked close to his body, his legs slightly splayed—like a bird that had fallen out of its nest and died upon hitting the ground. His face wore not a grimace of pain, but a slight smile, his eyes gently closed. He looked to be at peace.
He was buried in a local potter’s field—a graveyard the church had sponsored where the indigent and the criminal were interred. More people attended his brief funeral than anyone could have anticipated—even those known for antagonizing the man in the past, only now they came with sullen eyes and their hats in their hands.
Stories of Bird Man wildly circulated in the months following his death. Recollections and “remember-when” stories were freely traded in bars, and many drinks were toasted in his honor.
One day, a new story about Bird Man began circulating. Because the story’s events were so unusual, several of the locals worked together to tie the source of the tale back to one man: Morley Herbert.
Herbert later admitted that it was after a bout of mourning and too many drinks when he let slip something he never intended to share with anyone else—not even the police officer who had been with Herbert at the discovery of Bird Man’s body in that burned-out factory, and apparently did not see what Herbert had seen.
“The factory was in complete disarray,” Herbert explained. “It’s been more than fifty years since that factory was in operation, so maybe you don’t remember, but it had been a big place—three floors’ worth operating at all times. But that fire gutted the whole building. The floors disintegrated and the drywall melted off the walls. The only thing spared from the fire was some steel beams and the ceiling, which was as least 150 feet high. There are no ladders in the place now, understand? No chains or pulleys—nothing like that. No possible way to reach that ceiling. Well, when I was in there, standing over Bird Man’s body, I happened to look up. And I saw something drawn on a beam right below where it met the ceiling: it was a picture of a bird…drawn in charcoal.”