Ever since I was a little girl I would watch them, perched in their daily spots, yacking and flapping their wings and their jaws, loud and boisterous at their chosen stoops—the old men and women I coined “the birds” because they reminded me of winged creatures congregating on the telephone wire.
There were the wrinkly-eyed chaps at Dunkin Donuts who greeted my grandfather by name whenever we would stop in for cinnamon holes after a walk in the orange groves on a Saturday morning in Orange County. There was the black haired artist on the bench outside the Palm Springs library who would create intricate red and blue ballpoint drawings on lined notebook paper. There were the two Asian men who played chess at the picnic tables at the park between my high school and the public swim center, shouting at each other between crotchety-fingered moves. There were my mom’s senior citizen friends at the VFW on their barstools, cackling between sips of cheap vodka tonics. There were the Italian mobsters in Boston’s North End playing checkers and yelling at sports pub television screens over bouts of soccer next to the coffee shop where I bought my morning egg burritos from Seamus, an ex-seafaring captain. There were the 70-year-old, leathered skateboard riders at tables outside the coffee shop down the corner from my seaside bungalow in Venice Beach. There were the inky black hustlers in the park on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, shushing when the cops walked by before reigniting their various card games on concrete. There was the gaggle of Chinese fellas tussling over mahjong on the red lacquered tables outside my favorite downtown L.A. herbalist. They were an unconscious brethren that tweaked my soul and I desperately wanted to become one.
I had to delve into the idea of what makes a bird in order to understand their lure. What was it about these communing flocks that tweaked my heart so? It was the idea of finding home, for only when one stakes down roots somewhere can one find a community to call one’s own. These were people who would ritualize their regular visits to coffee shops and pubs, bookstores and store lined benches because in these spots they cemented their own sense of belonging to a community. Whether singular or with others, these places and pockets of time were theirs and theirs alone. I realized that what I so desperately wanted to become was a person who had her own place.
I maintained fantasies, whenever I would find myself in a spot ideal for birds, about my own future when I would join their universal club. At Greenblatt’s or Langer’s Jewish delis in Los Angeles, I would tell the Cute Gardener that I would love to grow old with him and a newspaper at one of their fine pastrami-slicked counters. I would secretly notice places that called to me, plotting the day when I could become a bird myself because I knew it meant more than patronizing for me, it meant committing to my own grounded state and claiming my own patch in the world after years spent roaming amidst the carefree unknown.
Finally, two years after moving in with the CG and realizing that this was now my permanent home in the San Fernando Valley and the City of Los Angeles, I decided it was time to join the ranks of the birds. So far, I have embraced two locations that fit my personality just fine. Once or twice a week I drive down the hill from my home to a small shop called Coffee and Cream where the owner Hussein likes to hang his amateur paintings around the dimly lit interior space over the tubs of gelato and espresso machines. I sit outside on my laptop with a steaming chai to write and sometimes when it’s slow, he’ll show me the videos on his phone he’s made overlaying Alan Parsons Project songs over his videos of Sunset Beach at dusk. I am beginning to know the regulars—the guy in a leather jacket who comes in for morning biscotti or the little girl who comes in with her Mexican grandpa for his morning cup of Joe. My table is known as the place where a famous Saturday Night Live writer spent years cultivating his humorous skills over cappuccino. Once a month, I will hit the freeway and head into Chinatown where my favorite New Orleans deli, Little Jewel, offers authentic chicory tea au lait that boosts my word count for the day. Outside on a cast iron table for one, I sip and watch the citizens go to and fro to work, pushing their baskets past the clumsy pigeons scouring the sidewalk for breadcrumbs. I listen to the jazz competing with the bus fumes and feel like I have finally come to know my permanent space in the world as both a writer and a human who, for so long, felt she had nowhere to go.