On a Saturday morning at the Hua Mei Bird Garden in Sara D. Roosevelt Park, where the Lower East Side rubs up against Chinatown, the trees are full of birdcages. Half shrouded in white cloths, they look like Halloween ghosts, bouncing a little in the branches. Up close, you find that each one is carved from bamboo and contains a single songbird.
Many of the birds are small--colorful finches, a few black-capped chickadees--but the star is the Hua Mei, a fighting thrush from China for whom the park was named. "Hua Mei" means "painted brow," a description of the bird's maquillage, an elongated white ring around the eyes.
Some of the birds have a chunk of apple to eat. Others prefer mealworms. A man walks from cage to cage, pulling worms from an old prescription bottle and holding them out, wriggling, for the birds to take.
Socializing around the cages are the elderly Chinese men who own them. They come to the garden early in the morning to display their birds and shoot the breeze. While the birds sing to each other, the men talk the way old men do, standing around, hands going up in the air, telling stories.
Nearby, other men practice Tai Chi. They reach down, again and again, to scoop up an invisible something and toss it into the sky. Like a bird. A woman on a park bench trims her toenails. A homeless man tries on a new pair of sneakers that somehow came into his possession. He complains bitterly that they’re one size too small. The city goes on whirling.
It’s the end of summer. The air has shifted. Already, the leaves of the London Plane trees are brown and falling. One drops into my lap, like a living thing, and I think of a line from a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti:
“Outside the leaves were falling
and they cried
Too soon! too soon!"
Jeremiah Moss is the award-winning author of Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York (vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com). His writing on the city has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Daily News, and online at The New Yorker and The Paris Review. He has been interviewed in major newspapers around the globe.