#418: The Calling Birds

December 29th, 2014

Under the glittering Macy’s trumpets jutting from the department store, an old man’s saxophone trickled down the darkened street.

A mother crowded two unimpressed children into a cellphone shot by one of the candy-clad store windows. The old man didn’t sway and shimmy for her.

Across State Street, a woman in a wheelchair shook and twitched. She was perched under a white glowing streetlamp, a small basket by her feet the only indicator she was seeking alms. The old man didn’t trill the sax for this one either.

The old man with the matted gray beard and white White Sox stocking cap wasn’t playing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” three days after Christmas for any of the uninterested.

He played for the dollar bills scattered around the bag at his feet, and for anyone who would give him more.

Once he was done, he pulled out a handkerchief and loudly blew his nose.

“I’ll play ‘Rudolph’ as long as people ask for it,” he said, laughing and thanking me as my dollar fluttered down to join the rest. “After that, I’ll go back to what I usually play.”

“Still around here?” I asked.

“I play along here and along Michigan Avenue,” he said, still daubing his nose. “Got to circulate. Happy New Year, brother!”

A block over, a four-pack of young barflies debated whether the Christkindlmarket menorah should still be lit.

The German village that takes over Daley Plaza each year to sell mulled wine, sausages and glass ornaments was fenced off and half disassembled. A woman in reindeer-spangled tights took a cellphone shot of the Picasso statue towering over loose debris the stacks of plywood that once made the souvenir sheds.

A branch of fir from some forgotten garland had fallen into the corral for the city’s eternal flame.

Along the Washington end of the plaza, a line of cars blinkered themselves into free parking as the drivers sauntered to selfie by the city Christmas tree.

The tree itself remained on, a glittering array of lights and stars attracting the photographers. Tourists, locals, every race and gender. Families, young couples, an old man and wife talking in a language I had never heard before. He had a large, walrus-like mustache and a flat cap. She placed her arm in the crook of his as they slowly trudged to the tree.

Christmas is over, four days past by now. The city dallies to wipe away the glitz and sparkle, the municipal version of wrapping paper shreds left under the tree. There are still German villages and department store trumpets, still the remains of cards and lights and torn signs advertising the price of schnitzel and glühwein.

But slowly, life will return.

Slowly, the remaining sheds will be folded into plywood piles to be tucked away for 2015. Slowly, the tree’s lights will be unplugged and unstrung before a chipper turns the Christmas spirit to mulch.

The trumpets will come down, the windows will advertise Valentine sales and, slowly, an old man with a saxophone will saunter down from State to Michigan, removing “Rudolph” from his playlist.

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You are currently reading #418: The Calling Birds by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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