The first time I met the Bird Man at Dunn Brothers about three years ago, he introduced himself as Mark, but he added that if I wanted to, I could call him Smooth. I wondered why Mark, somewhere in his forties, with a daily scruff, a casual concern for his hairstyle, and an everyday outfit of jeans with a workman's jacket, was called Smooth. I say this with all due respect to Mark.
Dunn Brothers on Grand seems to have an especially loyal and varied lot of regulars, and Mark quickly became one. I watched as he met and began sitting with the other daily regulars. He was accepted into the network of altruistic table sharing. This is one of the benefits of being a regular in the dog-eat-dog atmosphere of the Dunn Brothers afternoon rush. In the spring, Mark made the seasonal switch and sat out front on Grand Avenue. He baked in the sun like a pro.
As Mark sat outside one day, a large sparrow hopped onto the arm of his bench. The sparrow circled him, and landed on his table. Mark threw a small piece of bran muffin toward it, and the bird caught the crumb in midair. By that same afternoon, Mark had Bessie eating out of his hand. When Mark arrived at Dunn Brothers the next day, the others outside told Mark that Bessie had been waiting for him.
As the spring turned toward summer, Mark was buying several bran muffins a day and supporting a population of twenty or so sparrows. He named them all and kept track of Bessie. They greeted Mark when he pulled up each day, fluttering around him with anticipation. He would then stroll through the parking lot, tossing the crumbs like seeds to either side, and practice his whistling. Mark told me he knows many distinct whistles, but admitted he doesn't know what they mean.
Another regular, Radke, from the prudent and conservative front alcove of Dunn Brothers, told Mark he couldn't keep buying muffins for the birds, it was too expensive. He told him to go buy birdseed instead. Mark took his advice and began bringing it with him every day in his truck. Mark confided in me, however, that he was sure the birds liked muffins better.
The next spring, Mark and Clint, the carpenter, hung a bird feeder underneath the VIOLATORS WILL BE TOWED sign outside of Dunn Brothers, but it created huge piles of seed shells and poop where people sat, and it needed to be moved. The following year, Mark's friend Chuck got a pole from work, and with the permission of Doug, the owner of Dunn Brothers, and Macalester College, they installed a freestanding bird feeder and a bird bath in the bushes between the two parking lots. This has been the center of Mark's operations ever since. Mark told me he goes through a twenty-pound bag every two days now, and thought there were 500 to 600 birds using his facilities.
With the size of his current flock, Mark isn't sure he can still recognize Bessie. He told me Bessie had a raspy voice, and that sometimes, amidst the chaos, he can hear it, but usually it's just a robin who sits across the street on a wire fooling him. Mark says it doesn't bother him that he lost Bessie. When he loads the food into the bird feeder, the birds engulf him. They rub up against his cheeks as they rush in, and graze his hair with their wings.
Mark seemed to become the Bird Man of Dunn Brothers almost unconsciously. He was not overtly looking for a niche, or pretentiously trying to fit in. He also did not begin calling himself the Bird Man, and after watching him earn that nickname, I'm sure he did not begin calling himself Smooth. I wonder if Mark introduces himself as Bird Man in other areas of his life, and if people wonder where the name comes from. I wonder if he secretly knows how to whistle his name to the birds. I wonder if some of the birds have a nickname for him too.