It was a cold, grey day, the wind blowing down the tunnel of 5th Avenue buildings. The sidewalk was crowded with holiday shoppers and tourists gawking at the elaborate displays in the windows.
The wind was a trickster, blowing coats open, blowing hats off and generally being a nuisance to the flow of humanity intent on their progress. People were bundled up, only eyes visible in the sea of faces.
It was a microcosm of people, who acted as if they were separate, alone and unseen.
We waited in the crowd for the light to change and the traffic to stop, allowing us to cross.
Movement attracted my attention, and I caught a glimpse of several pigeons fluttering just above the sidewalk. Curiosity got the better of me, and I made a short detour to see what the fuss was about.
A person was sitting against the building, tucked in a tiny corner created by a pillar. Huddled against the cold, hat covering her face, knees drawn up tightly to her chest, she was trying to disappear. But it was her hands that caught my attention.
Gloved fingers were outstretched, palms open wide. It was on this small surface that the pigeons visited, each taking a turn. After one bird ate the bit of bread, it would leave, and another take its place. In the small span of time between each feathered visitor, she would place another piece of food.
It was a dance of kindness, thanksgiving, and grace.
My breath caught in my throat as the incongruity of the scene hit home. Here, on the same concrete that so many people used to further their pursuit of material things, sat a woman with nothing, tending to the birds.
Neither the woman or the birds attracted attention. They shared their love in an invisible bubble, seeing each other, offering and giving at the same time.
I caught up with my family, and we continued our errands. I couldn’t stop berating myself for not having engaged with the woman and learning her story. Was she always at that corner of 5th Avenue? Why didn’t she have a sign asking for money? Did the same birds show up every day?
An hour later, we retraced our steps to our hotel. Much to the chagrin of my family, I insisted that we continue walking in the reverse direction on 5th Avenue so I could talk to the Bird Lady.
She was still there! I walked up slowly, not wanting to disturb the birds who were taking turns on her feeding palm. I stopped a respectful distance and softly said, “Hello.”
She jumped a bit at the interruption, and her head jerked up, hat falling backward. I bent down as if talking to a child and was startled to see that this was a young woman, maybe in her teens or early twenties.
I smiled at her, looking deeply into her eyes. I felt the recognition of seeing her at the same moment her face registered surprise. I sent her loving kindness in my mind, and I could feel her responding in gratitude.
She relaxed her legs and stretched her back, surprising the bird who had just landed on her hand.
“I noticed you earlier,” I began hesitantly. “And I just wanted to ask one question.”
Her eyes were a transparent grey, reflecting the hard surfaces around her. She nodded that she understood and waited patiently.
“Do you feed the same birds every day?”
My question startled her. Perhaps she thought I would try to get her to a shelter or ask why she was homeless. Probing questions that cast judgment on her lifestyle and her choices.
Her face lit up with the most glorious smile I have ever seen. Love shone from her eyes as she nodded, gesturing to the birds. “Yes!” she exclaimed, her spirit rising up to share this information.
I couldn’t help myself. “How do you know its the same birds?”
Her voice became animated as she described each bird’s personality, their relationship to each other and to her. Her words were wrapped in love and admiration, and her hands took on a life of their own as she pointed out each one.
It was obvious that she loved each one, appreciated their unique qualities and celebrated their friendship.
I smiled at her, thanking her for sharing her story. I gave her some money and gently told her it was for the birds. As I walked away, I heard a soft voice call out to me, “Thank you for seeing me.”
I turned and waved, tears springing up that I didn’t want her to notice. As I merged back into the human river, gratitude filled my heart for the lessons I learned.
Angels are everywhere. You just have to look to see them.