Hipsters, Courage, and a Dying Bird

To celebrate my new position at Departures Magazine, I went to get myself a peach bran muffin and pick up all 35 pounds of our laundry. On the way home, I saw a sparrow flutter clumsily to the ground and land with a soft but terrible thud. The bird had obviously been injured and had, i thought, probably broken its wing on the landing. I put the laundry bag down and went closer. At that moment — when I was looming on the stoop — the door opened. Two hipster girls — bright red lipstick, messy head, going to work at 10:30am, flannel, Rachel Comey shoes — appeared.

"Uh," said the one with the redder lips and blonder hair, "can I help you?"

"This bird just fell and I think he's hurt.'

"Oh," clucked the brunette, "that's sad."

"Oh my gaaaad!," cried the blonde, "that's like the most depressing thing I've heard!"

"Yeah," I said, "I'm going to see what I can do. I don't want it to die on the street."

"This is so depressing," said the blonde again, "now I'm going to have to KIILLLLL myself! But I don't know WHAT I'd do with it!"

The women walked off, the blonde still bemoaning how depressing the sight of a dying sparrow on her doorstep was and how dark a pall it had cast on her day. She was right, a dying bird is depressing.

I ran home, dropped off the laundry, grabbed a bucket and a towel and headed back to the bird. By the time I got there, the bird was in even worse shape. It was a slightly trembling bundle of feathers, huddled in the cold. Oh my gaaaaad, it was so depressing. I picked up the bird gingerly in a paper towel and put it in the bucket. Then I headed to the East Williamsburg Animal Clinic.

Along the way I thought about those two women, to whom action never occurred. They seemed so ready and equipped to comment, to be moved, to loudly proclaim how deeply affected they were, but utterly unable — and in fact, I don't think the thought came to them — to visualize a world in which they could change the outcome of events. This, by the way, from a subculture which seems to celebrate all that the sparrow stood for, that shops at boutiques called Cat, Bird and Catbird, that sways to Bonnie Prince Billys One With Birds.

Anyway, I was ready to write a post excoriating hipsters for their lack of courage, and not even courage since that seems to imply they contemplated action and declined, but rather the inability to believe that they can affect change. Then I thought of an altercation I saw on the L train about six months ago. A black teenager was listening to music on his phone. This, I think anybody can agree, is among the more annoying things to have happen on the subway. It ranks up there with cutting ones nails (unacceptable) and sitting with ones legs akimbo.

The subway was fairly crowded and on the same side — a few passengers down — from the kid was a middle-aged white guy who looked like a chimera between Mark Ruffalo and Vincent Schiavelli. Mor on the Schiavelli side, actually. You could tell the guy wasn't all there from the twitchy, trembly way he moved. He radiated nervousness and instability. The man started complaining about the kid's listening to music. He started off sotto voce but you could see his rage bubbling.

At this point, I wasn't sure whose side I was on. On one hand, listening to music out loud on the subway is really annoying. On the other hand, well...I guess I was on the unhinged man's side. But that soon changed.

"What is it," he finally said, loudly, looking over at the kid "with you people? I don't come into your house and blast classical music, do I?"

You people. The words caromed through the car like lightning. First of all, I knew whose side I was on. The man had lost me with his racism. Music is annoying; racism is repugnant. Secondly, the car was, I would say, galvanized, unwillingly. The man's racism implied his race, I felt, and therefore I was acutely aware of the skin color of those around me. Not great. Thirdly, the kid pretended he couldn't hear the man and kept his music going full blast.

In a way, how could you blame him? He was backed into a corner so that if he did capitulate, which I'm sure he wanted to, he would have been seen as weak. The unhinged man had left him with no viable exit strategy that would allow him to maintain face. Call it Hosni Mubarak on the L train.

The music still blared and the guy got up. He took off his leather belt and began wrapping it around his hand. Immediately the entire section of the car got up, en masse, and moved to the periphery. It was exciting, we were about to see a fight. I also got up and moved away and, though I hate to admit it, there was a voyeuristic joy in my breast at the thought of a confrontation. Oh my gaaaaad, it was so dramatic.

And then, just as the man was about to take a swing at the kid — still listening to music, eyes frozen forward, still sitting down — a young man who seemed to embody hipsterism (though, as per a conversation just had mid-post with my friend Kyle, the term is like an ever-retreating point, clear on the horizon and miserably diffuse up close) approached the man.

In fact, the hipster came from the periphery, where he was sitting. He hadn't run away, eager to watch, but approached, eager to help. In a calm voice he laid his hand on the man's shoulder and said, "hey man, you seem upset. Why don't you sit down and talk to me about it?" The rage in the man's gray eyes seemed to quiver. Either he was going to take a shot at the hipster or he was going to de-escalate. The fist clutching his belt slackened. So did he. He slumped down on the bench and began a long tale of how he had just survived cancer and how his wife had just died of cancer and how he was losing all he had held and still held dear.

It was clear to everyone that the situation had come to a close. The rest of the ride was tense but not volcanic. And as I think about my actions and the actions of the hipster, how I initially ran away and how he almost instinctually (though who knows? maybe he too hesitated) diffused the situation, I'm full of shame for my part and of admiration for his.

Anyway, that's what I was thinking when I arrived at the Clinic as a vet came out from the back office and grasped my sparrow, undaintily, from the bucket.

"He's got a ruptured air sac," she said, "and a bruised wing. But he'l be okay."