Episodes: The bird


I live in downtown LA, near a strip mall lined with the usual suspects and a really great ramen restaurant (really great ramen restaurants seem to be on every other street corner here). At the end is a Starbucks, which is open really late. And since I seem to be built to work best at night, I'll often go there when I need to power through some assignment or another, or some project I'm working on.

The place closes at 1, and I'm usually there until the end, the last person out, other than the employees. I love LA at this time of night, when it's as sleepy as any small town, especially where I live, with everything closed, the nightlight signs glowing above the perpetually cracked sidewalks.

I walk back home through the strip mall's parking lot, maybe angling toward the taco truck parked a couple of blocks from my apartment if I'm hungry that evening.

And as I walk through the parking lot, I hear the bird.

Up above the parking lot, of course, are big streetlamps — at home on the farm, we would have called them yardlights. They're there so those of us cutting through the parking lot after dark feel somewhat safe, so that there's not a dark nothing just off the nearby road. They're bright, and they're loud, letting out that hum of electricity that's always present in a city, no matter how quiet.

The bird, whatever its species, is confused about all of this. At all hours of night and day, it sings, loudly, over the gulf of the parking lot. I'd love to say it's some sort of bird that sings at night, that this is natural enough, but it sounds like a common finch or sparrow, tweeting and chirping away. I don't think it's a night bird. I think it's a bird that's forgotten the difference between day and night.

I know this happens sometimes. It even used to happen on the farm, with the aforementioned yardlight, which occasionally threw some passing bird, who perched near it and sang along as if the sun had descended to live nearby. This is just, I guess, one of the inevitable costs of civilization, the idea that all our creations will inevitably throw some tiny being off, will rewire its brain permanently. It is, after all, just a bird.

But I can't help but find myself feeling unspeakably sad every time I hear it, to the degree that I don't go to Starbucks as much as I used to. It's just a bird, yeah, but it's also a reminder that, simply by being alive, there are things about the world that are just a little bit worse off because I'm a human being.

When I was growing up, it was at the height of anti-environmentalist panic among the red-state conservatives I was raised by. The frequent remark you'd hear was that, say, if it came down to loggers versus owls, you chose the people every time. (Never mind that this was a too-simple boil down of a really complex situation; for political buzzwordiness, it got the job done.)

And I guess that makes sense. If it's confuse one bird or have a parking lot people feel safe walking through at night, I guess the tradeoff is worth it. The neighborhood is full of other birds who've figured out that artificial light is not the sunlight they'll greet with grateful song in the morning. Choose the safety and livelihood of people, even if doing that in every situation eventually adds up to a world that seems to spin a little more erratically with every day.

So I just avoid the bird, because who needs that in their life? Except now, in my office, late at night, I can hear it, singing out across the parking lot, for a sun it imagines in its head.

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Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.