The Merzes

I want to tell you about Fred and Ethel Merz. Fred and Ethel were a mated pair of pigeons who hung out in Harvard Square when I was playing music there. Fred was a venerable old bird, with one wing damaged and missing a foot. That first season, Ethel never left his side.
The first time I met Fred and Ethel I was sitting at a table at Warburton’s cafe, before they had been taken over by Au Bon Pain, having one of their excellent scones. It was a sunny day in early autumn, and the table was shaded by the big green market umbrella.
I’d finished half of the scone and set it down on the table while I took a break from eating, and started painting in my journal. Fred hopped up on the table, gave me a brazen look, and then snatched up what was left of the scone and tossed it to Ethel, who took the whole thing and flew off. Fred sat there looking at me for awhile as if he was contemplating stealing my coffee as well. Then he just stood there watching me work on the little gouache image I was painting in the journal. Eventually, I moved over to my pitch and prepared to play a rent set.
During the second song, Fred fluttered over and settled down on the headstock of my guitar. Ethel perched herself on the back of my guitar case. I was always amazed at Fred’s balance. He managed to stand there on my guitar, with only the one foot for purchase. As I played, I could feel him adjusting his weight when I moved. He stayed there for a long time – when I stopped between songs, he’d flap his wings in a sort of applause.
Pretty soon, my companions had drawn quite a crowd for me.
After that, I saw Fred and Ethel a few times a week. They didn’t come around at Warburton’s again, but they’d find me if I played around the corner at the Harvard Coop. I took to buying a couple of extra scones so I could feed them – they were partial to the unglazed orange peel ones – I had to have more than one, because the smaller birds would always take a big share – so I’d break up two scones in small pieces for them, then leave bigger chunks for Fred and Ethel.
In return, they helped me maximize my earnings. Ethel would march back and forth between my guitar case, and the feet of people sitting on the nearby park benches – giving them a funny look, and then stalking back to the case as if to remind them to tip. Sometimes, if someone held out a dollar bill, she’d take it from their hands and put it in the case next to my Cd’s. And Fred would find his perch on the headstock, clapping his wings between songs to encourage applause.
People used to ask me how I’d trained them to do that, and I didn’t have an answer. It wasn’t something I taught them, it was something they did all on their own. Somebody suggested that they might have been trained by another street musician – that perhaps I reminded them of someone else and I suppose that’s a reasonable guess.
Anyway, when winter came in earnest, they disappeared. The following summer, I caught glimpses of Fred, though I never saw Ethel again. I don’t know if she was just making herself scarce, or whether she’d passed on during the cold season. Fred stopped to say “Hi” now and then, but he never took his place up on the headstock again, though he never turned up his nose at a good scone.

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