Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Joseph Zeman Killed by Negligent Driver (Memorial planned)

A Chicago man widely known as "the Pigeon Man of Lincoln Square" was struck and killed by a van Tuesday afternoon on the Far North Side.

Joseph Zeman, 77, whose love of and attentiveness toward pigeons was detailed in a 2004 Tribune article, was hit by a 1992 Chevrolet van at Devon Avenue and McCormick Road about 2:15 p.m., police said. Zeman of the 2100 block of West Arthur Avenue was pronounced dead at 3:21 p.m. in St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, according to the Cook County medical examiner's office.

The van was "exiting a parking lot, made a right turn, did not see him and struck him," said Sgt. Antonio Baio of the Chicago police major accident investigation unit. He said a laminated copy of the Tribune article was found with Zeman, and a witness recognized him.

Zeman used to sit for hours on a fire hydrant near Lawrence and Western Avenues with dozens of pigeons perched on his head, shoulders and legs." Soon as I take a seat, they want to be loved and kissed like a mama's baby," Zeman was quoted in the Tribune article. "Like I'm their father, and they're my child."

The driver of the van, a Chicago man, 68, was ticketed for striking a pedestrian in the roadway/failure to exercise due care, negligent driving and driving an unsafe vehicle, Baio said.

Related articles:

Pigeon Man of Lincoln Square
By Barbara Mahany
Tribune staff reporter
September 19, 2004

Except for his lips, you would think he was made out of stone, the man who sits, hours on end, on the red fire hydrant on Western Avenue, just north of Lawrence, pigeons by the dozens perched on him. Pigeons on his head. Pigeons on his shoulders and right down his arms. Pigeons poised on each palm. Pigeons clinging to his chest. Pigeons on his lap. Pigeons on his thighs. Pigeons, of course, perched on each foot.

The pigeons peck and coo, occasionally flutter their wings. Sometimes even scatter. But not the man, the man is motionless. You might mistake him for a statue. Joseph Zeman, 73, commonly known as the Pigeon Man of Lincoln Square, can sit for hours, barely flinching a muscle. Except for those lips.He coos right back to the birds. He kisses them, right on their iridescent necks, flat on the point of their sharp little beaks. He nuzzles them, rubs his nose in their wings, the herringbone of feathers all black and charcoal and pewter and white. He calls them by name, his favorites, Whitey and Brownie. "Sure, sure," he coos, stroking them with his words. "There, there," he clucks. He worries when one is missing in action. "Where you been? Where you been?" he asks when the prodigal pigeon finally flutters back.

Like some kind of pigeon dentist, he tenderly plucks a feather that's stuck in a beak. He loves them as though they're his best friends in the world, and pretty much that's what they are. They wait, then swoop "Soon as I take a seat, they want to be loved and kissed like a mama's baby," he says, taking a seat late one recent afternoon, as a raincloud of pigeons alights from a roof and hovers in for a landing. "Like I'm their father, and they're my child." See 'em waiting here now, they know I'm coming. They're waiting for me so they can say, `Here I am, here I am, do what you want to do with me. We're not worried about you.' I just tell 'em all, `You're my baby, you're my baby too.'"

Within seconds, it is getting hard to make out the man from under the pigeons. Drivers crane their necks. Truck drivers roll down their windows. Folks on the sidewalk sometimes slap $5 or $10 in his hand. He keeps track, in a neat little ledger up in the attic where he lives a few blocks away, of how much he has collected. Three hundred dollars since the first of the year, he says proudly, all of it used to buy his pigeon supplies, the unpopped popcorn kernels (the primo pigeon food, he calls it), the bags of white rice, the loaves of Deerfield Farms enriched white bread, the Maurice Lenell oatmeal cookies, the plain old birdseed that comes in 50-pound sacks, which he breaks down into zip-top plastic bags. Old baby food jars he fills each morning and afternoon with rice or popcorn kernels, seven jars in all, each time he heads to the hydrant.

Twice a day, at least, once in the morning, once late afternoon, you can darn near count on a pigeon-man sighting: Shuffling down Western Avenue, there's Zeman on his way to his hydrant, black canvas bag slung over his very stooped shoulders, suspenders holding up his navy blue janitor's pants that seem maybe a size or two too big."

All my life I had so much backstabbing at home, real problems there. I got to love the animals more, so trustworthy. Fifty years, all I heard was `Shut up, shut up.' I needed help at home 'cause I was handicapped. They took advantage of me. Epileptic fits since the day I was born."Because I had so much trouble at home, I learned not to say nothing, keep to myself, just so I can't be wrong anymore. So they came up to me [the pigeons]; I appreciated the friendship out of a bird more than a person. They're wordless. They come up with pure appreciation."

Building trust:
After more than half a century with the birds, Zeman says, he has learned many a lesson. "Stay quiet all your life. Nothing but trust and honesty, low profile all the time, just like I'm another bird, sitting there. They sit on me all day and half into the night. That's where I got something about me that nobody else has."

Zeman, who's retired now, had a newsstand at LaSalle and Division Streets for 47 years. That's where he first got friendly with the pigeons."At my business, the pigeons came down on me. After six months, they took a chance on me. First No. 1, then when No. 2 sees it's OK, he gives it a try. Then comes No. 3. Every day, every day for six months, you gotta come out. Have something for 'em. Patience and time, little by little."He moved up to the fire hydrant on Western Avenue after he sold the newsstand seven years ago. He comes every day if it's dry. He comes because he sees his sitting on the hydrant as the most important work he has ever done."

I'm really advertising to the public how easy it is to be good without an attitude; it's just as easy to show decency as it is to hate today." Sadly, he says, not everyone sees it that way."Some people hate me because of this," he says. "They say, `Oh, they're disease carriers,' and all that. People that are fancy and don't want to deal with a dropping, they come up to me with those remarks. They're jealous, jealous because the birds aren't afraid of me."

One of the people who say that is Sheila Magee, who lives not far from the hydrant where Zeman and the pigeons roost."He represents a huge danger to the neighborhood," she begins. "What we're talking about here are flying rodents, nothing less." Magee outlines the vile things she contends the pigeons are carrying into the neighborhood. She draws a vivid picture of how the birds feed off food strewn near sewers. The way she paints it, pigeons are Public Nuisance No. 1 when it comes to the health of the masses.

She would be wrong, as a matter of fact."Pigeons are not a public health hazard," proclaims Dr. Joel McCullough, medical director of environmental health for the Chicago Department of Public Health. There is a fungus, he says, that can be carried in pigeon droppings, but it has not been detected in Chicago as far back as anyone at the department can remember. "Nobody in public health is losing any sleep over pigeons." And, in fact, Zeman is breaking no law. The city, according to the corporation counsel's office, has no ordinance prohibiting the feeding of pigeons.

There is a general nuisance ordinance, but it is rarely if ever used for pigeon feeders. The Chamber of Commerce in Lincoln Square does get an occasional complaint, and only a couple of weeks ago the office heard from Magee. But even the guy in charge of maintenance for JCDecaux, the folks who tend to the city's bus shelters, has asked his guys to lay off Zeman and let him roost his pigeons in peace. And Heidi Hurtado, who works in a dress shop right across Western Avenue, makes a point of peering out the window to take in the Zen of Zeman."Peace, he makes me feel at peace," she says. "It's joyful to see somebody so loving and caring to pigeons. A lot of people don't like pigeons. Through everything that's going on in the world right now, it's just nice to see a sight like that."`On their own free will' As the heat of another day drops away, Zeman is shuffling to his post from the bus stop a block away. When asked if he has ever thought of simply taking the birds home, he answers: "I've thought of it. But they're outdoor birds, they're meant to be on their own free will. They'd die from grief."When they come up to me, it's got to be on their own free will, not being grabbed or grasped. That's what makes them so happy when you come back."

With that he slips off his shoulder bag and settles onto his hydrant, and the flock descends. He raises both arms, palms skyward, the veneration pose."Sure, sure. Yeah, yeah," he coos away as day turns to dusk. He won't leave his birds until the black cloak of midnight comes to wrap them in, safe until dawn, when Zeman, sure as the rising sun, will once again take on the pose of St. Francis of a city.

Permanent memorial to 'the Pigeon Man'?
JOE ZEMAN Called birds his children
December 21, 2007

Roses, candles and a smattering of birdseed marked a fire hydrant in the 4800 block of North Western on Wednesday night in memory of Joe Zeman Jr., known to many Chicagoans simply as "the Pigeon Man."

Zeman, 77, died Tuesday after being hit by a car on Devon. The simple, mysterious man captured the attention of passersby who gawked at the dozens of pigeons roosting on and around him -- birds he called his children.

Kevin Kitchen, a Lincoln Square resident, was drawn Wednesday to the hydrant where Zeman and the pigeons merged to remember a man who was "going out and caring for the least of God's creatures."

Kitchen is talking to "neighbors, friends and strangers" about the possibility of a permanent memorial to Zeman in Lincoln Square. Kitchen proposed hanging artistic, locally designed birdhouses on lampposts near the statute of Abraham Lincoln at Lawrence and Western, across the street from Zeman's usual perch.

"He was such a unique person, he's hard to forget," he said.

Those interested in a "Pigeon Man" memorial can reach Kitchen at . Kitchen has also started a "Remember the Bird Man" group on Facebook.

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