A penny’s worth

Among my favourite places to lunch in the Greater Parkdale Area, is in the vicinity of the Robarts Library, downtown. There are food trucks parked along Saint George Street. Several offer quite extensive Chinese menus, & one a Slavic interpretation of American junk food, distinctly superior to the original. By my estimation, the town’s top hot dog vendor is also there, offering a good variety of sausages & an exceptional range of condiments. One may dine in splendour for well under ten dollars, & often under five.

It is a fine ambiance. There are various places to sit, in shade or sun, none provided with tables. Avoid conventional lunch hours, & there are no crowds. Though I must add, these days, as the avians will attest, the students in the University of Toronto are gentle. Part of the reason is that they are now, in substantial plurality, not only girls but Oriental. (I refer to the students, not the birds.) It was a brilliant stroke, on the part of the politically correct, to eliminate aggressive young males from the student body, together with males of every other description. It was perhaps the only way to neutralize the campus, as a source of violence & revolutionary zeal.

And as I say, the birds in that district appreciate the change. I have long judged the inhabitants of city neighbourhoods by the behaviour of the animals who live among them. Happy, well-adjusted animals, such as we have in truth through most of this city — animals that do not flee in terror when a human comes near — are the reflection of reasonably tame people. Along Saint George, we have not only pigeons, but sparrows who will (sometimes, after careful consideration) eat out of one’s hand; who actually expect their share in a banquet.

They have accordingly developed a broad multicultural diet: will take rice flavoured in any way, breadcrumbs in all dippings, fries with or without gravy. The chief joy I have found in lunching there has been in making the acquaintance of an equally broad range of contemporary urban sparrows, & observing their personalities. For they come smart & silly, bold & timid, gregarious & shy, gallant & rude, formal & obtuse, jolly & morose. Too, male & female, & what would appear twin syndromes of behaviour in some respects the mirror of man. That is to say, they are like us, but with the “gender rôles” partially reversed.

Quite recently I had the opportunity to make a moral assessment of eight sparrows I invited to share a box of fried rice with me. That would be four farthings, by the accounting in Saint Matthew (10:29). I say “eight,” for within the half-hour I could distinguish each with the confidence to count them (others may have escaped my attention). I say “invited,” for I refused an intemperate starling, explaining to him that I was only serving the smaller customers that day. (At which he squawked.) This prejudice was probably unnecessary on my side, for a sparrow has no difficulty in outwitting a starling, or most larger competitors for handouts, & is a master of petty theft.

By my observation, two of these sparrows were inclined to Heaven, five likelier to require Purgatory, & one was definitely bound for Hell.

This last persistently dominated the meinie for clumps of rice she showed little interest in eating; provoked a fight with another clearly trying to avoid her; & shamelessly beat up on her fellow females. (I named her “Judy,” after a prominent Canadian feminist.) Nor would she leave when told she was unwelcome. Her “ch-chur-ch-churrit-ch-chu-churrit-chu” in response was most unbecoming in a lady: for that is swear language in a sparrow.

Whereas, in contrast, the two heavenly sparrows, one of each sex, were as persistently gracious in surrendering to the first comer, & were accordingly rewarded. Both exhibited fine table manners when eating, & were melodic in their conversation. (A certain shrillness reduced the charm in the discourse of several others.) The female struck an especially philosophical attitude, contemplatively studying her benefactor with many slight tilts of her head to take in the full visual spectacle. (I tilted my head in imitative reply.) Darker above, & paler below, in comparison to the other females, I concluded that she was the eldest, & named her “Thérèse.”

They are a monogamous bird, jealous on both sides, though some conduct affairs away from their nests, & the eager helpfulness of the unmated may create the appearance of a ménage à trois. One of the challenges at lunch was to see if I could guess who was married to whom. While none were wearing rings, I supposed the heavenly sparrows to be a couple. My interest also settled on a young, purgatorial pair, who ate mostly together, & who flit almost simultaneously with fairly large clumps as if they had children to return to.

One, & only one, condescended to take not out of my hand, but from my fingertips. This was the boldest, except Judy, & also the smallest, with the shortest tail feathers. (“Madison,” I called him.) Sociable, & fearless, I would have ranked him with the heavenly except, too much of a thief. For in my judgement, it is perfectly acceptable for a sparrow to steal from right under the beak of a pigeon or gull. But there was plenty to go round, & whipping food away from a fellow sparrow betrays impatience & poor breeding.