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Small moments of grace add to simple pandemic joys

A hungry bird and a shared song mark their Black Friday.
This is a white-crowned sparrow. Roy Peter Clark says a squad of sparrows often appears when he and his wife are enjoying coffee and muffins at Craft Kafe in St. Petersburg. On Black Friday, one was particularly interested in the cranberry/almond muffin.
This is a white-crowned sparrow. Roy Peter Clark says a squad of sparrows often appears when he and his wife are enjoying coffee and muffins at Craft Kafe in St. Petersburg. On Black Friday, one was particularly interested in the cranberry/almond muffin. [ MARGARET ENG | AP ]
Published Dec. 10, 2020|Updated Dec. 10, 2020

It was Black Friday, and Karen and I had no interest in shopping. As usual, about 11 a.m. we had settled into a favorite downtown coffee shop. Before the pandemic we could eat inside, but now tables were well separated under a 40-foot open-sided atrium. I counted about 30 patrons, well spread out.

That atrium and the trees and bushes nearby are home to an extended family of sparrows. In the gospels, Jesus tells his followers not to worry. God will take care of them. How do we know? Because if God cares for the lilies of the field and the sparrows in the air, he will certainly take care of you.

Let me put it this way: The sparrows of the Craft Kafe are well taken care of.

Along with their natural sources of nourishment, the birds feast on the crumbs humans have left behind. My wife has taken to bringing birdseed, which she will spread near our table. A squad of sparrows will suddenly appear, showing off their eager beaks, their dappled plumage and their hip-hop dance skills.

I have noticed, on more than one occasion, that the sparrows have developed a taste for muffin crumbs. If a crumb falls near the birdseed, they prefer the crumb. I am no ornithologist, so I can’t say that baked goods are healthy for the fledglings, but I don’t recall ever seeing a sparrow suffering from obesity.

On Black Friday, the story took an interesting turn. An uneaten cranberry/almond muffin sat before me. Two empty chairs were on either side of us. A beautiful brown sparrow, sporting a black vest, landed on the back of one of the empty chairs. Karen and I did not move, knowing we would scare it away.

The sparrow wagged its head back and forth as if it were engaged in a conversation with us. Then it hopped down on the edge of the table, about 6 inches from my muffin. It was clear there was one thing on its mind. That bird wanted to land on my cranberry muffin and carry it away like an eagle with a salmon in its talons.

We named it Spunky the Sparrow. I stuck out my finger like a perch for a parakeet, but it flew away and soared like a jet fighter into the distance. I think Jesus may have had an ancient ancestor of Spunky in mind when he delivered his encouraging sermon. Don’t worry. And don’t settle for crumbs.

The New Weavers

Every cafe has its regulars, and so does ours. No sooner did our bird fly away when Bob Devin-Jones flew in for a landing. Over the last decade, no person has done more for the cultural life of St. Petersburg than Bob. Actor, director, playwright, impresario and creator of the Studio @620, Bob lives his creative life with a spirit of congeniality and collaboration that makes all artists eager to work with him.

Bob, who was hospitalized for COVID-19 earlier this year, grabbed a chair and moved it at a safe distance from us for a conversation. But there is a problem with trying to talk to Bob. He knows so many people, he is always being approached by folks who want to say hello or express gratitude for his generosity. I was trying to tell Bob a story, but he was clearly distracted by people waving to him or approaching him.

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One of those people was Rick Baker, former two-term mayor of St. Petersburg. I looked up and there was our very tall former mayor, exchanging pleasantries with Bob and then with the Clarks. The conversation turned to Thanksgiving celebrations.

Karen and I had eaten by ourselves, hot turkey sandwiches — with processed slices of turkey — mashed potatoes, asparagus and cranberry sauce. Total cost about $5.. Preparation time about 10 minutes.

Bob had cooked for his partner and two friends and sat safely on the porch of their house overlooking the bay. Baker explained that he had just a few family members over for Thanksgiving. They were super safe, each of the family units at a separate table outside, everyone masking up to approach the buffet.

“How’s your mom?” I asked.

He looked down at me, surprised, and thanked me for asking. I told him that a couple of years ago on Mother’s Day, I took Karen for a meal to the Hurricane Lounge on St. Pete Beach and there at the table behind us was Baker having a meal with his mom. Their conversation was quite beautiful, with the mayor acting like a very good son with nobody watching.

He explained to me that his mom’s age made it very difficult to decide whether she should join the Thanksgiving feast. “She’s 95,” he said. “Who knows whether she would be able to be with us at 96.”

“What’s her name?” I asked.

“Irene,” he replied.

“As in Goodnight, Irene?”

“It’s our family song!”

No one could have anticipated what happened next. Goodnight, Irene was the work of a Black composer named Gussie L. Davis in 1886. It was first recorded in 1933 by a folk and blues singer known as Lead Belly. It became a huge hit for Pete Seeger and a folk group called the Weavers in 1950. I was born in 1948, so I have it stored deep in the vault of my brain. My mom, who died at the age of 95, sang it to me.

The verses of the song are quite dark, the story of a desperate man suffering an unrequited love. But the chorus is beautiful, almost a lullaby. I started singing “Irene, goodnight….”

“Okay, Roy,” interrupted my wife, a plain signal that I should not embarrass us in a public place.

But I was on a mission: “Irene, goodnight….”

I turned toward Bob Devin-Jones, I looked up at Baker. We were all wearing masks. Suddenly, we were all singing: “Goodnight, Irene, goodnight, Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams.”

It sounded really good. Bob has a beautiful voice, and Baker was known to play the guitar and sing at Saturday morning markets.

Three or four people at nearby tables looked up in surprise. We gave ourselves a quick round of applause.

“That’s for your mom,” I said.

And then it struck me. What an unlikely masked trio. To my left was a straight, conservative white man. A political figure. To my right was a gay, progressive Black man. A theater artist. And there I was in the middle, bonded by a love for this city.

It seemed like a moment of grace to harmonize in such a great American song to honor a lovely 95-year-old lady. I will cherish and remember it.

Have you experienced a simple moment that will bring you joy for years to come?

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