1968 by Conger Beasley, Jr.Each morning at nine, punctual as a computer, I left the hotel. I ate a quick breakfast standing up at a counter inside one of the cafes, and for the next three hours wandered the labyrinthine streets behind the Piazza San Marco. Hopelessly lost, in a pleasant daze, I followed one street after another, turning on impulse, because my nostrils in the damp air suddenly detected a different smell. Sometimes I found myself at a dead end. Sometimes I came upon diminutive squares with prinkling fountains, doorways arched with ornate designs, old women sweeping the entryways. Sometimes, by sheer chance, I cam out on the piazza at the opposite end from where I had entered. Sometimes I found myself hopelessly lost, a long distance from the piazza and hotel, footsore and weary, with no way back other than the way I had come, if I could remember it.

After lunch I rested and read a while. Every afternoon at four I was back in the piazza. A dull sun, glimmering between rafts of gloomy clouds, shone bleakly upon the damp stones. The few people sitting in the open-air cafes drank coffee or glasses of pink aperitif.

There was one event by which I regulated my internal clock every day without fail. Precisely at four o'clock, a little man in blue overalls emerged from a side entrance to the Doge's Palace, dragging two red canisters toward the shady end of the piazza, where he stood stiffly at attention till all the bells in the nearby churches and campanile tolled the four o'clock hour. Then he picked up one of the canisters and poured out a ribbon of tawny-colored seed, tracing a wide pattern as he walked. Pigeons fluttered out of the sky like ashy snowflakes. Tourists clutching cameras closed in on the whirling birds. Somewhere in the middle of this feathery riot, I could discern the red canister bobbing up and down. Pigeons stacked three and four deep on the piazza crawled and shivered on each other's backs--jabbing, tearing, plucking. Children frolicked about the fringes of the seething mass, kicking at the birds, sending them clucking into the air. With the canisters emptied, the little man strode briskly out of the storm, pigeons clinging to his sleeves and shoulders like scraps of paper. Within a few minutes that corner of the square was picked clean. The pigeons melted back into the dreary sky, or settled along the eaves and balconies of the ornate buildings. A few remained, scouring the cracks between the flagstones.

That winter, in Grosvenor Square, riot police standing shoulder to shoulder behind a phalanx of plastic shields hurled tear gas to break up our protest in front of the ugly white monstrosity of the American Embassy. In Paris a few weeks later, angry demonstrators surged through the streets, tipping over automobiles and setting them ablaze. They tore up paving stones and chucked them through plate-glass windows. They clashed with right-wing groups chanting "Kill the Vietcong!" in violent battles that left dozens of people dazed and bleeding. It was as if the world had taken its cue from those bold monks who periodically torched themselves in the public squares of Saigon. Martin Luther King's assassination was more than a month away, but you could feel it in the air, the probability that anything could happen, convulsions of apocalyptic proportions, another death by senseless fire. How soothing it was to spend a while in Venice, adrift in a floating gallery of finely wrought architecture, not seeing any cops, getting lost in the streets, listening to the melodious lilt of the language, taking the vaporetto out to Lido Beach, watching the scummy water of the interior canals rise and fall with the tug of the moon.

After the little man in blue coveralls with the red canisters had departed from the piazza, I bought several packets of seed. In a corner of the damp square, away from the tables and chairs, I poured seed onto the brim of my Trilby hat and scattered it across my shoulders and sleeves. The pigeons settled in feathery clusters on every part of my body, clawing for purchase, pecking, snatching, gurgling with feverish rapture. I extended my overflowing palms and giggled to myself as they mewed and shivered the length of my arms. They settled on my shoulders, pecked my neck and fingers, clawed my wrists and elbows, tore at the loose threads curling off my tweed jacket. I was like a scarecrow, straw-stuffed and frowzy, pocked with holes, sightless, tongueless, relishing every bold stab, their shivery, insistent weight. The Venetians ignored me. People come to Venice from all over the world for every conceivable reason: What was this to them? For me, it was the best therapy I could think of. A kind of feathery immolation...scaly feet, thorny beaks...Osiris devoured by a rabble of tawdry birds.

I slept better than I had in months. Images of the Tet Offensive, stacks of American and Vietnamese corpses, which the BBC aired every night and which I watched on the watery black and white telly in my little flat in East Anglia, faded from my consciousness. The world was lit with fire, each fire igniting a fresh one, until, like a string of incendiary beads, they linked the hemispheres in a crackling necklace. Che was dead, and so was a kid I'd gone to high school with, killed by a shellburst at Da Nang. Venice floated like a gaudy platter on the swell of a filthy tide. At night, half-drunk, prowling the clammy flagstones, I could feel it tugging at the ropes, as if trying to cut loose and sail out to sea like a sludgy old scow. The dull roar of heavy bombers delivering their dreadful loads crashed through my ears. It was like being from no country at all, or a place you no longer belonged to. When people asked where I was from, I said "Canada" and looked away at the gulls whirling in hungry flocks over the garbage-strewn canals.

 

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