Wild Bird Store: An Interview with Bud Smith
– He is really nice, but not in a way that’s really annoying, or disingenuous. He’s the kind of guy who would help you move on short notice.
– Bud talks about his wife a lot in person and in his writing, but she is actually cooler than advertised. She’s got Rihanna sneakers.
– His new book, Work, is deceptive. It’s billed as a memoir of working heavy construction, but it’s really about what it’s like to make room for art in your life.
– Bud’s book is also about how sometimes, you accidentally stumble upon good things, and if you just keep going with it, more good things can happen. That doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen. They happen every day all the time.
– I don’t mean to make it seem like Bud Smith is the Candide of New Jersey or something.
– It’s really easy to be cynical, to get defeated. But then what? You still have to pay the rent. You still have to keep moving. Bud Smith understands this better than almost anyone. Life is stupid and hard, and the only way to get through it is to find the small, good things that make it easier.
Bud Smith writes on his phone, so I figured I’d interview him using mine. I actually started before I was even finished with his book because I was reading this:
An excerpt from WORK by Bud Smith
The new job sends me for a drug test. I pass it. I shave my face. I look different. Younger, somehow. I go on a date with a girl who works in a ‘wild bird store’, as she vaguely explains it. Wild Birds Unlimited, it’s called. I’m high and laughing about that. Picturing these colorful birds flapping all crazy around the store, and her not laughing about it at the cash register. Then I’m bragging to her that I passed my drug test and how I’m officially a high school graduate, just got my diploma today, six years after graduation. I pull the diploma from my pocket. Unfold it. Look. She doesn’t laugh, but like I said, that’s her thing, not laughing. We have a one night stand in my pick up truck in the parking lot of St. Barnabas’ Catholic Church. It’s nice. A mutual decision to no longer continue. But I see her a few weeks later, I stop by her store because I want to see these wild birds she sells. Inside the store though, I find out that Wild Birds Unlimited only sells bird seed. Stacks of waxed paper sacks filled with safflower, millet, canary seed, hemp, thistle seed, corn, green split peas, sunflower seed, wheat, and milo. Ha, look at that. Not a single free-spirited wild bird trapped in a strip mall storefront, let’s celebrate. I get a phone call on the first day of autumn to go and weld at a chemical plant. I’ve lied to them about knowing how to weld. In hindsight, oh what a thing to say. I’m good on paper—in real life, I only know how to destroy stuff. But hey, just like you, I am trying so hard to learn some other more beautiful way.
Bud, did you ever get to a bird store that sold actual birds? Because they are weird. I went to one a couple months ago.
Bud: No. I’ve never been to a real bird store. Maybe it’s just where I’m from, but I never knew anybody with a pet bird. And the town I lived in didn’t have a, like, boutique ‘bird’s only experience’. Some towns must still have that privilege. Our local pet store was really dark and dingy and they sold fish, snakes, and I guess … cocaine/heroin/ecstasy/etc. There was this corrupt local cop and he got busted for selling narcotics out of the pet store, and for having peepholes in the walls of the bathroom, and if memory serves correctly, cameras recording whatever happy snake shoppers did in there. When I got older, a big chain pet store came to town, and they sold puppies and cats and hamsters. My family stole a dog from one of them.
But back on birds, when I delivered furniture, whenever I had to carry someone’s whatever it was into the basement there would always be this creepy ass bird cage. I don’t know if that’s a centerpiece of any horror movies yet, but for some reason, a bird cage covered in dust, with the door just hanging open would always give me the heeby jeebies. And lastly, re: bird stores, there’s a bar in my neighborhood that is called Petshop, and they have this neon sign logo that’s a bird cage with the bars bent and the bird gone from the cage. They are a vegan place. They used to be a real pet shop, and I imagine they sold about a billion birds out of it in the 1960s and early 70s because everybody in North Jersey wanted a bird for their tiny run down apartment. In the concrete outside Petshop vegan bar, there is something written in the concrete apron leading into the store and it makes me laugh every time I go in there for a beer. Written in the concrete is the word BLIMPIE’S because after they were a petshop, they were a sandwich shop. So, okay.
So, I have this cousin, Sophia, who is real into birds. We’re pretty tight, because our parents (who are siblings) have the same problems, and when she was like 12, she asked me if I’d take her to the Mutter Museum because her mom wouldn’t. She was about to turn 21, but she got this scholarship to go to Japan for school, so she wouldn’t be around for me to buy her a drink around her actual birthday.
I went to the Mutter Museum. It’s got a lot of dead conjoined twins. And tumors in jars. I could see how people who are into keeping birds in their house would be into jarred tumors and conjoined twins who passed away before the great depression. Tell Sophia I said hello. We all say hello.
I love those little polycephaly twins! I think of them fondly and often. Them and the Soap Lady are my favorites.
The Soap Lady is cool. She’s famous for something as ordinary as dying, which is something everybody should strive for. The Mutter Museum has this on their site about her, and her ‘fight promoter’ of sorts. “Dr. Joseph Leidy, known as the father of American vertebrate paleontology, procured the body of the Soap Lady after she was exhumed at a Philadelphia cemetery. He originally reported that she died in the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of the 1790s. Based on her lack of teeth, Leidy assumed that she had died in middle or old age. The first X-rays taken of the Soap Lady in 1987 revealed buttons and pins on her clothing that that were not manufactured in the United States until the 1830s. Leidy was wrong about her year of death.”
How cool is that? The Mutter Museum is basically like: DR. JOSEPH LEIDY WAS AN OLD-TIMEY IDIOT.
It was either the Mutter Museum or the Bodies exhibit that we went because my wife, Rae was trying to quit smoking and we’d heard they show you all these diseased rotted lungs and it’d be a good scare tactic. The way Rae wound up quitting smoking was one day she woke up and her tongue was all black and she freaked out thinking it was from cigarettes. After a week or so of not smoking because of that she found out it was Pepto Bismol that’s made her tongue black. It does that to your tongue sometimes. Hey whatever works. She hasn’t smoked a cigarette in six years.
My friend Kellie (who once had a really weird meeting with my one boss, where she had to hear how great I am) has a pet bird, and told me about this place in Delran, NJ where she and her husband got it. You have to bond with them before they can leave the “nest.”
Well I can see that. It should be a requirement that the damn bird you’re going to trap forever at least likes you. You should like the bird too, of course. I mean, it’s going to make a racket and scream at you in bird-talk and shit all over your dining room. You should take the time to find a bird that you get along with. Y’all won’t have many friends once you have a bird, anyways. And the bird certainly won’t have any friends once you imprison it. It’ll most likely only have you. Just you. Just lonely ol’ you. I shouldn’t talk this way though, my parent’s had a parakeet in the early 80s. When I first learned how to walk I found a tennis racket in thier apartment and I slammed the racket against the side of the cage without knowing what it would do and the parakeet keeled over and had a heart attack. I don’t remember any of this. I just have heard the story a lot from my mom and dad. The parakeet died and now it is in parakeet heaven, reading this interview, feeling bird-famous.
What kind of bird did Kellie from Delran, NJ get? What is the name of the bird store? I want to call those people up and talk to them about their methods, and my methods.
Her name is Peepers, and she is a small green bird. The place is called Todd Marcus Exotic Birds. The thing about adopting a bird is that you have to go visit and cuddle them and acclimate them to your strange human sounds. So people, Bird People, they go to the bird store after work and they just wait until these birds love them enough to go home with them. Which is strange and kind of sad and kind of beautiful. Kellie told me to take my cousin there. So I did.
Aw, see, that sounds kind of nice. Your co-workers are like, “Come get a drink with us!” and you can say, legitimately, “Dang, I want to but I have to spend 10,000 hours with this bird I might buy.”
When we got there, Sophia, who was wearing mismatched socks and my brother’s too big flip flops, because she fell in a dumpster puddle on her way to my house, slapped her way over to the head bird lady and asked enough aggressive questions that it was clear we were FLAGGED. The rules were that you could touch any bird flapping around the floor if it let you, except for Sam, who isn’t for sale. He was an African Gray Parrot who was there mostly to eat the baseboards.
“She was pretty judgmental for the manager of a bird store.”
Bird store owners think they’re even hotter shit than record store clerks. They don’t have to be humble. They can be judgemental and mean and there’s nothing you can do about it, man. You want the birds. They got the birds. You’re right in the palm of their hands. Only way out of the whole terrible situation is to do what I’ve done – give up weird domesticated bird cults altogether, go into construction, do some writing on the side.
I agree that it is weird to have a BIRD in your HOUSE. Or to think you could own a bird. That bird owns you.
Sometimes I think of the first person who took a good look at a wolf and said, “I want that thing sleeping in the cave with me. I want that thing and all its teeth in my house. Just maybe 10% friendlier.” I also like to think about the people in their caves, woken up by a little tabby cats smacking them in the nose with their little prehistoric paws. Like, feed me, feed me, feed me. It’s probably been that way right from the start.
My friend Stephanie, who cuts my hair, has a bird that lives to troll her husband. He can talk (the bird, I mean, her husband can too, but it’s not remarkable) and he’ll do impressions of the husband. He used to be able to trick the dog. He tricked the neighbors for a while, too, because this bird does a spot on impression of her husband, Joe, who is an Italian American South Philadelphian, and is therefore cussing all the time. The neighbors started to wonder if Steph was okay, with him yelling at her all the time like that, and she had to bring them inside to meet the bird so they wouldn’t call the cops on her husband, who is a good and decent person, and not mean like a bird at all.
End scene. Thank you ladies and gentlemen for coming to our production of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, I hope you liked what you read. God bless you and goodnight.
Oh wait, I have one more story about a bird. So, my father-in-law lived in Jersey City in a tenement in the 60s. Well the family had a parakeet, and they loved the bird. They used to let it flap free around the apartment (just like everybody else). Since it was the 60s, people used to just drop by the apartment without calling ahead of time. And also people didn’t knock back then. AND people didn’t lock their doors. Well, so here comes cousin Wally from Passaic. He’s big and beefy like Ignatius J. Reilly. Well cousin Wally comes through the door with a Siberian Husky named Snowball. Hi everybody! And well, Snowball is in alien territory and Snowball goes chomp and my father-in-law’s parakeet went crunch crunch instant bye bye forever, and the family wept, and after that began locking their door, and making people call their phone ahead of time. Oh the times they were a changin’. And since then, and maybe because of that, dogs have become the dominate American pet post-1969, post-Altamont, post-Charlie Manson.
Thanks for talking to me about birds, Bud. Is there anything you want to say about writing a book, or the book you wrote, or writing in general?
Nah, not really. A lot of parakeets died in this interview. That’s sad as hell.