Bird brains

November 13, 1995|By Andrei Codrescu

ST. LOUIS -- Someone said to me, while I watched a big gambling boat suck and spew suckers in St. Louis, ''Did you know that birds shed their brains when they migrate?'' I didn't know that, but seeing the tourists being swallowed by the casino, I could believe it.

My interlocutor was bird-like himself, a Chicago salesman who had been spending so much time on the road, he had begun studying migratory birds in an effort to understand himself.

There is an unspoken solidarity among us travelers. We recognize each other instantly by a certain way of feeling at home in places that are clearly not: hotel lobbies, airports, tourist traps, balconies over gussied-up rivers. We can begin to converse at any point in any train of thought, even begin in mid-sentence, and it would be all right.

''In fact,'' I said, ''The animatronic figure of Al Capone would be right at home here!''

The bird man nodded. I had just come from Chicago where I'd spent an hour in a strange mechanical theater dedicated to Al Capone. It had been built by some amusement company that ignored Al Capone's actual digs, which were decaying unnoticed down the street.

Travelers will often meet in the neutral nowheres that are their temporary homes and will bring each other news of their respective cities. The bird man had just come from New Orleans where, he told me, they were almost done building the new casino. And I had just come from Chicago where I'd seen the Capone show he hadn't yet seen.

It was a service, really: I would never go into the New Orleans casino and he would probably never set foot in the Al Capone theater. We did these dirty jobs for each other. Like migratory birds, we shed our brains and passed on the news. ''Did you know that there is winter on the sun?'' ''That fish have antifreeze to keep them moving?''

We would have kept on like this but were drowned by two separate flocks of tourists. One of them massed about a bellhop and asked him if they could get on the gambling boat at that hour. ''No,'' he said, ''They must stimulate like they're sailing,'' which meant, I believe, that to meet local laws the stationary boat had to pretend that it was sailing.

The other was a flock of doctors' wives greeting a shuttle to take them to a plane to take them to a New Age fat farm in Tucson. It was a shared moment and we, long-distance birds, soared briefly above the garden-variety warblers.

We parted without goodbyes.

Andrei Codrescu has been logging miles in order to fulfill the prophecy of a Gypsy who told him when he was 10: ''You will travel much and far.''

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