Montpellier, France. Three years ago.
The cast was scattered around the breakfast room in our hotel as beams from the rising sun cut hard shadows across the room. The morning people were chatting with each other. Everyone else was drinking espresso and staring at their plates of cheese and bread—wishing they were extra large drip coffees and bacon and eggs. My wife and I were packing sandwiches for later. In ten minutes we would pile into vans and drive to the theatre where we were rehearsing for the first leg of our European tour.
One cast member was missing. Bird. But no one really expected Bird to be anywhere, ever. He just showed up in his own time and in his own way. Sometimes you would arrive at breakfast and he’d have been there for two hours already, prying dark secrets out of the concierge with whom he was now best friends. Sometimes he’d explode into the room seconds before we were to leave, stuffing fistfuls of pastry and cheese into his jacket pocket before dashing out the door.
That morning we found him outside, still dressed in his clothes from the previous day, reeking of cigarettes and booze, drinking the biggest cup of coffee he could find in France—which would hardly have passed for a medium in North America.
The previous afternoon, Bird decided to explore the city on foot. Without a map. He got himself good and lost, but was determined to find his way back to the hotel on foot—which he accomplished sixteen hours later, moments before we were to depart for the theatre for rehearsal.
In Paris, the city of taking yourself way too seriously, Bird spent days building an elaborate vending machine costume out of tape, markers, and cardboard he dove into our hotel’s dumpster to retrieve. Inside his cardboard monstrosity he’d built a chute that he would pour candy down to a crotch level dispenser slot if you gave him a kiss. He wandered the streets of Paris, where no one celebrates Halloween, distributing candy to and receiving kisses from everyone he passed.
Also in Paris, Bird decided it would be fun to take a picture of himself in each Metro station—but do it in alphabetical order. He hadn’t even finished the C stations before the subway shut down for the night. He would have finished the job too—if we hadn’t packed up to drive to Geneva the next day.
I’ll admit that there were times on that tour that due to exhaustion, or boredom, or whatever was bugging me that day, I gave less than stellar performances. But not Bird. It didn’t matter how hung-over he was, or how little sleep he’d gotten, or how bad his legs hurt after wandering aimlessly from one end of a city to the next, every moment he was on stage was a hundred percent committed. Every second of his life was a hundred percent committed.
And that was how Bird lived. Every week he needed to ask the road manager for an advance on his per diem because he’d already spent it all buying rounds of drinks for total strangers in disreputable bars in reputable towns.
One year later Bird would pass away after the skin cancer he unknowingly carried with him throughout our tour of Europe spread to the rest of his body.
After his very sudden death, we all struggled to glean some kind of meaning from his extraordinary life. Some interpreted it as a call to live life to the fullest—look at how rich his life was in experiences, look at how many lives he touched. We should all be like Bird, they said.
But for most of us, life is chaotic and difficult enough without actively looking for trouble. Bird did not have a retirement plan, and Bird probably couldn’t have ever held down an office job. He would have continued living from one wacky misadventure to the next. Most of us are not cut out to be Birds. But we should be so lucky to as to have a Bird or two in our lives to take us on their exploits with them.