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At Concerts, Bird Is the Word

Midday shows draw a diverse crowd to Pershing Square, where a regular called Eagle struts his unique dance moves.

September 27, 2004|Nita Lelyveld | Times Staff Writer

People make Eagle nervous. He won't look them in the eye when he speaks.

But on Tuesdays and Thursdays since June, he's mesmerized lunchtime crowds at Pershing Square.

The regulars at the free summer concert series know this big man with the shaved head -- who twists and gyrates in a free-form reverie to the beat of whatever band is playing. Some who first showed up for the music now return to see what this dancer they call "the birdman" will do next.

They'll soon miss his moves. The series concludes for the season Thursday, taking with it an unlikely idyll in the middle of downtown.

Sometimes for a while people forget the things that divide them. It can happen when the bands are playing at Pershing Square. Business people from nearby skyscrapers come out to enjoy the music. So do retirees, homeless people and tourists with video cameras. If only for a couple of hours at a time, the venerable spot downtown lives up to one of its early names, Central Park, which is what it was called more than a century ago.

Eagle travels with 16 little birds. They are white, yellow and blue. He won't say what kind they are. He's attached their cage to a walker. On the cage, which he wheels into the park, is a cardboard sign -- "NO SELL, NO TOUCH." He expects people to heed it and steer clear. He hates what they call him.

"If a guy comes here with a dog, would you call him dogman?" he complained to no one and everyone. He spoke with the staccato rhythm of a bark. That's Eagle conversing.

When Eagle's dancing, he's different.

He headed straight for the stage a few steps up from the park's tables and chairs. He stood directly in front of the band, smack center, in starring position. He swung his metal cane and strutted in front of the crowd. He tossed the cane to the side and let loose, flapping his knees, pressing his hands in prayer position, spinning one minute, kneeling the next.

Eagle was sure police were out to get him, to stop him from dancing and to "put a handcuff around my soul."

He's sure people want to steal his dance moves, so he doesn't repeat them.

"Every song I dance to, there's a new dance step," he said. "So they're not going to figure me out."

Once in a while, Eagle dances by himself. More often, others join him.

The teenagers in the special education class at Franklin High rarely miss a concert, and they dance until they have to leave, waving to the bands as they go. Caltrans employees get up for a twirl, their identification cards swinging around their necks.

On one recent afternoon, when Eagle was on the stage alone, a woman named Donna noticed his "beautiful spirit" and danced alongside him.

She wore a faded green tank top, a tiny checkered skirt and heavy wide sneakers that looked a few sizes too big. Her eyes were hazy. She was wobbly. But she twirled when Eagle did.

"It takes me away from all the pain, from the sidewalk," she said as she sat down to catch her breath. All her belongings were wrapped in a bundle, tied in place with an old sweatshirt at her feet.

On another afternoon, 6-year-old Joshua Alfaro circled Eagle, lying stomach-down on his skateboard. At Eagle's urging, he put the skateboard aside and danced instead. He tried to do exactly what Eagle did.

Joshua's mother, Kathy, sat at a table nearby, smiling. She said the dancing was a nice break from their life on skid row.

At some tables, people ate their lunches -- hot dogs from Art's in the park, fast food, leftovers they brought from home in plastic containers. Some perched on ledges, devouring mystery novels. Others slumped over, sleeping off binges.

Charles Ventura, who is 89, came from Santa Monica to meet his 89-year-old sweetheart, Trini. They dress elegantly for the outdoor dates. On one day, straw hat to shoes, all his clothing was cream-colored. She wore a long black jacket with a flower print, looking ready for a night at the opera.

Melito Enriquez, 80, who came to Los Angeles from the Philippines two years ago, escaped his little apartment on Beverly Boulevard to be among others in the concert crowds.

"I am very lonely. I am single. I am a widower," he said. "I am happy to be here."

Dana Lasher, who is 60 and retired, came from Jefferson Park -- in part to see Eagle.

"He's great," she said on a recent afternoon, as she sat under an umbrella at a park table listening to three women in a band called Diva Groove bop out the Go-Go's song "We Got the Beat."

Lasher takes the bus to the concerts, and works a word-search puzzle when the bands take breaks.

"I just love it here. It's so relaxing," she said. "It's nice for the whole city -- not just the downtowners, not just the homeless. Everybody comes. And the music, it gives people a chance to just do what they want to up there."

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