Wednesday, January 26, 2011

20, El Pajaro

I've been staring at this picture here in January and thinking about birds and when I would see one that I could write about. There's a wonderful world of birds in the back yard in summer, jays and cardinals and sparrows and teeny birds I don't know what they are. I'm sure the community of feral cats that lives in the center of our block enjoys these birds even more than I do. But it's winter. Not waking up to birdsong lately.

Walking to the subway in the snow this morning I saw a mottled black and white pigeon hopping up some steps. Maybe it was just looking for something to peck, or frustrated at the snow in the sky, or maybe it was sick, I dunno, but I realized once again I like pigeons. More of my friends than not have called them "rats with wings," but I'm not a pigeon h8er. Actually I saw a rat in the subway yesterday that I thought was cute so maybe I'm just having a weird winter reaction to urban vermin, er, fauna, but that's another story.

When I was a kid my mom took me to Venice. In St. Marks Plaza for a few lira (this was 1970, pre-Euro) you could buy a sheet of newspaper rolled into a cone filled with corn and feed the massive pigeon population that rivalled the massive American hippie population lying about the sidewalk. I remember being happily swarmed with appreciative pigeons, and I'm pretty sure I hadn't yet seen what happened to Tipi Hedren and Suzanne Pleshette in Hitchcock's version of that situation so I was fearless. They landed on my head and outstretched arms and it was awesome.

My boyfriend of the early 1990s lived in a wretched tiny little apartment in the Village. His apartment had a window opening up onto one of those unique features of NYC tenements, the airspace. This airspace was teeny, maybe five foot square, and it was infested with pigeons. He hated them -- the feathers and pigeon poop was a bit much to take, I accept -- so he kept that window closed and covered, defeating the alleged health-giving benefits of the airspace in the tenement architect's intent. But in his apartment you could always hear this cooing sound through the darkened window. Oh it probably drove him crazy but I found it comforting somehow. The super in my Brooklyn apartment building at the time kept pigeons in the basement, though special ring-necked ones, beautiful and sleek. I don't know if he raced them or what, but they made the same beautiful cooing and it made a trip to the laundry room like a trip to the performance of some strange avian choir.

Pigeons are everywhere in New York City. You see them lazily riding the Staten Island Ferry crossing the harbor and sometimes in some elevated subway trains. They walk around in the Port Authority Bus Station imitating rushing commuters. In neighborhoods like mine there are organized flights of kept pigeons swirling over the rooftops in summer. And I remember the corner near my old apartment where the poorly designed lampost that hung over the sidewalk in an unusual way made waiting for the light to change particularly dicey. When the pigeons who always perched there had to go, they had to go. Do pigeons laugh? I know these pigeons were enjoying themselves and their target practice.

Most pigeons are not beautiful birds. Like the one I saw this morning they can look like doves who passed an exploding inkwell. Or the dark gray ones with the shimmering green and pink metallic feathers about their necks: there's something greasy and insect-like about those colors. But momma pigeons love their pigeon babies no matter what they look like. (Where the heck ARE those baby pigeons anyway?) Urban people look different than suburban and country people, so it's only fitting that urban birds would have a toughness about them.

They could fly off to warmer climes, but they don't. They stick around, braving winters like the one we're having now. They like the hum of the city beneath them; the grit, the hustle and bustle. And they're social beings. Bobbing around, being pigeons together. I give them credit.

20. The Bird.

(This is part of a continuing series of meditations of the Loteria Deck; a Mexican bingo game with archetypal images that resonate like Tarot cards. Click here for more Loteria stories.)


  1. Oh, I loved this story. I now have a deeper appreciation for pigeons.

    In California coastal communities we have seagulls... once when I was playing tennis - mixed doubles, a seagull flew overhead.... you guessed it, dropped a hello on my partner. I never laughed so hard in my life. Yep, I'm THAT kind of friend.

  2. i also have always liked pigeons. that head dance they do is adorable. and "pigeon hater" is a great band name.

    this, like much of your reflectional writing, was delightful to read.

  3. Have you ever been to Atlantic City, Annie? The seagulls there are an intelligent species. If you're walking along the Boardwalk they will snatch food out of your hands and if they don't succeed in getting it they'll come back for a little aerial bombardment.

    And thanks, freebones!

  4. Never been to Atlantic City, but if I do go I will keep an eye out for Jonathan.