She stood there like a heroin addict. She had the same vacant, stunned, collapsing
look. Occasionally, she would totter on her feet and her head would begin to
shakily fall, whereupon she would, as though self-consciously, snap it up again.
The Little Italy feast of San Gennaro swarmed about her: at her sides stood
cotton candy, caramel apple and cannoli stands; across from her hummed a battery
of game booths and a carousel outfitted with wooden horses and giraffes. It
was still early, just after noon, but it was a Saturday and the first weekend
of the festival, so in no time the crowds would descend on her like a tempest
on a tugboat.
Whats the matter with her?
I turned to see a small Chinese boy staring at the suffering creature.
Hard to tell, replied the man at his side. Wing no look broke.
The boy stepped up to the pigeon and sprinkled cracker crumbs at her feet. As
the bird bent down for the crumbs her head began to wobble, then her body teetered,
but just as she seemed about to fall she regained her balance and pulled her
head back up.
Maybe nerve damage, offered the man. They put poison on streets
at night. He stepped closer to the bird and bent over to get a better view. She
young, he said. A baby.
How can you tell? I asked.
I raise birds.
We stood a moment longer, staring at the bird, at its small, dark-gray body with
I asked if he thought it would die.
Maybe, he said. Maybe not.
Then the two of them walked away.
But I couldnt walk away. There was something in the presence of this bird, separated
from the rest of its species; something in its stunned, sad, injured posture,
so susceptible to a careless or predatory boot, or to any number of potential
festival-related hazards; there was something in her isolation, in her smallness,
in the fact that, despite her wishes, she could not remove herself from her precarious
position; something in the gray light that surrounded her, in her eyes blinking
open again and again as though hoping with each effort to discover that her miserable
condition was only momentary, an illusion, a nightmare—but only to find,
again and again, that nothing had changed; there was something in this
creatures vulnerable position that grabbed hold of my heart. No, I couldnt
But what, if anything, did I think I was going to do? As I looked down at the
injured bird who had shifted a bit more closely to a packed onion crate; as I
watched her attempt once again to bend down for the cracker crumbs only to suffer
the same cycle of shaking and tottering and recovery; as I observed her pink
eyes blinking on and off again like a pair of dysfunctional headlights and I
remembered the Chinese mans words: Its a baby; as I stood
there, beginning to worry that my own uncertain, custodial position might begin
to arouse suspicion and direct more unwholesome attention toward the suffering
creature, this question: What can I do? began to throb in my mind.
How does one approach, handle, transport an injured bird? Do you—can you—is
it possible to—lay your hands upon it as you would a ball? But what if
the bird were to suffer, to panic, to burst out, to fall and stumble into the
middle of the street, perhaps further injuring itself? How ridiculous would I
feel, would I look? What would people think? Could I catch a disease? Could I
catch West Nile virus from a pigeon? Furthermore, assuming I were to pick the
bird up, what then would I do with it? Where would I take it, and what then?
Hold on! I thought, suddenly coming to my senses: what was I thinking? Why was
I getting so worked up? Id eaten thousands of birds without blinking an eye.
Id probably eat another one—a turkey, a chicken—chopped, diced,
and lumped between two pieces of bread—later that afternoon. Furthermore,
this was just a pigeon—a rat, as they are popularly considered, of the
bird race. Shouldnt I just get on with my day?
But I wasn’t able to. As the crowds continued to swell, this bizarre sense
of responsibility grew even more commanding. Maybe I could just get the bird
away from the crowds, away from this madness, to a safe place, where she could
more quietly recover or at least die in peace. But this once again introduced
the nettlesome question of just how to approach, handle, and transport the bird.
I looked quickly around the food and game stands, hoping to find an empty carton
or box of some kind, but couldn’t find anything. So I started out for the
Pearl River Emporium on Broome Street.
I bought a green plastic bucket, a pair of rubber gloves, and a dustpan. Then,
heading back to Hester Street, I hoped—indeed, I practically prayed— that in
the meantime either the poor bird had miraculously recovered and flown away,
or that some animal-savvy passerby had taken matters into his or her own hands.
But no luck. There she stood, still with the shell-shocked,
helpless expression, perhaps a bit closer to the onion crate, as though she were
seeking refuge. The carnival music had grown louder, a band was setting up its
instruments and testing microphones, and children were beginning to gather around
the whining carousel.
Well, I thought, as I removed the bucket from its plastic bag and stretched on
the rubber gloves, if Im going to do this I might as well at least give the
impression of authority. And so I set the green tub down beside the bird, I took
a breath, stretched out my yellow-gloved hands, set my hands upon the birds
back—its feathers expanding accordion-like in my palms, its head twisting
about in surprise—; I dropped the bird in the bucket, draped a sheet of
newspaper over its head, then turned and started walking up Centre Street.
I had no particular destination in mind: I just hoped to find a place that was
sufficiently removed from the San Gennaro chaos. I found one beside John Jovinos
Gun Shop, its stoop bordered by a small, unkempt garden. Sitting on the stoop,
I set down the pigeons tub, peeled back the newspaper, and looked in. The pigeon
had shifted right up against the wall of the tub and was standing there with
a Bartleby stillness. Thinking she might be hungry I went to a bodega across
the street, bought a bottle of spring water and a loaf of bread, then piled some
bits of bread in the tub and poured in some water. The bird didnt respond.
sprinkled some drops of water on the pigeon’s head. She tossed her head
about and ruffled her feathers but then returned to her state of stillness, pushing
her head into a dark corner of the tub.
Suddenly a door beside the gun shop opened and out stepped a Latino man in a
tight green t-shirt. He stood over me and looked down at the bird.
Theres something wrong with it. I pulled away the paper so he could
get a better look.
The man squatted beside the tub. He outstretched his hands, picked the pigeon
up, and began turning her around and examining her from many angles. He turned
her upside down and inspected her orange-pink legs. He turned the bird right
side up again and tugged at her head. The necks not broken, he
said. The neck might not have been broken but as he turned the pigeon in a circle
head turned with the body to such an extent that by the time he had straightened
the bird out again the head had twisted 180 degrees and was shaking.
It could be poison, he said, setting the bird back in the tub.
Thats what I thought.
The sun had grown hotter, burning my cheek. I draped the paper a
bit further over the pigeon.
Its good you do this, the man said. You may save the bird.
And even if you dont its good you spread your goodness. If you left her in
the street people would kick her. They say pigeons are polluted, but most times
its people that are polluted. They have evil, selfish, strange thoughts.
As the man spoke he set his right hand over the pigeons head and tilted it from
side to side as though he was trying to fit an invisible helmet.
The bird has a green aura, he said. Can you see these things?
I looked close. I wasnt really sure where or even how to look for an aura so
I looked at the space between the mans hand and the bird. I thought I could
see a slight green glow, but this glow could just as easily have been a reflection
of the green plastic bucket.
I dont know why so many people cant see these things, he said.
He held his hand up to his eyes and gazed at it in a strange way. Then, still
staring at his hand, he said:
I am a mathematician. I have explanations people are very afraid of. I
know for example that Jesus Christ is here in this city. He is in his early forties.
He is sitting in a bar drinking. He is very beautiful, but very simple. His thoughts
are his own thoughts, not because hes original, just because he can think no
one elses thoughts. Hes just himself and he is very beautiful and so intensely
happy that no one can understand him.
Under ordinary circumstances I would have indulged the man, as I have always
enjoyed exploring the nooks and crannies of eccentric minds. But these weren’t
What about the pigeon? I asked, hoping to refocus his paranormal
attention on the bird.
Again the man held his hand above the birds head.
I think she will leave, he said. She has become still and melancholy,
and this is how things become before they leave their body.
She seems to have energy, I said hopefully, as the pigeon kept ruffling
her feathers and attempting to lift her head.
You should kill it,” a deep voice blurted. “Put it out of its
We turned to see a refrigerator-sized elderly Italian man in a black three-piece
suit. He had the squinting, half-menacing, half-comedic face of a classic Hollywood
mobster. He was smoking a cigar, tilting slightly forward on his toes and peering
down at the pigeon.
Put it out of its misery, he barked. Its not a sin. Its old.
Its suffering. Believe me, I know. I used to raise pigeons. They know when its
their time. Pigeons are intelligent. Ive seen them commit suicide. Im not kidding.
They run right out in the traffic. Youve done good. You took it out of the street.
But that birds gonna die. Put it out of its misery. Its not a sin. The
man leaned back on the balls of his feet and took another puff off his cigar.
Are you sure its old? I asked, remembering the Chinese mans words.
The Italian bent over and peered down at the bird. Oh, yeah, he said,its
Are you sure its going to die?
It looks like it. But it may not. He shrugged. If you want,
take it home.
The three of us stared down at the pigeon, which had tucked its head into a shaded
corner of the box. Occasionally she would shift her weight or ruffle her feathers.
I used to own this street, the Italian said, waving his cigar. I
used to own this whole block. He pointed across the street to the gray
back of a building. That used to be an old police station. Theres tunnels
under it. People used to have gunfights in the tunnels. I know everyone who lives
in these buildings. Everyone on Mulberry Street knows me.
You know my father? the Latino man asked.
Ah? Whos your father?
He owns the gun shop.
Yeah? The Italian’s eyes narrowed into skeptical slits. Your
real father or—?
My real father.
Huh. The Italian puffed his cigar, nodding slightly. Then he waved
his hand, as though brushing away a fly. Well, he said to me, good
luck. Youre doing a good thing. And he walked off toward the festival.
These Italians talk like theyre big shots, the Latino scoffed once
the Italian had gone. Theyve seen too many mobster movies. Ive lived
in this building for ten years. No pot smokers. No homosexuals.
You live with your father?
you said he owned the—?
Oh! The Latino burst out in laughter. He slapped his thigh. When
I say my father, I mean God! God owns the gun shop! God owns everything! God
makes the gun shop and God can take it away! He set his hand on my shoulder,
got to his feet and pointed to a button by the door. Im Carlos, he
said. You ever want to spend time, drink beer, hang out, just ring. He
pulled open the door and glanced back into the tub. Youve done good, he
said. Then he said: The bird will live if you have faith. If you have strong
faith the bird will live. But he may leave, he said, and then he disappeared
behind the door.
I was alone again with the injured bird. It had been well over an hour since
Id found her and her condition had shown no improvement. She had rejected
the food and water. She continued to stand, her chest pulsing slowly with her
breaths, her talons occasionally scraping the plastic tub-floor. Was I going
to sit with the bird all afternoon? And what if she still hadn’t recovered?
Would I find myself a caretaker of an injured bird? If so, where would I keep
her? In my apartment? Who was I kidding? Why had this particular pigeon aroused
such pity in me? Was the sentiment genuine, or was it just some sort of contrived
poetic idea? I had recently been reading the letters of Vincent van Gogh, and
I remembered a passage in which Vincent explained to his brother, Theo, his reason
for sheltering a prostitute. Hed written: As to my opinion how far
may go in a case of helping a poor, forsaken, sick creature, I can only repeat
what I told you already: infinitely.
Did I think I was van Gogh?
Im not taking that one.
I looked up to see a middle-aged man with a bright, round, pitted face. He was
wearing paint-speckled shorts and carried a canvas under his left arm.
I used to take them off the street, he said. I knew a vet whod
see them for ten dollars. But I dont have him anymore. A real vet will cost
you seventy to one hundred dollars.
What do you thinks the matter with her? I asked.
The man picked the bird up and began turning her in circles like Carlos had. Its
young, he said. You can tell because all the feathers havent
out of the neck. He set the pigeon back in the bowl. Then he picked up
a piece of bread, pried open the pigeon’s mouth, and tried to shove the
bread down with his fingers. But the bird wouldnt swallow; the bread fluffed
out of her mouth and fell to the floor of the tub. She doesnt want
eat, he said. And youve got to be careful. Sometimes you can
it down the wrong tube. They can choke and die. Thats happened to me before.
But they have to eat.
He stroked the bird’s head with his index finger. Then he said:
Pigeons are special creatures. They mate for life. One time I saved this
pigeon and let it go. After every storm, shed come back with her mate. Theyd
tap on the window and Id let them in. Im a painter and while I painted
one of them would sit on top of the easel. But then, after one really awful storm,
they didnt come back. And I never saw them again.
What about diseases? I asked.
I never got anything from a pigeon. Just wash your hands after you touch
Well, what kind of box—? I started, amazed that I was even
considering taking the bird home.
Any ventilated cardboard box will do. Put in a bowl of water and some bread.
When youre sure the birds healthy, let it fly around in your apartment. Then
bring it to a park and set it in the flock. Itll take a minute or so, but
itll be accepted.
And if it dies?
I used to bury em under bridges. He took another close look, bending
over the tub and stroking the birds head with his finger. I gotta tell
you, I wouldnt get your hopes up. I dont think shes gonna make it. He
straightened and shook my hand. “My name’s Jim.” He handed
me a business card. “Gimme a call and lemme know how it works out. Good
luck, he said. And then he left.
It had grown darker and shadows had passed almost completely over the pigeon’s
tub. The festival crowds had thickened and rowdy throngs were churning up Centre
Street. I sat there thinking about Jims words, about the pigeon he’d
who’d return with his mate. Maybe I too could be a pigeon rescuer. Maybe
I could nurse this pigeon back to health and she and I could become companions.
The more I thought about it, the less outlandish it seemed. And so finally I
picked up a waxy cardboard vegetable box from beside a Chinese produce stand,
I set the bird inside, and started home.
* * *
For six years my girlfriend, Ruth, and I had lived in a small fifth-floor two-bedroom
walk-up on the corner of Mulberry and Hester. The apartment boasted its share
of what is often referred to as “old-world charm”: exposed brick,
a telephone-booth-shaped shower propped beside the kitchen sink, and a Porta Pottysized toilet compartment opposite the oven. Things were constantly
breaking down. We often went without gas, heat or a working phone, and were utterly
dependent on the whim of the leaden-eyed, wise-guy super, and the availability
of his “extended family members” who’d blow in unannounced
like palmetto bugs and usually leave the place in worse condition than they’d
We’d been trying to move for years, but hadn’t been able to find
an affordable two-bedroom anywhere else in the city. Wed considered renting
a one-bedroom, but for a number of reasons, not the least of which were my untidiness
and chronic sleep-talking, we’d realized that we both needed our own rooms.
So the years had run on: two turned into four, four into six, and each of us
began to wonder if we were fated to follow in the footsteps of the apartment’s
previous lifetime tenant, whod ultimately lost her mind and was found one day
wandering aimlessly around the building halls, bumping into walls, and muttering
Entering the apartment, I knew at once that my room—not the kitchen, living
room or Ruth’s room—would be most appropriate for the pigeon. So
I cleared some space on my desk and set down the pigeon’s box. Following
Jim’s suggestion, I put in some torn-up bread and a dish of water. I lit
a white candle and, to help drown out the racket of the surrounding carnival,
I set my CD player beside the box and put on Chopins Nocturnes.
Then came the matter of informing Ruth of our new houseguest. I expected she
wouldnt be thrilled at the prospect of harboring the sick bird, but at the same
time I didnt think shed outright veto the idea. After all, Ruth had always
shown a special sympathy for suffering animals, sometimes insisting we pull over
to help a stray dog, or suggesting we adopt one of the Little Italy wildcats
that lived in a nearby parking lot. Then again, Ruth’s sympathies had never
extended to what she regarded as “dirty” and “disease-carrying” city
You may not like this, I told her over the phone, and then related
the whole story, how Id first found the pigeon standing across from the
carousel, and then bought the tub, and talked to Carlos, the Italian, and Jim.
I told her
Jim’s story about the pigeon who’d come back with his mate after
the storms, and shared his encouraging words about pigeons and diseases.
“Just as long as you keep it in your room,” she said, and told me
she’d be home soon.
* * *
As much as I wanted to witness Ruths response to the pigeon, I’d
made plans to attend an open mike event that evening with friends. I considered
but it seemed unreasonable on account of the bird. After all, the pigeon still
appeared far from recovery, and there was nothing more I could do in the meantime.
In any case, I needed some cheering up. So I started out for Surf Reality in
the Lower East Side.
Id always been a fan of open mikes but this venue was by far my favorite.
The show was hosted by a bald, androgynous man named Faceboy whod started
open mike in honor of a Native American tribe that had cured his father of spinal
meningitis. The tribe practiced a communal “talking-stick” ritual
where, as each speaker took hold of a ceremonial stick, he received the deferential
attention of all in attendance. Now, in this intimate theatrical setting, the
microphone served as the talking-stick, and when a performer stood before it,
all audience members were required to listen in silence.
That evening we were treated to a special performance. Halfway through the show,
Faceboy introduced a young woman and told us she had a rare talent: she could
repeat any sentence in reverse. Go on! he called out. Give
her a sentence! Any sentence!
I like cats! Someone offered. She shot back: stac ekil I.
There was a thoughtful silence; then everyone burst out in applause.
Someone shouted,President Bush is a jerk!” She replied: krej
a si hsuB tnediserP!
Hoping to stump her, I tossed out: I play the xylophone frequently. She
took a moment, then volleyed back: yltneuqerf enohpolyx eht yalp I. The
crowd erupted in applause, and as I looked out at the hands clapping all around
me, I remembered the injured bird and imagined her fully recovered, her wings
flapping joyously around the apartment.
* * *
When I got home, the lights were out and Ruth was sleeping. Shed left a
on the kitchen table referring to me as a pigeon saver, but telling
me that the bird hadnt shown much improvement.
I went to my bedroom, lifted the tape from the bird’s box, and peered in.
The pigeon was standing much in the same position, her food uneaten, the water
sitting still, and trails of greenish droppings scattered over the floor of the
box. Well, I thought, at least she was still alive. There was still hope. I relit
the white candle, restarted the Chopin, and got in bed.
And it was a strange thing lying in bed knowing that twelve inches beside
my head sat a cardboard box sheltering a maimed live bird, a city beast—her
wings filthy with city dirt, her gray body pulsing with each breath—a wild
thing, separated from the rest of its kind, sitting not in nature but in this
waxy Chinese vegetable box, in this artificial shelter I had created. It was
a strange thing to be lying there in my room in my bed, to be occupying this
common space, this common time, two spheres of consciousness, one human, one
animal; one dimly aware of its eventual death, the other likely wrestling in
the grips of death itself.
How could I shut my eyes? How could I relax? How, when, with the mere thought
of the bird, as though in response, a sound, a scratch, a rustle, a sign of life
pain would throb from the dark box? Theres nothing more to do, I
told myself. Your wakefulness is pointless. Anyhow, you’ll have a
full day tomorrow; you cant deprive yourself of a nights sleep. And
with another scratch or a rustling of feathers, Id be up again, shining
the lamplight into the box, searching for a sign of new vitality, but finding
I had just started to nod off when a new sound shuddered me awake—a beating,
the movement and crash of a body against the cardboard—the strongest sign
yet that some new, promising vitality had entered the bird. I leapt out of bed,
tore off the tape and looked down into the box. The pigeon was trying to get
to her feet; she was heaving her body up, wobbling and crashing into the cardboard
walls, then making a renewed effort, trying to push out her feathers for balance
and hoisting herself up, only to stumble and crash once again. I couldnt see
the bird’s head, and for a moment wondered if somehow it had fallen off,
and if the still-living body was performing a terrible dance of rigor mortis.
And yet then I did see her head, but it was slung low, tucked into its feathers.
The violence continued. The sounds tore into me, they churned my guts, there
was simply no way I could endure it, let alone sleep through it. And then suddenly
Carlos’s words came back to me:
If you have strong faith, the bird will live.
As crazy as the remark had first sounded, as I listened to the pigeon thrashing
in its box, I couldnt help but wonder. Could there possibly be a connection
between the strength of my faith and the probability of the birds
survival? Did I even have faith—and, if so, could I somehow use it to help
the bird? I had long given up on the seriousness of prayer—no longer believed
I could appeal to, or bargain with, a deity. Nor did I believe that a Providential
Hand could plunge through the causal chains of our law-governed universe. But
perhaps I could use my faith in a different way. I remembered, seven years earlier,
when our cat had been diagnosed with feline leukemia and Ruth, following her
intuitions, had administered a treatment of steam baths and herbal remedies,
and thereby, against all probability, nursed the cat back to health. But when
I consulted the Magic 8 Ball of my intuitions, nothing came up. In fact, as I heard
the bird crash once again into the wall of her box I wondered if above all what
the pigeon wanted was to be left alone. Perhaps at this moment she wished to
be in the cold open air, with the stars above her head, as opposed to this stuffy,
closed cardboard container in this strange human room. Perhaps, as the Italian
had suggested, the bird had known her life was ending and had hoped to get trampled
by the carnival crowds. Perhaps, contrary to what Carlos and the Italian had
said, I wasnt “spreading my goodness,” after all, but was merely
imposing my flawed, anthropomorphic will on a creature that would have been better
off left alone. But, then again, who knew? Maybe, as Jim had suggested, the warmth
of the box, the food and water, would revive her.
In any case, as the bird continued thrashing about in her box, I realized I could
tolerate it no longer. I considered climbing in bed with Ruth, but, given my
restlessness, I thought better of it. So I took my pillow and a blanket, went
into the living room, and spread out on the couch.
* * *
I awoke the next morning with the recognition that against all expectation I
had slept well. The living room was quiet. A shaft of light slanted
through the white curtain, painting a yellow square on the hardwood floor. I
could hear the murmurings of San Gennaro voices in the streets and the occasional
peep of a cricket carried in by the carnival trailers. Then my thoughts drifted
to the bird. I took a breath and returned to my room into which the sun was brightly
streaming. The pigeon’s box stood quietly on my desk.
I opened it and looked in.
She was lying there, her feet splayed out, eyes closed. I reached in and touched
her gray back. She didnt budge. I shut the box up again and sat on the edge
of my bed. The ordeal was over.
The bird didn’t make it,” I told Ruth, entering her room. I lay down beside her. “It was a brutal night.”
“I’m sorry,” Ruth said, setting her hand on my chest. “What
are you going to do with her?
“That guy Jim I talked to used to bury them.”
Why don’t you do that?”
I thought a moment.
Do birds bury birds?
Ruth said nothing.
We lay there for a while, listening to the noises
in the street. Then I went to my room, got dressed, picked up the box, and went
outside. The Sunday sun was up, the sky was clear, and a raw light shone on
the awakening festival. Many of the San Gennaro stalls had yet to open but the
the steam, and the smell of frying sausages and onions already permeated the
morning air. I carried the cardboard hearse past the merry-go-round, its wooden
and giraffes still in the early sun. Then I headed up Centre Street. The street
was empty and I was glad for that because for whatever reason I didnt want
to see what I was going to do. When I got to John Jovinos Gun Shop, I went
the garden, turned over the box, and watched the bird tumble
out and land in some withered daisies. For a long moment I looked at the bird
lying shut-eyed among the dead flowers and the trash. Then I tossed away the
box and headed into my earthbound day, into my earthbound life. I could hear
the tolling of church bells—so lofty, bright, and resounding. But never had
they sounded more distant.