Some days youre the pigeon. Some days youre
the statue. - Anonymous
For much of my life, I didnt have a strong opinion about pigeons. At best, I found their incessant bobbing and waddling mildly charming to watch as I walked through the streets of New York City. It was my college girlfriend who first alerted me to their nefarious lack of hygiene. They may look harmless, she informed me, but theyre actually insidious carriers of hidden filth - rats with wings - that eat garbage off the streets and crap in their own nests.
Lamenting the citys lack of wildlife, I hung a bird feeder from the fire escape outside my barred windows in an effort to attract songbirds to my apartment. The feeder didnt attract robins or cardinals, but it was popular with pigeons. They flocked to my fire escape, landing in friendly, cooing clusters. They were animated, fun to watch, and they kept me company as I looked out onto an otherwise drab urban vista.
A few days later, I noticed my superintendent standing on the sidewalk contemplating the sudden rise in bird droppings around the buildings entrance. I suspected I was in trouble when he looked up at my window and spied the bird feeder. He bounded up the fire escape, gave me a look of enraged incredulity, and promptly pitched my feeder onto the sidewalk below, where it exploded into a cloud of birdseed shrapnel. My nature experiment was clearly over. Months after, I got a taste of pigeon prejudice firsthand. I was interviewing for a job outside Rockefeller Center when I felt a splat on my head and then, seconds later, several oozy drips down my ear and onto my freshly pressed white shirt. I was at a complete loss, too embarrassed to survey the damage. Could I just pretend it had never happened?
I sat there motionless, unsure what to do, and keenly aware of everyone else around me. It was as if the whole plaza had suddenly gone silent, all eyes focused on me - the crap-covered stooge. I reached for a napkin, but we were eating falafel sandwiches, and mine was already covered in tahini. My interviewer looked at me in stunned silence, face frozen in horror, eyes fixated on the gooey mess. Oh, my, he managed. Oh, my.
Then I met José Martinez. It was a dreary day, the sidewalks covered in graying slush. I was waiting in line at the corner bodega to pay for a tuna sandwich when I struck up a conversation with the man next in line. I have no idea how we started talking about pigeons, but this was New York City, after all, where pigeons are not an altogether unusual topic of discussion. He told me about his brother Orlandos loft of racing pigeons.
Racing pigeons? I asked. Did he mean like the scruffy pigeons in the street that crap all over the citys buildings? Had I misunderstood him? People dont race birds - do they?
My brothers pigeons are like thoroughbreds, José replied. Pigeon thoroughbreds? The following day, armed with a pen and notebook, I journeyed to Orlandos home in Brooklyn to meet the pigeon man myself.
Alternating between enthusiasm for my project and frustration with my seemingly endless stupid questions, Josés brother nonetheless opened up his pigeon-centric world to me. I spent a year with Orlando, tagging along with him to the very first stirrings of a new racing season and all the way to one of the biggest races of the year. The Bronxbased Main Event is the Kentucky Derby of the New York pigeon-racing community. At stake is over $15,000 in prize money for the first-place finisher (plus tens of thousands more in side bets) and a years worth of bragging rights for winning one of the metro areas most competitive races. Orlando put it to me this way: To walk into your racing club, knowing that your bird beat out a thousand others because you put in the time, bred it right, fed it right, and trained it right, well, few things compare. But the Main Event was nearly a year off. First Orlando would spend an anxious year earnestly preparing for the big race. Orlando had won it once before, and consequently, he had a lot at stake this time around, including his cocky reputation.
Excerpted from Pigeons © 2006 by Andrew Blechman, and reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press.
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