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Excerpt from Pigeons

Introduction: Pigeonholed

Some days you're the pigeon. Some days you're the statue.

For much of my life, I didn't 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 they're actually insidious carriers of hidden filth—“rats with wings”—that eat garbage off the streets and crap in their own nests.

Lamenting the city's 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 didn't 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 building's 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 Orlando's loft of racing pigeons.

“Racing pigeons?” I asked. Did he mean like the scruffy pigeons in the street that crap all over the city's buildings? Had I misunderstood him? People don't race birds—do they?

“My brother's pigeons are like thoroughbreds,” José replied.