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Pigeon: An Urban (Un)rescue


I came sauntering down one of those newly bright, little old streets in the neighborhood lately known as NoLita; I was in a fine mood, still a quarter of an hour early for our downtown company’s end-of-year dinner party. Another one of us was sitting on the bench outside the restaurant, smoking a cigarette, cell phone to his ear. I waved, slowly walked by, not caring to wait there without at least having someone to talk to.

And then—ugh: I spotted the plump, dead pigeon at the entrance to the tenement building next door. Like some omen from an old-fashioned Italian film: the sight sent me back up the street and around several others, a small circuit of window‑shopping and people‑watching, calculated to deliver me to my destination exactly on the hour. Now a different colleague was sitting outside, smoking a cigarette. He didn’t seem to know if anyone else had already arrived, gone in, but he had something else to offer: “Oh my god, that poor pigeon!”

It wasn’t dead after all. It was very much alive, and in distress, flapping, flopping, evidently unable to move from its spot on the sidewalk, much less fly.

This was bad news for me too. Indiscriminate adorer of animals, sometime animal rescuer—and yes, that has included a number of injured pigeons, among other birds—I was going to have to do, well, something. Picking it up to quickly examine it was a start. “That’s so kind of you,” I heard at my back. I knew he thought it was kind of nuts besides. Tell me about it: I actually can’t control the rescue impulse, so can’t take credit for special sensitivity. Meanwhile, a dismal reality began to penetrate as soon as I wrapped my bare hands around the bird: this was not only the least, but also the most I would be able to do for the present poor pigeon.

I had the private number of a renowned avian rehabilitator in a retired address book at home, but not in my cell. And I could only bring this bird back uptown, try to find someone with the skills to save it, if I blew off the evening’s holiday event. I knew that was not going to happen, no matter how I ached to do whatever it might take to keep the creature alive.

Instead, something inspired me to carry it up the street, to the venerable church whose doors and courtyard gates had stood wide open when I’d passed the first time. The bird was warm in my hands, a soft, dense presence; it sat still, tolerating my touch, but, bright‑eyed and alert, it was probably in pain. I tried not to startle or hurt it any more as I hurried along. I was surprised to find the priest already ushering the last worshipers out of the building itself, the lamps within and without mostly extinguished; I realized the whole site would soon be locked up for the night.

I suppose I’d envisioned this out-of-the-way place as somehow better, safer, than a busy commercial sidewalk and street, where a downed pigeon could be kicked about, or run over again (if that was the story its wounded spine told.) Yet here was nothing but concrete, cold and hard, inhumane as the original gritty doorstep. I stood paralyzed for seconds. Then, I moved toward the tall fence separating the courtyard from the graveyard and peered into the gloom: no grass left to speak of, but the earth was at least earth.

I knew what I had to do, and still, I couldn’t, quite: I first set the bird down on my side of the fence, to see if (by some miracle) it might not be as damaged as it had seemed. It flapped and flopped; it wasn’t going to recover on its own, and I wasn’t going to do anything more for it, beyond this utterly useless gesture of offering it a private place to die. In a desolate old graveyard, no less. I could only hope it would not suffer long alone.

Cradling the pigeon in my right palm, I forced myself to slip it through the fence posts, gently laying it on the bare sod of the churchyard, then withdrew my hand, quickly rising to my feet, turning away. Already heart-sickened by my failure to rescue the bird—or do anything meaningful—I was now struck, hard, by the sudden question of whether its removal might have made matters worse: the hour and this location now guaranteed that no one else would find it until it was too late. My brain was battered by punishing second thoughts all the way back to the restaurant.

I was the last to arrive (my appearance further delayed by the fact that I had the minimal presence of mind to wash my guilty hands first.) Several people had heard about the bird; I was relieved not to be asked for details during the evening’s festivities. Talk about a buzz kill. Meanwhile, I drank a quantity of good Italian wine, ate a great deal of fine Italian food, talked up a storm, laughed as loudly as anyone at the table: I was in a fairly festive mood again as I left, heading straight over to the subway.

I couldn’t make myself alter my route to bypass the church, though. Its sealed gates, the  unbreachable brick wall surrounding the cemetery, reduced me to tears, and I stopped right there, phoned my daughter, so I could tell someone what had happened. She knows me (not to mention that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: she is at least the fourth generation of animal-adoring women, on my mother’s side.) But she also quickly changed subjects—in a clever, constructive way—and I was restored to some semblance of sanity by the time I reached home. The sad pigeon saga was certainly part of the day and evening’s events, as I recounted them to my boyfriend, but I didn’t lose my cool again.

Or not until much later, when I got into bed, book in hand, thinking to read myself toward sleep. And there it was, a vivid image of my reluctant bearing of the dying bird to its final resting place. I began to weep, the kind of crazed weeping you have to give into, letting it take hold and shake you until it’s done.

All that wine: sure. The stresses of the season, on top of the usual pressures of...

No: it was the bird, so warm, so real in my hands: so alive, it was, so very alive to me. I couldn’t, I can’t, stand the turning away. I just can’t stand it.

Of course, I have to stand it. One does. I stopped my sobbing, soon enough, and settled down to read. Both cats on the bed—the old, blind one, rescued by me from a vacated New York apartment; the young, black one, rescued by my kind-hearted kid from the streets of Tokyo—offered some creaturely comfort. Eventually, drowsy enough to imagine I’d easily reach dreamland, I put down the book, turned out the light.

In the middle of the night, I started awake: the pigeon’s eyes glittered in the darkness. Mine filled with absurd tears once more.