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The Great Pigeon Massacre, by Vicki Lindner

by Vicki Lindner
  

On the first day of spring, cries and the rush of wings in my rent-controlled building halted my work. One of the pigeons that nests in the air shaft had flown in the hall window on the floor above mine, and Rose, Fay, and Grandma, Fay's ancient mother, were trying to chase it back out.  Fay billowed a thin floral sheet at the intruder, perched on the wire remains of a light fixture ripped out of the wall. Rose thwacked a broom, crying, "Get out! Get out, pigeon." in a plaintive voice, still cautious with English. Wearing her nightgown, Grandma looked on, grinning delightedly. "Piccione! Entra la notte!" she explained to me, winking and fluttering her mummified hands.

I took a turn brooming the pigeon from its wire coil. "I tell them. they're not supposed to open that window; the pigeons come in. But it don't do no good," complained Fay, straining to raise the grime-coated glass so the bird could see light. Outside its tribe cooed and flapped like a sail-borne navy. The pigeon cocked its gray head at the broom, then winged a loping trajectory to the maroon door jamb of Grandma's apartment-five sunny rooms for under four hundred, she'd lived there so long. I bashed at the door frame, hoping to sweep the bird toward the floor where Fay could trap it in her sheet, then shake it free outside the window; but it flew up, not down, flashing white tail feathers, then settled back on the jamb, letting go of a big wet green dropping.

"Look at it," said Fay, cigarette voice rasping, "making its filth right in the hall. We used to hang the wash out in the airshaft, but not no more! They put shhhhhhh all over it." Sometime in the months since I had last really noticed her, Fay had developed a stiff, arthritic limp.

"They get in all the time," commented Rose. "Somebody opens the window. Maybe the bum. The super won't do nothing."

Grandma nodded vehemently, said something unintelligible and spat. A few months ago I'd run into her toiling up the flights of chipped fake marble on her way home from Bingo; she had pointed to the chest of her flowered house dress and whispered, "Ninety-two!"

"The landlord should do something. They carry diseases," I proclaimed.

"Don't touch it," advised Rose, though the pigeon was well out of reach on the doorjamb, thrusting its head under its wings, grooming its lice.

"Dolly downstairs called Horowitz," said Fay. "He told her he don't own the air shaft, only the building. Outside ain't his."

"It's The City's responsibility," I proclaimed. "There's way too many of them. They're getting to be pests." Then, uncharacteristically, I uttered a vow of social responsibility. "I'm going to find out how we can get rid of them."

Fay and Rose were grateful. "Thank you, Dolores," Rose said.

As I went downstairs, I heard Fay say, "Leave it. Maybe it will go out by itself," and the sound of three hollow maroon doors with loose locks, hinges, and knobs jangling shut.

  I coated my face with Shannon Blue Mud and spent the morning on the phone with various agencies, blowing off the deadline for my magazine assignment, "Fitness Recipes for Beautiful Breasts." I realized I had never before considered what, exactly, "The City" was. The Bureau of Pest Control guy said that pigeons were not officially pests, though he was willing to admit that they bred like crazy, flew and cooed and drove everyone nuts. "Yeah, baby, I do know where you're comin' from," Pest Control laughed smokily.

The Department of Animal Affairs, listed under Borough of Manhattan Health, put me on hold long enough for me to realize that the plaster wall I was leaning against was going soft, that I needed to joint compound the entire apartment, paint, and get the landlord to do something about the rattling loose windows that let in wind, rain, and grit. Animal Affairs said it handled "issues," like packs of wild dogs in Central Park, and referred me to "Ray," a professional pigeon exterminator.

Actually, said Ray, in a real British accent, it was illegal to poison pigeons, yew know, but yew could do by soaking cracked wheat in distilled alcohol. This potion would get the bloody little buggers shit-faced, and they'd definitely go bashing about, slamming into hard objects and breaking their necks. A car alarm went off at that point, sounding like a dog drowning with high-pitched barking gulps, and a man wearing pajamas bottoms leaned out the window of the building across the street to bellow at the siren, Goddamn fugginmuthuhfuggahcunt!  So I had to put a finger in the ear not pressed to the receiver and shout, "What?"

Ray chuckled sardonically. "Problem is, they tend to fly straight into Corvette windshields and rich peoples' heads, and a three-and-a-half pound birdie can level quite a blow!" Then, he cautioned, the victim might feel compelled to inquire as to who in the area was having a pigeon problem, and the bobbies'll come by and haul yew off to the clink.

"Yeah, right," I said, remembering the times I had informed the 911 operator that I was about to be raped and murdered, and the police had never bothered to show up.

"No, really," Ray protested, "it's a bit of a risk." Then he told me I could get the cracked wheat in any health food store and buy the right alcohol from the neighborhood dry cleaners. He added that the kosher way to eliminate the pests was to paint a special repellent on the sills where they roosted. This would encourage the pigeons to fly off into somebody else's airshaft. "But I'd have to charge you around a thousand quid for that," he said, "So you'd much rather buy the stuff from me and put it on yourself."

I went back into my office after that, wrote, "If your fitness schedule is tight, a simple push-up will firm chest and shoulder muscles fast," then decided that since I had wasted half of a lovely spring day, I might as well shop. As I came out of the Peter Fox shoe store with a pair of pink buckskin boots, reduced from one hundred and sixty to eighty-five bucks, I noticed hundreds of pigeons congregated around a trough of food in the corner park. Traitors were feeding them! On the way home from Century 21 with a heavily discounted Jean -Paul Gaultier knit skirt, decaled with Communist slogans from a Trotsky poster, I tried to imagine organizing my building to chip in for the pigeon repellent project: knocking on hollow maroon doors, concealing yuppie coke dealers, old ladies who barely spoke English, the grim character who shaved his head and passed out AIDS benefit and probably animal-rights activist leaflets, and the guy with the throbbing stereo whose girlfriend had once screamed into the air shaft on a hot summer night, "I've never had an orgasm with you!" then trekking up to Ninth Avenue to buy Ray's stuff, and fighting my way through every tenant's piles of old newspapers in order to access the endless stuck windows. It sounded like work! And what good would it do if the local St. Francises were determined to go on feeding the birds? The repellent would get rained off, and the pigeons would fly back.

  Since I was then too tired to retackle "Breasts," I stopped to see Marilyn, my friend down the block. I wanted to show her the Peter Fox boots, the Trotsky skirt, and tell her about the anti-pigeon crusade. Maybe she'd help, even though she lived in a different building. Marilyn hated pigeons, had always hated them, even when, to me, they had been unnoticed features of the urban landscape, like fireplugs and trash. Whenever a pigeon strutted by Marilyn, extending and retracting its beak, she would kick at it, missing, of course, and shudder, "How repulsive!" If a flock happened to wheel overhead, she would grab my arm, look nervously skyward, and tell me about the time she was dressed to kill to go to a Seder at her millionaire boyfriend's family's house, and a pigeon had shit on her.

I found her wearing tight black knit pants with an exploding lace bra, looking through the slats of her silver Levilor blinds with a pair of binoculars, her big red lips frozen in a speculative kiss. She said, "I hope my nakedness isn't offending you," and put on a blouse. When I asked what she was up to with the binoculars she replied, "Getting cheap thrills." She said that the construction worker who was hammering the beams on the new building in the back, blocking her light, was the all-American classic male, tall, blonde, muscular, hardly her type, but then, she hadn't been with a man for so long, for all she knew she didn't have a type. She parodied her own laugh, a salacious dripping gurgle, and licked her lips with a lewd pointed tongue. It was really erotic to watch this gorgeous he-man, sitting astride his steel beam, without a shirt, hammering like a motherfucker.  Hal, her gay downstairs neighbor, who was also celibate, not for the same reasons she was, but because of AIDS, was getting off on the Iron Man, too. Hal called him "Demi-God."  She'd love to show him to me, but he must have gone to lunch, because he hadn't been on his beam for at least half an hour.

Marilyn made some blackberry tea and served it with a "perfect little Belgian cookie from Dean and DeLuca." I told her about the pigeons in the air shaft, how the Bureau of Pest Control didn't consider them pests, and about the problems involved in poisoning them. Marilyn stood up and placed her hands on her hips. "How could they not be pests?" she asked in her "disgusted" voice, the one that emerged, coarse as cornmeal, from the back of her larynx. "If you ask me, they're worse than pests-they're flying rats. Every fucking one of them should be exterminated!" She began pacing the floor, throwing her gold hair, and splitting her words with vacant breath. Marilyn suddenly becomes excited like that. "But I love the idea of them getting drunk and bashing into things! Wait a minute," she said, holding up a gold metallic fingernail, "I cut something about pigeons out of the paper a few months ago.." She rummaged through the top drawer of the file cabinet that takes up an entire corner of her minuscule living room, carpeted in tiger, and handed me a clipping from the Times.

It depicted a variety of anti-pigeon devices-sharp metal prongs, like weapons preserved from a Medieval joust, to screw into the sills, and fake pigeon predators, plastic owls and eagles that could be suspended like flying scarecrows. "I knew I saved this for a reason," she said, and offered to lend me the clipping if I promised to Xerox it and give the original back. The problem with the sharp armature, I saw, was that it cost between eighteen and fifty dollars per sill; the plastic predators were astronomical, and pigeons would surely realize that real owls and eagles wouldn't be caught dead in New York City. But I thanked Marilyn, then asked if she knew that the neighborhood Italians were feeding the birds.

"Yes!" she shouted. "And it's revolting. People are ignorant! Stupid beyond belief! They should put birth control in the drinking water! Before I commit suicide, I'm getting an Uzzi and blowing them away!" Her voice grew louder and more dramatic. I wasn't sure if it was the pigeons, or the fools who fed them, that she planned to massacre on Judgment Day.

I stood up, too. We both paced and gestured and talked animatedly about the diseases pigeons carry, how filthy and out of control they were, breeding like flies, ruining the buildings and parks. We quoted imaginary sources and made up statistics. Soon both of us were yelling and screaming. Marilyn's face grew flushed.

"Hey," I finally said, " Do you think we could put up signs around the neighborhood, warning people not to feed them. how they carry diseases? We could educate!"

"That's a fabulous idea, Dolores," Marilyn said intensely. Though between her acting classes and her job, her singing lessons, and working out she was busy every minute, she could make some time to get rid of pigeons. We talked about what the signs should say, where we should hang them: on the park fence, telephone poles, maybe in Milady's, the local bar. We'd need to do research on pigeon diseases..

Then I showed her the bargain boots and the skirt, and she said they weren't her, but they were definitely me. She pulled her new hat-black velvet, conical, like a toy tin soldier's, with a chartreuse ruffle running up the front-out of a glossy striped shopping bag. She had just dropped a hundred and thirty bucks on it, ridiculous, but she needed a hat, and when she saw this one she had to have it. We took turns with the binoculars to see if Iron Man had returned from lunch, but it had started to rain, and Marilyn said that meant the crew wouldn't come back until it stopped, probably tomorrow. I suggested that she put on her bikini and sunbathe on her fire escape; maybe he would spot her.

She said she would be afraid to do that; there were big squirrels out there. Anyway, lately, when she was attracted to a man she felt weird and shy. Could I believe that? "I mean, I want to see him, but I'm not sure I want him to see me. Isn't that sick?" Besides, she asked, didn't working class types tend to be violent?

That was ridiculous, I replied. It was the wimpy stockbrokers, the shrinks, and editors, and college professors who were more likely to be brutes-psychologically violent.

"Psychological brutality I can deal with," said Marilyn.

Now I had no choice; having blown the day and a lot of my yet unearned fee for "Breasts," I had to finish the article tonight instead of working on my novel. As I climbed the stairs to my apartment, burdened by shopping bags, I stopped on the landing and peered cautiously out into the airshaft. Pigeons roosted on every sill, sometimes in klatches of twos and threes; their unattached feathers floated in the column of dim light, and their calcified droppings whitened the weathered gray bricks. On a sill on the ground floor, a big, soot-colored mother sat on her nest. It would be possible, I thought, to march down there with the broom, sweep her off, and demolish the offspring. I imagined smashing the pathetic snarl of string and straw, crushing the eggs and the unborn pests, while the furious mother dove at my head with supersonic coos. But, of course, I didn't do that. Once inside my apartment I sat down and wrote, "For sensuous water nymphs swimming is one of the best ways to firm and stretch the internal bra," and forgot, for the moment, about murdering pigeons.

The spring rapidly turned hot and sticky. I finished "Breasts" and was immediately offered another assignment, "Winter Wonderland Workouts," due in July, to be published in December. The editor told me that the entire issue would discourage readers from becoming overweight "couch potatoes" in the winter months. It took a lot of research to manufacture inspiring prose about skiing and ice-skating (the last time I'd ice-skated my toes froze so hard I thought they would have to be amputated); plus, I was still struggling with my novel every Sunday and sometimes at night. This might explain why I didn't keep my promise to get rid of the pigeons, on the increase, pacing the sills with scrabbling claws, flying in startled, feathery storms, and singing mechanically. The soot-colored mother's eggs had hatched, and she was now feeding three slimy, big-mouthed chicks. Pigeon excrement worked its way in through the kitchen window, open at the top, dripped down the glass, and hardened to malachite on the sill's peeling paint. But I closed the blinds, put in earplugs, and did my best to shut the birds out.

Then a visitation recalled me to my vow. One night, I was startled awake by a shuddering crash, as if a burglar had kicked down the door-something that has happened in my building. When I grabbed the bat and crept out into the kitchen, I saw that the door was intact, but a huge black pigeon had squeezed in the upper half of the kitchen window and was trapped between the blind and the glass. I raised the blind, letting it fly with a studied clumsiness into the bedroom, perch on the door of the wooden wardrobe, and wait with an almost human acquiescence, for me to devise a means to get it back out. Maybe it was the deep, dream-like hour, the streetlight casting an expanding image of itself on the wall, but this pigeon seemed unnaturally large, thick and dark, ready to fasten its metaphor around an unguarded throat. When I nudged it with the broom, its magnified wingspan seemed to brush the zoom lens of a hidden camera. Up close, I could see its round, amber eyes and the oil on its pollution-torn feathers. I barely remember how I got rid of it; I think I opened the bedroom window, and it simply flew out.

The next morning I woke Marilyn, who'd been drinking at Tre Mereli until three in the morning, with my call. I raved on about the pigeon: It had been as big as an albatross or a turkey vulture.for all practical purposes I was living in a barnyard. My personal space, my private mental and physical cubicle, was now contaminated and soiled!

Marilyn laughed sleepily "You writers! What imaginations!" Then she exclaimed, "You'll never guess what! I have a lunch date with Iron Man!"  As it turned out, she had taken my advice and climbed out on the fire escape to water her geraniums one morning when he was working there. He had waved and called, "Hey, I'm straight and I'm single! Do you want to go out with me?" Marilyn, taken aback, had shouted, "Well, maybe." and they had arranged to meet at Milady's at noon. "Milady's is the kind of dump I can't stand," Marilyn added. She told me she was actually scared; she hadn't had a date for so long she didn't remember how to act. He was probably a jerk. Did she really want to have sex with a construction worker? What should she wear? Maybe she just wouldn't show up.. And then she said that she couldn't help fantasizing that they would fall in love, and he would take her away to Queens or Long Island, and she would be totally happy and have his baby. "That's the fantasy," she told me, "but I know the reality would drive me crazy." She said she could go with me to put up the anti-pigeon posters, but she had gotten a call-back for a commercial and had to work two nights, so she wouldn't have time to help me make them. After we hung up, I went back to my desk, turned the fan on high, and wrote, "Downhill skiing is positively exhilarating for those who appreciate challenge and risk."

The Great Pigeon Massacre was carried out, not by me, but by Richmond Cortazar, who created custom-designed silver jewelry in my building's storefront, and lived in a tiny studio apartment on the first floor. Richmond always wore black cowboy boots and silver bracelets; his hair was long, gray, and crimped, like Sir Walter Raleigh's; he was mild, friendly, and smiled a lot. He had installed a miniature fishpond in the window of his store, and although I never saw anyone purchase his jewelry, a lot of people stopped to gaze at the bubbling blue water and bright orange carp. He had become a neighborhood hero after he confronted a Russian taxi cab driver who allowed his dog to shit on the sidewalk and didn't clean it up. The Russian came back with a baseball bat and bludgeoned Richmond, and the police took Richmond, as well as his assailant to jail, a grave injustice in the eyes of Rose, Fay, and Grandma.

One hot day I stopped by to check out the fish, and Richmond and I got to talking about the pigeons-how many there were, how someone should really do something about them. I told him what the Bureau of Pest Control and the exterminator had said. Richmond pooh-poohed the law, and the special grain and alcohol mixture, collected a few bills from Fay, Rose, me, and Danny the super, bought some rat poison, mixed it with birdseed, and spread it on the roof.  Pretty soon the pigeons began to die. In the morning, when I took my garbage out to the cans in the air shaft, I would see Richmond gathering the contorted feathered carcasses, bleeding at the beak, into big green plastic bags, always smiling. The coos began to diminish in the airshaft, as well as the sudden rushes of wings. The soot-colored mother also vanished, and I guess the slimy fledglings starved to death, because flies buzzed voraciously around the nest. This made me feel sad, and oddly guilty, although I wasn't the one actually killing the birds. Richmond said he thought our airshaft would get a reputation among pigeons as "a place of death," and they would never return to it, even if the Italians kept feeding them in the park.

He was right, it seemed. Only one pigeon I recognized-the pretty taupe one with shrimp-pink feet that nested on my bathroom window sill-lived on in the shaft. When I went in and turned on the light, its phantom form, shrouded by the pain of frosted glass, bobbed along, claws ticking the sill's surface, a lone survivor in a nuclear winter.

A few months after "The Great Pigeon Massacre," Richmond packed a U-Haul with boxes, unplugged his fishpond, and vacated his store. He said he was moving to Arizona; he'd had enough of crime, dirt, high prices, and New York. Marilyn once told me his store was a front for a child porno factory, and although I'd never seen any evidence of that, I had somehow come to believe it, and wondered if he'd find willing victims in a small town in the Southwest. Marilyn didn't marry the construction worker and move to Queens. As a matter of fact, he lived in Manhattan, on St. Mark's Place, and she dumped him after their one and only date. She said up close he had a gross skin condition-inflamed red pinpoints on his face and neck, maybe from sweat. Moreover, he was very sweet, belonged to AA, and ordered fruit for lunch. "I may be a sicko, but sweet guys don't turn me on," she said, and added that she still got off watching him hammering steel like a motherfucker without his shirt. Grandma fell and broke her hip and had to go to the old age home, to Fay's relief. When I met her on the stairs, she pointed to her head and said that she hoped when she was ninety-two she wouldn't be as mean as her mother was.

As for me, I handed in "Winter Wonderland Workout" and another assignment, "What You Always Wanted to Know About Condoms but Were Afraid to Ask," and at long last finished a first draft of my novel. I rewarded myself with a trip to Kenya where I met a handsome Dutch ornithologist, tagging birds at Lake Naivasha. Together we watched the pink clouds of flamingos, cormorants, and rafts of pelicans crowding the surface of the silver, moonlit waters, and although I exclaimed over their beauty in poetic language, and eagerly pressed my eye to the ornithologist's high-powered scope, I have to admit that the sight of so many big birds polluting a lake made me feel ill and very guilty.  

  

Vicki Lindner has published a novel, Outlaw Games, and been awarded an NEA grant and two New York State grants for fiction. Her recent work has appeared in the Heather McHugh issue of Ploughshares, New York Stories, Northern Lights, and the Utne Reader. She also performed an essay, "How I Came to Play a Man in Legend of Rawhide in Lusk, Wyoming" for Wyoming Public Television in the summer of 2000. Ms. Lindner teaches half-time at the University of Wyoming and lives in the Shoshoe National Forest the rest of the year.

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