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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

Outside the Key Food on Avenue A and Fourth Street, the woman was in deep conversation with the man, her hand firm on the baby carriage. A black and white pigeon perched on the carriage's cover, just inches from the sleeping baby, and that's why I stopped in my tracks after exiting the store. I was curious as to what exact form the gasp would take when she finally turned and saw what was there: a scream, an obscenity, a violent expulsion of the dirty feral beast? Instead, it was my gasp that was heard in the next minute, for when she said goodbye and in the same movement turned and leaned into the handle to push forward, she never blinked. Nor did the pigeon. Instead, all three made their way down the avenue, each in their own private world together.

Oddly, I had just been writing about pigeons a few days before, considering them in all their myriad fascinations. Here is what I wrote.


Close your eyes for a moment. That is when you first begin to truly see them, soft clicks and coos making them present to the mind’s eye. For they had become invisible to true sight, like the impulsive yellow cab drawing its line down toward disappearance or the girl with a phone pressed to her ear, the scaffolding draped in black cloth and the concrete planter containing something (you never notice what) growing from cigarette-ash-flecked dirt. The elements that make the city what it is, the sudden absence of which—any of a thousand thousand things—would render it preternaturally strange.

Now you may look. And finally see. The pigeon reveals himself in paradoxical beauty: omnipresent, yet startlingly singular; a moving iridescence in the colors playing along neck feathers against a body as gray (and common) as pavement. They are maligned as “flying rats,” but from their point of view we may well be walking rats.

The flocks that move as one corps de ballet when startled from their crumb foraging in New York City parks (and that leave unsightly reminders of their species preeminence in numbers second only to the real Rattus rattus, though behind Homo sapiens, causing city ledges to be bristled with nest-prohibiting wire spikes) are composed of extraordinary individuals.* These are the birds that mate for life, and raise their young together. These are the feral, or rock, pigeons descended from the first domesticated variety introduced to North America, through Nova Scotia, in 1606. These are the pigeons who received 32 medals for bravery in World War II, and who helped build the Rothschild empire from lofts built for them throughout Europe in order to deliver information between the family’s financial houses. These are the animals that in 1850 began carrying news for an outfit called Reuters. These are the birds selected in 1944, to take part in the U.S. military’s top-secret Project Pigeon, conceived by a psychologist named B. F. Skinner, who codified what he learned from how they learned in a new science called behaviorism.

These are the pigeons who live in New York, and who are not seen.


What would the city be without its reminders that beyond our human horizon, the persistence of the larger world in which we came to life still pushes up from the earth between sidewalk cracks, still visits from the sky we have yet to enclose? The city would be silent without its gray denizens, its birds at once common and unknown. The city would no longer be itself.

* Like us, perhaps? --In our human flocks, foraging for crumbs among the skyscraper nests of our own intelligence.


And with this ends, or for an indefinite hiatus, "It's Nelly's World."

I hope to return (if one can return to these ongoing things after an interruption; perhaps they necessarily vanish into the electronic ether, but I'll find out if I try to take it up again sometime) when I manage to arrest a downward spiral. It is time to turn all my energy to that, for as you know, a boy and a dog are depending on me.

I owe you all much gratitude, for reading, for considering, for contributing your thoughts, wisdom, humor, and well-deserved kicks in the seat. They will serve me well.