Two things happened before the bird. First, my boss arrived at work early and surprised us all with a box of coffee and pastries from Gregory’s Coffee. I love it when he does that, so I felt the day was off to a promising start. He’d brought it all in a reusable Gregory’s Coffee shopping bag, which I claimed immediately. That was the first thing. The second thing: I left work and walked to Union Square to go grocery shopping. I’m going to a pot luck with friends on Saturday and I needed stuff. I bought it and headed to the train. This is everything before the bird.
So, now I have my groceries and I’m walking south on Lafayette towards the train station on Houston and I see this pigeon sitting on the sidewalk. I’m getting nearer, expecting it to move or walk away at my approach, and it remains still. I stop about two feet away and I can see its breathing…fast and steady…the way I breathe when I’m trying to stay calm…the way my dog breathes right before I leave him behind — full of fearful anticipation. I get closer. It still doesn’t move and I notice that its left leg is jutting out awkwardly in front of it. I look up, a nest. It must have fallen. I set my bags down and stand in front of the bird, trying to figure out what to do. Two women stop and lament the bird’s fate with me. A man with cane, near toothless, ragged, and seeming to be in his fifties came over to inspect. He raised his cane and waved it over the bird’s head and as he did so the women and I shouted, “No! What are you doing?! Don’t!” He grew irritated and mumbled that he knew what he was doing and waved his cane again in defiance to our protestations.
I firmly said, “Stop it! You’re scaring it.” And his irritation grew to anger.
“You think I’m heartless? I’m not heartless. I was just checking to see…”
He hobbled back over to the coffee cart where he’d been standing, mumbling that he wasn’t heartless the whole way and the women, arm in arm, strolled off. Another woman saw the bird, stopped, took out her phone, snapped its picture, then walked away. I recoiled at a move that felt so casually callous and tried not to judge her. I failed at first. The man with the cane spoke up again.
“You see how it didn’t move when I waved my cane? It’s sick…or its leg is broken. Either way, it’s gonna die there.”
I looked at this man and knew that he was right. I saw that he was concerned and his earlier words echoed in my heart. “You think I’m heartless? You thought I was gonna hit it?” A voice inside me asked, “Shaun, do you care more about the life of this bird than you do about another human’s heart?” He was clearly homeless or very poor. How many people take a look at him and decide who he is based on what he doesn’t appear to have? I dialed 311 and as the crazily long message played I turned to him and said, “I’m sorry I shouted at you earlier. I was afraid for the bird because I don’t know you. I don’t think you’re heartless. I didn’t mean to offend you.” His face melted like butter and he smiled the smile of a little boy who was seen in his proudest moment. He looked like a cherub. I realized I’d narrowly missed that moment. I often exhibit battlefield nurse syndrome and can miss the forest of someone’s feelings while tending to the trees. I was grateful he spoke up and showed me where I misstepped.
The operator finally came to the phone and I told her what was happening. She transferred me to wild animal rescue who told me that if I brought the bird to the Wild Bird Fund uptown they would take care of it.
“So, wait…I have to pick this bird up and bring it to them? They can’t come get it?”
The man with the cane overheard me and grumbled, “They’re probably gonna euthanize it. There’s too many pigeons. We got too many pigeons. They don’t care.”
“What are they going to do to the bird?” I asked.
“They’ll take care of it, try to mend anything that’s broken. See if it’s sick…They’re a rescue, but you have to bring the bird to them.”
My heart began to race as I realized what I was being asked to do.
“Ma’am, I’m afraid of birds. I’m not kidding.”
She stifled laughter and told me to take a towel and wrap the bird in it so I wouldn’t have to touch it. There were no towels laying around on Lafayette Street as per usual so I thought quickly. I was wearing three shirts (my office has the AC cranked up to 1,000) and I could take one off and just wash it later…AFTER I PICKED UP THE BIRD.
I got the address of the Wild Bird Fund from her and hung up. By this time the man with the cane had left and I stood there and looked at the pigeon. The man with the cane was right…this poor little bird was going to die here. There was no way in hell I was picking it up.
After a moment, the pigeon began to hop towards me. I moved my bags out of its way and stepped back and it hopped towards me again, so closely that it was now resting its head on my shopping bag…the same heavy breathing…it was so small…it seemed to be exhausted. I thought, “This bird knows I’m its only hope. It’s begging for help. If I walk away, I will never forget this and it will haunt me. Fuck. I’m gonna pick up this fucking bird.”
I took the Gregory’s shopping bag out of the other bag, which was a perfect fit for her. I took another old bag out to grab her with and tried to steel my nerves. My heart was racing and tears welled up behind my eyes. I felt like vomiting. I reached out to friends on Facebook for guidance and decided that I was just going to stand there until I got the nerve to pick her up and put her in the bag no matter how long it took. A moment later, a boy who looked to be about 18 or 19 walked past us. He had longish, dirty blonde hair that was falling in strands from underneath a worn, dirty cap and his face and hands were swollen and covered in street grime. His clothes were torn. He was carrying a few clothes and a plastic shopping bag in one hand, in the other hand was a large, flattened out cardboard box. Everyone else had walked past. He stopped. He saw me looking at the bird and asked with a friendly manner, “Is that your friend?”
Inside me flashed a glimmer of hope. He had an air of kindness and openness so I told him what was going on. After a moment’s hesitation, he made several attempts to get the bird into the Gregory’s bag with his bare hands like a superhero and finally succeeded. I looked at this small, helpless, feathered creature I was one step closer to rescuing and decided to call her Emily for Emily Dickinson’s A bird came down the walk… Hello, little Emily.
I thanked him profusely and introduced myself. His name was Justin. I told him he was kind. I told him he was an angel. I told him he saved me. He searched my eyes with a half-smile. He had something to say, but reluctance reduced it to, “Ummm.” He tried again, screwed his face into a grimace and finally asked, “Do you think you could help me get something to eat? Like, a dollar or something?” Hell yes, Justin…HELL. YES. I gave him what I could and he seemed relieved that it was so easy to ask and receive. His kindness was worth so much more. Justin is a rock star. He walked on towards Bowery Mission with my grandmother’s purple coin purse in his hand.
Emily and I rode the B train up to the Fund on 87th and Columbus. She was so light in the bag as if she weighed next to nothing. She was so calm. Maybe she was in pain. Maybe she was tired. Maybe she was dying…I felt so much love for her. I was also so grateful that I didn’t have to touch her that I could have cried. Inside the Wild Bird Fund, I handed her over and in exchange was handed a form to fill out. They confirmed that her leg was broken. She was probably going to make it. Another bird, a European Starling I learned, saw me and perched on the chair next to me. I jumped when it landed and at the woman’s quizzical expression I told her I was afraid of birds. I think the Starling must have understood that because it promptly jumped on the hoodie I was wearing and continued to jump on various places on my body every time the woman removed him. The woman I was dealing with remarked how strange it was that he was doing that. He was usually rather shy around people and she’d never seen him jump on anyone before, let alone multiple times. I did not feel special. It wasn’t until I was riding the train home that I saw that there was bird poop on my hoodie and backpack. I was shat on by a Starling. My day is complete. I am going to take a shower. My heart is still racing. This is everything after the bird(s).
Shout out to Christine Verleny who called and offered to come and help me wherever I was (I didn’t get the message until I was on my way home). Shout out to Justin and his radiant beauty. Shout out to the man with the cane and his boyish heart. I hope I see those two again soon.
This is a European Starling. The dots on its belly look like hearts. They can be aggressive if you’re afraid of birds and they will punk you if you show them you’re afraid. I think they get off on it.