You've seen him before.
They guy in the park, clothes ragged and dirty, sitting on a bench surrounded by plastic shopping bags, the ground around him covered in bird seed, and of course the pigeons. dozens of pigeons all around him from his feet to his head, covering him like a flapping coat.
He's in every major park, in every city, in every country I've ever visited. And I've never thought he was anything except crazy.
And why shouldn't I?
Pigeons are gross.
Well, I think that now but that wasn't always my opinion.
Pigeons had always been around, just like squirrels had. They weren't anything I gave much thought to… until my first trip to Italy.
I was 17 and upon my arrival I was completely baffled at how many pigeons existed there. I had wrongly assumed that pigeons were an American thing, native to our land.
I didn't realize that Europe's affinity for stone sculptures placed in the myriad piazza's that segment her cities make pigeons seem even more prevalent than they are in the states.
On that same trip we stopped in Venice to see the canals but I was just as fascinated by the pigeons there. Though no different looking than any pigeon I had ever seen before, they were more approachable.
Saint Mark's square was renowned for years and years for it's bird seed salesmen who would sell a bag of bird seed for a couple thousand lira (it's much less than it sounds) so that one could feed the pigeons up close.
I made a lot of strange decisions in my youth. Not the least was purchasing said bird seed so that I could have pigeons fly into my hands and jam their sharp little beaks into my fleshy palm.
As though they hadn't been well fed already.
It's a strange feeling, one that made me giggly and weirded out at the same time. It is all fun and games until a pigeon sits on your head and then it is quickly the most terrifying thing one could imagine.
Those little scratchy claws grasping a fistful of overly gelled hair.
Three years later in college, when I returned to Italy for the second time, I deftly avoided any up close interaction with the winged beasts. My gradually increasing awareness had clued me into just how dirty they were, how everywhere they were.
I also started noticing pigeon feet; horrifically mauled and often mangled looking quads often hopelessly caught up in dental floss and string and other such tanglements.
I spent a lot of time contemplating the universe back then (Read: staring off into the distance while listening to Dave Matthews and holding a bible sized journal). And often that universe involved contemplating the fates of pigeons. How did they survive? How did their feet get so… horrible? Did pigeons cry?
Like I said, pretty profound stuff.
But for as much as I disliked the look of them I was never harsh to them. I just kind of avoided them and shooed them when I could. I certainly didn't chase them throughout he piazza as little kids did, and I certainly didn't try to spit on them as my roommates did.
Proof that the karma is real:
On a trip to Siena my roommate, after chasing and then successfully spitting on a pigeon said aloud "I really want to catch a pigeon." Hours later he was shat upon.
Sometimes the universe works in not so mysterious ways.
It's now a dozen or so years since the first (and hopefully last) time a pigeon sat on my head. I spent less time contemplating them these days, I also don't listen to as much Dave Matthews.
But I walked past the pigeon man again this week. Sitting in Washington Square Park on a beautiful sunny day, pigeons as comfortable around him as if he were made of stone. Without turning my head I looked beneath the corner of my sunglasses and saw a pigeon upside down in his hands, crooked magenta feet sticking in the air.
What is he doing?
My mind of course assumed it was something weird, something strange. I presumed the worst.
It's amazing what we can see, what our minds can absorb in mere seconds.
My eyes focused a bit more clearly and as I strode pastI saw that he was trying to remove string knotted around the pigeon's foot with a nail clipper.
My heart dipped for a moment and a small wave of compassion fell over me for both the man and the pigeon. I wasn't overwhelmed, I didn't cry, but I had one of those moments of clarity where I thought, wow, who does take care of the pigeons?
It made sense why they were sitting on his shoulders and his head. Though it still amazed me that the pigeon trusted him enough to turn him upside down and snip at his foot with a non surgical tool.
Yes it was just a homeless guy and a pigeon but I'm obsessed with metaphor so hear me out.
We spend a lot of time imagining that some people are able to just take care of themselves, I know I've thought that about certain people, and I'm sure some people have thought that about me. But the truth is that even the strongest, even the whateverest among us need some kind of assistance.
Is that groundbreaking? No of course not. But figuring out how to notice who those people are, to pay attention to them, that can be.
Sometimes it's not the how but the what.
Sometimes even something as simple as an upside down pigeon can give us pause…
Can be beautiful.