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PIGEONS

A pigeon slowly walks up a course of roof tiles to the pitch. Its gait is deliberate, and its head is bent forward to be sure it doesn't slide off the hump back of the clay tile. There's nothing up there on the pitch but more tiles, each running piggy-back east to west, with a little cement here and there to anchor them against a stiff wind. But the pigeon expresses no frustration or boredom in its steady absorption with its task. I admire it from my bedroom window, which looks down on the higgledy-piggledy ridges, all of them looking a bit like a Chinese puzzle.

Why isn't the pigeon tired of all this meaningless pacing? It can fly, it can even soar above the village, and scoop oblique tangents off the hazy blue slopes of the Luberon across the valley. But it doesn't. It has the mind of an aging shopkeeper, someone who has dropped coins into a till for the past thirty years and stopped dreaming of a larger world.

The pigeon doesn't ask the right questions. There is no measure of time in its brief life. It walks up the side of the roof to the top and continues its purposeful stride along the ridge and then what? It flies away. That's it. In another hour or so, it will find a similar roof, or perhaps the very same one, in which to point its feet and mince its snail-paced way up to the ridge again. It will have presented its ephemeral coupon of a day to be canceled out by the sun, and without eagerness or prayer, or even an old lover to think about, will wake at dawn among the darting swallows of the village, and warm its breast feathers before eating a few stray seeds, and resume the routine of its roof march by mid-day.

I once saw a man in a faded uniform and tattered leather cross-belts standing on a quay of the industrial side of Venice. His trousers had been patched many times, and the visor of his cap, still shiny, drooped against the rivets holding it up. His mouth had lost all expression, but he could manage the smallest greeting and allow you to see that most of his front teeth were missing. He stood there in the thin black shadow of eternity, guarding the landscape of concrete and rusting booms. He was another pigeon, without a roof to climb, but with a commitment to proceed to the bitter end of his mortal span.

At home, I assumed, was his wife in a frayed apron stirring a pot on the gas stove, and putting down the smudged bottle of red wine next to a jar. Some bread had been sliced and piled up beside a cruet of olive oil. The walls were cracking with old enamel, and the floor sagged under the iron sink. His bed was made, and his robe hung on the bathroom door. Everything awaited his footstep, and the shadows flickered in the windows as pigeons rose and fell out of the sky.

The first girl I ever kissed was taller than me and a year older. She wore braces and her mother twisted her hair into tortured braids. She was always tucking loose hairs behind her ears. She lived in a row house at the end of the block and her father wore brown suspenders and smoked a pipe. She seemed happy enough and when I kissed her, her knees pressed against mine with affection. Her mother smoked cigarettes on the little concrete terrace, and balanced a tumbler of iced tea on the iron railing. She was a homely woman and would have been astonished to find a pigeon climbing up the narrow path of tiles on a roof in southern France. So little captured her attention in those sooty, monotonous years after the Second World War. She spoke with a German accent, which embarrassed her before strangers. She must have felt it betrayed something in her character that pointed back to the Holocaust. But she was generous to me, and always expected that I would enter the house famished for a slice of Bundt cake and a tall glass of milk.

When Dorothy, my girlfriend, leaned over to kiss me, her legs went crooked, with one shoe over the other. She would stroll down the street with me and people would notice her pigeon-toed gait. It amused them to see such a skinny blond girl walk like a bird. I knew I wouldn't be with her long; she wasn't eager to form a real relationship with me. No doubt she was holding out for someone older who might take chances with her, and push her too far. But I was there, ready to be kissed, ready to hold her hand in the twilight, and to hear her father clear his throat behind the screen door to announce that dinner was ready.

Pigeons make a strange whirring noise when they take off from a windowsill. The air is startled by the power of their wings, and the thumping base of their lift-off makes you think that pigeons are more than birds. They seem like mammals that gave up trying to walk on the flat ground and took to the sky to compensate for their empty minds. I cannot stop thinking about the pigeon on the roof opposite my window. It has no power to communicate or to explain its astonishing dullness. But Sartre would have understood at once that a pigeon was a fine example of how to cope with the nausea of existence, the void into which we are cast at puberty. To walk toward the sky only to shift to the left and track the horizon to the end of the roof was an activity as self-defeating as waiting for Godot.

It strikes me as the war ended and the gloomy brown cloud arose over Hiroshima as the sign of the birth of a new super power, no one could believe in progress anymore. The Enlightenment promised that reason would liberate mankind from the laws of nature. We would reach the moon some day, and conquer disease and prolong life far beyond our wildest desires. But the nuclear age and our dependence on carbon meant that the future was losing its potential. It wasn't the dream we hoped for. The sky was old, and the earth was like a phonograph needle grinding away in a rutted orbit.

But just under the surface of the new Atomic Age was something else emerging, a desire to pick up where the last war ended -- in a hunt for dissenting Jews in the media, education, in the hard sciences. Senator Joe McCarthy was the embodiment of this vengeful spirit, and Roy Cohn, the lawyer, was his enabler in spreading rumors, flashing "secret lists" of Communist fellow travelers and moles who had infiltrated Hollywood's movie mills, radio and television, the publishing industry, and the echelons of government service. There was an enemy within, and the Congress in both chambers was eager to hear rumors that might implicate not only Jews but homosexuals, intellectuals on the Left. The mechanism by which information was passed on to congressional committees and FBI agents was the informant, a figure who played a prominent role in Nazi affairs, and across fascist Europe.

The informant was only so good as the friends he or she knew, and the evidence, however flimsy, that might lead to an indictment. Better known in criminal circles like the Mafia as the "stool pigeon," this was the voice behind the black screen in congressional hearing rooms laying out the innuendoes to hoist a victim up into the federal gallows. And there were legions of such men and women, many of them charged with crimes without sufficient evidence, wasting away in prisons across the country. Those who weren't behind bars often elected to leave their professions rather than face trial. Others went underground to live as fugitives, or wandered off into Mexico, Morocco, places where one could eke out a living as a ghostwriter or tutor, or as a laborer. The damage was widespread and diminished an influential part of a generation from expressing the post-war character of America. The writers who were spared wrote for Ozzie and Harriet, and for Leave it to Beaver.

The pigeon has never enjoyed a heroic role in popular culture. It's a negative bird, a "flying rat" to many New Yorkers, an unloved, pesky creature that prefers its own kind but will beg shamelessly from human beings, and poke a beak into dumpsters, garbage cans, bags of French Fries, the rinds of pizzas. They are the companions of the homeless and live in tenuous relations with the elderly, who feed them in public parks. They do not adorn public monuments except to spray their own acidic dung on them. They are unwanted on Wall Street, where ledges are protected by dense rows of spikes. Cathedrals have devised other ways to keep them from staining their blackened stones.

But they are everywhere, and have embraced the built environment in every country in the world. They walk funny and bob their tiny heads like some mechanical toy, and barely step aside when a child runs toward them. They have no home of their own, and seem perfectly at ease in the grime and neglect humans make of their world. The pigeon is a mirror held up to our corrupt vision of our place in nature. They haunt our failures and selfish desires, and show no signs of disillusionment with their unsavory lot.

My pigeon on the roof is once more climbing up the mottled roof tiles of my neighbor's house; the heavens spread out in epic blue splendor, with a few dry summer clouds as the only adornment of this boring day. The pigeon is perfectly happy to take its mincing steps, and applies himself the way some watchmakers pore over the gear work of a wrist watch, or a tailor bastes a stitch in a jacket he is sewing. These are the minions and the eaters of time and do not look up at the larger questions hanging over the rest of us -- whether the brief time we are given is being used properly, and serving some noble purpose before we are dust.

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© 2014 by Paul Christensen