It all started in a taxi that was moving like a bucking bronco through Brooklyn. Harold (Peewee) Greenblatt, the cabbie, was proclaiming, "Pigeons saved my life. I used to go to the track, drop a bundle, a very bad scene. Then my father got me into pigeons." The next week I was into them too, climbing the rickety ladder to the Brooklyn rooftop where Peewee and his brother Norman share a loft and race homing pigeons weekends from April to October. It was the end of March, a week before the season was to begin, but the Greenblatts and others in the South End Homing Pigeon Club had decided to hold a bootleg race.
The loft, filled with cooing birds, reminded me of a scene from On the Waterfront, except that Marlon Brando, in his role as pigeon-loving Terry Malloy, was missing. I had to make do with Peewee and Norman. The Greenblatts were both familiar with On the Waterfront and Norman admitted watching the movie whenever it is shown on television, about twice a year. He recited word for word Brando's famous scene with his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) except that Norman's rendition was accompanied by the soft whoo-a, whoo-a of the nearby birds. It sounded terrific in Norman's Brooklyn accent: "Oh, Charlie, Charlie, I could have had class; I could have been a contender; I could have been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am...." Still, in the Greenblatts' opinion, the saddest part of the movie was not Malloy's disillusion with himself or life but the scene in which a kid sneaks into Malloy's loft "and kills all the boids, right?" We talked about it, waiting for Peewee's pigeons to return from Blain, Pa., 187 aerial miles from Brooklyn. He allowed me to hold a 4-day-old squab. It looked just right for the pot, with nary a feather, as bald as Telly Savalas. Peewee experiments a lot in breeding to get fast homers.
"Never mate two right-handed pigeons or two left-handed pigeons," he advised. I said I never would, if I could figure out which was which. It had to do with the way the tail feathers turned, the laws of aerodynamics and wind versus bird, all very complicated to one who had never done more than drop bread crumbs to derelicts in the street.
Pigeon racing is still a modest venture in the U.S., the Greenblatts told me. No ticker-tape parades for winners as in Belgium. Or $11,500 birds as in Britain. No royal dovecotes such as the one mainained by Queen Elizabeth II, or slick periodicals like Racing Pigeon Pictorial, which is lavishly illustrated with color photos of pigeons' eyes and other anatomical details and is published every month in London by—are you ready for this?—the Coo Press.
"Peewee is a walking encyclopedia," said Norman. "Give him his choice of sitting in the coop or taking out Raquel Welch in his cab and he'll choose the coop everytime."
"People should keep their houses as clean as I keep my coop," said Peewee, "or get the vitamins I give my birds." At this point a vitamin-stuffed pigeon went plop on the landing platform outside the coop, and Peewee, a rotund man who stands only 5'3", rushed to remove the band, or countermark, from the bird's leg. He inserted the countermark into a clock, specifically designed for pigeon racing. It recorded the bird's exact arrival time.
"It's important to train your birds to come down fast," he said. "A pigeon sitting on a TV antenna for a minute, or even 30 seconds, can lose you a race. It doesn't matter what time he comes home if you can't get him clocked."
Brooklyn, especially near Coney Island, is dotted with pigeon fanciers. So is Long Island, and there, out in Islip, a vice-president of the International Federation of American Homing Pigeon Fanciers, Ben Feuerbach, races birds with his wife Nona. The South End and Islip clubs belong to an area combine of 400 pigeon racers. The Greenblatts and Feuerbachs meet at banquets, dances and auctions all year long. I called Feuerbach to get more information about the I.F. He invited me out for the weekend, even offered to let me race a bird of my own. He would give me one, he said.
Donning a cloth cap, the insignia of the pigeon racer, I set off for Islip. Ben picked me up at the station.
"Now then," I said, once we were settled in the kitchen of their three-bedroom suburban dovecote, and drawing out a notebook, labeled Personal Pigeon, "what is my bird's name?" It is essential, fanciers say, to establish a one-to-one relationship with your pigeons.
"He's number 2204," said Ben, who considers his hobby a business and has little time to dream up names for 80 homers. It was disappointing to think I would be racing a bird with a mere number for a name.
"If you don't mind, I'll call him Terry Malloy," I said, thus honoring the Greenblatts, Marlon Brando and all those dead birds in On the Waterfront. Ben didn't mind. Nona had named a few: the Bomber, who never returned from a 400-mile race; Pegleg, who had an amputated leg and clumped around in the Feuerbach loft like Long John Silver; and Charlie, a pure white cock whose beauty excused the fact that he flew on wings of lead. We got back to the vital statistics of Terry Malloy.
Age? Three years.
Marital status? Mated to a silver hen. Since pigeons are monogamous, the relationship could be expected to continue.
Offspring? One squab. Nona whispered that there had been two, but Ben had culled one. The feeding of more than one squab can take too much out of pigeons expected to race. We went out to the loft, where Ben pointed out Terry Malloy, a blue bar cock. He was sitting on his nest, keeping the squab warm. The silver hen was saying whoo-a, whoo-a, with a flock of other pigeons, on the floor of the coop.
"Isn't Malloy a little mixed up?" I asked. Why was he, instead of she, taking care of the kid?
"Cocks and hens take turns in the nest," Ben explained. "Once the squab is hatched, the cock takes on most of the responsibility for feeding. Hens are a great deal more interested in the eggs, especially when there are signs of movement in them." Malloy's tour of duty was from early morning to five o'clock. "We race hens when eggs are about to hatch. We race cocks when young ones are waiting to be fed." Terry Malloy flapped out of the nest. It was exactly five o'clock.
"How does he know what time it is?"
"He knows," said Ben. Malloy now went after his hen, who flew to the nest and settled down over the squab. My liberated cock waddled across the coop, pecking, the iridescent green of his neck blending into the soft gray-blue of his breast feathers. Ben picked him up, and I stroked his head. "Hi there!" I said. It's hard to know what to say to a pigeon.
When we got back to the kitchen I asked for Terry Malloy's race record and parentage. Ben got out his worksheets on which each pigeon's history and his breeding are kept.
"If they don't make the worksheet at least once as young birds, out they go," he said. "You can't be Mr. Nice Guy or you'd have an army out there. So if they don't make the grade in racing, I cull them." Culling sounded like a thinly disguised euphemism for assassination. It was. Ben described a pigeon's neck with one hand and made a twisting gesture with the forefinger and thumb of his other hand. Nona averted her eyes. It was, he said, a matter of economy. Since the Russian grain deal, pigeon feed had gone up from $8 per hundred pounds to $19. Even pigeons apparently were feeling the economic squeeze, mostly around their necks. It was encouraging to know that Terry Malloy had survived three seasonal cullings. I opened my Personal Pigeon notebook.
Worksheets indicated that as a young bird Terry Malloy had come in fourth in a race originating at Lebanon, Pa., the same liberation point from which he would be racing for me. His best year had been 1974, and his most impressive showing a flight from Cadiz, Ohio, 410 aerial miles from Islip. He had placed sixth in the Long Island combine, with 36 lofts competing. His showing had been good enough to win a diploma on which his speed of 1.02 miles per minute was recorded, along with the winds, northeast on liberation and southeast on arrival. Malloy had worked hard, fighting head winds, to earn his diploma. Ben got out his breeding book. Malloy's father had been imported from Belgium, a pure Devriendt cock. His mother, a Devriendt blue bar, had come from a loft in California. Good stock? I asked.
"You never know what combination of factors makes a good racing pigeon," said Ben. "Champions don't necessarily breed champions." Fanciers had their own preferences. Feuerbach is an eye-sign man, preferring violet coloration to mustard yellow. "Show me a bird that wins consistently and I'll show you a good eye," he told me.
"There is also the wing theory," Ben continued. "You want a pigeon with good wingspread and feathers laid close together." Malloy had looked sleek as a sheik, his feathers snug as a body suit. Ben planned to send 15 birds to the race. His own hopes were for a bird he called Number 656.
"He's fast, but he has a reputation as a hooker. Sometimes I can't get him down and into the clock. That bum is going to hook once too often and find himself on my plate for dinner."
The day before the race I telephoned the Greenblatts, who were planning to enter their own birds in the event. Brooklyn, according to Ben, was always one of the clubs to beat. I told Norman about the hooker.
"That bird needs more incentive to want to come down. Feuerbach flies natural system?" I said yes. "Peewee flies widowhood. They land like boom," said Norman.
The natural system encourages cocks and hens to fraternize and breed, depending on eggs and young to arouse racing incentive. A cock will rush home to feed his young; a hen will fly faster if she has felt movement in an egg. Feuerbach is toying with the idea of inserting a worm into a hen's egg, a trick to make her think her egg is about to hatch. Widowhood believers keep cocks and hens separated, teasing the cocks an hour before the race by showing them hens. The idea here is that a cock, having been given a good look at a hen, will tear home in hopes of another look. Alas, the cocks and hens are never permitted to get together.
The Islip club, where the fanciers congregate with their personal clocks and crates each Saturday night, is a large, barnlike room. There is no equipment or furniture except for a long table on which the men place their clocks to await bumping time. All clocks are synchronized (bumped) and sealed until the race is over.
We were going to bump at nine o'clock, Ben told me. The crates, with pigeons cooing inside, were stacked along one wall, waiting to be loaded into the truck that would take them 170 miles into Pennsylvania. I found the Feuerbach crate holding Terry Malloy, the hooker and other nameless birds. I reminded Malloy of his glorious history, beginning with the Ark; of the achievements of his kind at time of war, namely one feathered hero named G.I. Joe, who had so distinguished himself in battle during World War II that he had been given the Dickin medal, a sort of British Bronze Star for animals. Recipients to date include 18 dogs, three horses, one cat and 32 pigeons; G.I. Joe is the only American bird to receive the award. So get out there and win was the gist of my peptalk. Peptalks are best kept simple, especially if you're not sure which bird is Terry Malloy.
Bumping time. The clocks were lined up, their owners hovering over them. Feuerbach announced the time in minutes, then seconds. "Twenty seconds to go...10 seconds...ready for bumping." The large room, filled with the buzz of conversation, was suddenly quiet. Only the soft shuffling of almost 700 imprisoned birds could be heard. Then the countdown. Four...three...two...one...click. The men were as tense as if they were involved in a rocket launch to the moon.
Those pigeons on which the men were willing to bet were listed on a blackboard. Gambling is of the nickel-and-dime variety. No one in the U.S. gets wealthy racing pigeons.
Bumping over, the men sent out for coffee and traded stories about other races and favorite birds while Charlie Benincasa supervised the loading of crates onto the truck, a specially built vehicle that opened in sections so that all pigeons would be released simultaneously. Once the pigeons were aboard, Benincasa and liberator John Mehl would start out on the mission, the cooing of the birds mingling with the hum of the engine. They would pick up crates from other clubs until close to 2,500 pigeons had been loaded, then head for Lebanon. Past sleeping towns, darkened houses, an occasional swish of passing cars. Through the night they would drive with their curious cargo. The liberator must be special, responsible. Men's hopes rested on the small winged creatures entrusted to him. At least one liberator, Nona recalled, had apparently flipped, or harbored a grudge, or maybe just got drunk. No one knew exactly where he had released the birds, along the highway, perhaps. "They got home so fast, Ben was running for the clock in his nightshirt," she said. "Then the phone started to ring, with other fanciers reporting their super birds, all coming home in record time."
The birds are released shortly after sunrise. "Just before liberation, they quiet down," said Benincasa. "I think they know. Once released, the birds circle until they get their bearings, then some take off like arrows." On cold mornings, he observed, the birds hang around, as if loath to start the long journey home.
The weather for this first race was not ideal. The East had been subject to strong winds for days. I thought about Malloy in the rumbling truck, soon to brave the sky, perhaps hawks, sudden squalls, high-tension wires. What if the wind stayed strong? How could an eight-ounce pigeon withstand gusts of up to 40 miles an hour, I asked, as we left the club.
"These birds are athletes," said Ben. "We train them like thoroughbreds, toss and exercise them all year long. Besides, they like racing."
"Don't think for a minute that pigeons just come home in haphazard fashion. They actually race each other. In training, you see one pigeon suddenly dart ahead or give one last spurt of effort to get past the leader."
Sunday morning. Race day. The phone began to ring about seven. The callers wanted to know what time the birds had been released. At eight o'clock, John Mehl telephoned from a diner. The pigeons had been liberated at 7:40 a.m. Winds were north northwest, gusting to 20. A thermometer hanging outside the Feuerbachs' kitchen window registered 30°, but the cold wind shaking the trees made it seem like zero. I wrapped my hands around a cup of coffee. Ben was rushing hither and thither, from the phone inside to the coop outside. Nona was getting breakfast. Out there somewhere, Terry Malloy was winging his way to the loft in Islip. He had a chick to feed. If the psychology of pigeons had been figured correctly, he would be hurrying home to his domestic responsibilities.
At 10:15 another call came in. The birds had been sighted over Howard Beach in Queens at 10:05. Howard Beach is about 30 miles from Islip. The Greenblatts were probably already clocking their birds.
"It won't be long now," said Nona. Feuerbach carried his clock out to the landing platform, vanished into the coop and crated five Chicos, pigeons trained to fly around the loft and land. They act as lures to the returning birds, encouraging them to come down. At the first sign of a homer, Feuerbach would release a Chico. Everything was set, and he rushed into the kitchen to wolf down an egg sandwich.
"Let me know when my bird comes in," I called, as he bolted for the door again.
"Get out here and watch."
I went out, wrapped in a borrowed pea jacket.
"There's one," I called, shivering, and flapping my arms. Feuerbach peered upward, surprised. "That's a seagull," he said tersely.
"Gulls glide, pigeons flap," said 16-year-old Robbie Feuerbach helpfully. Ben froze as a speck appeared high in the sky, soared, then dipped. "It's 656," he yelled jubilantly. Robbie released a Chico, and it flapped to the landing platform. We waited silently as the pigeon approached the loft. It was the hooker, all right. He circled, then veered to the right and took off for some trees. Feuerbach released another Chico. The hooker popped up from behind the trees, ascending in a spiral, then swooping.
"Come down here and get clocked, Meatball," yelled Feuerbach. No other birds had appeared. The hooker was having a fine time. Kept home all winter, he was making the most of his freedom. Down he flapped again as though to land, circled the coop and darted away.
"Look at that bum sticking his chest out, enjoying himself," said Feuerbach in despair. Now all five Chicos were flapping around. The hooker's exuberance, when he finally landed, had cost Ben two to three minutes.
"That's what loses races," he grumbled, echoing Greenblatt.
"He's a good distance bird," said Nona.
"I'll give him distance," said Feuerbach, twisting his thumb and forefinger in the now familiar sinister gesture. Another bird landed, and I said, "Is that one mine?" Each time a pigeon flapped home I said, "Is that Malloy?" but it never was. By the time we went to the club to check in with our clock, I concluded that he must be flying backward.
In less than two hours we had the results of the race. Had the hooker dispensed with frivolity, he might have been the winner. As it turned out, he finished 10th.
As soon as we got back to the Feuerbachs, I ran out to the loft to see if Terry Malloy was waiting on the platform. Not a pigeon in sight. What would happen to the squab waiting to be fed?
"His mother may feed him," said Ben, "or she might not. It's the cock's responsibility." I hung around until almost midnight, then returned disconsolately to Manhattan.
"A hawk may have got him," said Nona, "or maybe the wind blew him off course."
"Oh, he'll come home when he's ready," said Ben on the way to the station. "Maybe he decided to walk." I was not amused.
Nona telephoned about five o'clock the next afternoon. Terry Malloy had just arrived, she said, and every feather seemed to be intact. Ben had fed him, then put him in isolation. If nothing untoward turned up, he would be returned to the coop and his silver hen. Just as well, I told her. He would have a lot of explaining to do about his night on the town.
What can I say about Terry Malloy? He could have had class. He could have been a contender. He could have been somebody instead of a bum, which is what he is.