One thing the homeless communities in Salt Lake City had in common was a giant park near the shelter. Various church groups and other organizations would often go to the park to provide food, clothing, haircuts and other assistance to homeless people. Just two blocks from the shelter and one block from the rescue mission, it provided a good location for charitable organizations of all kinds to assist homeless people.
It was there that I learned the story behind a homeless person I knew simply as the “Pigeon Man.”
To be sure, I am no friend of the pigeon. In the many travels of my vagabond youth I have seen them cloud out the sun in Honolulu. They stole food from right out in front of me and soiled my possessions. Most recently, one shat on the new rollaway suitcase that my wife had purchased for me.
Pigeon shit has roughly the same consistency of warm tar and about the same level of adhesion. Once it lands on something, it could be stained for life. I love animals, but I disliked pigeons in the extreme. Their beady little red eyes make them seem evil and unnerving, kind of like rats with wings.
Not so the Pigeon Man.
He cooed to them, shared his food with them and even gave them names. Here in a place where most of the population was struggling with a crippling mental illness, he hardly stood out as anything but harmlessly eccentric. Disheveled and unkempt with dirty clothes, he had greasy dark hair and a pallid complexion. He fit the description of any of a hundred other men at the shelter.
He was also an aggressive panhandler, ambling the platforms of the city transit system. I was sitting at a commuter train station when he approached a couple of well-dressed men sitting next to me.
The man immediately to my left snarled at him when he could no longer stand it: “Oh for Christ’s sake shut up you crazy old fuck! Here’s a dollar, go take a fucking shower you piece of shit!”
The Pigeon Man took the dollar, and a plaintive look toward the others netted him another. He glanced at me only briefly, but I know that he knew where I lived, and therefore what my circumstances were. For a moment I was nervous, but after profusely thanking his donors he moved on.
It was a weekend day that I had occasion to go to the big park.
It was relatively warm for March, and I heard there was a chance of good clothing being handed out. So, I pulled my coat up tight against the frigid wind and walked the two blocks to the park, hoping for something besides cold sandwiches and maybe some cleaner clothes. The ones I was wearing were getting very tattered. When I got there, I was too late. The pickings were getting slim. I only managed to score a cup of hot coffee with just a little sugar, and some reasonably fresh cake.
The proselytizing, which you would expect, of course, was blasting out from several elevated loudspeakers and seemed to be overly loud. It wasn’t going over terribly well with me. I discarded my paper dishes and was about to leave when I saw him.
The Pigeon Man was kneeling some three yards away with a pigeon draped over one hand, carefully trying to pour water from a water bottle into the pigeon’s mouth. As I watched with growing alarm, he then put the obviously dead bird’s head up to his mouth and began trying to blow life back into the pigeon’s lungs. Shocked, I ran over to him and knelt to look into his face.
“Hey! Hey! Holy shit! What are you doing? Oh my God! Put it down or throw it away, please, it’s dead!” I implored.
The Pigeon Man pushed me away and glared up at me with hot tears streaming paths through the grime on his face. He was suddenly flushed with anger.
“No she isn’t! She isn’t dead! Get away from me!” He screamed.
Lurching to his feet, he began storming away, never relinquishing his hold on the dead bird. He paused just once to look back at me, as if he would say something else. Then he just shook his head and continued toward the edge of the park.
I was stunned. “She?” Why the hell did he say “she?” I wondered. Could he somehow determine the gender of a deceased pigeon?
A voice beside me grabbed my attention.
“Do you know him?” The voice asked. I turned to see one of the church volunteers standing beside me.
“Yeah, sort of, I’ve seen him. Patron Saint of flying vermin.”
The church volunteer chuckled grimly.
“No, no, no, no. Not quite, more to the story, that one. Lots more to the story. I just happen to know because I knew him before in Arizona and then somehow, we both wound up here. Phoenix is a really brutal place to be homeless, not that it’s much better here.”
I turned to look at the church volunteer, who smiled sadly as he watched the departing figure of the Pigeon Man.
“He was a chemical engineer in Phoenix, you know, good life, family, nice house. But then one morning he backed over his three-year-old daughter on his way to work, killing her. She was out in the driveway for some reason.”
“I don’t know, these things just happen.”
He continued, “I guess you could say that it blew him up, you know, just destroyed him. So, Judge not, you know. If you don’t know the whole story, just judge not, brother.”
The man drew a deep sigh, and I looked back at the Pigeon Man, still shuffling away from us, cradling his dead friend in his hands. He suddenly seemed to look graceful, even a little angelic in slow motion.
From somewhere away in the ether, I was dimly aware that the church volunteer was still talking, but his words just dissipated into the hazy vacuum that now enveloped me. But what he had said struck my heart like a cruise missile. I had a daughter, too.
I just stood there saying nothing, and eventually, the church volunteer left. My vision blurred and I realized that I was dizzy, because I needed to breathe.
I also needed to go somewhere, so I started walking, stopped; wrong direction.
Turned, began walking again, stopped; wrong direction.
Turned, began walking again, stopped; sat down.
I couldn’t remember where it was that I needed to go.
I just needed to go somewhere.
It wasn’t too long after that day that the Pigeon Man disappeared from the crowd of homeless men living at the shelter. I no longer passed him as he ministered to his flighted friends out front. He was no longer out there giving them his food and call to them by name, trying in vain to pet them. I never again saw him in the parks or begging on the transit platforms. He was gone, but I knew that I would never forget him.
I hope that wherever he went, his pigeons are all healthy and beautiful. And I hope that he feeds them under peaceful skies.