Saturday, March 17, 2012


Outside the Key Food on Avenue A and Fourth Street, the woman was in deep conversation with the man, her hand firm on the baby carriage. A black and white pigeon perched on the carriage's cover, just inches from the sleeping baby, and that's why I stopped in my tracks after exiting the store. I was curious as to what exact form the gasp would take when she finally turned and saw what was there: a scream, an obscenity, a violent expulsion of the dirty feral beast? Instead, it was my gasp that was heard in the next minute, for when she said goodbye and in the same movement turned and leaned into the handle to push forward, she never blinked. Nor did the pigeon. Instead, all three made their way down the avenue, each in their own private world together.

Oddly, I had just been writing about pigeons a few days before, considering them in all their myriad fascinations. Here is what I wrote.


Close your eyes for a moment. That is when you first begin to truly see them, soft clicks and coos making them present to the mind’s eye. For they had become invisible to true sight, like the impulsive yellow cab drawing its line down toward disappearance or the girl with a phone pressed to her ear, the scaffolding draped in black cloth and the concrete planter containing something (you never notice what) growing from cigarette-ash-flecked dirt. The elements that make the city what it is, the sudden absence of which—any of a thousand thousand things—would render it preternaturally strange.

Now you may look. And finally see. The pigeon reveals himself in paradoxical beauty: omnipresent, yet startlingly singular; a moving iridescence in the colors playing along neck feathers against a body as gray (and common) as pavement. They are maligned as “flying rats,” but from their point of view we may well be walking rats.

The flocks that move as one corps de ballet when startled from their crumb foraging in New York City parks (and that leave unsightly reminders of their species preeminence in numbers second only to the real Rattus rattus, though behind Homo sapiens, causing city ledges to be bristled with nest-prohibiting wire spikes) are composed of extraordinary individuals.* These are the birds that mate for life, and raise their young together. These are the feral, or rock, pigeons descended from the first domesticated variety introduced to North America, through Nova Scotia, in 1606. These are the pigeons who received 32 medals for bravery in World War II, and who helped build the Rothschild empire from lofts built for them throughout Europe in order to deliver information between the family’s financial houses. These are the animals that in 1850 began carrying news for an outfit called Reuters. These are the birds selected in 1944, to take part in the U.S. military’s top-secret Project Pigeon, conceived by a psychologist named B. F. Skinner, who codified what he learned from how they learned in a new science called behaviorism.

These are the pigeons who live in New York, and who are not seen.


What would the city be without its reminders that beyond our human horizon, the persistence of the larger world in which we came to life still pushes up from the earth between sidewalk cracks, still visits from the sky we have yet to enclose? The city would be silent without its gray denizens, its birds at once common and unknown. The city would no longer be itself.

* Like us, perhaps? --In our human flocks, foraging for crumbs among the skyscraper nests of our own intelligence.


And with this ends, or for an indefinite hiatus, "It's Nelly's World."

I hope to return (if one can return to these ongoing things after an interruption; perhaps they necessarily vanish into the electronic ether, but I'll find out if I try to take it up again sometime) when I manage to arrest a downward spiral. It is time to turn all my energy to that, for as you know, a boy and a dog are depending on me.

I owe you all much gratitude, for reading, for considering, for contributing your thoughts, wisdom, humor, and well-deserved kicks in the seat. They will serve me well.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


Did I do a bad thing?

Sitting in the restaurant tonight, at a table for two, I began to think so. A family whose daughter goes to my son's school owns a couple of eating establishments, and every once in a while they designate a night where a portion of the proceeds go to the school; what private school isn't always scrambling for funds? I decided to do my share, and how onerous it was to pitch in by downing sweet potato soup, caramelized onion tart, and slabs of transcendent bread that instantly brought me back over the decades to Hoboken, where I lived around the corner from the Policastro bakery, which supplied bread to New York City's best restaurants. (Only I got it cheap and hot from the oven, its readiness announced by the breeze wafting in my first-floor window.)

I began to think so because I looked around at the tables filled with families. "Real" families, with mom and dad and multiple children. The absence of a dad . . . well, nothing to do about that. But a sibling? Shouldn't I have provided at least one of those? My son doesn't know the pleasures of sibling rivalry, the stolen stuff, the pranks, the heartless ribbing, the fights, the teeth knocked out with a hammer (yes, a unique gift I once gave my older sister). Holidays, vacations: just him, and me. Is this healthy for him? Is it joyful? Is it a big hole in his heart?

The impulse to have a child was completely selfish. (As it must be: the couple wants something they don't have; they do not wish to give something to someone who has yet to exist. Only after the child is born does the selflessness begin. One hopes.) A sudden image had come to me: my husband and me, gray and wrinkled, sitting alone at the Thanksgiving table sometime in the distant future. Overcome with an anticipatory crushing loneliness, I decided in that moment that we should have a child. And see how it turned out? Still only two at the Thanksgiving table. Hmmm. But would it have been any better with three?

When we went on vacation when I was a child--to the beach, to the grand hotel, to Williamsburg--we sometimes went as a family, and sometimes with other families. In either event, though, there were a bunch of kids. At the very least, three girls, and always someone to do something with. The adults were busy, anyway: they were always drinking cocktails and smoking cigarettes and talking about things we could simply not comprehend. Those aliens.

What I need is not, but, where I could be set up with other parents of only children for the sole purpose of going on vacations and having holiday meals. (The anxiety slowly creeps toward me with the approach of spring break: what twelve-year-old boy wants to go on a trip alone with his mom?)

Maybe I created, in creating an only child, something that will come back to haunt us. The two of us are alone together too much, for all that I work diligently--hours every week--managing the social life of a boy who simply has no interest in making plans with his own friends. Until it's Saturday afternoon and he's bored, or I need to work, or . . . I think it would be a real good idea for us to have a little break from this steady diet of closeness. Then it's too late, because everyone made their plans days ago. (And yes, he reads and draws and gets lost for hours in the computer, but I'd prefer he occasionally experience the true happiness of humanity, which is other humans.)

I have two sisters. One is pretty much a stranger. The other--well, the other would walk through fire for me, and has. Her feet are singed. She is my best friend and my blood too. I would not want to imagine life without her, alone at the table.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Leaving on a Jet Plane

I will have crossed a continent by the time this appears, but will not have crossed back. I will still be there, in California.

The last time I was there, I did not get there over this wide country in a matter of impossible hours; I traversed every foot, every mile, on the two wheels of my BMW. Well, except for the times that I was on the two wheels of his Ducati, during the days in which the clutch on my bike did not operate and it took a subtle genius to roll to the inevitable stop and then--this was the trick--not lurch to a dangerous deadness, but instead keep it alive and coax it into going forward again. Rinse, and repeat. This is not a skill I have; it is among many, many that I lack. But my redoubtable traveling companion did, and it was just one of the dozen ways in which he saved my butt on that trip. Making me laugh, frequently, was another, perhaps more valuable even than taking the bars of the Rockster and not making pained expressions as I threw a leg over his desperately beloved machine. Me! Which was not him.

Tonight, avoiding thinking of packing until the last minute has come and gone, I am arrested by one memory in particular from that trip of memories.

We consult the map. A shortcut--a long shortcut--to get where we needed to be that evening. The road starts out, as all roads do, full of promise: it seems ours alone. They give it to you like that sometimes, the arrangers of time and space. The sun falls slowly, stickily, behind us. It is rolling out a golden carpet on which we motor forth, into new scenes. Then the pavement ends. The ground tilts imperceptibly but progressively; ah, more traction for the rear wheel, anyway. As the light constricts, so too the road: its sides move in, a corset whose strings are being surely pulled. Now it is one lane, and the rocks are getting bigger as the incline is growing steeper. And as it is getting dark. That's the word for it, dark. My companion can do it; he can make his bike do anything, like a Jack Russell trained for movie stunts. But he knows my limits, knows what my mind is doing: worrying, at its depths now. He stops, and I inch alongside. "If we don't turn around now, we are going to have to continue. And it's a long way. Up into the hills. It's possible we'll be riding rocks on a single track in the mountains in the dark. What do you say?"

What I said was: Please.

Not in words. He knew I said it, even without doing so. "Do you want me to turn your bike around for you?" Gently, so as not to imply anything about my lack of skill, but I was doing all the implying for both of us. He dismounted, then took the bars from me, and magically--even though I saw it, I still do not know how he performed it--arced the bike around and then I took hold of the front brake and gingerly swung my leg back over. His red bike was next, and then we were heading down, even more difficult for me than going up. Or maybe not. Maybe it was all one inheld breath.

In a few days I will once again ride a motorcycle over one of those great bridges, a song made of three harmonies: man's engineering, the span over water, and the sun.

And then I will get on a plane again, perhaps to arrive home and wonder, was I really there at all?