BERKSON: In search of pigeons just like Marlon Brando’s birds


In search of pigeons just
like Marlon Brando’s birds

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

The other night I watched a rerun of “On the Waterfront,” starring Marlin Brando. I had forgotten that the character he played was named Terry, like me.

When I was about 13 and saw the movie for the first time, I was so impressed with Brando that I had to own pigeons, like the character he played. His coop was on a flat roof. Mine had to be in my yard because back in Brooklyn I lived in a steep-roofed Victorian.

In the late 50s, flying pigeons was very popular. The guys who were into it weren’t exactly candidates for Ivy League schools. Raising and flying pigeons seemed to attract tough guys.

They liked to capture a competitor’s bird and hold it for ransom or keep it for good. What they did was hijack each other’s birds by sending up their flocks that flew in great circular paths above the buildings on which the coops were perched. They hoped that some of the other guy’s pigeons would mingle with theirs and then come in for a landing. Capturing birds was considered a sport but some guys would stop at nothing to obtain more pigeons.

In Brooklyn vernacular, they would “tap you off” which meant rob you.

Mike Butcherelli and his gang had a big coop set up on stilts in an empty lot a few blocks away. Because of his tough guy reputation, he didn’t worry about being tapped off. In fact he didn’t even keep a lock on his coop door. He was a few years older than me and when I told him that I had built a coop, he generously gave me some birds.

They weren’t rats, which is what we called street pigeons, but all of them were flawed. One had two different colored eyes, which affected its depth perception and made it come in for crash landings.

Butcherelli told me to keep the pigeons caged up for a while so that they would get used to their new home and not fly back to his coop. I bought more pigeons for fifty cents each, from a shop under the elevated train on McDonald Avenue.

I could hardly wait to fly my birds to try and capture more.

Columnist Terry Berkson’s new, deluxe pigeon coop is seen in this undated photo.

One early school morning, I looked out the window to find a pigeon had landed on the deck of my coop. It was a brown and white Tippler and it had a fancy purple band on its leg. Even Butcherelli didn’t have birds that were as nice as this one. When I eased out the back door, the bird bolted and soared over the garage, wings pumping hard, the tips touching.

I scrambled into the house and up the stairs to watch from an attic window. The pigeon was headed directly for the roof of my school which was five blocks away. I had no idea who owned this bird or where it had come from, but it looked like he was living on top of the school.

Later, in class I described the brown and white Tippler that had visited my coop to this kid Andy. I knew he’d be interested because he also raised pigeons. He was impressed.

The next morning, the bird was back and I was ready for him with a stick holding the cage door open and a long string leading from the stick to the back door of the house. I had spread some feed and he was devouring it like a vacuum cleaner. The prospect of capturing this beautiful pigeon made sweat run down my sides as I sat holding the string.

In a short time, the bird had eaten its way into the cage, so I pulled hard on the line and the open door clapped shut. I had him! He was mine! Right then, I named him Charlie, like Brando’s favorite bird in the movie. Then a window was thrown open and my Aunt Edna yelled “You better get to school!”

In class, I told Andy that I had captured the Tippler. “I’ll come over after school for a look,” he said but he never showed. Instead, this older, flat-nosed kid named Richie came by on his truck bike that had crash bars. I knew him because any time I’d bike past his house he’d try to run me off the street with those crash bars.

“I think you caught one of my birds,” Richie said as he made his way towards the coop.

“Can’t be,” I said. “The pigeon I caught was living on top of the school.”

“It’s a brown and white Tippler and it’s mine!”

“No, it’s not,” I said. “And I caught him fair and square.”

“I want him back!” Richie threatened.

Just then, my Aunt Edna raised her window and yelled, “Give the kid his bird and let him get outta here!”

“No way,” I said as Richie’s bike inched towards me. Then Aunt Edna, who was once the captain of a roller derby team, was coming out the back door with a broom in her hand. Richie took off as she grew near but he threatened, “I’ll be back!” Then, my aunt declared that she knew my having pigeons would bring trouble. She didn’t even want to see what a nice bird Charlie was.

After a while, I cleaned and locked up the coop and headed for the house.

Andy played dumb when I told him that Flat-nose had come around claiming the Tippler was his. For the next couple of days I spent time after school working on the coop or just sitting there dreaming of the day I’d let my flock fly in hopes of catching more birds.

One morning I looked out the window and knew right away that something was wrong. My pigeons were sitting on nearby television antennas and on the branches of our cherry tree. When I went out to the coop I was sure that I had been tapped off. The door was torn from its hinges and every bird was gone.

“What’s the matter?” my aunt called from a back window. I scanned the birds roosting above me. The Tippler was gone.

“They got Charlie,” I told her.

“That’s it!” my aunt shouted “They’re too much trouble! Get rid of them pigeons!”

“Look,” I said. “They’re almost trained. They’re not flying away.”

“I don’t want to hear it!” my aunt shouted. “You take them birds back where you got em!”

There was no arguing with Aunt Edna.

One by one my half-trained pigeons descended onto the deck of the coop and I boxed them up in preparation for the trip back to Butcherelli and the store on McDonald Avenue. After building the coop and buying the birds and even catching one, I was now giving it all up.

I’d never experience the thrill of watching my birds circle above the rooves around me, ready to take in a pigeon that was lost or looking for a home.

Now, I’d never know if I could have done it, I’d never know if – in the competitive world of flying pigeons – “I coulda been a contender.”

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