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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.
"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.