[Table of Contents]



Nina Perlman


I see skyscrapers. Things that are, or bring me, closer to the sky. Where birds land to rest mid-air, a kind of floating, before taking off again. What is the difference between a perch and a high-rise?

Paulie perched on Daniel's basketball hoop. Paulie perched on the green-metal chandelier above our dining table, but off-center, so he hovered above my seat.

Places to sit still, looking out and down, or to look at the sky by looking straight ahead of you, instead of up.


[Image: Pigeons kept together in a loft, cubicles of box perches looking like the building across the way from me, a grid of windows through which I see others sitting.]

The word coop looks like "co-op."

When birds fly past my 21st-floor window, I remember how far up I am. The city is a different kind of obstacle course when you're far above the ground.



There was a bird that flew repeatedly into Claire's bedroom window at full-speed. She smudged the glass, and cut out birds of prey from construction paper. She taped them to the window in an attempt to scare him off, but that bird was relentless.

How often do birds fly into reflective windows? Has every ledge been a rest stop for someone at some point? The pigeons that nested above the balcony in our Channel Club apartment, covering it with a solid layer of shit.



"'Nobody must know,' he tells me, 'that I have pigeons.'
Why on earth not?

'People aren't in love with pigeons...Many people see them as flying rats. That's the general perception you have to rise above. And if you rise above that general perception, you have an underground mentality. You sometimes have to fly under the radar with pigeons." [1]


In 2000, my mother took me to the Petland Discounts on 86th and 2nd to consider the possibility that I might get a fish as a pet. We returned home with a Cinnamon Sky Blue Budgie Parakeet. His back and head were blue, and his white wings had brown-gray patches on each feather.

My father said that birds carry diseases.

"Until 2003, the species' official common name was actually rock dove, until the American Ornithologists' Union kicked it out of the doves category and changed its name to rock pigeon." [2]







She asked me if I wanted to spell his name P-A-U-L-I-E or P-O-L-L-Y. I told her that birds can't spell.

If a scaffold creates an outdoor-indoor space, like a small pavilion, do birds understand that they can use them to escape the rain? I saw a pigeon inside Port Authority just the other day, and I seemed to be the only one around who praised his cleverness.

[Image: Pigeons coming through bars.]




[Image: "Okay, follow my hand." Arnold says his to three carrier pigeons at the opening of "The Pigeon Man" (from Season 1, Ep. 15 of Hey Arnold!) before dropping a handful of food before each one.  They know what a human hand looks like and know that their direction was to follow it with the gesture of their beaks. They're on the ledge of the roof of a brownstone.] [3]

The way that we teach birds to 'home' to one place or the next.

Or teach them to speak.




In the 1998 movie Paulie, a young girl with a stutter is gifted a parakeet who learns to speak alongside her. They are separated when he says the wrong thing, and spends his life trying to find his way back home to her.

Birds are a self-organizing kind. They fly in a V-formation and they know based on their instinct that it's a place where they should go.


We treat the instincts of birds as fact more than we do our own.

Something emotional (abstract, subjective) combined with something scientific (factual, objective). Buildings and cities are constructed spaces, and architecture is a science, but the way we navigate these spaces is unfixed. We're organized into a geometric grid, but work our way through it by meandering, circling, flying.

When birds are already in flight, how do they redirect to fly up further? I should draw the diagram I'm imagining, to show what I mean.

[Image: A diagram I drew.]





There are theories of chaos and psychologies of human behavior to somewhat predict the way people will navigate through spaces, but these are merely predictions. The process of setting up a structure to influence (lead, guide) the uses and navigations of space, whose effects can only be observed by hovering above, at a great distance.

My Meyers Briggs personality type is INTJ, labelled "The Architect."
"A paradox to most observers, INTJs are able to live by glaring contradictions that nonetheless make perfect sense – at least from a purely rational perspective. For example, INTJs are simultaneously the most starry-eyed idealists and the bitterest of cynics, a seemingly impossible conflict. But this is because INTJ types tend to believe that with effort, intelligence and consideration, nothing is impossible." [4]  



  I oscillate between the hemispheres of my brain. The things I love have a mathematics and an abstraction, or emotion. I am so much like each of my parents, caught between in the ways they work. In science and music. In science and language. The things that seem opposed blend together for me until they are one in such an obvious way that it seems crazy other people can't see-or-feel it, too.

"INTJs are defined by their tendency to move through life as though it were a giant chess board, pieces constantly shifting with consideration and intelligence, always assessing new tactics, strategies and contingency plans, constantly outmaneuvering their peers in order to maintain control of a situation while maximizing their freedom to move about." [5]

I used to do this thing where I would lay across my rolling desk chair, and push off the wall with my feet. It was like flying, but also like a kind of swimming in the air. Like a curl-under-flip-turn when you're swimming laps, or racing. It happens in an instant. Down, forward, twist, push, and right yourself again as you move faster and then you come back up for air.





If there's a pool on the roof of a building, and I am gliding in the water, does that count as flying? Is flying anything that happens when your body is suspended at a certain height? Or does the fact of my feet on a floor at all make it not count, regardless of how high the floor is? Does flying mean there must be nothing but air, or wind, or clouds beneath me? Is it only flying when there's nothing making contact with my weight? I wonder about free-falling from my window, but I wish it would be possible to experience without the part of dying at the end, and without dying as I fall.  

I am standing on the roof of a short building, below another that's much taller, staring up. The clouds are moving back against the monolith, and it appears as if it's falling slowly down on me, and never landing. It continues ceaselessly. And all at once I'm scared and I'm resigned.

I did this almost every day.

I'm looking across the river and I'm thinking about how short a distance it must really be, if only I had wings to carry me there.






I'm caught between these spaces. The structural and the emotional. The instinctive and the planned. There's something about an overarching structure that begs for a fluidity within.

Paulie perched on the piano, but never weighed enough to press down on the keys.

Something that balances the weight and density with something light and airy. For those who breathe deep until they're mostly air inside, with hollow bones, and for whom any weight drops like a brick.





Our feet are pigeons with leisure of pigeons tearing holes in the rooms made of pollen and chance and noise, the rooms that are streets. We are pigeons, we are disobedient." [6]

I see the way I look at things, and organize them. How my upbringing within a grid has pushed me to dance on it like musical notes that I can't read dance across the lined pages of sheet music. A certain tempo that increases and decreases in speed, but syncs to me at any moment. And then flies through the air.

The open sky calls out. Windows reflect the blue and clouds until each building gazes up in awe, and directs us back to its opposite.

[Image: Reflective windows.]

I can feel the pathways in my mind connecting things, especially where I've connected them a million times before, until my steps have worn down the road beneath me over time, in an indented path that others can now follow.





"In their efforts to study the tools that pigeons use to find direction and position, scientists have repeatedly tried to thwart them. They've released pigeons with magnets attached to their beaks, coils attached to their heads, and ears plugged with cotton. Pigeons have flown wearing frosted goggles and with nerves to different areas of the brain cut.

And still, no matter what the scientists do to them, at least some of the pigeons still manage to find their way home. Even when one laboratory demonstrates an experiment in which their birds' sense of direction was disabled, another lab performs the same experiment and their birds make it home fine.





  The discrepancy is apparently not due to genetics; the researchers have tested for that. And it's apparently not due to differences in the lands over which the pigeons fly. It seems instead to have something to do with the pigeons' upbringing at their home loft--essentially, their loft culture." [7]

From my mother's bedroom window, I can see the T-shaped island in the middle of the East River, halfway to Randall's. I know it used to be a bird sanctuary, but I think it's long since closed down.

"A breed so tough 'you throw one up into a hurricane, they come home.'" [8]

I've wondered if the pigeons in New York actually migrate. Whether being in the city allows warm spaces for them to take shelter, or if the outside-of-the-natural environment impacts their migration instincts from within. But, in theory, there is very little beyond the limitations of a bird.





On East End Ave, between 86th and 87th, in front of the old red-brick brownstones, the sidewalk was littered with white petals every spring. I saw a deep-red flower on the ground and Daniel pulled my hand away as I was reaching. We turned to continue on our walk to school and I was told a dead pigeon was laying on the ground beside the flower. It had been pierced by the barbed wire along the window ledge above. I hadn't seen it, a couple feet from where I'd been.

[Image: The Bird's Last Song.]







The morning my mom came into my room to tell me Paulie died, I was sitting in front of my mirror, straightening my hair. It was still dark outside my windows and the only light on was my bedside lamp.

Not too bright. Lit, but glowing. Dawn or dusk. On the cusp of a different way of seeing.

Manhattanhenge is light shaped like a perfect grid.

The sky becomes layered with purple, pink or orange or some combination of them all. Everything is kissed with light in a certain way, to look metallic.

Paulie slept by clinging high up on the bars of his cage. Using just his feet.

In San Francisco, I noticed many pigeons missing toes. They were walking along the cable car tracks and I imagined how it happened.

I did not cry.







[1] Montgomery, Sy. Birdology. Simon and Schuster Australia, 2010.

[2] Montgomery.

[3] Bartlett, Craig. "Spelling Bee/Pigeon Man." Hey Arnold!, season 1, episode 15, Nickelodeon, 11 Jan. 1998.

[4] "INTJ Personality ('The Architect')." 16Personalities, www.16personalities.com/intj-personality.

[5] 16Personalities

[6] Robertson, Lisa. Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. Coach House Books, 2011.

[7] Montgomery.

[8] Montgomery.

[9] Weinshall Liberman, Judith. The Bird's Last Song. Addison-Wesley, 1976.






About five years ago, in a used bookstore in Ithaca called Autumn Leaves, I found a small booklet about building lofts for racing pigeons. I was captivated by a photograph of pigeons in their little cubicles, the way that it reminded me of my own parakeet, of the view from the window of my mother's NYC apartment—where I grew up and where I was still living until my late-twenties—and of the way that something meant to wander freely needed a structure to come home to. I first wrote this essay in 2018, and the photographs came later, in the summer of 2020. I no longer live in that apartment, but that view, that proximity to the sky, will always be a part of how I see the world.