02 August 2007

The Pigeon and the Plant

Scene of the crime

Some years ago, my boss threw a temper tantrum and locked himself in his hotel room during a business trip to Florida. He refused to come out, and since he also refused to answer his telephone or to speak to anybody, or even to listen to the several people shouting blandishments and pleas at him through the door, it took all our cunning and persuasion to talk him down.

At the time, I told myself that this was an isolated incident, uncharacteristic of my boss; I resolutely overlooked many similar outbursts. He did have the decency to feel sorry after the Florida trip, or at least to say he felt sorry, and he sent me a potted plant by way of atonement.

It was an immense spathiphyllum, so big that it dominated its corner of my living-room. It required little light, and could go several days without being watered. This was a good thing, since I traveled a lot, and my roommate thought it was ugly; he made no secret of hoping that neglect would hasten its demise. I'd come home to find its soil dry, its leaves limp. But it would spring back to life after a few minutes under the faucet.

On yet another trip, my boss threw another temper tantrum. I lost patience and started to yell back at him; my job was forfeit as a result.

I started to feel pretty ambivalent about that plant.

One more victim in the Naked City

As I sat there, unemployed, the spathiphyllum began to look sinister. It was a swamp creature. Its leaves were dark, muscular and malignant, its blossoms impertinent. It had never been pretty. Now it was like a monkey with an erection — an angry, brooding, possibly rabid monkey.

I moved it to the bathroom.

I continued to travel a lot, which meant that I continued to neglect the plant for intervals short and long. Over time, the plant shrank, until it was too small for its big ceramic pot, and after a few more years it stopped blossoming, which struck me as botanically improbable, though I freely grant that it knew its nature better than I could. But nothing, not even my roommate, seemed able to kill it outright.

I got a new job, moved first to Brooklyn, then back to Manhattan: the plant never seemed to notice these changes. It moved to a plastic pot on a little shelf under the bathroom window, where it got excellent light yet didn't quite rebound. My new home had rats; I blamed them for everything that went wrong in the building. I was sure that every time I came into the bathroom, they took refuge behind the plant, lurking behind it, using it for some nefarious purpose.

Just in time to mark the twentieth anniversary of my moving to New York, I was laid off from that new job. Being laid off isn't conducive to a positive outlook, and on one of my gloomier days, I reckoned that all my jobs had ended in some kind of disaster: three employers had let me go; another sold his company and left the country without warning. I was production assistant for a Broadway musical that closed after four performances and briefly held a record for losing money. Clearly, there was something about making it in the big city that I just hadn't grasped.

Meanwhile, friends had published novels, given birth, sung operas, directed plays, made movies, earned living wages, built homes and then summer homes; I had nothing but a sick houseplant to show for my troubles. Maybe this was a good time to consider going somewhere else.

I'd never taken a semester abroad while I was in college, and this seemed the right time to remedy that lapse by moving to France. I arranged to put most of my belongings in storage, and I can't say I was disappointed to learn that the warehouse explicitly forbade houseplants. I'd have to get rid of the spathiphyllum.

I didn't even bother to ask whether any friends wanted to adopt it. Other departing neighbors had gotten rid of houseplants by setting them at the foot of a tree at the curb in front of our building, creating a ragtag little garden. And so one morning, the spathiphyllum took its place there, too.

Within an hour, a plump grey pigeon had nestled in the plastic planter, among the leaves of my plant. He seemed happy enough to be there — he didn't budge, even when I came near him. Nothing spooked him, nothing made him leave his new roost. Even allowing for the standards of a New York pigeon, he was unflappable. As it were.

I went on about my business, running errands, packing, cleaning house, coming and going. After a couple of hours had passed, I realized that it was less likely that the pigeon was nesting and more likely that he was ill. I felt sorry, but I could hardly call a vet. Anyway, what's one pigeon less, in a city like New York?

Late that afternoon, the pigeon was still there. He wasn't moving at all now, and his head drooped, resting on the leaves of my plant. I figured he'd succumbed to his illness,and I'd better dispose of him. If he'd eaten some rat poison, and some dog or cat ate him, the consequences would be dire. But as I came nearer, I saw the truth.

His heart had been cut out.

Typically, I was quick to blame the rats — I cursed the carnivorous fiends that gnawed at the poor creature! But then I noticed the precision, the surgical care with which the bird's heart, and only his heart, had been removed. Some human, some passerby, some neighbor, some New Yorker had done the job.

Was the culprit's motivation bloodlust or Santería? Was the plant cursed, or was I? Was somebody trying to tell me something?

For the timing was too tidy to ignore. In 21 years in New York, I'd never found a murdered pigeon on my doorstep. But now, on the eve of my unglorious departure, I did. And not merely on my doorstep, but amid the greasy green leaves of the plant that was born of my inability to cope with my former boss — a botanical testament to a personal failure. Among so many, many personal failures.

As I stared, my civic conscience stopped bothering me, and I forgot about removing the corpse. Nobody noticed the dead bird. Nobody noticed me. The spathiphyllum kept its counsel.

What's one pigeon less? What's one Bill Madison less? New York, and all its inscrutable mysteries, would go on without us.