In the film “On the Waterfront,” longshoreman Terry Molloy — who usually makes his point with a fist — tells his future girlfriend, Katie Doyle — softly and somewhat wistfully — that pigeons mate for life.
In the film, Terry raises pigeons in well-kept cages, caring for them in a way he doesn’t care for his own species. Adults have taught him to care only about himself and his brother, Charley, who once lived together in a horrible orphanage. But even Charley has let Terry down, thwarting Terry when he tried to become a boxing champ by getting him to throw a fight for their corrupt union boss, Johnny Friendly.
Terry — played by Marlon Brando — flies pigeons competitively with his friends, including fellow longshoreman Joey Doyle. That is, until Terry unwittingly aids Johnny Friendly in getting up to a rooftop, from which Joey is thrown to his death by Friendly’s henchmen. (By Joey’s death, Johnny Friendly hopes to scare longshoremen from reporting his actions to the crime commission investigating waterfront corruption.)
Terry is upset by his complicity in the death of Joey, whom he thought would only be roughed up. Grateful for the attention of Johnny, who has acted as a father substitute, Terry has until now turned a blind eye to Johnny’s actions.
Inside a bar where Terry takes Katie to get to know her better, Terry scoffs when Katie tells him that she believes everybody ought to help one another. We can see from Terry’s face — and hear from his aching voice — that some part of him would like to believe she’s right. But having cast his lot with Johnny Friendly, he’s confused.
I’ve been thinking about Terry’s dilemma since Angel Ortiz, a doorman at 3611 Henry Hudson Parkway, pointed out a nest built by a male pigeon on a tree branch in front of our building. For several weeks, I watched a male and a female pigeon take turns sitting on a next of twigs. The male and female each spent 12 hours a day caring for the eggs.
From the circular nest of mostly twigs, a blue ribbon — thrown in with the other building materials — dangled, lending the tableau an air of gaiety.
Each day I couldn’t wait to see the parent sitting on its nest of twigs. Every time I looked, the male or female pigeon would be sitting peaceably, content to perform its role of guarding over the eggs. At 5 o’clock every evening, the male would leave, and the female would take over. Never did I see the nest unguarded.
Which is not to say that it couldn’t happen. I looked up pigeons on the internet and learned that, if threatened — say by a person shaking the branch — the parent might abandon the nest and build another somewhere else. Then a woman entering my building told me about a Jewish directive — regarded as a mitzvah — to shoo away a parent from its nest.
Researching the story, I found out the reason for the command, which is to prevent the parent from witnessing the removal of the eggs or chicks — in other words, to teach compassion.
Maybe children don’t know about compassion, but adults should. My doorman says that as a boy in Puerto Rico, he used to capture baby pigeons and raise them in a cage he built out of wood and a piece of screen. I asked him if he doesn’t consider separating chicks from their parents cruel, to which he answered, “I was a boy!”
Similarly, I was watching the nest when a little boy who lives across the hallway left the building excitedly, carrying a jar and a tiny net for catching butterflies. A loving boy, he likes to throw his arms around my legs whenever he sees me, telling me he loves me, although I’ve done nothing except smile and say hello.
I suggested to him that he observe the butterflies without capturing them, since he won’t be able to feed them, and perhaps their relatives will miss them. The boy thought about it, agreeing that it might be better not to take the butterflies home.
The pigeons’ eggs hatched on schedule, and I got to watch a parent feed its squabs with milk the parent produced from its own glands. The squabs will share the nest with its parents until they are ready to learn how to fly.
Then they will venture from the nest to walk along the branch, perhaps taking little hops to test their wings’ power — much like a human baby will lift itself off the living room floor again and again, each time falling, until — miracle of miracles — it manages not to.