On Seventh Avenue a little family of sparrows is growing in one of the streetlamps. I’ve watched the two parents delivering takeout to the kids, who have their full growth now and are starting to peek out. I can see what looks like singing going on up there, but the subway drowns the sound out. Behind the wrought-iron gates of the seminary garden over on 20th Street is a whole other story. The garden is full of sparrows and starlings and doves, and the singing there is just as loud and beautiful as the explosions of flowers pouring over the iron fence. Walking along that particular block at the magic hour, at just this time of year, I can really marvel at the prettiness of it all, and the seminary garden block is one of the fluffiest parts of New York outside of Central Park. When I’ve stopped to listen to the singing in the garden, I’ve more than once found myself transported back to a lost moment from childhood, deep in a forest full of moss and sword ferns where the melodies floated down from the highest deep green of very old trees. That kind of singing had more mystery in it than the neighborhood singing of New York that happens mostly right at eye level, but the closeness of the city birds is as much a part of the natural rhythm as the subway down beneath the sidewalk.

Yesterday in the grocery store, two little notes from a song playing found their way to my ears through the din, two single piano notes, and right away I thought: 151. That was the number on the jukebox at Mars Bar for Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” I played it whenever I went in that place, which was on a dark corner all those years ago, and I remembered a drink they had called a blue whale and that Taylor Mead would often be sitting there when I went in. It was a small place and in the nighttime crowd only certain notes made it through the noise unless you stood right over the jukebox. That bar is long gone, along with the building it stood in and Taylor Mead, too, but when those notes came through the din of the grocery store thirty years on, the number 151 came too.

I was wondering at how that works, how a sound or scent can unearth entire memories almost whole, when a friend of mine came out of my bathroom, which has a skylight, and told me how nice she thought it was to sit there and listen to the birds singing on the roof. I’ve thought the same thing and wondered what they look like in their nest, which must be very close to the skylight, but because opening the door to the roof sets off an alarm I can’t go up and see for myself. They are doves, though, that much is obvious from their conversations around the nest, and in the early morning, they make me think of Rome. They also remind me of my friend Vali Myers and her garden in the South of Italy, and also too of the crummy little apartment where I lived for a while on 11th Street and Avenue C with windows on the airshaft full of doves.

Once I went to Rome and stayed in a cheap hotel by the train station. My window looked onto rooftops. The WC cabinet had no window, but in the wall behind the toilet was a small, square door about the size of a pot holder with ornate hinges and fastened shut with a hook. I wondered about it, but at first it didn’t occur to me to open the little door. I thought it must be where the cleaning supplies were kept, but it really wasn’t big enough for that, so after a while curiosity won out and I unlatched the little door and opened it. Inside was a clay pipe which opened into an airshaft full of pale gray light. The surprise was the big, luxurious nest someone had built inside the pipe, and in it, three or four perfect eggs. I shut the little door very quickly. I remember thinking that it was probably lucky that the mama was out when I opened it, and that perhaps no one ever opened it, or if they did, whoever built the nest wasn’t worried about it. I remember wondering if it was all intentional, and if someone opened the door to take the eggs, because there are people who love to eat tiny eggs, and it took some hours for it to dawn on me that the clay pipe had not been installed just for that purpose, but as a way to air out the toilet. In the early mornings there must have been birds singing outside, but all I remember is the little door behind the toilet.  And yet the sounds of mourning doves here in New York always make me think of Rome.

On 24th Street there stands an old house where someone on the top floor props the window open with two plastic globes of the earth, and sometimes with an old cello as well, and I always see doves flying in and out when I pass by. And whenever the world chafes too much with all of its irreversible ruin and impending calamity, I think about the birds, who will likely survive and take over everything. I imagine how much they will enjoy living in our houses without the irksome presence of us, the people, and imagining that lessens my dread. Vali used to say New York would make a beautiful ruin, with all the great towers covered in flora and inhabited by critters. I said so to my friend when she remarked on the birds singing in the bathroom, and she agreed. The Empire State Building, she said. It would make the most splendid pigeon house ever built.

 May 28, 2017 
Text & Photos copyright Romy Ashby

1 comment: