All Hail Pale Male

by Thomas Beller

12/16/2004

927 5th Avenue, 10021

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

Photo: Lincoln Karim

It looked like a crime scene.

Yellow ticking cordoned off part of the sidewalk next to the awning of 927 Fifth Avenue, at 74th Street. Across the street a two-person camera crew stood shivering next to their tripod. They were journalists, it appeared from a distance; on closer inspection, they were journalism students from the graduate school at Columbia. A man and a woman, black and white, in cheerful disagreement on everything except the fact that they were both very cold. Vonnie, from Limerick, Ireland, was fiddling with the camera. Justin, from Atlanta, Georgia, had his hands in his pockets and bounced from foot to foot.

“So who is the on camera personality?” I asked.

“She is!” said Justin.

“He is!” said Vonnie.

“So you’re doing a story on the hawk?” I said.

“Yes,” said Vonnie.

“Sort of,” said Justin. “We started out doing a story on pigeons rights. Then this happened.”

The long unbroken sidewalk along Central Park sloped gracefully in either direction, nearly empty of people and debris. Stark noontime shadows of leafless trees and shafts of sun were the only decoration. It was just Vonnie (blond hair in a pony tail, bright pink cheeks), Justin (tears streaming down his cheeks, big easy smile), and now me. Then another man arrived. He looked up. Up was where the action was.

Then a man on a bike arrived wearing a yellow rainslicker whose hood was closely buttoned around his face. In spite of the freezing cold, this man was wearing sandals with no socks. His name was Chan, he said. I had the uneasy feeling he wasn’t wearing much under the rain slicker.

The camera was a kind of hearth. We all huddled around and looked up to where men were working on scaffolding just below the roof, putting back what they recently removed.

“Where is he now?” I asked.

“I hear he was circling the Carlyle,” someone replied.

“Apartment hunting.”

“He’s got expensive taste.”

“Does the Carlyle have a co-op board?”

“According to real estate law, he has a right to stay,” said Chan. “He’s been there since 1993. More than six months.”

The wind was gusting and the yellow ticking had become unmoored and flapped in the wind. It looked like a crime scene, but what was the crime? Had someone been shot? Was there a jumper? No. Dead bodies had lain on that sidewalk on many occasions-–the carcasses of dead pigeons, torn to shreds by one of the building’s famous residents, a hawk named Pale Male. But what we were witnessing was not a death, or even an eviction, but a restoration, a restitution, a capitulation. Who had capitulated? A co-op board. The board had evicted the tenants (crimes: not paying maintenance, shitting on the sidewalk, throwing the occasional pigeon carcass down to the street, worse even than kids chucking water balloons). Now the board had backed down.

“What makes a co-op board back down?” I said out loud.

“Bad press,” someone said. We were all silent as we contemplated this particular force of nature, so powerful it could move co-op boards.

Pale Male, the evicted tenant, along with his “companion,” Lola, were media personalities, in a sense. They were the subject of documentary programs on public televsion. This very stretch of sidewalk was home to a kind of avian paparazzi who congregated regularly in order to observe them.

(Speaking of Lola– Press reports always refer to her as Pale Male’s “Companion.” Is this another example of the liberal media’s nefarious attack on the family unit? Where is the family values crowd on the semantics of Hawk Love? Would they prefer “Mate?”)

There are other media personalities in the building. One of them is a woman who once played a journalist on TV. Another is a woman who currently plays a journalist on TV. So there was a theme to the crime scene– TV News. Fittingly, there were many vans from the city’s television news stations parked nearby—New York 1, WB, Bloomberg, and Vonnie Quinn and Justin Finch.

All the TV journalists were inside their vans. Only Vonnie Quinn and Justin Finch stood shivering beside their tripod, the camera pointed up, towards a scaffold just beneath the roof’s mansard. Men were working. There were putting the metal spikes back. The metal spikes were there as a deterrent. They deterred pigeons. They also provided the anchor for Pale Male’s nest. When the nest was removed once before, he rebuilt. But this time, without the pigeon deterrents, the odds were he would have to move. In replacing the pigeon deterrents, they were providing an anchor for the hawk’s nest.

Justin and Vonnie finished shooting and began to pack. I asked Vonnie, who arrived in New York this past August, what people back in Limerick, Ireland, thought of her going to journalism school in America.

“I think they’re all jealous,” she said.

She continued her good-natured squabbling with Justin.

The other journalists came out of their vans one by one. Their cameras were bigger, and the microphones had a corporate logo on it, but they seemed unbrave and unattractive compared to Vonnie and Justin.

“You guys should both report the piece, and then both sit behind a desk, co-anchors, criticizing each other and squabbling about what it all means,” I said. “It will be great!”

They looked unconvinced, and waved good-bye to me and Chan.

We watched the news crews grab a few interviews. A woman walking a big white dog talked about Lincoln Karim, the most dedicated Pale Male watcher who had become tabloid fodder the day before when he made a threatening remark to a seven year old resident of the building whose parents were behind the Hawk’s removal. Karim had been arrested.

I watched her tell a reporter from the WB that Karim was, “such a such a sweet guy. I’ve known him for years.”

She pointed out that the one bright side of his arrest was that the building, in perhaps an early sign of its desire to thaw the confrontation with protesters, allowed for Karim’s telescopic equipment to be stored in the basement while he was booked.

There was a peculiar moment as she began to walk away. The journalist put the microphone to her mouth and asked for her name. She hesitated, gave her first name, and took a step. The journalist asked for her last name. She hesitated again. Her dog looked up expectantly. I could see the conflict cross her face—the desire for privacy bumping into the feeling that she had nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of, in turn bumping into the feeling that she didn’t owe this guy with the microphone anything.

She gave her last name and then walked away. The dog’s tongue was out.

Now it was just me and Chan, in his yellow windbreaker, peering up at the building. I turned to him and asked him what brought him here in sandals.

“I have birds of my own,” he said. “I love birds.”

He biked here from his place on West Fourteenth Street, he told me, to cheer people up. I looked down at his feet. Cold bare toes, red from cold.

“Why aren’t you wearing socks?” I said.

“So that I don’t have to wash them,” he replied.

I didn’t pursue this. Instead I looked up to the workers one more time, and noticed that carved in bas relief into the building’s limestone façade were two large images of birds of prey. They were fierce, predatory, threatening, and, it seemed, very at home on Fifth Avenue.

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