It happened in Copley Square, Boston, but it could have been any open space in any big city. While eating lunch outside I attracted several dozen hopeful pigeons. They waddled in circles at my feet and glared at me reproachfully as no crumbs appeared.
Impudent little beggars, I thought. There were sleek pigeons with heavy jowls of chartreuse and violet, svelte pigeons trimmed in white and glove-gray, vulturous pigeons without neck feathers, exactly the color of black construction paper left to fade in the sun. Most were too fat to inspire much pity, and I was annoyed by their cocksure air that I would in time, break down and share my sandwich.
Nevertheless, it was difficult to dislike such affable bums. Wallace Stevens ended the poem ''Sunday Morning'' with the lines: At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make Ambiguous undulations as they sink Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
Ambiguous undulations. Was Stevens merely describing their rambling flight, or was he alluding to something more? Perhaps he sensed that pigeons contain many meanings, and that our feelings about them are not clearly defined. Pigeons are not easily pigeonholed.
Were we to be let loose in some exotic park and allowed to wander amidst hundreds of handsome, variegated birds, we would spend our time in delight and admiration. But we are practiced in the art of ignoring pigeons. Familiarity has bred indifference, the same way that we no longer search the faces of fellow subway passsengers, though we might have when first coming to the city.
It was not always so. Pigeons were once our messengers. Though their homing talent has been exploited for centuries, it is still baffling today.
A plump fledgling settled on one leg and closed a pale gray eyelid. Yes, pigeons are deeply familiar, their images stamped on Sumerian coins from 4500 B. C., their flights woven into the fabric of our history. Genghis Khan and the Sultan of Baghdad kept track of their empires by pigeon. Medieval leaders in besieged castles used them to deliver communiques. While you sleep, young pigeon , do you dream of ancestral heroes, of long journeys guided by your internal magnets, of times when men welcomed you as a harbinger and hailed you as ''the dove of peace?''
Some people's resentment of pigeons goes deeper than the familiar jokes about pigeons bombing outdoor cafes and parades, or complaints of fouled buildings and sidewalks. It may be lodged in the discomfiting feelings they prompt in us about us.
Their looks reflect aspects of the city we would rather ignore: feathers the color of smoke and asphalt, feet of decayed bubble gum. Their constant prowling and pecking create a faint whiff of the barnyard, a nervous suspicion that we are not running our homestead too well if these fowl are permitted to roam at will.
Control, or our lack of it, is the rub. The city, of all places on earth, is uniquely man's, and these birds dare to remain, to thrive where others have long since fled, to remind us of a world which, try as we might to conquer and control, we are at a loss to understand. And unlike the more discreet cockroaches and mice (also lingerers in the city), pigeons walk the streets openly. They strut among humans with a disquieting air that they own the place.
Loren Eiseley touched upon this nerve in The Immense Journeym, when he described watching pigeons at dawn from a New York City hotel room. ''In and out through the open slits in the cupolas passed the white winged birds on their mysterious errands. At this hour the city was theirs, and quietly, without the brush of a single wing tip against stone in that high, eerie place, they were taking over the spires of Manhattan.''
To some, this is vaguely threatening; to Eiseley and others, the parallel city of pigeons is a blessing, a reassurance that man is neither completely alone nor completely in charge of the earth. A little girl of about two came stumbling over the grass toward the flock, her face alight, her arms wide as though she wished to hug every bird. Pigeons can stir remembrances of kinship with other animals, of contact with a fresh and untrampled world, of dreams of talking with the birds and beasts. They can bespeak paradise.
With the exception of children, who have not yet learned that pigeons are vulgar, those who pay attention to them are generally old, poor, or outcast, themselves familiar with gleaning a meager existence from the leavings of an urban machine beyond their comprehension. It is not surprising they share food and make friends with pigeons. Perhaps they envy their insouciance and freedom to fly away from a confining city. Essayist Peter Steinhart says that ''feeding is our way of putting ourselves into the spirit of such things . . . the crumbs we toss to a pigeon take wing.''
The pigeons left me to greet an old woman a few yards away. A moment later she was immersed in pigeons. Her several chins worked rhythmically as she spoke to them, but all I heard were staccato wingbeats and low coos of pleasure. She was speaking to them in some greater language, in an ancient communion of breaking bread together, beasts tamed through a love of God. Passersby stopped to stare.
Only crazy old ladies feed pigeons, we believe. We remember the imbecile Bird Woman in Mary Poppinsm, whose only words were ''feed the birds, tuppence a bag.'' We allow our children to indulge in such things but teach them to grow up and leave these sentiments behind.
Our feelings about pigeons are indeed ambiguous. We despise them one moment and entice them to our hands the next. We allot it to the babies, the elderly, the fringes of respectable society to express our desire for contact with beasts , to serve as safe vessels of fondness for such silly things as pigeons. Our sentimentality is thus apportioned; we can have our cake and feed it too.
The old lady departed as suddenly as she had come, tottering with her empty bags across the street toward the subway. She was again a frail, inconspicuous old woman - a snuffed candle. But for a moment she had been kindled with the burning love of saints.
Without thinking, I reached for a few broken crackers in my lunch bag. At first the pigeons were wary. But as one tiptoed closer, his eyes fixed on my hand and his head tilted in a question, I wondered why my heart was beating so.