No one likes being shat on by a bird, but when on a bright sunny day in Union Square a pigeon in a tree above me bespattered my jacket I had a particular sense of injustice. The mess on my sleeve wasn’t just a bit of bad luck, it disturbed my sense of the essential fairness of the universe and upset my faith that good deeds are rewarded. It was only a few days before that I had done what I considered an outsized good deed on behalf of another of the very same species that nailed me, and it didn’t sit right.
My act of kindness took place in October during an eight-day stretch of pouring rain. A squall had moved into New York and stayed on like a bad reputation. Day after day it rained. Streets and subways flooded, commuting times and the price of umbrellas doubled, and New York’s eight million inhabitants didn’t have a dozen pairs of dry socks among them. One afternoon about five days into the deluge I was bringing our tenants their mail when I found a pigeon standing on the pavement in front of their door. It was small, thin and very wet and gazed about it with that uncomplaining acceptance of destiny that sick animals have. It had chosen a spot that gave it a bit of shelter from the rain and wind but was still getting battered a good deal. When I came close it didn’t flee, but took just a few steps away from me. I thought it might have been washed out of a nest and was too young to fly.
Although I yield to no one in my love of nature and have a particular appreciation for birds, I’m no fan of pigeons. I consider them parasites on our urban culture, scavengers with no self-respect, gorgers on the spoils of our greed, rebukers of our waste and sloth. I don’t understand why anyone would feed them or take any interest in them at all. So when I saw this pigeon and its distressed situation my only reaction was to say, “Don’t die on my property.”
I didn’t think much more about it until later that evening when I sat reading in the living room and heard a person outside cooing. I looked out the window and saw my tenant Jonah, a young man who writes music criticism for a magazine too hip to have me as a subscriber, on his hands and knees on the pavement, offering bread to the woebegone bird and trying to speak to it in its own tongue. So it’s still there, I thought, and made a mental note to dispose of its corpse in the morning before my wife, Gail, or Jonah could see it.
To my surprise, however, the bird was still alive in the morning, still standing in the same spot, quietly waiting in wisdom or ignorance for its fate to complete itself. It had also befouled the pavement quite a bit. It remained there in the rain throughout the day, patient and doomed. By about four in the afternoon its plight had reached even my shallow well of sympathy, so I pulled out our late cat’s carrying case and took it outside. On the first try the pigeon evaded the case smartly, but then I got it cornered, angled the case in front of it and moved in close. Its only escape from me was toward the case and in it went like a dust ball up a vacuum hose. I shut the door, took the case to the basement and put bowls of bread and water inside.
I wasn’t sure whether I was going to tell Gail about the pigeon. She doesn’t like them any more than I do, and she’s rather touchy on the subject of introducing germs, with which she is sure pigeons are riddled. But when she got home from work she asked me if I’d been aware that there had been a pigeon out front and I had to confess. She gave me a long, dubious look that precluded comment.
The next morning I went to check on the pigeon and found that it had eaten all the bread I had left for it and was standing in a thick sludge of guano. I’d heard on the radio that the rain would continue for two more days and thought I ought to do something about the bird’s nutritional status, so I went to the grocery store for bird seed. The smallest bag I could find weighed five pounds, but I lugged it back and poured some into the dish. The pigeon regarded me with its usual unjudging, uncomprehending expression. I imagined it thought that as prisons go, this one wasn’t so bad, then chided myself for anthropomorphizing.
Over the next two days I visited the basement twice a day, bringing fresh water and fresh seed, of which it ate prodigious quantities and scattered the rest into the water and onto the floor. The bird now stood ankle-deep in its own waste. It never uttered a sound and never tried to escape when I opened the door, only retreated a step or two away from me.
Finally, on a Tuesday morning, the rain stopped. The clouds were breaking up in the wind like a tattered sail, it was a little warmer, and the air felt dry. I decided that I had done all I could for the luckless fowl and that from here on it was going to have to take its chances. I cleared the water and food dishes from the case and carried it outside to the park. When I opened the door the pigeon didn’t move, but I was out of patience so I jiggled the case and it tumbled onto the sidewalk. For a moment it remained on the ground, looking around it like a drunk on New Year’s Day, and I thought perhaps my first guess had been right and it wasn’t able to fly. But when I took a step toward it, it launched itself like a rocket and flew a block away to a perch on the window ledge of a house, settling among some of its brethren. I looked in the case and saw that it was as good as ruined—only vigorous scrubbing would remove that gloppy green insult and I was not interested in the job. I took the case home and threw it in the trash, following it with the four and three-quarter pounds of uneaten birdseed. As happy as I was to see the last of my unwanted guest and as little pleasure I had taken in caring for it, I felt an acute sense of satisfaction at my good deed. I had probably saved its life—or extended it, anyway—at no benefit to myself. A bit smugly, I added some check marks to the “positive karma” column in my mental spreadsheet and looked forward to a pleasant little reward in cosmic recompense for my trouble.
My expectations were based on my belief in underlying justice. Although I have no opinion regarding the existence of god, I do believe that the universe does not treat us randomly. One’s fate, I hold, results from one’s actions. Do good and good will come to you, or do evil and mourn. Let another driver change lanes in front of you and somewhere down the road you’ll receive the same courtesy. Give generously to charity and look forward to a pretty good bonus. Shovel a neighbor’s sidewalk and your roof won’t leak.
Obviously, this theory is hogwash. I am no more virtuous than the unfortunate street beggars of Calcutta, yet I am well fed and well looked after while they die young of malnutrition-related disease. Even to hold a theory like mine could be construed as an act of moral callousness. But still. One needs something to grasp, and a flawed theory of the universe is better than none. They’re all flawed, after all, so the only real choice is to choose which flawed theory to sign up for.
Thus my sense of injustice when less than a week after nurturing that pigeon I had to go into Starbucks for a bottle of sparkling water and a wad of napkins to remove enough of its cousin’s bowel contents so that I could get on the subway and into a dry cleaner’s without breaking the public hygiene laws. The unfairness of this humiliation after the trouble I’d taken rankled no end. I rely on my theory of moral rewards to keep my world in balance. This situation so neatly trumped my expectations that I was tempted to see it as some sort of message from the engineers of the universe telling me that I shouldn’t presume to know anything at all about underlying principles. It so flew in the face of all that I thought was right that it implied that there truly is no universal moral structure and that try as one might to do good, there is nothing to prevent not just a tablespoon of pigeon shit from befouling one’s sleeve but a giant cosmic cow flop containing the digested indifference of the stars from burying one in its stinking disregard.
Why, after all, do we launch good deeds into the incurious world if not in the hope that they will return to us? Is there anyone so selfless that he upholds moral values and lends a hand to strangers without thinking that he has earned some sort of cosmological credit and thus added to the good fortune he deserves? Can we live with the idea that charity is an arrow, not a boomerang, and that we gain nothing by helping others? Who would remain virtuous in such an unappreciative world? Who could function in such chaos?
But such is the resilience of my sense of self-justification that it wasn’t more than two days later that I had incorporated these new data into my native theory. Perhaps, I reasoned, my efforts on behalf of the pigeon weren’t unrewarded at all. Perhaps, given my peccadilloes and foibles, my obliquity and turpitude, I had been due a glop of pigeon poop not on the sleeve of a gabardine jacket but smack dab in the center of the head or even full in the face while gazing upward mouth agape. But by having added a little touch of rectitude to the moral accounting, I reasoned, I was spared this vicious splarging, the moral forces at work having nudged me or the evacuating pigeon just a little this way or that so as to mitigate the punishment I was otherwise due.
Thus I found that, nonreligious though I am, I cannot accept the idea of a world without a moral core. Even given such evidence that no one is keeping score, that what happens to me is unconnected to my actions, I found a way to reaffirm my belief that what goes around comes around and we all get what we deserve. As I said, it’s a flawed theory. But at least it’s a theory.