23 September 2006

Feeding The Pigeons

London Mayor Ken Livingstone is a funny guy. Confessed newt-fancier, coddler of Muslim queerbashers and South American dictators, he's also done much to jolt London out of the stodgy rut in which it wallowed for many of the post-war years. These days exciting new buildings are sprouting all over the city and miserable traffic islands like Trafalgar Square have been partially pedestrianised and turned into urban oases. Ken's crusade against the private automobile, typified by his £8 ($15) daily congestion charge for driving into Central London has cut traffic by 20 or 30%, and public transport use has steadily increased.

True, he keeps raising fares, already the highest in the world, but that's only aimed at the handful of middle-class suckers who still pay (okay, I'm exaggerating; maybe as many as half the passengers buy tickets) in order to subsidise free or dirt-cheap travel for teenage muggers and dole recipients, but at least he's buying new buses, tarting up the Underground, and, albeit in fits and starts, genuinely improving a transport system which had been in decline for decades.

So for me, Ken is a mixed bag. As wacky and unpleasant as he can be on some subjects, I can't deny he's done a lot for London. And there's one thing on which he and I agree: the Mayor hates pigeons. If he gets his way, they'll be banished from the city, starting with the above-mentioned Trafalgar Square, where he's slapped a ban on the popular tourist practice of feeding the "feathered rats," as he's fond of calling them.

It seems to be working, too; though there is still no pigeon shortage, numbers do seem to be way down. This being England, of course, there is a significant but vocal minority of pigeon fanciers who are outraged over the Mayor's crusade and have declared themselves ready to go to prison if need be to defend their favourite fowl's right to continue fouling the statuary and insufficiently nimble pedestrians.

The pigeons still reign unchallenged out in the obscure precincts of Zone 2 where I make my home. They've driven off pretty most other forms of bird life from the little park where I do my morning t'ai chi, and, confirming the Mayor's characterisation of them, I've seen them foraging in the undergrowth, side by side with some fairly prodigious rats. Their only avian - or should that be amphibian? - competition for the local food supply, i.e., rubbish left behind by the park's numerous tramps and gangbangers - are the ducks and swans that roam the adjacent canal.

Several times a week an old lady or man will stroll down to the park with a sack of bread crumbs and empty them into the canal, which drives the pigeons mad because they can't get at them. But a few of the elderly do-gooders come specifically to feed the pigeons, and though I'd like to challenge them - "Oi, you know those filthy birds spread disease, drive out other birds, damage public monuments and will shit on your head given half a chance, don't you?" - it's hard to say boo to an 80-something old dear who may not have many other joys in her life. And, knowing my neighbourhood, many of them would clobber me with their handbags. Or send their recently-released-from-prison grandsons around to thump me with something more substantial.

In case you're wondering why I'm banging on at such length about pigeons, I should tell you that I didn't set out to write about pigeons at all, but rather about feral street people in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. The author of this otherwise reasonably balanced piece managed to wind me up by repeatedly referring to them as "kids" when in fact most of them seem to be (at least) in their 20s, making it sound as though they were a pack of winsome little children cast out onto the Dickensian street by a cruel, uncaring society.

In reality, the article makes it evident that they're mainly drug addicts and alcoholics of the usual sort; only the fact that they're clad in the last tattered vestiges of the Haight's hippie past differentiates them from the more conventional skid row denizens down on Market Street and in the Tenderloin. It also gains them sympathy and support from the same sort of people who would probably be out feeding pigeons if their human equivalent weren't closer at hand.

In wondering why people feed pigeons when they're clearly not very pleasant or congenial creatures, I've come to the conclusion that they see them in Magoo-like fashion: they've got feathers, they fly, therefore they must be like those lovely songbirds that used to cluster around Grandma's backyard feeder. Similarly, when the Haight Street hustlers wear a bit of paisley or tie-dye and intersperse their please for spare change with an occasional "far out," it allows nostalgic hippie-philes to delude themselves that by supplying the unfortunate derelicts with free food, booze, and syringes they're supporting 60s-style peace, love and freedom.

The SF Weekly piece is centred around one "Lilac," an ex-con, drug dealer and thief who's pushing 30 but still qualifies as a "street kid," apparently because of his blond dreadlocks and his "piercing blue eyes." Granted, we've all got our own personal prejudices; I found myself thinking I could overlook his panhandling, drug dealing, maybe even his thieving (though I'd have to draw the line at the laptop he filched from a student in Texas, which puts him into full-on scumbag territory in my book) if it weren't for those damn dreadlocks and that unfortunate nickname.

Meanwhile, San Francisco's Mayor Newsom has been hanging out in New York (I don't blame him; it's certainly a much more pleasant place), apparently trying to figure out how to run a city. He sends back this dispatch explaining how he's going to do for Golden Gate Park what New York has done for Central Park, namely turn it into an urban oasis of civility and tranquillity, but I suspect "Lilac" and his mates will have something to say about that. "This is our living space — Golden Gate Park is ours," he says, in the course of complaining about how the San Francisco Opera had ruined the atmosphere in the park by putting on a free concert when he and his friends were "sitting around smoking bowls and trying to sell some bud."

San Francisco mayors have been promising to solve the (pick one) homeless/street bum situation as far back as the 1970s, and none of them have made much progress. Gavin Newsom might as well stay in New York for all the effect his own efforts are likely to have. There are just too many Frisco folks determined to keep feeding the pigeons.

1 comment:

Anna said...

I hate pidgeons too, i wish the old dears (patronising, i know but i really wish they wouldnt do it) not waste their food on the rats with wings. i am not entirely in favour of ken but on this issue (and my free bus pass for 15-16 year olds - i have limited money so free bus is plus)i agree. i would rather nothave to dodge pidgeon crap or circumnavigate the pavement in order to avoid them.