The pigeon boys on the rooftop of the tenement building on the corner of Avenue C and East Fourth Street unfurled a red flag over the edge of the parapet. Immediately the cries of “bajando” rose from the lookouts on the street. This meant that a squad car had been spotted and was a warning to the drug dealers to move along. If the pigeon boys had displayed a green flag, the shouts would have been “tato bien” short for “everything is good”, more often than not shortened even more to just “tato”. The pigeon boys bred and trained the birds and kept them in cages on the rooftops. They were kids twelve or thirteen years old. They staged pigeon wars where it was hoped that your lead bird would be strong enough to lead other flocks to your roof and that meant you won the battle. The owner of the hostage flock would have to pay to get his birds back. It was common to see a knot of pigeons swirling in a circular dance lower and lower, hypnotized and lured by a primeval force to land against their will on an alien rooftop. This pigeon dance was so lyrical that I always stopped to watch it. Because the pigeon boys were on the rooftops so much, the drug dealers liked to employ them as lookouts using the flag system. Down below, the squad car would make its way slowly through streets of crumbling burned buildings and empty lots full of broken glass, never stopping, but scattering the junkies like roaches in the light.
Photograph of East Fourth Street in 1984 by my dear friend Marlis Momber. See more of her work at vivaloisaida.org and read more about her here.
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