Arjen Mulder, Maaike Post

The City of Homeless Pigeons

Early in the mornings that spring, we always sat waiting until the curtain opened and the father fed the son his porridge. In the light of the kitchen lamp the little boy sat waiting in his high chair at the wooden table. The father fiddled at the counter, put the kettle on the stove, took a carton of milk from the refrigerator, filled a bottle, put it in the microwave, took the packet of porridge flakes, waited until the 'ping' sounded, and finally stirred the milk into the cereal.

By that time the kettle had begun to whistle, and the father poured the steaming water into the teapot, after having taken a teabag from the kitchen cupboard. All this time Papa stood with his back to his son, and all this time the little boy sat peeking at us from the corner of his eye, as if, like us, he could see almost everything around him. Grown-ups have to turn their faces toward you to see you. The little boy kept his pacifier in his mouth until the moment he had to eat his porridge, and he hummed a little tune. The father set the porridge dish on a gaily colored tray before him on the table and stirred it with a white spoon. The little boy got a spoon of his own. And then the competition began on which bets could be placed: Would he eat the porridge all in one go? Would he eat half and then begin to be a pest? Would he refuse to take even one bite? Would the father have to feed him all of it, or would the little boy eat by himself? Would the father get angry, and if so, how angry? (We once saw him cuff his son's ears and then wait until the child had finished crying, whereupon he gave him a kiss and said he was sorry and the little boy ate his porridge without grumbling.) Or would he try to distract him with various tricks and get the porridge into him, as it were, without him noticing? And that’s where we came in. For what better means did the father have at hand than to point to us, where we sat on the neighbors' balcony railing diagonally behind, barely four meters away, pretending to be asleep, heads drawn in, as if we did not notice that there was light shining on us or were not interested in humans in the first place, obviously regarding them as part of nature akin to trees and clouds? We see everything. And we hear, too, practically everything that's said, except when the radio is turned up loud, as the father sometimes had it, in a sign that his mood that morning would not prove flexible. After the meal the father said: Great, son, come, let’s go see Mama in the big bed. He set the little boy on the floor (from where he raced into the hall), picked up the teapot and two cups, and disappeared from view for an hour or so. What went on in the bedroom did not interest us; by then, the morning had begun.

I was born in the City of Eternal Peace. That’s what it says in my passport. I remember nothing of that city, for my parents had already left it in a dispute by the time my memory began to function. They were fanatical 2.0-ites, Henk and Anna; they even belonged to one of the pressure groups that finally succeeded in getting the original plan passed by the city council as the only logical next step for a government standing down. Once 2.0 was there and everyone had chosen a city, the endless moving began. The stories had it that moving from place to place had always been an Amsterdam disease, but now things really got serious. It was true that your city could be anywhere and your neighbours could live in different cities from you - and if you wanted to change cities you simply stayed where you were and reported your move on the city's website - but that didn't change the fact that a flat was still a flat and noisy neighbours were still noisy neighbours. So people moved at least as often as they had before, and the housing shortage didn't go away just like that. Although it became less severe now that so many Amsterdammers had left for the towns of Purmerend and Almere, which were still 1.0 then. And in addition, members of certain population groups preferred to stay in or move to the same neighbourhoods, for example because a mosque, market, swimming pool or park was nearby, or because a certain neighbourhood was in fashion. When the housing market collapsed and the building regulations were abolished, a year or so after de facto autonomy was introduced in the region, Amsterdam 2.1, 2.2 and 2.x were within reach. Everyone intrepidly got down to the business of physically building their ideal, and if it wasn’t possible here, than it would be somewhere in the area. With all the red tape either done away with or automated, there was nothing to stop them. Eternal Peace proved to attract mainly a querulous sort of person who hated the neighbors because they smoked, lounged naked in the back garden or took apart cars in the courtyard. The weekly or monthly village fête became the place to vent pent-up frustrations that, in the atmosphere of radical tolerance everyone in 2.0 was meant to embrace, were bottled up until they boiled over. This did nothing for the conviviality of the peaceniks, but Henk and Anna held out for seven years before finally exchanging their original ideal for something else. All anyone remembered from the difficult early days was the family slogan that was uttered whenever Mao and I argued: Eternal peace has broken out again. The official line was that they had to leave Peace behind because Mao and I had to go to school, and the best place for that was the Babelbolo.

Most wrongdoings committed by people are a consequence of the fact that people have no animals that look like them living in their direct environment. All they see is people; humans are their measure for everything. They cannot imagine that the life they lead can also be led by others but experienced very differently. People have no other wingless bipeds around them - dogs and cats are so clearly different that people dare to ascribe human feelings to them without feeling short-changed by the comparison. To be honest, even dogs - at least the ones here - are fairly stupid animals who do not know why they are alive. They run around and bark and wouldn't hurt a fly. They like everyone but obey only those who snap at them. Cats are aware of their place in the bigger picture. They hunt with a goal in mind and wouldn't shy away from the ultimate horror: eating you. They feel an affinity for people, although they are totally uninterested in most. A cat likes only that one person who operates on the same emotional frequency as it does and thus wishes to keep it alive. It is a limited emotional range, but an intense one. We will not speak of the more pitiful pets: sad caged birds who die if they are let out for one day because they cannot tell food from rubbish. Or the animals bound to water: fish, frogs, tortoises (though the latter sometimes manage to escape and survive - the canals are full of them). People can be sentimental about animals because they themselves are so unique in appearance that they believe they are outside the animal kingdom, in a cosmos constructed by them of which they are the central point. But if, on the other hand, you not only have direct relatives around you - like the turtle dove and the wood pigeon, the stock dove, the collared dove and the odd rock dove - but dozens or hundreds of other animals with the same body design as yours in the neighbourhood, who not only look like you but in many respects surpass you, and a number of them would think nothing of eating you if you gave them half a chance - well, then, your place in the larger whole is different. Imagine if people saw hominids hanging on hooks behind the counter in the shop around the corner and could walk in and buy a piece of thigh or shoulder for dinner - how would that change their attitude to life? What if they made hominid soup? What if all around them there were hominids walking around who were faster, or stronger, or smarter, bigger, meaner, better travelled, more alert, better-looking, smaller, differently coloured... If you are entirely convinced that you are not unique, not important, not all-powerful and not responsible for everything - if, on the contrary, you are merely a small creature in a small circle of life without the ability to change much about your circumstances - then you are not only happy whenever you're granted another day of life, but also happy whenever another creature of your own kind makes it for another day. Friendliness, then, is not a moral act but a natural one. We never do anything meaner than pecking at each other as we're swooping down for food.

My school days were hell, although I enjoyed every moment of them. When you’re young, you don’t realize all that’s being withheld from you, and you are happy with every hour you are left in peace. It turns out the bolos in 2.0 were planned from the very beginning, although it took a lot of trouble to realize them. And it must have been difficult to get everyone you didn’t want in your bolo out of one of those rows of Amsterdam houses. But by the time we moved into Babelbolo, there was no other city left on the block: everyone was participating. When later I made friends in the Dapperbolo and Bolo Victoria, I understood that a bit of city mingling can provide the necessary breath of fresh air in a bolan pure culture. For in spite of all the good intentions and well-thought-out agreements, every bolo showed the inclination to end up on a hippie-dippie level, where everyone was supposed to love each other and anyone who failed committed social suicide - or even physical suicide, with the nugo capsule provided for that purpose. I was brought up to speak eight languages. The Babel nima wanted us to be able to converse at an acceptable intellectual level with the ibus from the other bolos in our trico (which was actually an octo) who regularly came to visit. For non-bolists: nima consists of the whole attitude to life in the bolo, the basic frame of mind, philosophy, interests, clothing, cooking style and etiquette, the relationship between the sexes and between adults and children, and to living spaces, objects, colours, animals, trees, rituals, the course of the day, music, dance, mythology - in short, everything that could be deemed part of a bolo's 'tradition' or 'culture'. As the bolo's Bible had it, The nima determines life as the ibu concretely desires it for itself. We learned at our mother's knee that the laws of the individual cities of Amsterdam 2.0 were nothing less than the written legal establishment of the various nimas. Our nima was not fixed: it was lived out, not lived under - at least in theory. Our culture was a predominantly oral one anyway. We learned our languages orally, too: I never learned to read or write some of them. From the bolo`bolo perspective, Amsterdam 2.0 was an attempt to keep the inevitable conversion of the totalitarian world system into a system of free bolos within the boundaries of capitalism, individualism and the so-called free market, about which, we knew by the first form, there was nothing free. `Go tell your message about the benefits of the market to the people in Lagos,' we always said, for somewhere in that vast city with its 25 million or more residents was our ally the Jujubolo, from where ibus regularly came over “to recuperate," as it was termed. In fact, we were taught to disrupt the planetary labour machine, or PLM, wherever possible and replace it with something better - substruction, this was called. In short, we children were allowed to constructively make pests of ourselves, which we enjoyed immensely, as the cybercities around us regularly found out every time we cut their cables or forced their signals off the air, or intercepted postal packets destined for cities where there were experimental drug users and replaced them with packets of freeze-dried, fresh-herbed cow shit. Life in Babel was orderly, pleasant and regular; we grew our own vegetables in the courtyard, had pastures and fields in 't Twiske where we raised our own livestock and grain; we had plenty of education, but we always learned through play rather than by rote or websurfing. There was nothing wrong with life in Babel, but this was precisely what made it a hell, although it took me at least ten years before I realized this: everything we did, thought, experienced and discovered was worthwhile, was made worthwhile by the approval of our nima. We never even experienced nonsense, never did anything without a reason, never got in our own way; everything we created was useful or otherwise artistic - how should I put it? At fifteen I feared I would collapse under the unbearable burden of having to live a meaningful life. I think Mao felt the same way, but being a boy he did not think explicitly about it; at sixteen he began the wanderings through the bolos of this world which would take him all the way to Auckland and the Aleutian Islands and keep him away from home for five years. And what was I to do for all that time? And dear Else, who is so good at languages and who will go far someday, when she follows Mao one day soon to complete her education in the real world? I did not want to leave 2.0. After a decade of playing and, later, partying and kissing and all the rest with my fellow Babelites, I outgrew our nima. I no longer belonged here. I realized with a devastating clarity that I was nothing. I was nobody, and don't bother me with all that identity crap. No: a year of silent desperation later, my first original thought was: I'm not nobody; I got off at the wrong planet. If I'm anything, I'm an extraterrestrial.

There is no greater pleasure than letting yourself fall off the edge of a roof or a windowsill. You jump briefly up, spread your arms at a 45-degree angle and let yourself go in parabolic flight. Just before you hit the ground, you give a small flick of your wings and you land with an elegant arc neatly on your feet. Down below on the terrace between the houses, the neighbour Mrs Bousra had already scattered the first round of white bread. The cold was still in our feathers, but it didn't take long for the sun to come out as we jerkily shredded the chunks and bolted them down. It's always a difficult chore for those who must do everything with a beak. Some people understand this and give us dry rice, like Mr Petoro on the bridge over the Jacob van Lennepkade, who lets us eat out of his hand, or Mrs Smit, who scatters professional birdseed on the Bellamyplein but never stays to see if we eat it. Blessed be the names of these benefactors! But in the mornings nobody was up except Mrs Bousra, and we were just happy to have a permanent and reliable place for breakfast so close to our eastern-facing roosting place. Once we had warmed up a bit and picked up the last crumbs, the whole group went off to spend the day chatting and pottering and cooing. You could tell it was spring by our bright red feet, the snow-white ends of our noses, the taut feathers that were already getting powdery. The boys were full of restless scratching and strutting: they swaggered around and spread their tails over the ground. I left them alone, although I kept them off me when they tried to jump onto my back. Nests were built in our block: on a tray on top of a cabinet on a balcony, in a basket wedged between a satellite dish and a wall, and naturally under the bridges, although that was only for the real hooligans. A pigeon can build a few nests each year, and have two eggs each time, and one, maybe two of the young live for a few months after they leave the nest, and then you lose sight of them. At least half of them are eaten young by the cats and the kestrels, or crash into cars, or eat the wrong thing, or die alone in a floral border. The unlucky ones land on one of those iron spikes that fascist city dwellers jam onto roof gutters, after which they perish of leg rot or paratyphoid or diphteria. We traded exaggerated stories of freezing days of snow and frozen feathers, but also of amazing instances of sympathy by people with an eye for what went on outside their back windows. It was in every respect a morning like all the others, the beginning of a day that would have disappeared behind the short horizon of a pigeon's memory like so many others, except that on this morning something memorable happened. As we sat contentedly in our yard cooing, all at the same time we saw the father appear on his balcony on the fourth storey, holding the little boy. The father turned his gaze downward, toward us, but his son looked straight up. And out of the clear blue sky, just at that moment, a glorious dove came falling at dizzying speed - not from one of the organised groups of birds who were doing their morning training, but a lone bird passing through, a reddish-brown one with yellow-orange eyes. From far above the houses, he tumbled toward us in a slightly spiralling line, past the father and son, and crashed without slowing into the bushes, out of which, after much crackling and thrashing, he hopped into view with a dazed expression on his face. All our hearts were in our mouths from the shock. The father and son stood attentively watching the scene.

I knew I was not of this planet, but also that I would not get away. I had no desire to begin one of those series of moves all my peers spent a year or so making before they found a city where they could settle, somewhere in Amsterdam or the Netherlands or Europe or the United States or Australia 2.0. The other continents were visited only by the very brave and the very religious - Mao too made an arc around them. I wanted to change the world by staying at home, travel without going anywhere: keep a distance rather than help build a world that had become so unbalanced that, even if it could get beyond the current crisis, it would spend the rest of its existence mourning everything that had been lost forever and would never come back. Living as a fully conscious human being on earth is not possible without dying of shame. I had heard the stories of all those ibus who had been so happy to escape what had been called the Third World. That was before the Second World split into two parts, one of which managed to join the First World and the other of which sank into the pit of overpopulation, hunger and homelessness in which in Mumbai alone (where we were allied with a Parsee bolo), 31 million people drifted around until succumbing to death. There were ten billion people on earth, six billion of whom lived permanently on the edge of the abyss. It was an outrage to live a meaningful life in a world that had lost all meaning. With this insight, my personal crisis began. I found the solution when I realized that I was not a person but had ended up in a human body before I realized what had happened. I could thus follow one of two paths. I could accept that I was human and enjoy the pleasant aspects of this as much as possible before setting off for somewhere else. Or I could stop being human. The latter appealed to me the most. I do not mean that I had to die, but that I had to assume another life form. I no longer wanted to disrupt or support the PLM; I did not want to be constructive in any way. I wished henceforth to live on the scraps of civilization, the refuse all those billions lived on in Asia and Africa and America, the masses I could never be a part of because with my plump white face I would immediately be killed (and rightly so), but whom I could represent in the only place where their presence, even the awareness of their existence, was taboo. I wanted to make it my goal in life to hang out the dirty laundry. I wanted it to stink in the brave new world of two point oh, which carelessly behaved as if the old, original version of itself had been defeated, even as elsewhere things continued to rot worse than ever before, until one day it would cause the planet to perish. I sought a plant or an unappealing animal that could rid me of my humanity. I found a friend in the city of herbs. His name was Dingy. He knew how to brew a powerful psychedelic. And off we went. Or I went. But I came out somewhere different than I had foreseen.

Flying up in a wildly fluttering cloud, after sitting in a basket for two or three days during which you have attentively tracked the hundreds of kilometers you'd have to fly back home - released into a mad jumble of wings and feathers and powder, there is only one way to choose the right line of flight straight away. You let yourself be pulled. Do not orient yourself to the sun, the geomagnetic field, air pressure or infrasonic sounds: let yourself be drawn homeward by the ultra-stretched psychological rubber band that connects you to your loft. Your other senses are useful, but without that intuition for the tractive force you'll never win. Depending on weather conditions, wind and the state of your competitors, you can get far using the usual sources of information - you will come tenth or twentieth, but not first. Of course, I, too, keep an eye on the roads beneath me; I use all the data that come in through the external senses; but that kind of information can fluctuate disastrously and drive you in the wrong direction before you realize it. A prize pigeon wants only one thing: to win. My rubber band had brought me in a ramrod-straight line from Barcelona to the sky over Amsterdam. If you've flown fearlessly over France, ahead of the forty thousand others who were released with you, and you've spent the night in a tree in the hills, picked up a few bugs and seeds in the fields, and then flown along the tightest imaginable flight line towards the north, with your head forward and your back arched, resolved to land within the hour on that one roof in Schagen where your caretaker has been nervously dashing back and forth for hours, mobile phone in hand, then you can get a bit impetuous, in too much of a hurry. We pros from the north of Noord-Holland always fly over the green centre of the country without paying attention to the road network down below, which we've followed through Brabant and over the big rivers. If you look straight in front of you above the last big river, you can see the light on the Amsteltoren, and you head that way. Half an hour later you reach the tower and turn right above the ring road. After a big arc around the city, you take the exit for Alkmaar and the Wieringenmeerpolder. But this time I thought: I know exactly where I need to be. I won't go around the city. I can save precious minutes by flying straight ahead. Right over the conurbation. I can already see Central Station and the IJ river. If I stay high enough, I won't disturb anyone, nor they me. Or the local groups that do their laps in the dawn. Suddenly I no longer understood why we pigeons feared the bustle of the city. And therefore I did not set a course to the right toward the Amsteltoren, but flew straight on over the flats along the southern axis road and the orderly residential neighbourhood behind them. I saw the Vondelpark which I knew from the stories of turtle doves who had once visited our loft. I shot over gray-green park trees, and another neighbourhood. And then suddenly I felt my inner rubber band snap. It would be more accurate to say that it felt as if it had been cut. It broke and I went into free fall, although I did not feel as if I was falling - I was being pulled. I could do nothing but let myself go and see where I ended up. A different kind of rubber band had caught me, and as I tumbled, I remembered strange stories of pigeons who had seen fully capable colleagues go down on test flights over Amsterdam, never to be seen again. They lacked the right stuff, we had said, as we always did after a disastrous flight. I had brushed aside talk of mysterious downward forces as superstition. Maybe it was a temporary anomaly in the geomagnetic field, an inversion - who knows what the heat, electricity and electromagnetic radiation above a city might do. The brains of some pigeons are not large, I had muttered disdainfully. If there was really anything wrong, then how could the homing pigeons of the city's enthusiasts keep peacefully doing their laps again and again every morning and evening? But now I understood that I myself was becoming the victim of whatever had brought down the others. I was becoming one of those others. And I went into a blind panic. I saw a house coming toward me. I glided past a balcony. Smashed into the bushes. And I saw the others sitting there. And you. And him.

The story is always different, and always the same. In our city 20,000 pigeons live under the care of pigeon flyers. But there is an equal number who belong to no one - homeless pigeons, with no lofts, no training, no extra feed and no bands on their legs. Those who did not come home. Who ended up here and stuck around. In their stories there is always a little boy in his father's arms who raises his head, a girl standing on a patch of grass in a park who looks up at the lonely pigeon high above the city, a group of teenagers who lie giggling on a roof terrace in the sun staring up at the sky, and then... and then. Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do. If a prize pigeon comes home a day late, however often he has won before, he will be made into soup. Literally. So they stay where they fall. They settle, they join in, make friends and reproduce. They find shelter in the city of homeless pigeons, a conglomeration of strange females and uprooted males; mothers with children who feed birds on bridges and shadowy figures prone to suddenly dumping their dinner over the side of a balcony; bachelors, widows and old spinsters who wish to give love without expecting anything in return: types who have in common that they fit into none of the better 2.0 cities and thus make friends in their own way with others who belong nowhere: us. The reckless. The sissies. The survivors. We who could not resist random city dwellers' indifferent interference in our brains. We are the rejected of the earth, the ones who were plucked from the sky, who unexpectedly saw ourselves go from solitary excellence to pathetic self-pity. A slave mentality. We are not part of things, but we are tolerated as long as we do not cover the place in too much shit. We are the insignificant masses who really ought to die, who are sometimes suddenly attacked but occasionally receive an unexpected helping hand so we can get back to the business of dying. When from that roof Dingy and I saw that pigeon coming down, I knew what had happened to him: my soul had entered into that pigeon, and I was that pigeon from then on, and I was nothing. All of us who are nothing communicate with each other. And that is what a failed pigeon is: nothing. In the successful world, anyway. But in their own parallel world, recognized by no one except each other and that half-baked handful who become afflicted by pigeon love, or whatever it is - in this world, no one makes things difficult. There, amid the mouldy bread and the smell of poop, one is an autonomous being, in the world but not of it, peacefully observing everything that goes on in a world that considers itself different and better. Conscious of the end that will inevitably come for everyone. The real end. Coo-coo-roo - now I can speak pigeon language too. Coo-coo-roo means: you are all dying, you are all dying. Dyyyying. Dyyyying. This is why people hate it so much when we sit on the edge of their roofs and coo. Never send to know for whom the dove coos: It coos for thee!

I will stay in Amsterdam 2.0. But in the part that has stayed 1.0. That day on the roof, Dingy and I each found a totem, one which, like us, rises above the city while remaining inextricably bound to it. Dingy became a tree, a poplar that rises high above roof level. In hindsight, he always was one: his locomotion, the speed with which his thoughts came, his progression through the seasons. At once majestic and ugly, seen by no one and yet looked at with pleasure, someone whose only social achievement is to create shade. But a tree cares nothing for others' judgments, nor will a tree ever pass judgment on others' activities. Pigeons are different. We natter on about what goes on around our yard and in the few streets around the block where we live. We laugh ourselves hoarse along with those who laugh, have fun like others do, grieve along with others' misfortunes. We pigeons are at least as tied to place as trees are, though we move ceaselessly through our territory as separate parts rather than being all over it at once. Amsterdam 2.0 is a system with holes that form a network within the network, where a story is playing out that's completely different from the story of nodes and switches. There was a thunderstorm tonight. The world showed itself to us in all its pretechnological violence. We sat waiting in our secret sleeping places, nearly pressed together. Now it is dry: a radiant morning. Again we saw the father making porridge for his son. We have had our morning ritual with Mrs Bousra. The clouds are blowing apart; there is blue in the sky. Amid the institutionalized loneliness of 2.0, where no one is responsible for his or her neighbors because they live in another city, we form a community of benevolent normality. Always alert. Any moment could be our last: it depends on so little. As the last survivor of the refugee camp said when they asked him if they could do anything for him: Oh, no, I'm fine. I ate the day before yesterday. One of us will not live the night, and it's the same every day. But we will never disappear; more of us come every day. It is ultimately a blessing to be plucked from the sky and have no obligations any more: no achievements, no training, no goal. One is granted the mercy of a completely pointless, utterly superfluous existence. But on a morning like this, it can happen that we feel called to an opposing movement. If this world still has any coherence, we are the last to know it and preserve it. Now we fly up, first between the bushes and houses, then above the rooftops, and higher, up to the layer of air where the Kinkerstraat group does its figure eights in the morning, and then further up to where the swifts and gulls go, and higher still, to where the buzzards ascend in August, spiralling up higher and higher to a further- and further-reaching panorama of the cities where we have our circle of life: first our block, and then the neighbourhood with its confusion of houses, broad streets and stray trees; then the Oud-West district with its canals and parks; the western garden suburbs in all their green splendour, with the blue-gray IJ river to the north and the cities of Amsterdam-Noord and Zaanstad behind; the Zaanstreek region behind that, and further and further away, until, probably, the town of Schagen becomes visible, Schagen, which I never did reach. And then sweeping back to reality, the five green fingers that reach into Amsterdam, the green blobs of the Vondelpark, the poplar Dingy, the streets with their elevated bridges, the roof terraces and towers, all the world that matters, and then into that circle, that hole, that little hole of nothingness, where we are. Where we live. And die.