Like a host preparing for a party, Joey Scott hurriedly cleans and organizes his shop.
It’s a little past 9 a.m. on Sunday, the busiest day of they week for Broadway Pigeon Supply, a small shop in Bushwick that sells birds and bird-related pet supplies, and that serves as a gathering place for Brooklyn-based pigeon flyers.
Pigeon flying is an old-time city hobby, originally brought to New York around the turn of the 20th century by Italian immigrants. A solid, though declining, community of flyers remain in the city (almost entirely men). Modern-day flyers keep coops on their roofs with anywhere from 30 to 2,000 birds.
Joey keeps 300 birds on his own rooftop in Canarsie.
“You go up there and feed them and let them out every morning, usually around 9 or 10 o’clock,” he says, “365 days a year. They go around the neighborhood, they know how to get back, they’re very smart birds.”
Pigeon flying can be a solitary sport. There are only four or five other fliers in Joey’s area, and they reside just close enough for him to see when they let their birds out – a tornado of black specks against the sky.
Inside the store, Joey counts inventory and unpacks boxes of supplies onto industrial shelving. At the moment, most of his regulars are at the weekly pigeon auction in Long Island. A group had met in front of the shop at the crack of dawn to carpool to the event, and are expected to return later on in the morning. Joey is preparing for their arrival for two reasons: one, so business can run smoothly, and two, so he can enjoy the best part of his job: “Talking with everybody and hanging out.”
Joey is 44-yeard-old. He has a stocky frame, a thick Brooklyn accent, and a ring of brunette stubbly hair around his balding head with a matching 5 o’clock shadow. When he’s not running the pigeon shop, he works construction. A little over ten years ago he opened the shop with his older brother Michael after buying the building. He rarely misses a day’s work.
Around 10 a.m. a lone customer comes in – a guy named Noel.
“What’s up man?” he says.
Noel sits on a stack of pigeon feed bags as if it were a living room couch. He is a middle-aged Latino man who has been visiting the store ever since it opened. He’s known Joey for about twenty years – the same amount of time that Joey has been flying pigeons.
The two men chat for a bit and reminisce about the bygone pigeon flying days when neighborhoods were full of rooftop coops.
Back then “flock battles” ensued daily. Though nonviolent, flock battles are competitive, and they facilitate an important social aspect of the hobby.
From one rooftop, a flyer signals a challenge to nearby flyers with a ‘whoop,’ or a hand gesture.
Then, as Joey explains, “he pushes his birds off, the other guy pushes his birds off, they’re all flying at the same time.” Multiple flocks, a for a brief moment, fly as one.
Joey claps his hands to demonstrate a flock collision.
“You hope that his birds come down with yours,” says Noel.
A captured bird is like a trophy. Some claim it as bounty. Others only keep the identifying leg bands for tallying purposes, and return the birds to their owner, and act ripe with bragging fodder.
“If I catch them, I sure as hell give them back,” Noel says to me in a practiced tone. “You don’t know if they have bugs, you don’t know if they have a disease.”
In other words, Noel is saying that returning a bird to its owner is way of saying his flock is cleaner, and better, than theirs.
By 11 o’clock the auction-going crowd has returned. About fifteen men are hanging out and the shop is in full swing. Joey dances between business and banter.
A teenage boy comes in and high fives a few men lounging around on bags of feed and plastic crates. The boy tells Joey what he is after.
“A bale of hay?” says Joey, “The whole thing? Where’s your pop?”
The boy tilts his head towards the door.
“In the car,” he says.
The boy is Latino with angular features and watchful eyes, sixteen-years-old. He’s been flying birds with his father since he was six.
As Joey prepares the hay for loading, another customer, an elderly African American man, leans next to him against the wall.
“Joe, man,” he says in a hushed tone, “you’re going to think I’m crazy. I’m on my third round.”
This is in reference to rounds of bird breeding. Three is a high number so early in the season, and the man is saying that his first two rounds weren’t very successful.
Joey looks up.
“No, man,” he says. “I don’t think you’re crazy. I believe it. It’s been a rough year.”
By this point the store’s floor has turned into something of a stage. Tree, a man nicknamed for his height, paces back and forth, and challenges another flyer, Louis, who sits in a chair.
Tree turns to the crowd of men: “Who flies yellow with black holes?” he asks rhetorically, referring to Louis’ flock’s leg bands.
“You know I fly that,” Louis replies. “You maybe caught one or two.”
Laughter and jeers comes from the crowd. Tree, encouraged by all this, whips out his cell phone and calls his flying partner to verify that ten birds with Louis’ bands that had been caught. He slaps Louis on the back.
“Enemies in the sky, friends in the street,” he says.
Kent, a middle-aged African American man from Brownsville, stands next to Jo-Jo, an elderly Italian man named who once ran a pigeon shop in the same neighborhood, and the two reminisce about how they met.
“When we was kids and you had the pet shop in Brownsville,” Kent says, “if there was troubled kids in the neighborhood, you used to take us into the shop and teach us about different birds, how to take care of them, clean the coop.”
Kent turns to me. “If you went to Jo-Jo’s pet shop,” he says, “just like Joey’s pet shop here, you could get peace of mind, just by talking with these guys, slowing your life down.”
Louis, no longer licking his wounds, nods in agreement.
“It’s like a little club in here,” he says, and as for Joey’s role in it, Louis calls him the “the gatekeeper.”
When Joey says it’s time to go: it’s time to go. It’s one o’clock sharp and he closes the shop. Exhausted, physically and socially, his pigeon-club duties are finished for now. He has a long workweek to rest up for — the workweek that pays his bills.
“If I did it for the money,” he says, “I wouldn’t be here.”
And with that he returns to Canarsie, where his wife, three children, and 300 birds await his attention.