I’M A VULTURE. As you can tell by my long black feathers and bald, red, head, I don’t mean it in a figurative sense. Why not? Are vultures so out of fashion that there’s no room left for us? That can’t be right because here I am, and the fact remains – I am a vulture. There are vultures in the world whether or not everyone approves.
I admit that less attention is paid to us now than at other times, even though opinion about us has remained more or less the same; pretty dismal. But we still have a wide distribution and I’m a more worldly bird than you might expect. Look at these wrinkles – I’ve seen a few things! I’ve got stories! Sometimes it even makes people uncomfortable. They’re surprised that a vulture has so many stories.
I’ve been to Europe several times. I love Italy. There are so many things that have to be seen in person. Vultures love ruins. And the food!
This year I went to New York. To get there I had to cross the continent. I took the train because I wanted to see the country. I met some interesting people along the way. You get to know someone pretty well if you sit beside them through the night. And I could never sleep. I sat awake, looking out the window at the passing landscape. I find that mountains are more charming in the dark.
Most of the other passengers were polite. All except one old man. I knew his type pretty well. He never slept or rested, but kept one eye on me all the time. Finally I was so unnerved that I moved to the dining car. Vultures are more romantic than you might think. We are prone to nostalgia. We love to watch the country pass by from the windows of a dining car. Maybe that’s why we’ve fallen out of fashion.
I didn’t do the touristy stuff in New York. I didn’t visit the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty or any of that, though I did see Ground Zero, for a friend. I wanted to experience the culture of New York. (Some of my friends call me the ‘culture vulture.’) The museums are world class. It wasn’t the season to see galleries and the high-line was under construction.
I rode the subway everywhere. I was surprised how beautiful it was, as we crossed the bridge, the light shining over the water. So much more water than I had ever imagined! I’d forgotten that New York is an island. The air was heavy, the light shone through the train’s windows like jelly. Everyone lifted their phones to their ears, or checked their email as if on cue. Wrapped in my dark feathers, surrounded by people also wrapped up in black, swaying as they bent over their books and iThings; at those times I felt that I was meant to be there. I’ve noticed that baldness is not looked down upon in New York. Intelligence and style are what count there, and we vultures possess both.
The parks were a lovely place to people watch. I admired the large dogs and the determination of the joggers. I listened in on the conversations of beautiful women as they discussed their rent or public schools. I even met Pale Male. I’ve known a lot of Red-Tailed Hawks but none of them were famous like him. So when I saw him sitting alone, high up on the branch of a tree, I had to go say hello.
I introduced myself and he greeted me in a casual way. We talked about New York and the park.
“So, what do you do?” he asked. I don’t know that anyone had ever asked me that question before.
“Well…I’m a vulture,” I said.
“Really? Then you’re doing the scavenger thing?”
I said that I was, though I had never realized that it was a ‘thing.’V
“I’m not much of a scavenger myself. I prefer live prey. What sort of carcass do you have out there?” Pale Male asked.
“I don’t know. I little bit of everything I guess.”
“Really? Like what?”
“A lot of different things. Mostly deer. But dogs and cats, too. Of course there’s always raccoons and possums. Last summer I came across some fresh wild pig…”
Pale Male was nodding his head but his eyes were always scanning the trees around us. He seemed distracted or bored. A group of photographers had set up their tripods and cameras below. I tried to bring the conversation back around to something that would interest him and asked him whether he was from New York. He said that he couldn’t remember – he had been there a very long time and couldn’t recall anything before coming to the city.
“I guess I can see how that could happen,” I said.
“Once you live here, everything else seems small,” said Pale Male.
He was still looking at something invisible to me – a hawk’s eyesight is better than mine, though I get by. It had rained that morning and the air was hazy. As I looked out over the park, the building on the opposite side seemed to be floating in mist.
Pale Male stretched his wings. “Would you like to join me for some pigeon? I know a good place,” he said.
I was flattered but declined the invitation. Fresh pigeon is too rich for me.
We said our goodbyes and I watched as the photographers frantically packed up their things and ran off in the direction he went, hoping to snap a picture of him ripping into a rat or squirrel.
I wasn’t used to the humidity and my wings were feeling damp. Back at home there is a crooked dead tree where we vultures like to perch after a dewy night. The tree clings to the edge of a rocky bluff and as we spread out our wings to dry in the morning sun we watch the mountain’s face blush in the early light. Deep down in the canyon below, a white river of fog is moving.
I sat down on the back of a bench on the edge of a pond and stretched out my wings. I wondered what it be like to be so famous? There are so many Red-Tailed Hawks at home. The telephone wires are covered with them. Pale Male seemed no different than the rest. But he was in New York, and that’s what matters. I watched people feeding the pigeons and swans. Nervous turtles poked their heads out of the pond. Everyone said I had to check out Brooklyn, but I was getting tired of the city and decided to head north instead. Not wanting to bother with any more trains, this time I flew to New England.
At first it was difficult for me to tell whether or not I had actually left the city; I traveled by night and the electric lights stretched out far into the distance. The dark surface of the Earth was divided by lighted streets that, when viewed from high above, looked like fissures in a planet’s crust.
I crossed over the George Washington Bridge and followed the river north. There were train tracks on both sides of the water, and the trains ran in opposite directions. I could smell the diesel as they passed and it was familiar to me now, after my long cross-country train trip. I could have navigated by the smell of creosote on the railroad ties. I flew over different towns and small cities and factories that looked like even smaller cities in the dark. Barges moved up and down the river. There was something primordial about these boats and I felt a kinship with them immediately. They seemed far too remote to ever reach the city that I had just left behind. After the busy streets of Manhattan, the river was like a forgotten secret, hidden in plain sight.
It was a beautiful New England weekend. The country roads were filled with crazy New York drivers leaving all kinds of good things to eat in their wake. The deer were lawn-fed and fat. I came upon a large purebred dog, more like a horse. As I ate his eyes, I imagined what they had once seen. I imagined they had spent most of their time looking out of a window, always indoors, until one day the great dog escaped and wandered into the road. He melted in my mouth.
I liked New England. As I said before, vultures are nostalgic and sentimental and, try as we might, we can’t shake the sense of wickedness that follows us around. Still, I don’t think I could live there: the winters.
ANDY HILL grew up on a farm in a small town in California. When people asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up he said “anything but a farmer.” If they asked him where he wanted to live he said, “anywhere but here.” Naturally, after graduating from school in New York City, Andy moved back home to farm.