Lemon Grove to Casa Grande — the Kentucky Derby of bird racing

If God didn't love pigeons, He wouldn't have given them wings

Pigeon release in Casa Grande. "That’s what we’re called. Liberators."
  • Pigeon release in Casa Grande. "That’s what we’re called. Liberators."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
  • If you meet a swordsman in the road, show him your sword.
  • But if you meet a man who is not a pigeon racer, do not show him your pigeon.
  • — old Zen saying

Vito Maggi: “Circling takes a lot more effort than straight flight. He’s tired.”

Vito Maggi: “Circling takes a lot more effort than straight flight. He’s tired.”

Okay, say you spend half your life hollering, “I’ll drink to that!” and then you stop drinking — you’re not as completely finished with alcohol as you might think. The world brings it to your door, and you remain sensitive in many ways.

When European breeders come to the U.S. to auction their birds, they open at $100."

When European breeders come to the U.S. to auction their birds, they open at $100."

I was riding on the 8:35 a.m. train from L.A. to San Diego. About halfway between Oceanside and Solana Beach, we had pulled to a side track to wait for the southbound Amtrak to pass. Suddenly I started smelling vodka. When vodka enjoyed its first huge popularity in the U.S. in the early ’50s, it was buzzed as being “colorless, odorless, and tasteless.”

There is nearly every kind of human here in Lemon Grove.

There is nearly every kind of human here in Lemon Grove.

Not only would it not spoil the sweetness of your orange juice, it also sounded suspiciously like a substance that could creep under your door and kill you in your sleep. (As a matter of fact, it had killed a couple of people I knew. In their sleep.) To me, vodka isn’t odorless. The smell of it is as precise and powerful and about as baffling as the odor of model-airplane glue.

As I began to smell vodka, I also started having an uncomfortable feeling that I was being stared at. I put down my book and glanced around. Then I saw an eye looking at me from the space between the two scats directly in front of me. I watched as whoever it was turned his head sideways so he could look with both eyes. There was a scuffling sound as he knelt backward on the seat. Then he popped up like a demigod in a James Stephens folktale. Always on the lookout for demigods, I paid immediate attention.

He gripped the back of the seat with one hand, and in the other he held a large, clear-plastic glass filled to the top with ice and a colorless liquid. He was pale, well barbered, and imperially slim, possibly 35 or 40, and had the kind of wild light in his eyes that only magical powers or a stiff dose of vodka before noon can give you. We began to talk. By the time we rolled into Solana Beach, he was relating a story he told with ease. At the same time, he teased the passing conductor about a home-improved motorcycle the conductor had once owned.

Then he handed me his card. “Astral Cycles,” it read, “Vito Maggi,” with a San Diego address I knew to be in the neighborhood of Hoover High.

“The name of your business is ‘Astral Cycles’?” I said, thinking it an otherworldly title for such a butch business. But what about the Zen Coffeehouse and Motorcycle Repair shop of 1960? It’s just that old San Diego magic coming around again — that idea of being in the world and not of the world. If you want to be of the world, you move to L.A.

He started telling me about his life. Although at one time he had wanted to be a conga drummer, he had decided that was no way to live. (I thought about a conga drummer I knew who made a fortune in disco and blew it all on coke. He ended up as an actor, playing minor roles in musical comedies. That was no way to live.) Then he started talking about pigeons. Racing pigeons. That’s what he really wanted to do with his life, and, in fact, this is what he was doing.

In the 45 minutes it took to get from Solana Beach to San Diego, he presented a minutely detailed overview of the history of homing pigeons, from the carrier pigeons in ancient Greece and Hannibal’s homing pigeons, to pigeons in the Middle Ages, pigeons in the Crusades, pigeons in the 19th Century that flew for the Rothschilds, pigeons in both world wars, pigeons that saved Paris and pigeons that always won the war for the right side. He said racing pigeons were descended from the wild blue rock dove, and racing pigeons weren’t the same as ordinary street pigeons. The only thing they had in common was wings.

By the time our train arrived in San Diego, I was into it. Pigeons! Pigeon racing! I gave Vito my card, thinking all the while that he seemed organized and intelligent enough to be running a small country. (Yeah, but then he wouldn’t have time for the pigeons.) We got off the train, and he disappeared into the crowd.

In the next months it was impossible to find Vito again. He wasn’t anywhere, and no one knew where he was. He had flown the coop. Finally, after calling every bird store in San Diego and being told that nobody knew about pigeon racing, in desperation I went to the white pages. There, straightforwardly and to the point, was the listing “Pigeon Racing," with a phone number in Lemon Grove. My call was answered by Ron Steinbrenner, keeper of the Lemon Grove loft. He told me that a big race was coming up. He called it the Kentucky Derby of pigeon racing.

A week later, probably just because of synchronicity, as my husband and I were dining beneath the ruddy tropical sunset at a resort near Cabo San Lucas, a bird-hunting professional sex-surrogate from La Jolla offered us a plateful of round, brown little meats. Each was the size of one of those atomic jawbreakers, so I speared one and put the whole thing into my mouth. It was like chewing a steel tractor ball bearing that had been wound tightly with several layers of rubber bands. I surreptitiously spit it into my napkin and said to the beaming surrogate, “It’s wonderful! What is it?”

“Rock dove,” he replied. “Just shot ’em this morning.” Returning to our bungalow, I emptied my napkin beneath a tall yard lamp that illuminated a dense stand of palms. This was the territory of Rancho Cat, a huge altered female with one marbled eye and a bushy coat of white and calico divided longitudinally down her back, making her look as if she had been struck by lightning. She pounced upon the cooked dove and gnashed away at it, throwing her head back making gagging, gulping noises, then, putting her head down she worked her jaws very fast with an astounded expression on her face. With a final horrible choking sound, she spat out the cooked dove and crouched down in front of it, growling softly.

I bent over and picked up the hard little meat and held it in the flat of my hand. As I watched, it slowly rolled off my palm, bounced on the walk once, twice, then raced downhill, where it disappeared into the bushes. That’s one tough bird.

The first time you hold a racing pigeon, the tall, long-winged, elegant relative of the little blue rock dove, you feel the same unyielding musculature beneath the soft breast and wing feathers. Danny Watts, sax player, pigeon racer, says, “You can part these breast feathers and look at the skin to see if it’s healthy.” The skin of the bird’s breast is a deep, living rose, a smoky, cabo-chon-ruby color that you have seen before in the pinkie ring of a craps shooter.

“There’s eye-sign too, but I don’t believe there’s as much to it as some say,” he adds. The bird’s eyes are fiery, intensely pigmented. The iris is surrounded by a corona of deep yellow. The rays spill into a wide ring of brilliant scarlet.

We’re sitting out on the patio of Chefs restaurant in Arcadia, a few miles from Santa Anita racetrack. Why here? How here? The day before, at the track, while digging the Hollywood Park, Bay Meadows simulcasts, I bumped into my cash-only-no-checks dentist at the $100 window where a couple other little old ladies and I were placing a Charles Bukowski Memorial Bet for a sick friend. A 20-to-1 shot in the third race. I told the dentist about my new interest in pigeon racing. He set me up with the interview. Fifteen pigeon racers. Everybody needs a dentist. Fred Frobose takes a pale-buff pigeon out of its cage. “ I want you to see this,” he says officiously. “After I let it go, the bird will fly up, get its bearings, then it’ll head west, straight for my loft in the San Fernando Valley.” He walks into the parking lot, tosses the bird into the air, and it flies up above the trees. Then, accompanied by the loud laughter of the 14 other pigeon racers, it turns east, disappearing in the direction of Palm Springs.

Inside Chefs, the pigeon racers order hot turkey sandwiches with mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry sauce, even though it’s only 10:30 a.m. This leads to my first official question:

Reader: Isn’t that kind of a lot to have for breakfast?

Pigeon Racers: (clamoring) Hey, I got up at 6:00! Hey, I got up at 6:30! I got up at 7:00, and I already played 9 holes. Hey, I played 18. I’m hungry! We’re hungry!

Reader: Were you guys all in Cub Scouts together? (They have a relentless boyishness about them, although most look to be between 55 and 65.)

Mike Smith: Most of us started as teenagers.

Reader: Did you?

Mike Smith: I started at about 14 or 15.

Reader: When did you get serious?

Mike Smith: Sixteen.

Pigeon Racers: (for unknown reasons) Ha-ha-ha-ha.

Reader: Ron Steinbrenner, at the Lemon Grove loft, told me that the big race coming up next weekend in San Diego is called the Kentucky Derby of pigeon racing. Why is the race called that?

Larry Davis: (A tall, pokerfaced 70-year-old troublemaker) It’s the Preakness of pigeon racing. It’s more like that.

Reader: Well, I’m confused. Is it the Kentucky Derby of pigeon racing or isn’t it?

Mike Smith: (Mike is dressed in an Otis Elevators uniform. He is intelligent and rational. He rescues unlucky people trapped in elevators. He now rescues the heretofore unlucky concept of the Kentucky Derby of pigeon racing.) You could call it the Kentucky Derby of pigeon racing because it is followed by two more big races...you could think of it in the sense of a T riple Crown race. I think that’s what Ron meant.

Reader: So what happens in this race?

Mike Smith: We band the babies on January 1st. We send the babies to the common loft in Lemon Grove. Most breeders send 1 or 2. Ron Steinbrenner can handle 4H birds. We send those babies to Ron when they’re 25 days of age. The first time he takes them out, he’ll go a couple miles, let them go, and they’ll come back. That’s when they’re four months old. They all come back.

Reader: Jeez, how wonderful. I wonder how they do it. How do they know?

Pigeon Racers: It’s the sun! It's their hearing! It’s their eyesight! It’s magnetic fields! It’s instinct!

Mike Smith: To continue about the San Diego Classic.

Reader: Is the San Diego Classic the Kentucky Derby of pigeon racing?

Mike Smith: Yes. Ron takes the birds a little farther each time, and they fly back to Lemon Grove.

Reader: How far will the birds have to fly in the San Diego Classic?

Mike Smith: The distance for that race is 300 miles. They’ll liberate the pigeons in Casa Grande, Arizona.

Reader: Three hundred miles? What happens if there’s a storm?

Mike Smith: We have to wait for weather in that case, but the birds have the ability to fly enormous distances, and 300 miles is small in comparison to some other races. Some places in China they have 2000-mile races. In China they don’t feed them at the loft. They feed in the fields. Their races are almost like a migration.

Reader: What percentage of the birds get lost or killed?

Mike Smith: Around 15 to 20 percent per season get lost in some way.

Reader: Well, if they were out on the street instead of flying in races, they’d probably all get run over by Domino’s pizza delivery at the same rate. By the way, Ron Steinbrenner didn’t want the idea of money stressed in any way. I wonder what he meant.

Larry Davis: We’ve been flying pigeons for fun for 40 years. The major thing we do is, we all breed pigeons in our back yards.

Reader: Is there prize money for the Kentucky Derby of pigeon racing?

Larry Davis: Oh, that’s all it is, prize money, and that’s all we’re doing, just competing for each other’s money. In pigeon racing, it’s kind of a prestigious thing to win the other guy’s money. Pigeon breeding is just like gambling, it gets in your blood. You’ve got to have pigeons!

Reader: Exactly how much money do you spend if you’re just buying a racing pigeon?

Mike Smith: Highest price paid for a racing pigeon so far, I think, $136,000.

Reader: I read about that pigeon. It won the big Barcelona race in Europe, right?

Larry Davis: Right. But when European breeders come to the U.S. to auction their birds, they open at $100. This guy comes from Holland every year, and he auctions off his birds. His name is Beaverdam.

Mike Smith: Racing pigeons descend from pigeons that were originally bred in Holland and Belgium. Ulens and Antwerps, the fountainhead.

Reader: I thought racing pigeons were descended from blue rock doves.

Mike Smith: Right. But way back.

Reader: Tell me, and maybe this is a stupid question, do the pigeons Pigeon auction who are flying all the way from Casa Grande, Arizona, to San Diego ever stop to drink?

Mike Smith: The winning birds don’t.

Reader: They don’t stop for water?

Mike Smith: You can’t tell at first if a pigeon is going to have that great desire to come home. It wants to come home above all other things. This kind of pigeon has a great heart. You can’t tell that by just looking at a pigeon. Just because it looks good physically doesn’t mean it has heart.

Reader: So, are there pigeons who are lollygaggcrs?

Larry Davis: You can breed that into birds.

Reader: Kollygagging?

iMrry Davis: Sure. I know some guys who’ve got a whole

loft full of ’em.

All: Ha-ha-ha-ha.

Then I ask the pigeon racers if they have ever heard of a guy in San Diego named Vito Maggi. They all know him. They say he’s a great guy. They say he built a beautiful loft in Jamul and was deeply involved in the San Diego pigeon-racing scene. When I tell them that I have been unable to find him again, they all say he’s having “trouble of some kind.” They don’t think he’s in pigeon racing anymore.

After I leave Chefs and the pigeon racers, I doggedly call Vito again in San Diego. Hoping for little or nothing, I am amazed to find him. He has returned from wherever he was. I make an appointment to meet him with my friend, a long-distance driver, on the day before the San Diego Classic. First we’ll meet at the Amtrak station, then we’ll go to Jamul, then we’ll go to the trade fair at the Holiday Inn, where they’ll load the pigeons on a pigeon-transport truck for the trip to Casa Grande.

It’s the day before the Kentucky Derby of pigeon racing. I meet with Jack Schadenfroid, my friend and driver, and his dad. Jack Schadenfroid, in town for the weekend. We sit around waiting for Vito at the station. A man approaches us with his hand out. Vito? It can’t be Vito. This guy doesn’t look anything like Vito. Well, maybe he looks a little like Vito, in fact, he could be Vito’s healthy brother. The Vito I met on the train was intense, pale, and skinny. His face was as white as his shirt. This Vito is intense, ruddy, and strong looking, beaming with health and goodwill. The reporter doesn’t say anything to Vito about his physical transformation but does relay surprise to Schadenffoid and Schadenfroid by wiggling eyebrows surreptitiously.

This Vito is wearing a flamingo, peach, and tan short-sleeved shirt. This shirt matches the complexion of this Vito. We join him at his car for the trip to Jamul and the loft. The drive proves to be a shattering experience for those in the car who are not Vito. He is the kind of driver who likes to occupy all of the available highway. If he sees an empty space, he immediately fills it, even if it’s a lane going in the opposite direction. All this space-occupying is accomplished at high speed with a lot of downshifting and grinding of gears. I glance into the back seat where Jack Schadenfroid and Jack Schadenfroid are sitting. They are clutching at the upholstery, teeth bared, eyes bulging with terror.

During a lull in the drive on the way to Jamul, I ask Vito why he lives so far outside the city. “Well,” he says, “it’s better for the pigeons. Also, I moved out here because of the crooks.”

“Because of the crooks?” I say.

“Yes,” he says. “I think that in the city there is one crook to every hundred people. The city is crowded so there are many crooks. Out here in the country, there are no crowds and only a few crooks.” He also tells me that he is Argentine by birth, that his wife is a schoolteacher, and they have a young son. His wife is completely responsible for the inside of the house, and he is responsible for the outside.

When we arrive at his place in Jamul, it occurs to me that Vito is running a small country, or a facsimile. There’s a big, new two-story California Tudor/Swiss chalet house on an immense lot — probably an acre or two. The lot is beautiful, multilevel, hilly, with fruit trees and a little creek at the bottom of the property line. At the side of the property is a huge play area with monkey bars and all kinds of things to climb and swing on. There appears to be enough equipment for a junior high. He has two dogs, an old, yellow, rug-like dog and a big, young, spooky angst-biter-type German shepherd.

The loft is about 25 yards from the house. Forget the concept of a “pigeon coop.” This is a palace for pigeons. It’s as rambling and commodious as a large, ranch-style tract home, but there are no retired Navy chiefs or policemen living here. It’s filled with pigeons. It is clean, sparkling, perfectly cared for.

“Watch this,” Vito says. He goes into the loft and comes out with a blue pigeon with white flight feathers. He releases it, and it flies up into the air. It makes big circles above us, jabbing the air with its wings in that style of flying peculiar to the racing pigeon. There is no gliding, none of that flap-flap glide, flap-flap glide stuff you see with ordinary birds. This is just the serious, strong, aggressive flying of the racer.

Vito says, “Now I’ll draw him back to the loft. I’ll use these white pigeons to get his attention, and he’ll come back in.” He puts two puffy, big-chested, non-serious pigeons out on the landing pad, where they flap and flash and show their wings, but the flier doesn’t come down. He just stays up there making his big circles, flying for the sheer hell of it. He comes down in about 15 minutes, when he’s good and ready. I spy on him later. He’s sitting on one of the highest perches, staring straight ahead, panting. I ask Vito why the pigeon’s panting. “Circling takes a lot more effort than straight flight,” he says. “He’s tired.” That lucky creature.

Vito takes us into his house and shows us his trophy room. It’s stuffed with pigeon-racing awards. They’re arranged in glass-fronted oak cases, on shelves; there are trophies hanging on the walls, and big, freestanding trophies. “This is my room,” he says. “I like to sit in here. It makes me feel good.”

He is house-proud and takes us on a tour. We climb the stairs to the bedroom. Everything in the house has been worked on in some way. On the face of each of the stairs a design has been painted. Very sweet. Bows, hearts, a little more relaxed in style than Pennsylvania Dutch, but the same general drift.

The bedroom is perfect. As we view its creamy, lacy flawlessness, Vito suddenly says, “Do you know how to stop somebody from snoring?” “You can sew a tennis ball on the back of their shirt,” I say. “Hmm,” he says, then he disappears down the stairs.

We follow him back down the stairs. In the kitchen, Vito goes to the refrigerator and fixes us each a lemonade. As I stand there sipping, I look out at the breezeway and patio.

There is a small clothesline there, and hanging from it are a lady’s lacy underthings.

Later, at home, I would ask all the women I know if they would leave their underwear hanging in plain sight when a reporter was coming to the house. They would all say no, except for Eve Babitz.

We return to San Diego and the Holiday Inn by the Sea, where we go in to the pigeon trade fair. It’s early. There aren’t a lot of people there yet, maybe 50 or so, but they all seem to know Vito. They’re happy to see him and surprised in some way. (All I know is that he went away somewhere. He was well fed and got a good tan. Ken. from Vito’s place of business, had told me that Vito could only call out once a week. Maybe he was in a Catholic girl’s school. In the tropics.)

One thing for sure, Vito is a star. Everyone loves seeing him. He smiles and shakes everybody’s hand.

There are card tables and long banquet tables set up on both sides of the hall. At the very front of the hall is a truck trailer with many small compartments in it. They’re pigeon cages. At the front table, people are putting pigeons into them. The card tables are covered with nicely starched and pressed white tablecloths. On them are pigeon books being offered for sale. There are books on pigeon breeding, pigeon medication, pigeon nutrition, pigeon heredity, pigeon eye-sign, pigeon conditioning, pigeon bacteria maintenance, pigeon fertility, pigeon disinfectants, pigeonracing form, and pigeon-flying on a budget.

Stunned by the details, and because a reporter is supposed to ask questions.... “Do you have any books on, just, like, pigeons?” I ask stupidly.

“A book called Pigeons?” the book guy says.

Yes. Do you have such a book?”

“No,” he says.

“Thanks,” I say.

Then I see Larry Davis, the “poorest man in pigeon racing.’’ He’s wearing an argyle sweater in pigeon colors. He says he’s got a pigeon in this race. A lot of the people here are wearing pigeon colors. Many are dressed in all shades of blue and gray, and some are wearing jackets with a pigeon appliqued on the back. The exact pigeon that is the subject of the applique could be frank Souza’s beautiful bird, Coronado-4, big-money winner in the San Diego Classic of 1988. The bird is deep gray, with white flight feathers, iridescent green on the neck, splash-faced and brilliant-eyed. I have been introduced to this bird through a 1990 pigeon calendar.

I am hoping to meet the pigeon truckers who are hauling the birds to Casa Grande. Vito says he knows them and will introduce me. Suddenly, he says, “There they are."

I am introduced to Ben and Jesse L. Taylor, of PTL Transport, “Specialists in the Conveying of Racing Pigeons.” Ben is retirement age, tall, white-haired, broad shouldered, tan, neatly bearded, wearing a baseball cap, boots, jeans, and a bright green T-shirt. He is a big, strong-liking fellow with the look of a professional trucker. A life-sentence roadie.

His wife, Jessie L. Taylor, is a medium-sized woman with a pleasant face and curly brown wig. She is wearing a slacks outfit with a fresh blouse that has little organdy roses blooming on the collar. She is a determined-looking person who doesn't appear as if she’d let a whole lot get by her. While talking with her, at one point I excuse myself to go to the restroom. She takes up the tape recorder and continues to talk in my absence.

Reader: Tell me how you happened to get into the pigeon-hauling business.

Jessie L Taylor: My husband, Ben, and I started this pigeon-hauling business about 11 years ago, in 1985. We hauled our first race in March of 1985. We started the business because the San Diego area did not have a professional-quality pigeon liberator. That’s what we’re called. Liberators. The San Diego combine — that’s four pigeon-flying clubs with 7 to 45 members apiece — needed their own conveyors. Ben talked with the board of the combine and asked them if they’d be interested in a professional-quality liberator. The liberator they had was not so good. The pigeons weren’t being treated properly."

Reader: But how did you even know about racing pigeons?

Jessie L. Taylor: Well, we used to live in Oceanside; now we live in Vista. Every Sunday after church in Encinitas, we’d go over to Leucadia and change our clothes at our son-in-law’s. We used to sit on the deck overlooking the freeway and wait for his pigeons to come back. He was a pigeon flyer. So we’d be out there watching, and we’d see a big flock of birds. Nobody move! Uh-oh, wrong bunch! Then the right bunch. Four or five birds would peel off and land at the loft, and George would do what he had to do to clock ’em. Get the countermark and put it through the clock.

Well, through George, we found out about the need for a pigeon hauler. We went home, talked it over, and thought, why not?

Reader: How did you customize the truck? How did you find out about how to do that?

Jessie L Taylor: Once the board gave us the go-ahead, here’s what we did. We had a one-ton Ford Dooley pickup, so Ben and Ray Higley of Ray Higley Welding in San Marcos spent till 4:00 a.m. one morning with the plans all over the floor figuring out how to convert the Ford to haul a 40-foot custom trailer for the pigeons. We went ahead and did it.

Reader: So driving is your life.

Jessie L. Taylor: Ben is a professional truck driver. He has driven trucks since he was 13. This pigeon-hauling and liberating was something we could do on the weekends. Ben had a very understanding employer who let him off on Fridays so he could be in old-bird season. We load on Fridays, and we turn the birds out on Sunday morning.

Reader: Sunday morning? Doesn’t PTL stand for “Praise the Lord”?

Jessie L Taylor: Yes, well, of course, this has raised hell with our churchgoing activities. But we prayed about it, and we think that God wants us out on the highway on Sunday.

Reader: Hey, if God didn’t love pigeons, he wouldn’t have given them wings.

Jessie L Taylor: The only bad thing about it is that it takes a toll on family life. Pigeon racing does. There are a lot of unhappy wives. It’s a completely consuming life. We call it the world’s best-kept secret.

Reader: With the divorce rate so high already, it’s probably better kept a secret. Too bad the world needs news.

Eschewing the “Calcutta,” during which the birds are loaded and the entry fees are paid, Schadenfroid the father is dropped off at home, and Schadenfroid the friend and I drive off into the night to C^sa Grande, Arizona. Ben and Jessie L. Taylor have made an appointment to meet with us in Casa Grande at 6:30 a.m. next morning. We will join them and then go to the place where the pigeons will be liberated. There will be 147 pigeons flying to San Diego.

About halfway to Casa Grande, the highway runs through the dunes west of Yuma. Ten miles before we reach the dunes, the smells of kerosene, gasoline, and burning pitch creep into the car. When you roll the window down, the smell really hits you. Then you see the dunes, eerily lit by the brilliant headlights of hundreds of ATVs running in the dark, speeding up and down the invisible hills, appearing and disappearing behind shimmering curtains of powdered silver. Burning just off the highway are huge bonfires, the flames reaching 15 to 20 feet into the dark, illuminating the hundreds of tents, trailers, ATVs, motor homes, pickups, buses, and vehicles of all sizes these weekend Gypsies have brought into the dunes.

One hundred miles later, in the middle of nowhere, we pull to the side of the road to check the distance on the map. When we look up, the stars are like searchlights. This is an entirely different proposition from night in the city.

We drive on, to the Holiday Inn at Casa Grande. Too excited to sleep, reporter gets up at 5:00 a.m. and is lucky to witness an apparition of Elvis in the lobby of the Casa Grande Holiday Inn. As reporter is sitting, fidgeting on a seafoam-green banquette, a man about 70 years old comes into the lobby and sits down across the way on a couch. He’s wearing a lime-green and hot-pink tank-top shirt with blue, white, and yellow stripes. In lightning lettering on the front of the shirt is the slogan “Dune Buggies, Del Webb’s 1986 Desert Race.” He is sunburnt brown as an old boot and has skin cancer sores on his legs above his tube socks.

With him is a big, wrinkled, deeply tanned woman in a wine-colored velveteen bat-wing overblouse, a large rose-gold pendant around her neck. It has ducks on it. Her outfit is completed by a pair of flowered rayon shorts worn with tan pantyhose and white kid “princess” heels.

A few minutes later, the couple is joined by a very old and frail wisp of a woman. She is dressed in a grimy white chiffon blouse and blue-violet sweatpants. She’s wearing fuzzy bedroom slippers. One has a sparkly bow on the toe and one doesn’t. Her hands are covered with liver spots the size of nickels. They begin talking in loud voices so they can be heard over the guffawing of two men and a woman behind the motel desk who are discussing an embarrassment that occurred the night before at a local dance.

“I cut out those articles about what’s-his-name from the paper,” the frail old woman says.


“You know,” she says. “Elvis. But what’s his first name?"

“His name’s Elvis,” the big daughter replies.

“No, no,” the mother says impatiently. “What’s his first name? You and the girls used to be wild about him.”

“His first name’s Elvis,” the daughter says.

“Elvis?” the mother says. “Oh, Elvis. Well, I cut out five or six articles about him. They’re at home somewhere.”

At the desk they turn up the Muzak, and the air is suddenly filled with a Hawaiian version of “Blue Christmas." Then, accompanying the Muzak, staring straight ahead, shuffling slowly into the lobby, come six or seven more people. It’s like Dawn of the Dead. A man slowly passes in front of me with his own individual vapor trail of Drakkar Noir, that very, very male fragrance that makes you think of naked, screaming people chained to the wall of a dungeon. I go back to my magazine, impatiently waiting for the pigeon truck.

At 6:30 a.m., Ben and Jessie Taylor meet us at the motel. We go with them to an empty lot a few blocks away where the pigeons will be liberated. Jessie says, “It used to bother me, taking them so far from home, just to turn them out, but they make a couple circles and they figure it out. They don’t know they’re racing. They’re just going home."

An old guy in bedroom slippers who looks as if he’s been up all night appears in the parking lot with a drink in his hand. He must have come out of one of the nearby houses. He asks me what’s up. “Pigeons,” I say. Then we both go in back of the truck and listen to the loud cooing. “They’re awake in there and rarin’ to go,” he says.

Ben takes out his stopwatch, and Jessie does the count-down from 30 seconds to 7:00 a.m. Then it’s 10, 9,8...2, 1, GO, and Ben pulls the lever that opens the cages. They open with a bang.

As the pigeons are liberated, they shoot into the sky with a loud clapping of wings. They fly above the road and, about 50 feet from us, form a tight flock. They are flying so close together and the flock is so tightly formed that there is no way to pick out individuals in this huge ball of birds. Their wingtips can’t be more than an inch or so apart. Then they all change direction with a flash of wings and with one mind. The ball of birds wheels in the sky, once, twice, then, the flock finds west. They stretch out, disappearing in the direction of Lemon Grove.

We follow, tearing out of the parking lot in a shower of rocks and dust. I have binoculars but can’t find the flock. They’re out of here.

It is a clear, cloudless desert morning. The sun, still near enough to the horizon to shed a kindly light, does so. Haloed cactus wrens sit on the saguaros 15 miles from Gila Bend. Fingers of ocotillo flash and wave at us as we drive by. As we leave the high desert and travel farther, onto the desert floor, the heat-rises up and the botanical wonders narrow to mesquite cholla and greasewood.

In the parking lot of a McDonald's between the dunes and Yuma, I cruise the crowd around the ATVs. Their talk is all head gaskets, Yamahas, Suzukis, Kawasakis, retorquing the axle nuts. Banshees, blasters, and “What’s that black smoke when you crank it up?” In a big puddle at the curb where people have been dumping their ice chests, a crow cocks its head at its reflection, chuckling with deep delight. Wondering if this augury signals a miraculous sighting of the racing pigeons, I look up into the sky, searching. It is pale and cloudless, empty, except for a thick white haze that rises from the direction of the dunes.

Inside the restaurant, there has been an apparent head-on collision of wardrobe trucks from Kmart and Star Trek. Every man, woman, and child has selected three items from the wreck and is wearing the ensemble in the McNuggets line. Although it is true that we, who are wearing items from the yuppie wreck of the trucks of J. Peterman and L.L. Bean, are out of place here, we are not as out of place as Lorenza de’ Medici would be if she were standing in line. Thanking God for small favors, we purchase our humble food and get on the road again.

The daytime dunes swarm with funsters and without magic. The light’s wrong. It’s all light, without shadows, like a life where someone’s happy all the time. Then, beyond the dunes, after miles and miles and miles of uninterrupted desert, in the northwest distance, a city appears, shimmering like snow-white marble in a dream. Is it Parnassus? Nope, it’s Plaster City, but it sure looks good from far away.

As we head toward San Diego and Lemon Grove, Schadenfroid, who is doing an excellent driving job and whom I have just complimented on this marvelous quality, turns to me and darkly explains how he drives in the city. “I am a bitter, cold, angry driver,” he says. “I hate everyone and everyone hates me.”

We arrive at the Lemon Grove loft about an hour before the first group of racing pigeons. There is a long line of people, plates in hand, waiting to serve themselves from buffet tables that have been set up in the shade. There are hams, beef, potatoes, rolls, salads, drinks, desserts — a handsome feast. Reporter sits in the shade to pet a cat while Schadenfroid disappears in the food line. There are nice picnic tables on the patio, and a crowd of people who have already served themselves are sitting down, eating. Since reporter is sitting on the ground, I get a good view of the footwear of the assembled pigeon racers. The only people not wearing sport shoes or sneakers are the reporter and an elderly man with highly polished black wingtips.

“You’re not from around here, are you,” reporter says.

“No,” the man answers. “I’m from Hackensack, New Jersey." His name is Emil Yannetti, and he came all the way from South Hackensack to watch his bird fly in the Kentucky Derby of pigeon racing, and his bird was lost two days before the race. “Oh, well,” he says resignedly. “This is fun anyway, and the food and company’s good.”

There is nearly every kind of human here. There are old people, young people, a couple of babies; there are very fat people, medium people, and very thin people; there are white people, black people, brown people. You get the drift. These are the pigeon people. Everybody.

It’s very much like an outdoor concert where you eat a picnic lunch and wait for the stars to appear. I talk to a couple of lady pigeon racers from Turlock, Toni Leonard and Mary Richeson. Mary’s been flying for five years and likes the unpredictability of flying young birds. She says, “They make your heart pound.” She plays music for them in the loft and thinks it improves their mood. She says that after one year, they become old birds, and she gives them to people who are starting in pigeons.

Although I search and search, I can’t find Vito. He seems to have disappeared again.

Reporter starts getting nervous about return of racers and goes to vantage point above the loft. The loft itself is on a small plateau down deep on the side of a long arroyo. There is a tall grove of eucalyptus at one side of the loft, with mockingbirds dashing about through the branches. Arbitrary, unidentified flying birds glide back and forth in the depth of field.

Now everyone has left their tables and is starting to gather on the little hill where I’m sitting. A sweet-faced, silver-haired little lady in a polyester pantsuit says, “When they come, they come flying down this arroyo so fast it’s just like they’re flying down a chute. Just like they’re shot out of a cannon. You’ll see.” Someone makes a comment that if the pigeons are flying at the rate of 43 miles an hour, they should be appearing at any moment. Not one minute later, at 2:22 p.m. — HERE THEY COME!

The first flock — seven — speeds down the arroyo as if it has a hellhound on its trail. There is a soft moaning sound from the crowd. Don’t scare ’em!

The pigeon handlers in the loft set out a white bird on the landing pad, and the racers put on the air brakes, spread those tail feathers, and prepare for landing. It is an utterly thrilling moment.

Later, as the serial numbers of the winners are announced, there is quiet chatting. Hey, wait a minute, where is the yelling, screaming, the in-your-face dunking, spiking, fist-shaking, ass-shaking, contorted-faced screaming of the sports winner? I ask Michael Fletcher of Thoroughbred magazine, “What’s going on here?”

“For everyone who wins, there are many who don’t win,” he says. “It would be bad manners to yell." Then, I ask a waste-management-pundit pigeon racer from Carlsbad the same question. “Well,” he says, chuckling, “if they’re not yelling, they’re probably not here.”

I’m so tired I can hardly move. From being cramped in the car, from uneasy and brief motel sleep, from eating junk food on the road, from damnable squinting eye strain, from the blasted desert. And what about the pigeons? What about them? Are you pigeons tired? You must be, coming such a long way. You’ll just sit there panting for an hour or so and then be ready to go again whenever somebody pumps you full of peanuts. Hey, you guys, you were flying!

Henske, for many years a blues and folk singer, is better known to literary folk through her appearances—on tape—in author Andrew Vachss's crime novels.

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