Sunday, January 13, 2008

This Is Where I Belong: The Hawk And The Rat

Of all the times not to have a camera!

I was walking down 7th street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues in the East Village yesterday.

Just outside of the well-known Irish Pub, McSorley's--(oldest ale-house in NY, established 1854, complete with sawdust-covered floor)--there was a crowd of about twenty-five people of varying ages, ethnicities, and sexes gathered in the middle of the street, gazing upwards at a third floor fire escape landing. Some were merely staring, others were taking photographs.

Before arriving at this scene, I had spent the previous few hours fretting about what material I was going to perform at my show in Greenwich Village later that evening. Electing to clear my head for the moment, I decided to satisfy my curiosity by joining the throng.

"What's going on?" I asked an East Indian gentlemen leaning against a parked limousine.

"A hawk is trying to eat a rat." He then directed my attention to the fire-escape landing where I could see a red-tailed hawk with the head of a very large rat buried in his beak. This was no easy predatory conquest for the majestic hawk, however. The rat, still kicking and flailing, was wedged between the metal slats of the fire escape grating; the bottom half of his writhing body exposed to the cruel winter air between the floors and the top half suffering the unimaginable pains of the decapitating beak of the hawk above. Unfortunate for the little vermin, to say the least.

As the hawk yanked upwards with his beak, the fattened hindquarters of the rat slammed repeatedly against the grating, preventing the noble bird from bringing the entire body to a position enabling easier consumption. As it was, the hawk found himself simultaneously gnawing away at the rat's skull while persevering in his valiant attempt to squeeze the remainder of the rodent through the grating and up onto the landing.

Adding to this struggle, as the grizzled neck of the rat was becoming ever more bloody and sinewy, a new concern arose for both the hawk and the onlookers below.

"I'm worried he's going to tear the head off and drop the rest of the body," said a very attractive blonde girl in a rainbow scarf who had suddenly appeared next to me.

"You know," I said, "in San Francisco, that hawk would be denounced as an aggressor."

"I've never been to San Francisco," she said, "They don't like hawks out there?"

"They're a bit squeamish when it comes to the harsh realities of the natural world. I think their ideal is to have hawk and rat coexist in equality and understanding."

She laughed. That made me happy. This is New York, after all. No time to rewrite the laws of nature out here. That's the just way shit happens on the fire escapes above these mean city streets.

By this point, the crowd had now swelled to around forty people. Taxi cabs were honking to usher us out of the way. I saw a Latino father holding his toddler-aged daughter, pointing excitedly for the little girl to see. Off to one side, there were a group of middle-aged drunken Irish men slapping each other on the back and saying, "Only in New York, right?"

Truly, this was diversity. Human diversity. Unscripted human diversity. No seminars, no forums, no quotas--spontaneous, authentic, and natural diversity. And it didn't cost a thing to be part of this.

But what I especially enjoyed was the fact that nobody was taking the side of the rat. All of the praise was reserved for the majestic hawk.

Said an Italian-American man with slicked-back gray hair and gold chains, "That's a byoo-ti-ful fucking bird!" Yes, the hawk was receiving more than an adequate amount of encouraging phrases from every direction. "You got it, man!", "Don't give up!", "Stay with it, now!"

I was shouting myself after a few minutes, "Hang in there, buddy! You can do it!"

It's amazing, this spontaneous kinship we all felt for this bird. I think in a way, the hawk served as a personal symbol of triumph over adversity and a public symbol of communal persistence for the common good. There wasn't a man, woman, child, or transsexual among us who didn't wish to see the hawk yank those fat-ass rat hips through the grating and enjoy his well-earned dinner to the fullest.

After awhile, I couldn't stop laughing. This whole scene was joy! beauty! divinity! Not only the predatory act we were witnessing, but we--the witnesses ourselves. We were the emblem of humanity at its purest. There were no racial, economic, or gender divisions here. There was only an unflinching admiration for the noble hawk and an unapologetic contempt for the despicable rat. If only foreign policy could be this easy.

Once the rat's feet and tail stopped twitching, the excitement in the crowd grew to a fever pitch. The fucker was dead; his lower extremities hanging lifeless three flights above. Instead of a hangman's noose, the beak of the red-tailed hawk held secure his neck--or what was left of it.

Now it was time to finish the job!

"Come on!" We shouted one and all, our collective heart pounding with anticipatory bloodlust, "Do it! Do it! Do it!"

A black guy in his twenties with a hot Asian chick at his side shouted out, "This is better than the Seahawks game!" Perhaps for luck, he kissed his girlfriend.

"Bring him on up, buddy!" I yelled, "He's yours, man!"

But then disaster nearly struck. In a split-second, the hawk opened his beak to try and shove even more of the rat into his gullet--perhaps in the hopes of gaining more leverage in this Darwinian and Newtonian struggle between hawk, rat, and gravity.

In that terrifying moment, the rat carcass slipped free and fell a good three inches through the grating, right up to his gnarled neck! Luckily, with no time to spare, the hawk seized the exposed clump of bloody sinew which used to house a head and held fast, preventing--for the moment--the dreaded free fall.

We all gasped!

And then an ominous hush came over the crowd.

The headless rat corpse now hung ever more precariously under the fire-escape landing, gently swaying in the light mid-January wind, held aloft only by a thin pink strand of tissue. How long, we wondered, could the hawk maintain this balancing act? His prey was dead, but the treasure of the feast might very well elude him if he could not once more regain the higher ground. Would he be able to make the necessary advance with only a long sinew as his tether? None among us could say. We could only wait. And hope.

I surveyed the crowd once more. All eyes were riveted upon the hawk. Young, old, male, female, black, white, straight, gay--I imagine each of us prayed to our respective gods at that moment, beseeching the governing cosmic forces to find some way for our aviary friend to hold fast, bring home the verminous bounty, and provide us, the audience, with some sense of closure before dispersing to return to our normal and separate lives.

The seconds dragged into minutes. Some people began making calls on their cell phones. Newly arriving strangers were now approaching me to ask what was happening. Every one of us became our own information center help desk. On some people's faces, I saw exactly the same look I've seen during baseball playoffs when the home team is down by one run and the pinch hitter steps up to the plate. It seemed a hopeless situation. But in such situations, heroes are often made. I thought of Churchill.

"Come on, Hawk!" I shouted. I had given him a name.

Just then--in one mighty show of strength!

Hawk craned his head upwards again with all the force he could muster, the bloody strand in his beak stretching but not breaking! And with this newfound show of force, the decapitated remains were pulled nearly three-quarters of the way up through the grating! The majority of the rat carcass now lay in his domain! Hawk had regained the upper hand and the crowd erupted with joy!

We spontaneously burst into a round of applause--hooting, hollering, whistling! To my right, a group of teenagers lit cigarette lighters and shouted "Encore!" It was indeed a home run, a touchdown, a goal, a hole-in-one!

The only thing that remained now between the hawk's well-deserved feast and further entrenchment between the metal slats of the grating were those fat-ass rat hips. This game was as good as over.

Or so we thought. As it turned out, our noise had frightened the bird. Soon after our thunderous ovation had commenced, Hawk looked up--apparently noticing all of us down below for the first time.

Perhaps in a fit of stage fright, perhaps wanting to say something to his newly acquired fans below, perhaps a fear of success, perhaps for reasons we may never know--

He opened his beak.

And the rat fell.

Looking back on it now, it almost seemed like the whole thing happened in slow-motion. The headless rat corpse completed no more than two, maybe three, aerial somersaults before landing on its back on the second floor fire escape directly below--the end with the exposed sinews draped grotesquely over one edge, near the "McSorley's" sign, his four feet pointing upwards, frozen and useless.

Once more, a hush fell among the crowd. Though now one of sadness, not anticipation. It was over. We had to accept it. True, there were a few well-intentioned observers on the sidelines who weren't ready to throw in the towel. In vain, they pointed to the corpse and shouted to the bird, "He's down here! Look!" It was no use.

Instead, Hawk flew up to the third floor fire escape railing, ruffled his majestic feathers and with no small modicum of dignity, puffed out his chest. He needed no compass. He knew exactly where the body lay. But he wasn't going to go after it. It wouldn't have been sportsmanly. Hawk was a gentlemen and a gentlemen always knows when a hunt is over.

He lingered there for a few seconds longer. Just long enough for us to applaud him once again for his inspiring efforts.

And then he flew away. As did we.

The teenage kids putting away their lighters and skateboarding over to St. Mark's Place. The black guy and his Asian girlfriend walking a few blocks away to make out. The Latino father and his daughter off in search of some other family-friendly activity. The drunken Irish guys returning to McSorley's for another Guinness or two. The East Indian driver getting back into his limo, perhaps twenty minutes late on his way to pick up a passenger.

The pretty blond girl in the rainbow scarf also gone. Probably off to meet a boyfriend.

And I?

Alone, I walked away and began to worry again. What material was I going to perform tonight? It had to be a perfect show. You see, I have to kick ass at every show I do in New York from this point on. For the lesson of the Hawk and the Rat confirm it:

"This is where I belong."