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Caught in the middle

After all these years, most of the Massachusetts Avenue pigeons still aren't sure what to make of me. It's an uncertainty I understand and share, one that dates from my days as an aspiring newspaper reporter.

Long before electronic editing took the adventure out of cutting and pasting together stories on deadline, every copy boy began his or her career frantically filling glue bottles and sharpening editors' pencils. We learned how to answer buzzers before they stopped buzzing, and learned how high to jump whenever anyone yelled "Copy!"

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We also had a lot of on-the-spot training in journalism's most difficult daily challenge: learning how to care and still be objective, learning how to listen to all sides of an issue without taking sides. Mine was an unexpected crash course taught by the two editors and one pigeon who came to share my day.

I spent each morning at the fashion page, inserting accent marks and deleting titillating phrases from the latest Paris bulletins. In the afternoons I'd tiptoe down the hall to the hushed recesses of the poetry page to read through odes to everything butm Grecian urns.

Both editors taught me everything I know about haute couturem and iambic pentameter. Both also taught me more than I thought I cared to know about pigeons.

Like most city dwellers, they had strong feelings about urban wildfowl. Like all social activists, they weren't content to sit idly by. One contributed to her condominium's pigeon "control" fund, and the other spent equal sums of money trying to feed all the cooing transients on his block.

Neither editor knew of the other's efforts, and I thought it best to keep it that way. So, day after day, I listened and nodded noncommittally.

I learned that pigeons are monogamous, that they were the first birds to be domesticated, that it was, after all, a pigeon that carried to Rome word of Caesar's conquest of Gaul. I also learned of their failings.

I listened to many a persuasive argument -- and tried to keep an open mind.

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Then one morning the poetry editor called to ask if I'd feed his flock during my lunch hour. I reluctantly agreed and was halfway out the door when the fashion editor waved me back to ask if I'd put a letter in the mail for her. It was addressed to the pigeon control fund.

As I crossed Massachusetts Avenue, letter in one hand and two-pound bag of rice in the other, I could feel dozens of outraged orange eyes watching me from a top of a huge billboard. Somehow, the pigeons knew.m While I threw the rice over a fence into a vacant lot, they clung defiantly to their perch. They stayed there, glaring at me, until I'd recrossed the street and turned the corner out of sight.

I continued to feed the flock and they continued to eye me warily for several months. Their distrust disturbed me at first, but the more I read about pigeons , the less personally I took it. Every bird book confirmed that pigeons are by nature cautious and jittery.

I kept hoping for a reconciliation, and the breakthrough came the day I took my own brown-bag lunch to the vacant lot. I threw the pigeons their rice, then sat down in a nearby patch of grass to unwrap my egg salad on rye and see how long the standoff would last.

I only had to wait a minute or two. One hungry bird finally couldn't stand it any longer and plummeted to the ground about six feet from me. He pecked at the rice with a flurry and stared at me and my bag in between swallows. He wasn't exactly an adoring crowd, like those I'd seen on Civil War generals' statues, but I felt the two of us had found some common ground.

The more we lunched together -- though always at a distance -- the more curious he got. He was a punctual bird, and some days I'd even find him nonchalantly waiting for me on my side of the street. We'd cross together with the green light, then separate, to meet up again at our favorite spot near the back door of a Chinese restaurant.

Eventually I was transferred to a news department at the paper, where afternoon deadlines interfered with our daily picnic. It wasn't hard to find a replacement to feed the rest of the pigeons, but I didn't know how I'd break the news to my bird. We'd become close despite our determined indifference, and I thought I might miss him.

Fortunately, he missed the last meal, sparing us both an uncomfortable parting. But the following day he was back on his sidewalk beat taking objective note of all passers-by.

Whenever we meet at the Curb these days, he blinks up and I blink ba ck. Or, who knows, maybe we're winking.

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