They are green, squawky and have orange beaks. And despite being thousands of miles from their ancestral home in Argentina, they have constructed a set of comfortable apartments in the tall floodlights of the Brooklyn College football field.
Was it these bright lights of the city that drew this flock of odd birds to the Big Apple? Did the religious overtones of their species’ name – Monk parakeets – spur them on their trans-American pilgrimage?
No one is exactly sure how a colony of Quaker parrots, as they are also known, ended up settling in Brooklyn, just a few miles north of Coney Island. The most likely theory, according to the fan website brooklynparrots.com, is that in the late 1960s the forbears of today’s Brooklyn parrots escaped from a container being unloaded at John F. Kennedy Airport.
Now, 40 years later, they have survived blisteringly cold winters, persecution from unsympathetic officials and an urban environment far from their subtropical origins.
Last weekend, with my wife Emily and two friends, I went on a quest to find these elusive rumored birds and, sure enough, we found them mingling freely with starlings, sparrows and pigeons, pecking peacefully in the dirt and flying from treetop to field light-top.
New York City is not the easiest place to get to know. It is a massive metropolis in so many ways, from the size of the buildings to the sheer mass of people. It operates on its own hyperactive schedule and waits for no one.
But New York, including Brooklyn where I live, is at the same time welcoming to the newcomer. More than 35 percent of New York City residents, including me, were born outside the United States. New York City represents a gateway to America, a place where people from any part of the world are able to make a home.
The classes I teach at Pace University are a wonderful mélange of cultures. This week I was lecturing on globalization. I asked the group of about 35 students to shout out their countries of origin. By the end of the exercise there were 16 countries splashed in my messy handwriting across the whiteboard.
“Wow, this is really a global classroom,” said one student with the awe to which all teachers are addicted. There was a buzz of conversation and then another student piped up in a bored, matter-of-fact, this-is-not-new-news tone of voice:
“Yeah, but this is New York, that’s the way it is.”
As I try to figure out where I fit in New York City I take inspiration from the Brooklyn parrots. No matter how out of place they may seem, they make do, learn to live in high-up cramped quarters, and get used to their alien surroundings.
To be a New Yorker, I am learning, is to improvise an identity out of the tension of being out of place and yet comfortably at home.