Down Here Below

We just got back from Manhattan where we attended AWP, a big writers convention. There were 7,000 academic writers-mostly students, graduate students, and writers who teach-all packed into a two conference hotels in mid-town not far from Time Square.

One of Betsy’s college suitemates lives on Fifth Avenue, so we had a place to stay outside the hive of poets and novelists. Each day we walked or cabbed down to listen to readings and panels. We passed the Plaza and the Apple store that looks like a big cube. We listened to the city symphony of horns and sirens.

“You’re a nature writer,” one friend here said. “What are you doing wasting a weekend in New York City?”

In spite of attending readings by John Irving and Frank McCourt, what I really went to New York for was to see Pale Male, the famous redtail hawk. The conference, and the good food and the taxi rides were all backdrop to Sunday morning hike a few blocks down Park Avenue from our friend Cathy’s apartment building to see the hawk they made a film about and Steve Earle mentions in his song “Down Here Below” off his new CD WASHINGTON SQUARE SERENADE.

If I have a raptor hero, it’s Pale Male. He’s been living and nesting in the center of Manhattan for 14 years. The nest he’s shared with a number of different mates is maintained on a pediment above Mary Tyler Moore’s center window penthouse apartment five floors up in Fifth Avenue’s 900 block. It’s a ritzy pad Pale Male has cobbled together from sticks and twigs to sire and raise his broods of Upper East Side city hawks.

Not everyone loves that hawk. Five years ago the managers of the apartment building removed the nest and tried to force Pale Male off his perfect multi-million dollar perch. It was something about pigeon parts and hawk droppings raining down on the fancy people below on Fifth Avenue. Or maybe Mary Tyler Moore didn’t like all the telescopic lenses leveled on her window anytime the hawks were on the nest. Pale Male developed a real fan base in the 1990s and early 2000s.

In the end the hawk won his real estate war. The public outcry was so great that the fancy humans were forced to share their private building with Pale Male’s nest.

I was worried Pale Male wouldn’t be around in early February. I thought, like many New Yorkers, he might be in warmer climes.

My fears were laid aside on Saturday when another nature writer friend came up to me in the hallway of the Hilton and whispered, “I saw him, Pale Male.” She spoke in a tone that’s usually reserved for saints or Cormac McCarthy.

The next morning I set out on a mild Sunday for my hike past the New York hawk preserve. Cathy had told me the best place to view him was from the Pale Male bench right behind the Central Park boat pond. When I arrived there was a big man standing there dressed all in black, hunched over a lens the size of a surplus howitzer. Following its line, I could see it was trained on the nest.

I guess I looked like a pilgrim. “You lucky man,” the photographer said, after turning from the lens when I walked up. He spoke in a thick Eastern European accent. “Pale Male-he is on nest.”

He asked me if I wanted to look. I leaned over the camera. The hawk filled the frame-pale breasted as his name suggested, and full of city confidence that the squirrels, rats, and pigeons of Central Park were his personal Whole Foods store.

I talked for a few minutes to this Pale Male acolyte. He said he comes out every day and takes pictures. I took one more look through the lens and while I was watching the famous redtail hawk leaped into the chilly air above Fifth Avenue, coasted right over our heads, and disappeared into the winter trees of Central Park.

Maybe Pale Male was looking for a fat rat or pigeon. Maybe he was wondering what all these writers are doing in his town. Or maybe he was just performing for someone who was going to write about him and add to legend of the famous city hawk.

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