By Malia Cesareo
8th grade, Montclair Kimberley Academy

When I see someone that is homeless I often treat them differently. I don’t think I mean to, it just happens. Nobody ever told me to treat homeless people differently, but we learn from our parents. Our parents say that people who have no homes could have no homes for a reason. Maybe it was because they got caught up in drugs or alcohol. But I always wondered what if that wasn’t the case? When I was little I would often ask my mom why we didn’t give them money when they asked for it. My mother responded, “Piper we don’t know what they will do with that money.” My mom was right. We didn’t know. Truthfully, they could do anything they wanted with that money after we were gone. But, what if they really were going to use it to help provide a meal?

Our town had always been a nice town. Nice people, nice weather, nice schools. Yet somehow something shifted overnight.  Those rules that society had placed that said you should always be kind, changed, especially when he moved in.

Last year a homeless man moved into the park. Our park, Anderson Park. A park that each and every one of us grew up walking through. The fact that he was there made many people annoyed. Said he was disturbing the peace. Yet I didn’t really get that. He never did anything wrong. He just sat on one of the benches. Each and every day, on that same bench. Day after day, week after week, month after month. By then, the local moms had given up trying to get him removed. However, they would still gossip about how he was a safety hazard to the children. I couldn’t tell how he was a safety hazard; he just looked like a man. Each part of him told a different story. His beady eyes may have seen the greatness of the world, from lands near and far. His ears may have heard music that people will never hear in their lifetimes. He may have eaten the greatest foods ever made — foods that made you feel all warm inside from the top of your head to the tips of your toes.

Even if that was true, and he really did travel the world, I don’t think people would have treated him any differently. Because he was different, and when people can’t understand things, they try to control them. That’s why people wanted him out; they acted like the park was theirs. The thing is, though, it wasn’t. If anything, Anderson Park belonged to the birds.

Every day in order to get to school I walked through the park and every afternoon to get home. Early in the morning when the only life in it was me, the birds, and the man. By now people had noticed how he liked to watch the birds. I, however, noticed it on the first day he came. It was one of the boys in my class that started to call him Pigeon Man. I didn’t like the name very much; it seemed rude to name a human being after a bird. However, the man didn’t seem to mind it. I guess it was nicer than the other names I had heard him called. So Pigeon Man stuck.

It was on those early brisk mornings when the air smelled fresh with promise and the sun was only just waking up, that I would often wonder how he had become homeless. Was it because he made some wrong choices or got mixed up with the wrong people? Or was it simply because he got laid off. On that chilly Tuesday morning, I found myself in no exact rush to get to school. When I came to pass his bench he was already wide awake watching the birds.

“The birds’ songs are the most beautiful in the morning, aren’t they?” he said to me.

I was taken back. Suddenly everything I thought I knew about talking to people disappeared. The words on my tongue dried up faster than rain in the desert. I realized that I knew nothing about this man. Where he came from. How he became homeless. Words that had once so easily slipped off my tongue dried out. Why was this so hard? He was just a man. Maybe those moms were right, maybe he was dangerous. Maybe he secretly had a stash of drugs hidden somewhere in his coat and he was trying to sell me some? The anxiety of all his possibilities started to tower over me. Just breathe, I thought. Maybe he is not really homeless and is trying to kidnap me. Just breathe, my head yelled. Maybe he had a gun… Just breathe, my head yelled one last time.

“Yes, the birds are nice,” I responded quickly. “Ah, I gotta go.” The man looked sad.

“Yes, of course, you have school and I have my birds to watch,” he sighed. But by the time he had responded I had already walked away.

When I finally sat down in the homeroom I felt terrible. He was just trying to be kind. Instead, I thought he was trying to sell me drugs, or kidnap me.

“O.K., everyone take out your books,” Mr.Becker said. We had been reading “101 Arabian Nights” in English class. “Now I want you to all tell me your take on the story, and what you thought about it.”

“Mr. Becker.”

“Yes, Piper.”

“You know the man that sits in the park?” I asked.

“Yes, I do. But what does that have to do…”

“You mean the Pigeon Man,” one of the students in my class popped up.

“Lucas, don’t interrupt,” Mr. Becker said.

“Well, Lucas is right. I do mean the Pigeon Man,” I responded.

“Then yes, I do. But what does this have to do with the lesson?” he asked, perplexed.

“I think that the Pigeon Man and the king have similar qualities,” I said.

“I think Piper is right. I bet that dude is really a secret king that goes and murders his fiancees,” Lucas laughed.

“Lucas, let Piper finish,” Mr. Becker said sternly. “Piper, how so?”

“Well, to be fair, Mr. Becker, maybe the king had a reason for murdering all of those people. Maybe he was truly lonely. Or maybe the story was told wrong. Maybe the true story was they were really killed by someone else but he was blackmailed to take the blame. I know I’m grasping at straws, but I do believe there might be another side to this story. Just like there could be another side to the story of the Pigeon Man.”

“You could be right, Piper. I have never thought of it that way.”

Which is basically teacher talk for “you’re wrong,” I thought.

As I walked back through the park that day I found a Pigeon Man sitting on the bench. “It’s a nice day,” I said.

“It seems to be,” he replied. “What caused you to have such a change in heart.”

“Excuse me?”

“What I mean is, I didn’t mean to scare you off this morning.”

“No sir. I was just being… Um, there is no right reason for why I ran. It probably made you feel awful. The fact that nobody takes into account how you feel. For Christ’s sake, people named you after an ugly bird instead of asking your real name.”

The man started to laugh. It was a laugh that made you feel that he was experiencing a great amount of happiness and sadness all at once.

“Young lady, you running away from me this morning was hardly the worst thing that has ever happened to me. As for the name, I like it. Pigeons are very observant creatures. They like to watch and observe from afar. Me and the pigeons are one and the same,” he beamed.
“But they eat trash,” I said.

The man chuckled. “O.K., so perhaps we are not exactly alike. But I do know one thing. After all of this time I have spent sitting on this bench, I have noticed that you are different from others. You don’t judge others as they do to me. You look for the good in people, and if you can do that, people like me and people that need help stand a chance in this world.”

“Thank you,” I said with the biggest smile on my face.
“Now you better get going. It’s around time you should be getting home.”

I smiled and waved goodbye. Every day after that I visited Pigeon Man in the park. Sometimes I would watch the birds with him or we would just talk about things we liked. To this day I don’t know where he is. He simply just disappeared and after weeks of looking, I thought I would never see him again. But one day while I was walking through the park, I noticed there was a pigeon perched on a bench. His bench! It made me think of him. Pigeon Man had accidentally taught me something no teacher could ever teach me. There are always two sides to the story, the one that gets made up because people are often scared of the unknown. And the story that is true, that, in fact, is the most important one of all. So even though it might take some digging and a little bit of valor, that doesn’t mean it is not worth looking for. And much like this story, there are two ways to see it.