With a houseful of her favorite birds, and a hurricane on the way, Nikki's life is about to take a serious turn.
GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, "Omen." We don't know where they come from. We don't know, but if you look hard enough, there they are. Signs, portents, warnings, clues. And who can read the signs better than we can, Snappers? Who? Animals, they know stuff. And our next storyteller, she had a relationship with the animals - a relationship with birds. And that relationship went even deeper than she thought.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NIKKI MOUSTAKI: Every year for my birthday as long as I could remember, my grandfather bought me a white dove. It was actually a white homing pigeon but I didn't know that as a child. I would sit with this dove all day, and I would marvel at it, and I would touch it. And then at dusk, my grandfather and I would go out to the yard, and we would release it together. It was a really magical moment for me as a child to kind of have that power of being able to release an animal. My grandfather had a coop in the backyard, and we both tended to it every morning. So we were always together. I was able to feel like I was part of his world. And his world was birds.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MOUSTAKI: He would always tell me about the bird market of Paris where it has been for about 108 years. Apparently, the birds there are absolutely miraculous. They're of these incredible colors, and they sing these beautiful songs. I always thought as a child that I would get there someday.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY VINTON SONG, "MY HEART BELONGS TO ONLY YOU")
MOUSTAKI: When I was 18 years old, a boyfriend bought me a lovebird for Valentine's Day. It was like this weird-looking, kind of ugly, little squiggle of a thing. And it was sweeping. And I named it Bonk. Baby birds are a lot of work. I had to syringe-feed Bonk every four hours. I had to care for it and keep it warm. They're ferocious and loving and smart and sweet. They bond for life, so they can either bond to another bird for life or they'll bond to you for life.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HEART BELONGS TO ONLY YOU")
BOBBY VINTON: (Singing) My heart belongs to only you.
MOUSTAKI: I literally started spending every waking second with this bird. I had it tucked into my T-shirt; we went on dates; we went to college classes. Bonk would sit under my hair when I would go shopping. I literally had this bird with me all the time. And then I started breeding these lovebirds. I ended up with, like, hundreds and hundreds of these lovebirds. My grandfather kept lovebirds from when I was a young child, so when I started raising birds and I had so many babies that I couldn't handle it anymore that I would give the babies to him. And then we both became really bonded in these lovebirds. And we would trade babies back and forth. And sometimes he would surprise me, and he would just show up with another beautiful lovebird. Imagine a house - there were bird cages and birds literally all over the house.
I was a bird lady in the daytime. But I also went to college. I went out to nightclubs. I was a little beach bunny in Miami running around in my bikini on the beach. I had plenty of boyfriends. I did not look the part of the weird bird lady. When I went to the bird clubs, it was all, like, grandmothers and moms and then me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VAMOS A LA PLAYA")
RIGHEIRA: (Singing) Vamos a la playa, oh, oh. Vamos a la play, oh, oh. Vamos a la playa, oh, oh.
MOUSTAKI: I don't think of the birds as being other than me or being different from me. They're just other beings on the earth trying to survive, and I have stewardship over them. And I do the best I can for them to make their lives great. We lived in South Miami. And we heard that there was a hurricane coming.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Channel 4 news team.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Good evening, this is a special expanded edition of the Channel 4 News Nightcast. A hurricane watch is now in effect for South Florida.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Hurricane with major life-threatening storm surge and damaging winds with significant...
MOUSTAKI: I watched all the neighbors start preparing their homes by boarding up and buying supplies, and we weren't doing anything. As the hours went on, we started seeing where the hurricane was going to come, and it was headed right for us.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: It looks like our luck has run out. Hurricane Andrew appears headed toward the South Florida. And tonight we are under a hurricane watch.
MOUSTAKI: The police came blaring with their horns. and they came door-to-door, and they said you've got to get out of here. You can be arrested if you are in a mandatory evacuation zone, and you don't leave. I said, well, I'm not leaving. I'm not leaving my animals. And they said - no, you're leaving. You have to go. So I packed up 10 of my youngest birds and left the rest of the birds, locked the door and hoped for the best. And I don't know why I left Bonk behind.
I believed that nothing would happen. I got to my friend's house, and then some time in the middle of the night, windows started just blasting out of the house. You hear the noise described as a freight train, and it does sound like that. The house was shaking. It sounded like bomb blasts outside. You could see the door in the attic jumping. The walls were shaking, and the ceiling was moving, and everything was swaying. And we were just huddled together in this closet. I was sure we weren't going to make it through this. Nobody spoke, and we were just looking into each other's eyes. All I could think about in that closet was my birds.
Dawn broke, and I'd never seen anything like that. I didn't even know a scene like that was possible. It was something out of the end of the world. We walked out of the space where the door once was, and you couldn't see grass or asphalt or anything. The entire ground was covered with roof tiles. I absolutely needed to get home. I was anxious to the point of, like, almost having a breakdown because I had to get back to my birds. A guy next door noticed that I was very upset. And he came over and said, I'll drive you to your house. He pulls out of his garage this Porsche 911 Targa - black on black. This shiny, beautiful Porsche against the backdrop of this ruin.
Every street sign is down, all the landmarks you used to get home or to turn on a certain street are gone. We had to park about 10 blocks from my home because there were yachts in the street, and he climbed over these yachts and these mountains of seaweed with me. And we were just all bitten-up by ants. I got closer to the house. There were no more door on the house. There were no more doors or windows, so it was easy to get in. There was a waterline on the house at seven feet. There were mountains of seaweed in the house. There were fish in the house and crabs and other people's furniture. I walked into the bird room, and there were just cages in shambles. Dead and drowned birds.
There were cages that were just mangled, and they were all kind of crumbled on top of each other. And I tore through the cages just pulling body after body of all of these dead lovebirds out of the cage. I was piling them up in the front of my shirt and weeping. And baby after baby of Bonk's babies were dead. Everybody - they all had names and - dozens were killed by the flood. And in that bird room of the dozens of birds that were killed, there were six alive. And one of them was Bonk. She wasn't screeching. Lovebirds don't screech. And she was clinging to the side of her cage and screeching. And I took her out and I just snuggled her and cuddled her and kissed her. I just sat there amongst the dead birds and wept. I'm having an absolute breakdown because I've killed my birds.
I walked out of that hurricane house a completely changed person. All I could think about was those beautiful, dead, wet birds still in their cages and what they must have experienced as that water just lapped in and drowned them. Those images ran over and over in my head 24 hours a day. I couldn't get rid of them. And I felt so guilty. These were things I was supposed to protect. I had this grief that pressed on me every minute of every day. The devastation - this is so hard to explain. I started taking in every bird that came to me through rescue. And there were dozens and dozens of birds. People were literally knocking on my door and leaving birds on the doorstep - birds they didn't want, injured birds, birds they'd found. The bird hobby became a bird fury. The house really became just a lesson in pandemonium. Tons - dozens of species - yeah, I ended up with a lot of birds.
As my bird collecting escalated, my grandfather was declining, and he ended up passing away. That was beyond devastating for me because he was the closest person in my life. He was like my dearest confidant and friend. And I thought, you know, my grandfather and I were like a bonded pair of birds. I started noticing that alcohol could really kill a lot of the emotional pain. So I drank a lot. I started drinking every day. So I really didn't have any friends because frankly, no one wants to be around somebody like that.
I had this idea of doing this grand gesture that would make it all go away. Like if I do this one thing, like I'll be relieved of all of this emotion. So I thought, if I go to the bird market of Paris - which is a place that my grandfather told me about many, many times and said it was the best place in the world - and I buy a dove and I release it into the Paris sky, then I will be releasing all of this grief. It's a little irrational, but I go all in with the magical thinking. I think that's what magical thinking is about. You can't have doubts. You just have to be really, really confident about the magic. So I got the money, and I exchanged my apartment for an apartment in Paris - and I got there.
Sunday came when I was finally going to go to the bird market. I walked there very slowly. I had so much apprehension about it. And I turned the corner onto the bird market, and I just heard this beautiful bird song. And I saw all of these beautiful birds. My grandfather was not exaggerating. It was beautiful. I walked slowly - looking around because I knew this is a big deal. I have to buy the right kind of bird, and I have to find the right place to let it go because my entire redemption of all of these things that happened hang on this.
So I studied this one guy who was selling some pigeons, and I walked up to him. And I said can I - I would like to buy this pigeon. And he kind of looked me up and down - he said, what are you going to do with it? And I was kind of taken aback and I said, well, I'm going to release it into the sky, you know? And he was like, oh, what are you going to do? You're going to release this bird, and she will go and make love with other birds and then come back to my birds and give them disease. And I was like, what? I couldn't believe - no, that's not what I want - and I'll just take one. And he's like no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Fine, I'll just go to this next guy. Meanwhile, that first guy was talking to the other guy in French and saying no, no, no, don't sell to this American. So now this guy's like no. And I went to the next guy - and it happened like that all over - it was like five people would not sell me anything. And they were laughing at me. One guy tried to sell me, like, a big skunk. They were mocking me, and I got so upset that I literally ran away from the bird market, completely dejected. I had given up on it. It was devastating. I just decided I'm just going to walk around aimlessly, and a week later I went to go see the windmill at the Moulin Rouge. I had wanted to see it. And I see in the netting of the Moulin Rouge, right below the windmill of the Moulin Rouge - that famous windmill - there's this green netting, and it's to keep pigeons out of there. Trapped in the green netting is this big, male pigeon. It was hanging downwards with its wings extended. Almost, like, the way I can describe it is like an upside-down Jesus, like a cross shape. I thought, oh, my God, this is it. I knew what it was at that moment, and then I saw a white door and a buzzer that was the backstage to the Moulin Rouge. So I started pressing the buzzer.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZER)
MOUSTAKI: A guy came out. It was a very cute Frenchman, and he looked at the bird and he looked at me, and he said, ah, I will make the rescue. He came back with a tall ladder, the tallest ladder I've ever seen, and I was afraid that he was going to cut the bird down, just let it go. So I started to climb up the ladder after him, and he turned back to me and he was like no, no, no, stop. He cut the bird down. He was holding the bird in his gloved hand, and he came and he handed me the bird. I was taking the holy grail out of somebody's hand. This is what I had come to Paris for. This is why I was here. I felt at that moment something release in me, to let go of some of that grief.
I know that was Poppy communicating with me. I mean, I don't know that, but I felt that. But I had almost constant pain and grief over the hurricane birds. Still, it took many, many years for me to not actually feel like that all the time. In a weird way, I think that Poppy and I still communicate through birds. I have saved many pigeons in New York City since then.
WASHINGTON: But wait, dear listener, wait. Nikki's story goes on from this point. She wrote a book about it. "The Bird Market Of Paris." Discover it on our website, snapjudgment.org. That story was produced by Anna Sussman with sound design by Renzo Gorrio.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WASHINGTON: How do you know what you know when you don't know how you know it? SNAP JUDGMENT, "The Omen" episode will be right back with a story from the future, for real. Stay tuned.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.