In a city where green means go, yellow means go faster and red means go left, few take the time to examine the traffic signals. Most drivers glue their eyes to their phones before even coming to a full stop.
But sometimes the light will change and, if you're paying attention, you'll notice an avian silhouette stark against the blazing LED. The first time I saw one, I gasped aloud. Could other people see this, or was it just me? What joy! What furtive beauty!
L.A.'s omnipotent sunshine calls for full-circle visors around most lights, so the colors don't wash out and confuse drivers, giving birds plenty of room to perch, preen and nap. A few years ago I became infatuated with these rare and gorgeous silhouettes and began referring to the phenomenon as "her birdjesty," as though it's just one regal pigeon skipping from light to light, watching over the city as if she runs the place.
Her birdjesty always appears unexpectedly, and when she does my heart jolts with a private thrill, like I'm peering into the peephole of a Kinetoscope and seeing motion pictures for the very first time. Fred Armisen might say I'm being twee, but I can't help it: I love these pigeons.
Once I began to notice her birdjesty, she was everywhere. Gazing haughtily down her beak at my lack of finesse as I skid to an abrupt stop on red, winking while briefly illuminated as I speed through a yellow, languidly mocking me from the green as I sit immobile and furious in traffic.
Roosting thirty feet above the road, her birdjesty enjoys and embodies everything that Angelenos aspire to. She has a private space, shaded from the sunshine, safe from predators, elevated and isolated from the street, with an expansive view of the hills, the helicopters and the houses.
When the signal switches to reveal a previously hidden bird, you get a taste of Hollywood histrionics, a dramatic entrance: a bird on the lowest rung literally basks in the lime light. You admire her birdjesty, but she barely acknowledges you; remember, the first rule of L.A. is don't stare at the celebrities. When the light changes, she disappears and you need to continue on with your stupid errand, your mindless commute.
When I mentioned my obsession to a native Angeleno, he had no idea what I was talking about. How can you never have noticed this? I asked. Shrug.
Perhaps it is only me. Her cloistered paradise isn't showy or obvious from cars below, and those who do notice see only the darkened silhouette, the delineation of a life better lived. Like a black AmEx glimpsed in a sidelong glance at your neighbor when paying at The Grove, the outline of her birdjesty implies a freedom most of us can only fantasize about: soaring smugly above the commonfolk, hopping a jet stream or a JetStream to fly somewhere tropical for the winter, building and decorating the kind of elaborate but cozy nest you'd never have the money or the time to put together.
In fact, before the city gradually switched from incandescent to LED bulbs between 2007 and 2011, many pigeons frustrated the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) by choosing to not just stand in the traffic signals but make nests in them, as incandescents provide more warmth than LEDs. Signal Systems Superintendent Scott Morrill says that back in the nineties he went crazy trying to evict and keep out the birds, using chicken wire and quarter-inch welded wire from Home Depot, to no avail. Finally, he had to order special visors to replace LA's standard full-circle polycarbonate ones; now, at a small number of intersections, you'll find cap visors, which cover only the top half of the light, or tunnel visors, which cover the top 80 percent, because neither have space at the bottom of the visor for her birdjesty to stand or nest.
Apparently the intersection with the worst nesting problem was Alameda and Aliso, right in front of the Metropolitan Detention Center downtown. Perhaps her birdjesty's conservative leanings inspired her to grab justice by the tail feathers and monitor this federal prison 24/7? "I don't know any pigeons personally, so I can't ask them why they choose that one," Morrill says.
LED bulbs don't give off much heat, though, so nesting has become less of a problem in the past decade, but Morrill and his LADOT ilk still consider the birds who just perch there for a bit a nuisance. How dare they! Her birdjesty is a local treasure, emblematic of all the hidden talents of Los Angeles.
L.A. is a place with nooks and crannies spread over thousands of square miles, where even people who have been here for decades discover delightful surprises in unexpected places. Remember that dude who happened upon a 9-year-old's cardboard arcade in an auto parts shop?
Like her birdjesty, L.A.'s true landmarks tend to be incognito, known only to a certain few, making the city somewhat impenetrable to the casual visitor. How many Midwesterners know to ride the Enchanted Railroad at Descanso Gardens, or to catch a band at the Natural History Museum's First Fridays? Strip malls conceal brilliant chefs. A concrete channel masks a waterway lined with lush scenery.
And traffic lights shroud royalty.