The four of us are in the car and Mark is driving. Silence has descended; I am suddenly overcome by the need to demonstrate that I am holding up my half of this marriage’s conversational bargain, and so I wrack my brain for something interesting to discuss. As I am rallying my scintillation, a handful of pigeons step off the curb and saunter across the street in front of us, and I physically brace myself against the words I know are coming.
Mark slows the car slightly and glares at the pigeons … says to no one in particular, “Why should I have to slow down to avoid hitting pigeons? Don’t we have a deal with the pigeons?”
Because Seinfeld, people. George Costanza and the pigeons. Google it.
When no one in the car responds, Mark asks again as he peers into the rear-view mirror at the still-walking birds, “Don’t we? Don’t we have a deal with the pigeons?”
I don’t answer him, not directly anyway. “I was reading this article the other day. Really well-written piece. It was about pigeons.”
Mark says nothing, although he shifts a bit in the driver’s seat, which it occurs to me looks an awful lot like bracing himself against the words I’m going to speak next.
Oh, it’s ON now.
I smile and nod. “Yes, really well-written article about this guy up in Canada who was selling pigeons to farmers … breeding pairs of what he claimed were valuable racing pigeons. He sold farmers these breeding pairs and he promised to buy back the offspring, which he then sold to other farmers as breeding pairs of racing pigeons.”
“That makes no sense.”
“Just listen. The farmers were making all kinds of money, because this guy was buying back the offspring, as promised, at incredibly high prices. In reliance on this apparently incredibly charismatic man’s promise that the market for racing-pigeons was booming, more and more farmers bought more and more of these breeding pairs and soon there were thousands and thousands and thousands of racing pigeons this single man had promised to buy back. The success of the entire enterprise turned on a never-ending supply of farmers willing to buy and raise pigeons, but the only never-ending supply was of pigeons. For a while, everything was glorious, and people were making all kinds of money, but soon enough, there were no more farmers who could be brought into the scheme and so there was no one left to talk into participating in this racing-pigeon enterprise … there was just a single man who had promised to buy ALL the pigeon offspring. I can’t remember his name, but now … he ran out of money, and all of the farmer-participants started going under, their entire fortunes having been invested in pigeons for which there was now zero market.”
“Seriously … this whole story makes no sense.”
I ignore him. “So now? This guy’s ruined … disgraced and penniless … in court, brought up on charges of running a Ponzi scheme, and …”
Mark interrupts, “What you described is not a Ponzi scheme. You don’t run a Ponzi scheme by putting yourself on the hook for everyone’s financial success.”
Annoying. “That’s exactly what the defense is arguing.” I sulk for a moment at the notion that Mark has just summed up in a few words the rest of the story I was going to tell at much greater length.
Kallan leans forward to help me out. “Couldn’t they just eat the pigeons?”
I love that girl. I turn to her. “Guess what? Once they realized they were financially screwed, the farmers got together and tried to think of something to do with all of the birds, which they were still paying to house and feed. You are exactly correct – one of the things they tried to do was sell the birds as food, but it turned out that pigeons don’t have much meat on their bones, and the numbers didn’t work … there was no way to charge enough for the pigeon dinners to make the effort worthwhile.”
“So what … they just let them go?”
“They couldn’t do that … there were so many birds, people were afraid a mass release of tame pigeons would cause all sorts of problems. In Ontario alone, that would have meant a release of 400,000 pigeons.”
Mark glances at me and I say, “Seriously … when the whole thing came crashing down, this guy owed his investors almost four million dollars for the birds he had promised to buy.”
Kallan is curious. “So what did they do?”
“They had to kill all of the birds. Millions of birds across Canada and in the United States as well. Government officials went out and gassed the birds as farmers wept.”
There is silence for a moment, and I sum up, “I just thought it was really interesting … not just the scheme itself and the eventual failure, but the ease with which people can be swept into promises.”
Mark is thoughtful for a few seconds, and I assume he is about to hold forth on the nature of Ponzi schemes generally, but instead he says, his voice confident, “So it’s like cockroaches, then.”
He catches me completely off guard, and I am instantly irritated. “No. Nothing like cockroaches. What are you even talking about?”
“People raise cockroaches.”
“They so do not.”
He brushes my protest aside. “People raise cockroaches. For medicinal purposes.”
I shake my head. “You are just making things up. Why do you do this?”
Kallan tries to help her father. “Are you maybe thinking about leeches, Daddy? Because doctors do sometimes use leeches to eat the dead tissue around wounds … are you thinking about leeches?”
Mark shakes his head, “Nobody races leeches.”
Kallan nods. “That’s true.”
I wave angry hands in Mark’s direction. “Oh my god, stop talking about cockroaches. My story is nothing like cockroaches. My story is about racing pigeons … NOT COCKROACHES … stay on topic.”
He glances at me. “Google it.”
“Google what, exactly?” I take out my phone and start tapping in letters. “Fine. I’m googling cockroaches medicinal uses, and …” I stare at the pages of results … DAMN IT. “I lost the signal … could we just agree that you are being a pain in the ass? I wasn’t talking about cockroaches.”
He nods knowingly in the direction of my phone. “People race cockroaches, you know.”
“THAT IS NOT WHAT WE ARE TALKING ABOUT AT THIS MOMENT. WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH ANYTHING? YOU ARE DRIVING ME INSANE AND ANYWAY PEOPLE DO NOT RACE COCKROACHES. RACING PIGEONS IS A THING IT’S A THING PEOPLE DO I HAVE ACTUALLY HEARD OF IT AND READ ABOUT IT AND RACING COCKROACHES IS SO NOT A THING PEOPLE DO AND WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT COCKROACHES THAT’S WHAT I WANT TO KNOW I DID NOT START THIS CONVERSATION TO DISCUSS HOW THE SITUATION WITH THE PIGEONS IS LIKE A SIMILAR SITUATION WITH COCKROACHES BECAUSE IT IS NOT AND I NEED YOU TO STOP SAYING THAT IT IS THE SAME THING TELL ME HOW IT IS THE SAME THING.”
Mark raises a calm finger. “One. They breed quickly. Just like pigeons.”
Mark raises a second finger. “There would be little barrier to entry in the raising-cockroaches world. Even less than in the pigeon world, I imagine.”
“I hate you.”
Mark raises a third finger. “And cockroaches are fast. People totally race cockroaches.”
I throw myself angrily back in my seat as Mark muses, “We could totally be cockroach Ponzi-royalty.”
“I thought you said it wasn’t a Ponzi scheme.”
He nods agreement. “It’s not, but I’m trying to make you happy by staying on your chosen topic.”
“I’m never talking to you again.”
“That will give me more time to train my racing roaches.”
“AUGHGHGHHHH … that is not a thing. People DO NOT RACE COCKROACHES STOP SAYING THEY DO.”
He gestures at my phone. “Google it.”
Forgetting my earlier claim that I have no signal, I stab at my phone’s screen … racing cockroaches … and then stare at the pages of results. “DAMN IT!”
“Told you so.”
Kallan wants to know, “Do cockroaches fly? Do they race flying or running?”
Mark contentedly re-settles himself in the driver’s seat to answer her question as I announce that I am never talking to Mark or Kallan again.
Maj, who has been silent up until now, announces, “I’m never getting married.”
I love that girl.
— If you are interested in the article I mentioned (and it is a fascinating and very well-written piece), you can find it here: BIRDMAN: The Pigeon King and the Ponzi Scheme that Shook Canada.