Monday, May 17, 2010


With her long thin black fingers wrapped around her Kools she’d draw down hard on her cigarette enabling the smoke to quickly disappear through her lips and into her narrow frame. She’d then lift up her head and with one lengthy exhale she’d release it all out of our ninth story window. I was fascinated by how much paper she would burn on her smoke with just one inhale. It was magic to me. She would continue this ritual and as she did she would sometimes bob her head as if she was listening to a distant melody. I would sit near her and wonder as she stared out the window.

Sometimes when she would catch me peaking at her she would shake her head and say “don’t get any dumb ideas like stealing some of my smokes. I count em’ everyday honey and I would know if you took some. And I don’t think your parents would be too happy with their seven year old son if they know he was stealing their house cleaners smokes, now would they? When she would address me she would always point her long and bony index finger right at my eye level. She could be somewhat scary but I’m sure she never thought of herself that way. I would never disagree with Canary, I’d always shake my head yes and promised I would never put a cigarette in my mouth or adhere to whatever law she was laying down.

Canary would come twice a week to our red brick apartment on New York’s lower east side, to wash the floors, take out the laundry, do the dishes and vacuum the house. Her presence was always a welcomed sight to me as both my parents worked every day. When I’d arrive home from school she always had a sandwich ready and some milk. I loved how she greeted me “how you doing sugar, everything alright in the fourth grade? Did you learn something important today? Hey maybe someday you can help change this old mean world.”

I’d sit up on the table and she would keep working and talk to me as I ate. I only knew her as Canary and at that time in my life I imagined it was her first name. She was very long and very thin and had lines that told many stories as they ran up and down her face. The only thing I really knew about her was that she was around forty, had grown up in Alabama, had two children and lived in Brooklyn.

After setting out a little snack for me she would then draw up a chair in the living room and have her smoke while gazing out at the East River. I would quickly devour my sandwich and take my glass of milk and sit in front of the other window and we would both look out at the ships on the river and all the cars rolling across the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.

In between drags we would talk a little, never about anything too important. Canary would sometimes say “this is some kind of view you have here, just look at all those cars going across the bridge.” We’d both enjoy seeing the Brighten Line subway make it’s way along the Manhattan Bridge. I’d would say “Canary the subway looks like a rolling snake as it rolls across the bridge, don’t you think?” She’d laugh and as she was drawing on her smoke reply “no honey it looks more like a big old dirty worm, you know what I mean?” And we’d both laugh. In the two years that Canary would come to clean my parents apartment that’s about as close as we would get.

Occasionally we would talk about television. Canary’s favorite show was the $64,000 question. “You know” she would always start as she pulled on her smoke “ I don’t think some of those questions are so hard, I mean I know some of them and so does my husband, do you watch that show?’ I’d nod and reply “oh yeah I think your right but it’s still a little hard for me.” “I know honey, it’s tricky but you’ll see when you get older it won’t seem that difficult. I’ll tell you though, I think something’s really funny about that show, I think they might be telling some of those contestants the answers before the show.” She would tell me that every week and every week I would just nod. She was somewhat disturbed when I told her that I wasn’t allowed to watch Disneyland. She would shake her head and laugh and ask me if my mother thought Mickey Mouse was too scary for me. “No” I’d reply “she says Walt Disney was unfair to working people and he never hired any Jews so we were not allowed to watch the show. “Well I never heard anyone say that before honey and anyway who cares what he thinks you just want to have fun, ain’t that right? I mean you just can’t stop people from thinking, it would be like trying to push a river uphill?” I somehow knew that Canary’s logic made sense but at the same time I knew it wouldn’t change my parents mind. The conversation would always end with Canary letting me know that if I wanted to come to Brooklyn I could watch Walt Disney at her house.

One day just a few months before my family moved away from the lower east side there was a crisis. I would sometimes allow my parakeets out of their cage and let them fly around my room. That afternoon I made the mistake of leaving my bedroom door open just enough to allow a little blue and white bird to escape into the living room. It landed on the couch in the living room and fortunately all the windows were closed. I could hear Canary in the kitchen washing dishes in the sink. I thought of calling to her to help me catch my bird but I was sure I could catch it myself. I crept ever so slowly to my pet and just as I put my hands on the sofa she took off and headed into the kitchen.

I quickly ran over to the entrance to the kitchen and as I did the bird flew around Canary and headed for the window, which was open at the bottom at least five inches. As the bird approached the glass it somehow flew up and then managed to get itself stuck between the lower window, which was raised up, and the rear window, which was lowered down a few inches. And there it struggled, frantically flapping its wings, trapped by a pane of glass on each side of it’s trembling body. If it were to make it’s way down it would fly away and if the rear window were moved up the bird would be crushed.

I started to cry and I grabbed Canary’s forearm and pleaded her to help save my parakeet. It was the first time I had ever touched her. “Please Canary” I said over and over again in a voice that was somewhere between panic and despair “please help, please help Sylvester to get out of the window.”

Canary then said “the first thing you got to do is let go of my arm. You’re not going to help your little bird by squeezing me half to death. The second thing is that you need to do is calm down. The bird is scared enough, look just look over there at the poor thing. Look at it struggle, don’t make it any more nervous by you being crazy ok, you hear what I’m saying?”
I nodded in the affirmative, let go of her arm and backed away from the window. Canary slowly approached the glass, put her long thin hand and arm down through the top and as she did she pulled the front window towards herself as best as she could. Fortunately the entire window and frame were very old and there was just enough give for Canary to perform her miracle. She managed to get her hand under the now exasperated bird and in one smooth motion lift it to the top of the window and back into the kitchen.

She quickly shut the window and in a few minutes I managed to catch Sylvester and place her back in the cage. When I came back into the living room I was still crying. Canary bent down on her knees and said “come here baby and let Canary give you a hug” I made my way over to her and as she held me she said “just be careful with that bird, their so small and so delicate, you know what I mean, baby, you know what I mean?” All I could do was to cry and hold on.

It was the only time that I could remember anyone holding me in that apartment.

In the last few months before we moved, Canary and I assumed our usual places. She would take her break and look out the window and while she smoked and I would sit in the big brown cozy chair read my book, look out the window and talk about school with Canary. I would sometimes wonder what it would be like if she was my mother. Although she always remained a mystery to me I always felt safe around her.

My mother would give her clothes to take home for her children and sometimes offer her food as well. Canary was always polite about the food, but I could tell that the dishes my mother created somehow disagreed with her southern sensibilities.

One morning my mother and I took the subway to Brooklyn. Since my mom didn’t drive we had to leave very early to meet my aunt in Bayridge for lunch. As the express train sped through Hoyt Street Station I looked through the window and noticed the platform was filled with at least a hundred woman and they were almost all black. Many of them wore those white stockings, just as Canary did when she would come to our house. I asked my mother if the women on the Hoyt Street platform were on their way to clean houses. She nodded yes and then I wondered if Canary had been standing there as well. They all stood there so motionless, except for their clothes, which moved ever so slightly from the wind of the speeding express train.

In July of 1958 my parents, my brother and I packed up our things in preparation for our move to Brooklyn. My mother told me to leave anything I didn’t want and she’d give it to Canary for her children. Along with some shirts and pants I put my old tattered baseball glove in the box as an uncle of mine had just bought me a new one. I then realized I might not see Canary before we moved so I wrote her a short note, which read: Dear Canary, thank you for saving Sylvester we will both miss you I hope you son like the baseball mitt. I then put the note in an envelope and placed it in the box with the clothes and my old glove.

I would always look for her when I was on the subway passing through the Hoyt Street station. I never saw her again.


Strumelia said...

Neal, I love that story of Canary. I grew up in greenwich village, but before that, when i was littler than 5, I was in Brooklyn, and I remember fondly a housecleaner named Emma who used to come, and she was big and kind.
I also remember going to the movies to see Mothra when it came out, i was enchanted by the little twin girls.

Here are my two blogs, one is personal, and one is about noter playing the dulcimer:

I also run Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer, and perhaps you'd like to look there too, I'm sure you know many of our members already:

I look forward to reading more on your blog.
Lisa (Strumelia)

Marty Babits said...


A beautiful and moving story. Thank you for writing and posting it.


Marty Babits