The Pigeon Coop: a Family Fable
2. Slices and Bits
The Pigeon Coop
Mike was ten when he and Frances, his sixteen-year-old sister, arrived at Ellis Island from Austria-Hungary. They had sailed by steamship, like their parents and siblings. The rich farmlands of Southwestern Pennsylvania and the promise of prosperity were the lure. John, their father, built a stately log home in Shirleysburg, in Huntingdon County. With the help of a dozen and more boarded laborers and his sons, he established a dairy herd like the one he had in the Old Country,
Mike discovered he disliked farming, preferring mechanical work, repairing wagons and farm equipment, to animal husbandry and tending fields. His sisters were leaving home to marry young, and he, too, felt the need to get away. The thrill of sea travel was still in his blood, and with his father’s blessing, Mike joined the Merchant Marines and voyaged to Gibraltar from New York. Upon his discharge, he chauffeured for a wealthy man who lived along the Hudson River. But, missing his kin, he headed for home.
In 1921, his father’s milk wagon route took him to Robertsdale, a bustling coal company town on Broad Top Mountain. Sixteen-year-old Julia was home with her mother and father, having worked for several years on her old aunt and uncle’s farm in the valley. A year later, Mike and Julia married in Shade Gap, and their first child, a girl, was born on the farm. Mike went to work in the mine. When their son was born, they rented a shanty from the Company, and with it came the hardship, thankless toil, crowding, and restrictions. Julia couldn’t have a garden, not even for flowers, and was compelled to buy from the Company store. Mike and she knew they had to seek a better life. Three of his brothers had already moved to New York City.
Julia’s first road trip to the Big Apple on Route 22 — she might have been a million miles from the mountains and rolling countryside — through Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The couple left their little boy on the farm with Mike’s family until they could find work. Their seven-year-old daughter had finished first grade. Her first impression was “The city is like a bag of ants that opens up and they all run out!”
The Big City meant crowds, confusion, and commerce, and at first, might have felt even more confining to Julia than her life on Broad Top. Warehouses, cafes, restaurants, garages, and industrial shops offered an array of low-paying jobs. Mike was given a chance to ply his skills in the mechanic’s trade. A worn, dark, sad, and crowded Lower East Side tenement would have to suffice as their first New York dwelling place.
Brothers, Albert and Mack, owned a four-story brick walk-up at 402 West Broadway and Spring Street, in SoHo, with a storefront second-hand shop. Albert kept pigeons on the roof. It has been said the ubiquitous birds are undesirable, but Albert admired their adaptability.
One day, he told Mack, “I need a new coop!” His lay on its side in a corner of the rooftop, rusted, in need of repair or removal, while Albert’s pet flock awaited new housing. The bulky-looking grey and black birds took to the air like doves, flying freely over granite and brick to Washington Square Park where they foraged for peanuts and poked candy wrappers.
By chance, Albert acquired a compact lawyer’s cabinet from a neighborhood curb. Its light frame and plain wood shelves sparked an idea: “Help me carry it to the roof.” Affable, mustachioed Mack hoisted it to his back and lumbered to their building, hauling it to the roof. At his brother’s direction, he eased it into a far corner, between the east and north run of the parapet — well away from the clotheslines and stairway entrance. Placing a few loose bricks to hold the glass door open, he lay a thick layer of newspapers on the shelves.
The pigeons swooped home over the alleys and apartments, alighting on their yellow chicken-like feet, scratching, strutting, and sampling the crumbs Albert had spread to welcome them. Had they noticed the new furniture, one or two might have settled in for the night—the wary ones nestled in a familiar air vent.
When Mike got steady work he, Julia, and the children moved to a third-floor flat at 402 W. Broadway. He drove out to their family places and brought back housewares and Julia’s Maytag wringer-washer, switching the motor from gas to electric.
Julia lugged her bushel basket of wet clothes from the washer in the kitchen up one flight to the rooftop clotheslines. She thought of her birthplace in the Allegheny Mountains, the homes, the farms, and the miner’s shanties of the Village of Robertsdale. Though she missed her folks, she was glad to have left that life. To her, this city life meant a new freedom. She would drive the Model A Ford to Pennsy to visit them when she had the time.
The memory of the Company Town of Rockhill Iron and Coal; the reek of the coal-fired fumes of the East Broad Top locomotive that ran back and forth between Mount Union, where Mike’s sisters settled, the soot on Mike’s face and clothes when he stumbled home from the mine lingered in the pungent soot that singed her nostrils in the summer air. Now, her view was of water tanks, an endless grid of windows, clotheslines draping over alleys, and her tarry drying yard, devoid of grass.
Mike was on his way to setting up a welding and truck repair company: “M&F Automotive”: “Mike and Family” with his brother, Steve. Mike was proud of Julia and grateful and relieved she could manage the household and business money. She was a kind and good mother, and a hard worker. Although she had a slight build, she was strong and determined. Changes were coming for women, and New York City would be the place to witness the progress.
Sighing, she set down her basket, pulled two wooden clothespins from her apron pocket, and put them between her lips. As she bent for Mike’s work shirt, what she saw over in the corner, she could scarcely believe. Newspapers, twigs, feathers, and limey droppings on and around a quaint, glass-doored cabinet.
There was no sign of the previous night’s inhabitants.
Julia descended the dim stairwell to the shop, startling her landlord as he sat behind the counter absorbed in his newspaper.
“Albert! Who does the cabinet on the roof belong to?”
He furrowed his forehead at the petite young woman. Peering over his spectacles, he stood to defend his repurposed cabinet.
"That's my pigeon coop!"
Julia envisioned its warm, dark wood against the wall of her spartan front room. “Is it for sale?” She pulled two crumpled bills from her apron pocket and extended her hand. “I can give you two dollars for it" she asserted.
Albert thought that it was a tidy sum, having paid nothing for it.
Their transaction completed, Julia hurried back to the roof, and briskly cleaned out the pigeon detritus, protesting silently — she had always tended chickens — They gave me something of value in return, unlike these dirty birds! Though she admitted to getting a good piece of furniture in the bargain.
When Mike got home from the garage on Hudson Street, he moved the cabinet down to the apartment. Julia polished the oak until it gleamed. She shined the glass door with newspaper and ammonia water. She aligned books on the bottom shelf: volumes of My Book House from a door-to-door salesman for her children. She bought a few fancy cups and saucers from Albert to grace her new piece, laying a lace-trimmed cloth of linen on the top.
Meanwhile, Mike repositioned the toppled, rusty cage where the lawyer’s cabinet had briefly stood. He repaired it with scraps of wood that were stored in the cellar, replacing the perches and nesting boxes, and attached fresh chicken wire. He renailed the warped back and bottom. Mike was only too pleased to do it for Albert and Julia, and glad to make a dollar for his work.
When their daughter was ready for high school, the family moved to West 58th Street, near Central Park. Mike’s business on Hudson Street was thriving with the completion of the Holland Tunnel in 1927 and heavy truck traffic. The little cabinet held pride of place in the front parlor with their new sofa and chairs.
In 1955, Julia and Mike — my mother’s parents — moved with us to our new home in the suburbs. The cabinet, my bookcase, stood on a rug in my reading nook. The Book House collection was my favorite.
I asked my Nana if I could bring it to my first apartment. She feigned disbelief: “That old pigeon coop?” And that was the first I heard the story of Mack and Albert and the used lawyer’s cabinet.
©Mary Ellen Gambutti
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