“Pigeon Coop” by Mary Ellen Gambutti

Two brothers, Albert and Mack, owned the brick tenement at 402 W. Broadway and operated a store-front swap shop there. The summer of 1928 Albert acquired a compact lawyer’s cabinet. Its solid, yet light frame and plain wood shelves sparked an idea. “Help me carry it to the roof,” Albert said to his brother. Affable, mustachioed Mack hoisted it onto his back and hauled it five flights up.
Albert enjoyed keeping pigeons. His scruffy flock flew freely to Washington Square Park and returned to roost on his roof each night. “I need a new pigeon coop,” said Albert. Across the roof a rusted, broken cage flipped on its side, awaited removal, while his pigeons awaited new housing.
Mack eased the cabinet into a corner away from the stairwell and clotheslines. Albert set a few loose bricks to hold the glass door open against the parapet. The men put down thick layers of newspaper on the shelves. That evening the flock swooped over the alleys and apartments after their day in the park, where old folks and children shared nuts, bread, and Crackerjacks. The grey and black birds strutted on their yellow legs, scratched the asphalt, and sampled crumbs Albert had spread to encourage them. A few showed interest in their new perch, and settled in for the night. Others, more wary, nestled in an air vent.
Mike and Julia moved to the City from Pennsylvania for work when the coal mines closed. The young couple would, three decades later, become my Granddaddy and Nana. Albert and Mack rented them a third floor flat. Julia lugged a bushel basket of wet wash two flights up to the clotheslines. She was a long way from her Allegheny Mountains. The sooty summer air burned
her nose. Now, her view of rooftop water tanks, cramped alleys, an endless grid of windows, and the grassless drying yard draped in clotheslines stirred sadness in Julia. She sighed and set down her laundry basket, pulled two clothespins from her apron pocket, and put them between her lips. Bending for a shirt, she spied Albert’s cabinet in the far corner, and stepped over for a closer look.
Julia knew of Albert’s hobby, and evidence remained of the night-dwellers; droppings and nesting twigs. How peculiar to use good furniture as a pigeon coop. Julia left her basket behind to attend to a more pressing matter. Her footsteps were deliberate as she descended the dim stairwell, determined to make a deal with Albert. The little man sat behind the counter absorbed in his newspaper.
Her voice startled him: “Albert! Is the cabinet on the roof for sale?”
He moved his paper aside, and peered at Julia with furrowed brow over his glasses, then stood to affirm his pride in the cabinet’s transformation. “That’s my new pigeon coop!”
But Julia envisioned the warmth of the dark-wood furniture against her bare parlor wall. She pulled two crumpled bills from her apron pocket and offered them to the shopkeeper. “I’ll give you two dollars for it.”
Albert thought it a tidy sum for a used lawyer’s cabinet, having paid only one dollar, and he accepted Julia’s offer. “Done!”
Julia had tended chickens back home, and cleanup was not beneath her. While Albert’s birds were away, she removed the messy newspapers, twigs and feathers from the shelves. Mike was pleased to bring Julia’s new piece down to their flat when he got home from work. She polished it until its oak finish gleamed, and cleaned the glass door with newspaper and ammonia water. She had begun to collect ‘My Book House’–volumes of magical stories–from a door-to-door salesman for her boy and girl, and now aligned them in her new cabinet. A few fancy cups and saucers from Albert’s shop decorated the shelves. Julia’s hope was restored; her life would get better.
Mike repaired the toppled nesting cage for Albert. He used scrap wood the brothers stored in the cellar to replace the perches and nesting boxes. He attached new wire. He nailed the warped back and bottom. Then Mike moved the cage to the corner where the lawyer’s cabinet stood for several days.
Mike, Julia, and family moved uptown in 1930, and the lawyer’s cabinet held pride of place in their
parlor among new furniture. In 1955 they moved to our home in the suburbs and placed the cabinet, which I
called, “bookshelf,” in my room.
Years later, 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 time I heard the story of Mack, Albert, and the cabinet. A century old, the cabinet’s tiny latch connects well, but all four casters have disappeared. A brass support is missing, and unless balanced by the weight of a book placed just right, the shelf tips. I marvel how the glass has stayed intact through so many moves and transitions.

3 thoughts on ““Pigeon Coop” by Mary Ellen Gambutti

  1. A pleasant piece, but a bit of a recitation rather than an unfolding story. And yes, my parents’ gateleg table–their first “dining table” bit of furniture from 1921–is still in my livingroom.


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