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Miracle of the Birds
The winter of
'29 was my eleventh winter and the coldest winter
could remember. It was the first winter of the
Great Depression and many tenement
families had already been evicted for non-payment
of rent. There were record
snowfalls that winter, and now with the coming of
spring, cold drenching
rain flooded our cellar and found its way through
the leaky roof of our
fifth floor flat. In only a few short months we had
gone from boom to bust
and every day brought more bad news. It would take
a miracle, people said, to
put us back on our feet again.
My father was working three days a week for a
school book printer and getting
paid for one. His brother had been a pipe-fitter,
his sister had been a
seamstress -- both of them were out of work and
living with us. My friend
Ernie's father had been a garment cutter, (sutz and
cutz). Very few people
"were" anything -- almost everyone was a "used to
be" or a "had been."
Everyone we knew had a sad story to tell.
When you have no money to pay your fare in life,
you pray for a miracle. We
all did that -- Christians, Jews, Buddhists and
Muslims -- we all prayed for
deliverance, for some sign of Divine Intervention
regardless of who it came
from. People with no faith looked for help in their
tea leaves or their Ouija
board -- they read messages in their horoscopes and
the lines in the palms of
We didn't go to St. Theresa's on Sundays any more.
We had no money to put in
the basket and my mother didn't feel it was right
to go to church and ask for
a miracle without paying for it. Instead, she would
sneak in before the seven
o'clock mass on week days, light a candle and sneak
back out again, hoping
that the Priest hadn't seen her but God did. It's
likely He did, but there
wasn't much He could do. He was great at things
like parting the Red Sea, or
casting Jonah up out of the whale, but He didn't
know how to stop the
steamroller of the Great Depression.
Children were happier in their own company. The
worried faces of their
parents revealed lines of strain and anxiety, and
that terrified them. It was
frightening to see the hunted expression in my
mother's eyes when my father
came home at night .... there was always the
apprehensive question ....
"How did it go? .... everything all right?"
"So far .... Leslie got laid off today."
"My God, he's been there longer than you."
"I know. That's the way it goes, he made more money
than I do."
So kids kept out of the way, preferring their own
company to that of their
parents. Ernie and me would look at each other and
we'd know how things were
going back home. We had no conception of the word
"Depression" -- what it
meant or where it came from. It was a word we never
used, although we heard
it every day. We were scared because our parents
were scared. They were not
the pillars of strength we thought they were. We
knew enough not to ask for
new roller skates, or money to buy a new "Tom Swift
and His Flying Machine"
adventure story because of the look in our parents
eyes, a look of guilt and
shame. Many parents felt they let their children
down. They couldn't buy them
the things they needed let alone the things they
wanted. Food, a place to
live, and all the love they had to spare -- they'd
have to get along with
School was our entertainment as well as our
education. There, the adults all
had jobs and they were in a better frame of mind
than the folks back home. If
you couldn't afford it, you'd get lunch for
nothing. There were things to do
after school, games to play and books to read --
we'd stay as long as we
could; until it was time to go home and see the
unhappy faces again.
Our route to school took us past St. Theresa's
Roman Catholic Church on
Classon Avenue. It was a church built in Spanish
style, with white stucco
walls and green trim. It, too, was suffering from
hard times, and the small
weedy park that separated it from the rectory was
unkempt and littered with
the debris of the past winter. Ernie and me would
sit there if we were early
for school and wait for the tolling of the nine
o'clock bell in the tower. We
knew from the first clang that we had exactly a
minute and a half to get to
Ernie was Jewish -- at least his parents were. He
didn't look or feel any
more Jewish than I did. I was supposed to be a
Catholic, but with the way
things were going, I didn't feel any real
attachment to St. Theresa's. Both
of us felt that God -- his and mine -- had walked out
on us and the parishes of
St. Theresa and Mordecai temple in particular.
One morning in early spring Ernie and me sat on a
bench close to the belfry,
and just before nine o'clock we heard the bell
creak in its cradle. That
meant the old sacristan was rocking it to and fro
until it struck the clapper.
"Time to go, Ernie. You do your history? I didn't
do my history."
Unlike me, Ernie would never think of not doing
something he was supposed to
do. "Yeah -- here. 'Retreat from Gettysburg.' Y'wanna copy it? Y'ain't got
I figured I had a minute anyway if I scribbled real
fast -- our history
teacher, Mr. Finkel never read our assignments, it
was just paper to him.
Penmanship wasn't important.
I finished copying Ernie's homework just as the
first clang of the bell
sounded. The great iron bell never failed to launch
the pigeons out of the
belfry and they took off with a slapping of wings
just above our heads. At
the same time, another crowd of pigeons at our feet
were startled into
flight, and for a moment the air was full of
pigeons flying in all
directions. There were crows and starlings too, and
perhaps because of the
mix of species and the ringing of the bell,
combined with the spectacle of
Ernie and me waving our arms at them they panicked,
and three of them flew
headfirst into the white stucco wall of the church.
We felt a pang of guilt, but only a momentary pang,
we knew we'd be late for
school if we stayed in the park any longer. The
bell was already into its
Like most boys our memories were short, and by the
time we finished baseball
practice that afternoon, we had forgotten all about
the pigeons. I remember
Ernie had just nailed down the job of shortstop and
I was still in the
running for first baseman along with "Skinny"
Bettelheim. Coming home through
the park, I remember Ernie saying ....
"Well, if you don't get to play, I won't either."
"C'mon Ernie, don't be a shithead -- coach wants
you for fifth grade
shortstop. I'll get on the team somehow."
Then we noticed a crowd at the side of the church
and we speculated that
somebody had dropped dead there -- crowds always
meant excitement. But then,
when we got closer, we saw they were staring at the
wall. Father Florio was
standing with them in his Sunday vestments holding
a Bible and a gold
crucifix on a long staff. A disinterested altar boy
was standing next to him
swinging a thurible.
"Geez," Ernie said, "that's where the birds flew
into the wall this morning,
"Maybe they're buryin' the birds," I suggested.
"Ain't that Mrs. Esposito -- down on her knees?"
Father Florio was reading
from his Bible and brandishing his crucifix. He
peered at us over his thick
spectacles and gestured with the Bible for us to
move along, but we were too
interested in what was going on to pay any
attention to him. "They're lookin'
at the wall," Ernie whispered, "I wonder if they
know who did it."
It was the stain left by the birds on the wall! Two
of the dead birds were
lying on the narrow strip of grass at the bottom of
the wall and one was in
the path in front of Mrs. Esposito. "Madonna,
Madonna .... Hail Mary fulla
grace, blessed is da fruit-a-da womb Jesus," she
mumbled over and over.
Father Florio gestured to everybody to keep back,
apparently Mrs. Esposito
was getting her steam up.
What they were looking at, of course, was pigeon
guts. Somehow they were
splattered on the wall in such a way that they
suggested to Mrs. Esposito the
image of the Madonna and Child. By sheer force of
will she convinced thirty
or so people around her, (including Father Florio)
that a miracle had
occurred. The pigeons internal organs, had created
a holy icon.
"Mary, shes'a comma! Bringa good times back again."
She held her rosary beads
high and looked from the stain on the wall to
Father Florio and back again.
She finally turned to me and said, "A miracle -- a
miracle." She pronounced
it "mir-RACK-a-la." She motioned for me and Ernie
to kneel down next to her.
"Ask the Madonna for something," she said.
I kneeled down awkwardly and so did Ernie. "What'cha
gonna ask for," he
"That the coach picks me for first base .... how
about you," I replied.
"I'm Jewish, I can't ask for nothin' -- you take my
wish .... besides," he
looked at Mrs. Esposito and back at me. He lowered
his voice so that only I
could hear. "I don't go for this kinda stuff -- I
don't think it looks
anything like a Madonna anyways."
I had my reservations as well, and now that Ernie
was sowing seeds of doubt
in my mind the image on the wall was looking less
and less like the Madonna
and Child and more and more like what it was.
Furthermore, it looked like
rain was on the way -- what would happen then?
Toward dusk, rain did fall, and as you might guess,
most of the miracle ran
down the wall and was washed away. A few hardy
shreds remained, but they
looked exactly like what they were. I still had the
wish Ernie gave me but I
wished that standing up, with little hope that the
Madonna would pay any
attention to me. It would have taken more than a
miracle for her to get my
father to work full weeks again.
I did get the first baseman's job though -- by
default, not by a miracle. The
school nurse wouldn't let "Skinny" Bettelheim play
ball without his
eyeglasses and the coach wouldn't let him play with
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