This story is one of many that I have told my children over the years. I decided this year to write my stories for them and for my future grandchildren, putting everything on paper so that even the grandchildren and great-grandchildren that I never meet will come to know a little about me.
The day I became aware of Mr. Smith's alias was as ordinary as any other day during the summer before I entered the third grade. I didn't realize that anyone in my neighborhood even had an alias, much less suspect Mr. Smith of a pseudonym. This was not an auspicious start for an aspiring detective as I had bumped into Coryell Street's Birdman numerous times without realizing that he was a special man possessing a unique talent.
The Bobsey Twins would have noticed Mr. Smith right away. I needed to sharpen my powers of observation. It's possible there were too many characters in my neighborhood for me to fully appreciate them all. Maybe I had too much of a good thing. That's what I've heard said about those who possess an excess amount of something desirable, while at the same time fail to appreciate the singular. I wondered if Mrs. Schludecker suspected anything, as I walked down Coryell Street, mindlessly banging a stick against her picket fence.
Nancy Drew would never have been caught off guard. Even the new P.F. Flyers on my feet didn't keep me from stumbling over clues. I needed more than the athletic prowess my new sneakers promised. I needed to improve my powers of deductive reasoning, and hone my intuition. Becoming more vigilant I would never be caught unaware. Of course, that would mean fewer surprises. The best moments in life are those that have taken me by surprise, and no one surprised me more than Mr. Smith.
It all began with a pigeon and a trip to The People Store. The People Store was Lambertville's only department store, located a few blocks from my home, on the corner of Church and Union Streets. It had three floors. Toys were located on the third floor, the same floor where you would visit Santa Claus every year in December. The first floor was where I'd purchase lace handkerchiefs for my mother, for a dollar, every Mother's Day.
The neat thing about The People Store was that it had a large porch overhang covering the sidewalk on Church Street, which also covered the store's basement entrance. The basement entrance was about six steps down from sidewalk level, guarded from absent-minded pedestrians by a black iron railing. Delivery trucks used it. Occasionally it was also used as a good hiding place during a game of hide-and-seek. Except on this day, no one was using it other than pigeons.
I could hear them softly cooing as I approached. The closer I got to the entrance the more the pigeons scattered. A few of them flew to perch on the ledge of the porch overhang; others just ran along the ground out into Church Street. The People Store pigeons knew to avoid people, as the store clerks would constantly try to shoo them away. It was common to walk by the store and hear the clerks complain about the bird droppings, and remark that pigeons were very dirty birds.
I was surprised to see a particular pigeon steadfastly hold his ground despite how close I came. I was practically on top of him when I noticed that he was injured. As I bent to get a closer look, the frightened bird limped around in circles as if he didn't know which way to run. He was grounded by a body that had betrayed him. "Poor thing," I thought scooping him up. As I held him I could feel the rapid beating of his heart against my fingers.
Upon closer inspection I discovered that he had an injured leg. I immediately imagined that one of the store workers had cruelly struck the bird with the broom used to clean up the sidewalk. It was an unjust world, covered with a veneer of truth. This pigeon wasn't dirty. He looked as clean as any other bird. He looked clean enough to become my pet. He was definitely pet material.
The closer I got to home the more appealing the idea of keeping this bird became, and the more I was growing in stature. I had rescued this bird from a terrible fate. I could be eligible for some kind of humanitarian reward. I was walking tall. I couldn't wait to share the news with my mother. Opening the kitchen door, I didn't even have to holler, "Mom!" when the back door slammed behind me. Instead, just a few feet inside, she shrieked, "Ohmigod, where did you get that?" Before I could answer, she boomed, "Get that bird outside. What the heck is the matter with you?"
"He's injured, Mom. Look." I held the bird up so that his distorted leg could be seen.
"Well, that's unfortunate but what are you going to do about it?"
"I'm going to keep him and take care of him."
"Oh, no you're not, young lady. Wild birds are not pets. You take him back where you found him."
"I can't do that, Mom. He came from The People Store, and they hate pigeons. Plus he can't fly, a cat will get him." I swear that pigeon's heart began to beat faster at the mention of the word c-a-t.
"That may be but he cannot stay here. What were you thinking?"
Suddenly as if unplugged, all my wonderful plans and feelings drained away with the whirlpool force of her words. As I sat on the back porch, holding that pigeon, I tried to think of reasons that might persuade my mother to allow me to keep him. Nothing came to mind. What had I been thinking? Empty of pride and confidence, I did the only thing I could. I began to cry.
In a few minutes I heard Mom say, "Toni, you don't even know what to feed him. You don't have a cage or box to keep him in. He won't survive." True, I hadn't thought of those practical things, but I remained unconvinced and depleted.
"OK. Here's what you do. Bring that bird over to Mr. Smith."
"Mr. Smith? What's he going to do?"
"Mr. Smith knows all about birds. He'll know exactly what to do. Just go knock on his door and show him the pigeon. OK?"
I had to admit my interest was piqued. Although moments before my mother's words had desiccated me, they were now the source of saturating energy. A mystery needed to be unraveled; questions of intrigue were left unanswered. This called for a great investigator. I put on my mental magnifying glass. Who was Mr. Smith? Perhaps Mr. Smith, wanting to hide his underlying character, was masquerading as an elderly man, to throw off neighborhood suspicion. I accepted the case.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith lived in an apartment, above an upholstery shop, across the street from my home. The apartment entrance faced an alley that lead to a parking lot behind the building. I knocked on the double door to the apartment with one hand while holding onto the pigeon with the other. In a few minutes Mr. Smith opened the door, a lock of white hair caressed his forehead. "Yes?" he said crossly.
I lifted up the injured pigeon. "I found him, he's hurt his leg."
Mr. Smith looked at the pigeon, then at me. He softened and adjusted his hat. "Let's take a look here," he said taking the pigeon and examining it closely. "Leg's broken. I can fix him." He paused, and then added, "Right as rain."
Standing there I heard soft cooing sounds coming from behind Mr. Smith, along with some chirping. I strained to look into the hallway and got a glimpse of numerous small cages filled with all types of birds. There were hundreds of cages! Each cage filled with birds that fluttered and tweeted. I wanted to get a better look but Mr. Smith neither moved aside nor invited me in. Despite being denied further investigation, I chose to believe him. I did have the gospel assurance of my mother.
"Thanks," I said, as I turned to walk back home. When I got to my front door, my Dad having just arrived home from work saw Mr. Smith and waved. Mr. Smith nodded and carried my pigeon inside. "What's up?" Dad asked.
"I found an injured bird, and Mom told me to bring it to Mr. Smith. He said he could fix him."
"Ah. Well, we don't call him the Birdman for nothing."
"Yup. Better than a vet."
I didn't see Mr. Smith again until a few weeks later. I was sitting on my front step, when I saw him going in and out of his apartment doorway with his arms full of small wooden cages. He was carrying the cages out to the parking lot behind his building. Curious, I got up and crossed over toward Mrs. Cooper's yard to get a better look.
Mrs. Cooper's yard bordered the Smith's alley. Through her iron rail fence I could see Mr. Smith, wearing his familiar hat, opening all the cages he had just carted out. I watched in silence as he reached inside each cage and gently urged the birds into flight. Many of them took off as soon as the doors were opened, others Mr. Smith held up toward heaven, in a mystical offering. I stared enchanted, as numerous birds swarmed upward. Some circling Mr. Smith while others were swooping up to the far reaches of the garage-enclosed lot. The muffled clapping of their wings rang out in applause, echoing off the building. Mr. Smith's face was ecstatic. His joy contagious, filling me completely. I knew that my pigeon was among those birds released. Watching the birds soar I had a new appreciation for Mr. Smith. As I watched him straighten his hat, I was awestruck. His appearance belied his ability, his gift. It wasn't Mr. Smith who was masked. I was surprised to discover that my eyes had been covered. Mr. Smith had just opened them for me.
Mr. Smith's reputation grew in the neighborhood as "The Birdman of Coryell Street." My friends and I consulted him every time we found an injured bird.
I wish that Mr. Smith had shared more of his talent with me. I would have loved to learn the medicine he practiced. Still, I'm grateful that he lived in my neighborhood, and that I shared his secret. Never again will I take anything at face value. The extraordinary resides with the ordinary; to find it I only need to take off my mask. Perhaps one day like the Birdman, I'll have an alias, a nom de plume, for life is a masquerade. It challenges the best detective.
By witnessing Mr. Smith's charity, I had also discovered how the art of giving became its own reward. I just don't know who received the greater gift that day - the birds, Mr. Smith or me.
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Antoinette's Story List and Biography