Music in the Brownstones

Chicago’s brownstone apartment buildings in the fifties and sixties were an explosion of sounds and smells. That’s where I grew up. The building we lived in had an inside front walk up three floors on tired old carpet. The smell of cigars and cigarettes blended with the various food smells in the air. And the wafting food odor was always slightly different depending on the ethnicity of the food. Sometimes Italian, sometimes Latvian, Polish, etc. I could usually tell who was cooking what by what I was smelling.

The back stairs were a creaky zig zag outside up and down the three floors. And it was a real winter sport when it was snowy and icy. I got more than one sliver in my hand hanging on to the paint chipped railing.

Birds and people

Dogs and cats weren’t allowed in apartments, but we could have all the other smaller critters. There were birds of all varieties. Singing canaries, finches, parakeets, all yakking, singing and chirping at the same time. The singing canaries and finches were favorites with the older tenants. Cages got covered at night then uncovered in the morning. It was a symphony during the day.

There were a lot of parakeets too. That’s what we had. It was my mother’s job to feed, water and clean the cage. And depending on the bird, that could be an interesting affair. CoCo, one of the first in a line of CoCo’s, used to bite the crap out of my mother’s hand during this process. The cussing wouldn’t stop until she was done. She’d be yelling something about “you son of a bitch, you bite the hand that feeds you” stuck in with more swearing. My mother insisted she didn’t start swearing until she had kids, but I think the parakeets contributed.

Birds that never grew up

Common too were Mynah birds. I loved them the best. I especially loved the one that yelled out at me, “You ole crow!”, when I was on my way up to the third floor to visit my friend. No one had air conditioning, so in the summer all the screen doors were open on the back side for the little bit of air that came in. That gave the Mynahs the opportunity to really get their game on and squawk at those walking by…. like two-year old’s that never grew up.

Patience tested

My parents let me have all sorts of little critters because I was so animal crazy. They didn’t mind my little turtles that did nothing in their plastic tray but scratch from one side to the other in water and a little island. You know, those tiny turtle trays with a little plastic palm tree. I’d kiss their wet shells after holding them for a while, then back in their tiny container of water with the island.

Once, my eighth-grade teacher gave me a hamster. That really tested my mother’s patience. Even covering him at night didn’t always interrupt his routine of spinning on his little wheel. And, everyone got quite unsettled when he’d escape and scurry through the apartment. I sure wanted a dog or cat. I really wanted a horse but that wouldn’t happen for a long time either.

The impetus

I am currently working on an article about euthanasia. It has been taking me for a short walk down memory lane and got me thinking. When was the first euthanasia I ever witnessed? Do you remember yours?

The first time for me took me back to that third-floor walkup.  Living in those old apartments didn’t lend for many opportunities to witness this milestone. We were not allowed to have dogs or cats. (Although there was that time, I stole a kitten from the police station. But that’s another story.)

Most often, the turtles and parakeets died on their own. It seemed like they’d stop eating one day and we’d find them dead the next. And the fish that came and went were sometimes found belly up.

We’d have as proper a burial as apartment living could provide because our back yard was a parking lot. But there was a park across the street and many found a final rest there. Unless they were flushed.

The wild bird

One day, a bunch of us little kids were playing in the parking lot and found an injured bird. Collectively we decided there was only one thing to do. An elderly lady and her middle-aged bachelor son had an apartment on the third floor. They made it known to all they were members of the ASPCA. None of us knew just how they were involved but it always sounded very important. They were vocal and proud of their alliance.

Obviously, they were the adults who would know what to do. After all, they were members of the ASPCA.

We took turns fighting over who would hold the bird while a couple of kids climbed up the stairs to knock on their door. Now, we’re talking about eight or nine kids. All of us between the ages of around seven to twelve years old. I was eight or nine. And, this was serious business to all of us.

And it began

The lady and her son, with kids in tow, came down to the parking lot promptly and with just the right amount of urgency. They felt bound by duty to help this bird. We were all so quiet as we watched the two of them examine the bird carefully. They whispered a bit and then the woman turned and quietly told us of the birds’ serious injuries. She explained he would not be able to fly and he would not be able to take care of himself. And, she said the kindest thing to do was to put him to sleep. Most of us understood what that meant.

Our feet didn’t move. None of us said a word. While all this talking was taking place, her son went and got his car and backed it up to where we were gathered. He left it running. The lady explained what they were going to do. She said it was not going to hurt him and he was just going to go to sleep.

The event

With that, the son, wearing gloves, placed about half that bird in the tailpipe of the running car. We stood frozen, just watched.

The bird started moving a little and one of the kids shouted, is it hurting him? And both adults said, no, not at all. With that, the bird went limp. When the son brought the bird out, he held it gently checking for signs of life. Then he gave him to one of us. We were anointed.

We carried that bird to the park across the street, fighting over who would hold him, fighting tears. We found a spot under a tree and buried him. Fitting. Then, heads a little lower we walked home.

And, that was about that. We didn’t chat about it much. Maybe one of the kids thought the whole thing was cool. Probably one of the older kids. Someone might have hid a few tears. But I don’t remember us talking about it again. It was done and done.

And, in the end

We were little kids who had our pure little kid hearts validated. We found adults who took us seriously. And, they validated our feelings. We trusted them. For some of us they put definition behind ‘putting to sleep’. We saw a sentient being leave the earth.

It is complex. Euthanasia is complex. Looking back now, the crudeness of the scene still catches my breath. But I remember two people who felt the gravity of the moment just like we did.

Sometimes validation is what you have to give at the moment. And that is good.

When it was time, the tree came to rest on the forest floor. And slowly, gave itself back to the earth from which young saplings sprang anew – Rachel Badeau