I ask myself: Does the woman understand half of what I say? Her brown face empty as a cracked plate, her black eyes, whites threaded with red, unlit by comprehension. At home she would be judged too old and obese to be auctioned to the most wretched urban brothel. Yet, when it becomes necessary (foreigners cannot be fussy), I must make do with her--even if I do not descend with great enthusiasm to the basement room I rent her cut rate in consideration for services. Neither she nor I is getting any younger, and although I no longer wipe feces from public toilets as you do, my Brother; although I now own a multiple-family dwelling and speak most proper English (unlike my tenants who cling to their native tongues as to lifelines), I am still looked down upon--if not from so high a horse as you are. I have offered to send for you. Why do you say no? I miss you, I speak to you in my head day and night.
Certainly I cannot speak to her. My attempt to discuss the tenant due to move in tomorrow, how strange I find it he would live here, meets with: "Whatchoo mean here?" Her tone is suspicious, combative. So, though you would think a black woman would need no explanation, I ask her if perhaps she noticed he is a white man. "Maybe he not racist," is the sullen reply. So now it is incumbent upon me to spell out that he comes here because of his pet bird, that pets are not allowed everywhere. "Oh, yeah! I gets it now! Ain't no equal housing for pets like they is for the like of us, man!" She guffaws as if she's made amusing commentary, threatening to topple me to the floor, and not wishing to offend, kneading her mountainous stomach heaving with mirth, I laugh too, waiting for her to subside before I try to continue. Then in another effort to establish a semblance of communication other than physical with her, I point out the man is a bull, a person more likely to own a mastiff than a bird. But "they's all kind" is her only contribution. Conversation is beyond her.
So there is no point in confiding that already I am having second thoughts about granting permission for the bird's accommodation. Again, my good nature clouded my good judgment. However small and anatomically harmless, animals mean trouble. Oh, it may be this bird will not bark or chew woodwork or claw carpeting or furnishings to shreds as so-called companion animals do, but what else might it do that will cost a fortune to repair? Owning property is not all beer and skittles. At times I question whether it is worth what I did to get it. But . . . never mind that, Brother.
Nor do I tell her the man intimidates me: not with words (they seemed gentle enough), nor his expression serene as Buddha's, but . . . because he looms above me by half a foot, his biceps triple mine, his legs the limbs of a colossus. To make a living, he hangs from straps hundreds of feet above the ground to wash the windows of skyscrapers. The image sends chills through me. You, I can tell, Brother: I am cowed because this stereotypic Nordic superman doubtlessly considers me beneath his blue-eyed notice--scrawny dark foreigner that I am who rode into his land like scum on a contaminated tide lapping its shores.
No, one cannot speak of inner fears to a woman whose sole virtue is availability when she isn't feeding or wiping the noses of the pygmies dumped on her by a criminal daughter. And to you I can speak only in my head for you do not own a phone, you do not read or write, you keep yourself in ignorance even darker than hers. You would not understand half of what I say either. You would not be sure what I mean when I say that at least I have the sense to demand security payments in cash from tenants and to sign no leases, so that I can evict without difficulty should it be necessary.
Well, it does not take long for the tenant to show me benevolence has once again been my undoing. Will I never learn to temper goodwill with practicality? Or not to accept the unacceptable because I feel a bit intimidated? Will I ever be able to tell myself that I have the upper hand now, I am the landlord--not this or that lowlife; this is mine (at such cost!) to populate as I please--and act on it? If not, I will keep on collecting today's reward.
The day after the tenant moves in, I enter his room to inspect an allegedly malfunctioning stove and eat the bitter fruit of my leniency. In the doorway I stand frozen in horror as first one bird swishes past me, another, and yet a third. I warrant few have found themselves shut in this way with terrified birds and experienced the panic avian fear sets fluttering in the human breast. Frantically they swoop and soar, looking for escape. Flying into windows and walls, it's a wonder they do not kill themselves before lighting momentarily on the ceiling fixture, chests heaving, faint twitters protesting my intrusion, before, lacking the sense to stay put, they take to the air again, dipping, wings beating inches from my open mouth, my one good eye, intent upon driving me out.
And of course I leave. Huffing and puffing myself, heart knocking against my poor chest unreconciled to this hostile climate, I hurry down to my room where, my hands shaking, I make myself tea. Granted, Brother, I am no Stoic, but terrified birds airborne in a confined area--the wild beatings of wings, the frenzied chirpings, the thump of small bodies against windows and walls--would unnerve most men. And how did this come about, I ask you? Did three parakeets unlatch three cage doors? Hah! No, Brother--that the tenant released them, is the only explanation.
It takes two cups before I contain myself enough to listen when Caution reminds me a dependably paying tenant is a rara avis. Therefore, advises she, do not be overbearing toward one who has paid a month in advance plus security--be in no hurry to hector. Be tolerant, I am counseled (as if I do not habitually overlook trespasses). Speak tactfully, dictates Innate Sensitivity, reminding me of the foot in the ribs or worse which dealt with my infractions when I was a member in good standing of the lowest caste. And never forget, adds Caution, that--however polished your English or elevated your position vis à vis a white man's--in the Land of the Free you are judged by your color and envied for your success.
Through the blind slat I watch him whistling down the street, not a care in the world, harness draped on one massive shoulder, yellow hair bright as ghee against the gray winter sky. On tenterhooks I listen to his huge boots thump the stairs, his harness clunk the stairwell, wreaking havoc on its already compromised paint, until the whistling stops and I know he's in his room. With trembling finger, I dial his number to ask politely if I may come up to speak to him. (You know, Brother, how courteous I remain whatever the circumstances; you know, too, I do not jump to judgment. Perhaps, I tell myself, when it is pointed out a tenant with a single caged bird and one with three free-flying birds are two different tenants, he will apologize, rid himself of the surplus, and confine the original bird to its cage; perhaps, I tell myself, I anticipate trouble where none exists.)
But one look at the tenant's friendly smile throws optimism out the window. "Hey, what's up?" he asks upon opening the door. "You hadda order parts?" And it is patently clear that confronting me is a man who apparently has no idea why I am here or one who calculatingly employs diversionary tactics. Without preliminaries, therefore, I point to the now-caged birds greedily pecking at their dishes and ask him to enlighten me as to how it is remotely possible to examine a stove when birds are flying about one's head. His reply? Listen with both ears, Brother! "Hey, they wouldn't've hurt you," he says. "Hell, you thought they'd hurt you?" He laughs at the idea. Well, of course I do not join laughter over what is no laughing matter. Perhaps, I posit, it has somehow slipped his mind I agreed to one caged bird? Perhaps he has forgotten?
"Yeah, well, I hear you," he admits, at least having the grace to look somewhat abashed. "But, hey, I go to buy seeds and there's another little guy, beak in the breast, feathers all ragged, ya know? I'm supposed to leave him there? To die?" Does he actually, I ask myself, expect I will say "no?" Can he seriously imagine I will agree to multiple bird acquisition? I look at him in astonishment, I listen with incredulity to his launch into overwrought gibberish. "When you're way up there, like, doing the windows--you get it, the birds, I mean," rhapsodizes he. "Hell, man, you wanna flap your arms, take off yourself."
What do you say to such a man after that, Brother? As you can see, I am faced with the fact any prospect for reasonable discourse is by the boards and, with it, any hope for peaceful resolution. Still, I make a last stab, go the extra mile, point out he is talking about wild birds. "Wild, shmild! What were those guys, man?" Face flushed, eyes flashing, he points theatrically to the cages. "Before they got caught?"
Well, I am humane as the next fellow, but this . . . I look away from the rabid tenant to see for the first time, with a lurch of alarm, a dropping here, a dropping there, on a carpet no more than seven years old. Peaceable I may be, but I am not a saint. Forbearance forgotten, fit to be tied, I point to the floor. "See what they've done? No more birds! No more! And the three in their cages? Always in their cages!"
From there, the meeting goes poorly indeed. Not only does the tenant not assure me the birds will be confined and additional birds will not join his flock, but I am confronted with a glare which says I am reptilian. I am barraged with mixed wheedling and combativeness. "Hey, c'mon, man! Don't blow your stack here. What's the big deal? So, I'll clean it up. What the hell, I'll buy you a new fucking rug, for chrissake. Let 'em fly, man. They ain't hurting nobody."
Not true. Have I done what I've done to get what I have today to have it shat upon? To be disrespected by such as he? My chest is about to explode. "Caged! No more!" I cry and hurry from the room before he begins to call names. I am shaking all over.
And the woman when I tell her? To be expected, she shrugs a tattooed shoulder, her crepey eyelids closed, her liverish lips sagging, her old face unlined only because fat stuffs it like a blood pudding. "Why you so pissed? What's a little birdshit? You gots his security. You gonna cleans it your own self anyways if I knows you and make a profit." She lies beside me heaving, a black volcano ready to erupt. I must tell you she is lower than the wife you condemn me for abandoning, this woman who calls herself a Latina, but if there's blood in her not black, I will drink it. She has slum mentality, she is indifferent to all but the savages she mothers and the racism she blames for her problems. Yes, much as you do, Brother, she grumbles and beats her breast over injustices low birth has heaped upon her, but does nothing to better her lot. And there are times (as now with her gibe)--low as she is on the ladder of life--she looks down upon me because I am not native to the land she reviles.
I wait two weeks before mounting the steps to pay the tenant a surprise visit at nine in the evening. I have come to check the thermostat, I intend saying--a reasonable excuse in view of the frigid weather, the imminent threat of snow--but never get the chance. No sooner does he open the door, than birds soar from all directions toward the safety of the ceiling fixture. "Move it, man!" he barks. "Get in, get in quick, or one'll get out."
As if our conversation on the subject had never been.
Fluttering, twittering, a good half dozen or more peer down from their perch. A good half-dozen! Trickles drip from uplifted tails upon the floor. The carpet is virtually covered with droppings. Every square inch--spattered! My club chair splashed with shit, unuseable, its worn upholstery unable to withstand another cleaning must be replaced. But where will I find one--Goodwill having closed its doors? Nothing, nothing has escaped fouling. I flounder in frustration. What does he take me for? Does he take me for a pushover because I am soft spoken? Or because I am a foreigner does he think I can be spit upon? From a constricted throat I lay down the law. "In twenty-four hours the birds go--or you all go!"
Well, the tenant does not take it lying down. He bellows, "Hold it, hold it, wait up, calm down a minute here!" He growls, "Wait a minute, wait one fucking minute here! I'm paid up for the week. I'll get the cops!" Oh, at first he is livid, a magenta verging on purple, but my anger leaves no room for fear of his fist or his threat. I am untouchable. He has paid in cash, he has no lease. Let him call the Attorney General! Who would take the word of this fanatic against the word of a property owner testifying under oath he had not paid one dime since the day he moved in?
And soon enough his strategy changes. He turns abject. He whines, "But what'm I gonna do? If I let 'em out . . . they can't live out there. I can't give them to anyone--they'd die in a cage. Jesus!" Oh, what a show he stages! His eyes mist over, he holds out his hands, beseeching. "Give me a break, man. Please! I'll pay you more. I'll keep it clean, I swear! Check every day if you want."
Well, he can thank my innate decency and his security deposit to defray cleaning costs for the week I grant him in the end to mend his ways. But shaking inwardly, my heart in my ears, I would like to murder him even as I concede, "Seven days!" on my way out. And although it is always expected, I nevertheless flinch when he mutters under his breath that I am a fucking wog. Of course, Brother, I do not reply. I leave before he hurls more slurs. Survival dictates I call him MFing white trash and worse in seething thought only. For all my bravado aside, I am worried, Brother, about what will happen, the logistic problems entailed in his eviction. His flaming eyes and combative jaw indicate I may well have a fight on my hands.
Considering her monosyllabic mutterings about Honkey and Whitey and The Man, I expect the woman to commiserate. Are we not both members of races ostracized and held in low esteem at best, persecuted and murdered (often in the name of law and order) at worst? And add to her racism her unconcern for the well-being of species other than "brothas" and "sistas." To my dismay, I have seen her slam the door on an emaciated dog I would have taken in gladly, were it not for the damage dogs do and the cost of dog food. Would you expect such a woman to care about birds?
She listens to my account of the tenant's transgression, scarred legs the circumference of sewer pipes shamelessly spread, sucking in wheezing breaths, wrapped in a blanket because--contrary to what the agent assured me--the ancient furnace roaring outside her room, unequal to extreme weather, labors to little avail. A garden of frost has grown over her window, ice tendrils penetrate its cracks. "Poor Pete," she mumbles when I finish, shaking her head. "What he gonna do?" Yes, Brother, it turns out the tenant had invited her in to see the birds and turn her against me. "Pete, he gots nowheres to go with them poor things," she elaborates resentfully. "And they's so cute too! Whatchoo got against them birds, man?" But I can only shake my own head in disgust and dismay, for I sniff the impending defection of my sole human contact in the building. "Pete, he love them birds," she wheezes. "And they loves him, they eats from his mouth, they rides on his head." It is the first time in our relationship she has spoken more than six or seven words in sequence, and with every words she utters I grow more and more jittery. "Pete, he let my Jamal and Tiesha feed them birds from they hands. He stand-up, Pete."
Ah, the tenant has done his work well. With a handful of birdseed for the pygmies he has bought the woman's alliance. And is hers the only mind he has poisoned, I now ask myself, in this multicultural polyglot hive where I am despised merely because I have pulled myself up by the bootstraps and they must pay me rent? Well, to put an end to her character reference, to help alleviate the tension squeezing my head and chest, I motion her to the bed, secure in the knowledge her new friendship will not prevent her prostituting herself in accordance with our rental agreement. And since she has never been the most enthusiastic of partners, if she is a bit less so tonight, it will be of no consequence to the organ.
I see neither hide nor hair of the tenant during his week of grace. I have no idea what he is up to, but I worry. There is no sign of unusual activity from that quarter. The hall phone does not ring for him, nor do I hear him call anyone. He throws no real estate classifieds into the garbage, returns from work at his usual time, goes nowhere evenings. Although the woman claims she knows nothing of his plans, she is not to be trusted. The other tenants steer clear of me as always, except to knock on my door and whine about the lack of heat. As if I am the criminal--not the real estate agent who duped me. As if it is within my power to remedy the situation in any way other than installing a larger furnace. Well, much as I sympathize with their discomfort, there are worst things (as you and I well know) than sitting before an open oven or kerosene heater for a few days. I am in no position to squander money in order to make life perfect for the likes of them.
But that is another issue. Shivering before my kerosene heater, I wait on pins and needles through the frigid week in which he appears to be taking no steps before I decide to go see if anything has changed. Always willing to believe the best, I tell myself perhaps I am worrying myself sick for nothing. Perhaps friends (which apparently he makes in abundance) or relatives have taken the birds away when I was out buying necessities. Perhaps, contrary to my fears, I will find his bags packed and the birds gone. After all, tomorrow at twelve noon he is subject to eviction.
I confess, Brother, my heart is pounding, my frosted breath coming in fits and starts as I climb to the tenant's room. Despite the bitter cold of the hallway, I am perspiring as I insert the key in his door, for I dread what I may see, I dread the necessary confrontation if . . .
And, yes, not only do my worst fears come to pass--but they do so with a vengeance. The room swarms with birds, their numbers greatly increased. Clearly, the tenant is showing me my "place." My throat swells, my chest constricts as a dozen or more fly to the fixture where they beat frantic wings and emit peevish peeps, their tiny chests working like bellows. Perspiration prickles my body. I cannot breathe. Were I closed in that small room with frenzied bats I could not feel more loathing or fear.
And everything--everything!--is coated with accumulated droppings: the carpet, the sofa, the table--everything! The tenant has made no attempt to ameliorate the situation by even the most slapdash cleaning--none! He is spitting in my face, he is saying, Fuck you, filthy wog! I dash about looking for signs of impending departure. But his meager wardrobe hangs in the closet. Underwear, pajamas, and socks are folded neatly in the bureau. A bag of birdseed leans against the sink, inviting vermin, and the refrigerator holds a six pack, a little baloney, some cheese. Tears of frustration burn my eyes. What will it cost to clean this filth? Where will I find the strength (my chest, Brother, this bitter cold) to do it myself?
Ah, were he to enter now, I would not be responsible for my actions. I would take my trusty knife--never mind. That is pipe dreaming anyway, he would easily overpower me, and my fury demands immediate reprisal. His arrogance has killed my last vestige of tolerance. In three steps I am at the frost-rimed window. It is not easy to open but I manage. Icy air blasts the room, making me gasp the harder for breath. I grab the broom he has never used and swing at the cowering birds. "Out!" I scream, beside myself. "Out! Filthy things! Out!"
And who would say I am not justified in protecting my investment? Who would deny that if you do not love yourself, you cannot love others? The tenant's week is up. I have given him every chance and been spit upon for my generousness. I snatch his few articles of clothing, his baloney, cheese, beer, his twenty-pound bag of birdseed, and hurl them out after the vanished birds. Chilled to the bone but hot with rage, I close the window, run to the basement for a new lock. Dear Brother, hard luck has forced me to change so many locks, so many. I can change locks in my sleep.
Not the end of it, not the end of it. A little tea calms me somewhat. I begin to feel better. A bit of hashish and I feel rather proud of having handled the problem expeditiously. I go to the woman to share my triumph. Where again I am confronted with hostility. "Where you heart, man? Ain'tchoo got no feelings? Them little things'll freeze and die. And where he gonna go, Pete?" Oh, from the display of sorrow you would think they were her birds or members of an endangered species! And though I do not deign to justify my action to a woman of limited intelligence and primitive sensibilities, I tell her mentally: Watch your step, lady. Arrangements made can be arrangements nullified. No, churning within again, I say nothing at all as she lumbers to the door with what haste her gross structure allows. "Hey, Gran, Gran, where you going?" screech the five bug-eyed pygmies aligned on the sofa watching television. Of course, she doesn't answer. To such as she, words--the manifestations of thought--do not come readily.
From my room I watch her stoop with great effort to retrieve his belongings from the courtyard litter. Under lowering clouds, the air misted by impending snow, she places them in a caved-in carton she has fished from the detritus there, straightens up with much ado, searches the sky, shakes her head, shakes her fist in my direction. Idiot. Although with my light off I can't be seen, how does she know I am not here watching her? Is she looking for trouble?
Next morning the drama continues. Exhausted, having been up half the night coughing, I am fueling my kerosene stove when the sound of excitement sends me to the window. A touching scene, Brother--oh my, yes. The African-Americans, the Dominicans, the Puerto Ricans cluster around the woman and the tenant who apparently had taken refuge with her for the night. It is snowing. Leprous flakes drift from a sagging sky on what appears to be a conclave of consolers. Arms waving, hands in motion, they squawk like crows without pause, breaths steaming like dry ice. The woman's heavy arm embraces the tenant's slumped shoulders. Head tilted back on his massive neck, he searches the snow-streaked sky. No, my heart is not touched by this melodrama. True, I feel the anxiety of the despised outsider, but I also feel a great relief upon the arrival of the gypsy cab which swallows the tenant and his carton up and lurches away in a cloud of pollution and polyglot farewells. I feel thankful he has not chosen to break my bones.
Not that his departure is the last of him. Two days later at noon I receive a phone call from a TV journalist asking me to come down to the street and tell my side of the story. I slam the phone down and rush to the window in time to see her pocket her cell phone, speak into a microphone. A TV truck is at the curb. A cameraman is aiming at the two oldest pygmies marching with signs. LANDLORD IS CRUEL TO BIRDS! LANDLORD KILL LITTLE BIRDS! Solemn as if viewing a cortege, my tenants and passersby look on. I close the blind and go to sit trembling at the kitchen table.
But this evening what I couldn't watch then appears on television. Well, I watch now, Brother. I watch as one watches any catastrophe: appalled but unable to pull oneself away. I see the tenant in the woman's living room tell the world what I have done to his birds, naming me by name, while the East Asian reporter tsk-tsks and shakes her head and makes it known I refused comment. Will he seek legal remedy for his loss? she asks commiseratively. Sadly he shakes his blond head, briefly closes misted blue eyes. Oh, an actor, this tenant! "No." Hoarse and forlorn, he explains he cannot afford a lawyer. "But even if I could," he croaks, "I wouldn't. It's my birds I want--not money. If anyone out there finds my birds--" His voice breaks. She is the one who has to tell people to call the station.
And, as to be expected, Brother, they're all on the tenant's side. I am the criminal, the grasping foreigner who values his ill-gotten property more than a white American's happiness or the lives of a few dirt-common birds. No one speaks a word on my behalf. On the contrary, the other tenants assembled for this spectacle and the woman beside him all nod vigorous agreement to his every word, united at last in their low opinion of me.
What would you suggest, Brother? As you know, I am not one to hold grudges. With the exception of the woman, I bear them no intractable ill will. If you were only here to help me, Brother, what would you advise I do to restore what had been before the tenant and his filthy birds came my way?