October 7, 2021
Yellow Warbler
Yellow Warbler
It was back around the time when today’s ubiquitous Eurasian Collared-Doves were first being released into the Bahamas, so I was just dodging the then and still ubiquitous Rock Pigeons as I ran through the warm spring rain from the parking lot to the dilapidated brick tenement.  I checked the battered, rusting playground, but neither Joe nor any of the kids were about yet on this wet Sunday morning.  Joe’s world was dilapidated too, of course, and it was my impression that the struggling folks in his neighborhood didn’t have the time or the inclination for religion.

Joe Jones, Jr. lived in the third building, up three flights of stairs, middle of the hallway, on the left.  Even on sunny Sundays, the graffiti and stench of urine in the stairways mitigated against any feeling of joy or accomplishment my weekly sessions with the seven year old should have brought to either of us, and I always sprinted the crumbling steps two at a time to escape into the warm aroma of the hallway itself where someone’s stovepot always bubbled with welcoming promise.  In many of the dingy, cramped apartments I guessed a hearty Sunday meal was the religion.

“Did you bring me some money?”

“Joe!  We talked about this last night!”

“Gramma, it’s alright.  I got this.”

“Joe, you know what our rules are.”

“Jamarr’s tutor brings him ten dollars every week.”

“Man up Joe.  Just do the work.  A dollar for the math problems.  A dollar for your reading assignment.  A dollar if I like the story you wrote.  Another dollar if I can read the story you wrote.  Are you adding this up?  Those are our rules.  And, Joe, you’re smarter than Jamarr.

“And a dollar for the birds.  That’s what you said when you gave me the book.”

“Right.  But you have to show me in the book.”

“How about a small yellow one?  Would that be worth two dollars?  Ain’t never seen one like that around here before.”

“Go get the book.  You have to show me.  We live in Missouri, Joe.

“Eat with us today.”

“Thanks, Gramma.  I just might.  It sure smells good.”

Scampering back with the book, the boy climbs into my lap, a bright smile on his face.  That’s something he rarely does and something I rarely see.  This week’s success story, and so early in our session.  I watch as he pages deftly to the rear of the book.  We may be on to something here.  I see he’s into the warblers, running down the color page entries with his index finger.  He stops at Yellow Warbler.

“There it is!  I saw this one!”

Where was it?  In the tree by the playground?”

“Nope.  I went over the hill and down by the creek.  It was in a tree, but it moves fast.  I seen the yellow in the green leaves.”

“Wow, Joe!  That’s a good one.  Did you see the rusty streaks on its chest?

“Nope, but I saw another bird down in the water.  That’s two more dollars, then, right?”

“Show me this other bird.”

“I can’t find it in the book, but I can tell you what it looks like.”

“I’m listening.”

“It was another little bird, but it was just brown and white.  Plain.  It was poking around the rocks and sticks, like it was looking for something.  And it moves funny.”

“Funny?  Funny how?  Can you show me?”

As Joe scrambles out of my lap, Gramma pauses, soup ladle in hand suspended over the stove, to watch.  I know she’s been listening.  Joe steps around the table to the only open area in the tiny, cluttered kitchen, turns his back to us, and begins gyrating his hips.  In today’s world we would call it twerking, but I had no name for it back then.  Not one I could say or use.  Funny thing is, Joe nails it, and I know exactly what bird he has seen.  Gramma is not amused.  I speak first, then wish I hadn’t.

“Joe, that’s good!  Where did you learn that?”

“I seen mama and her friend, Big Harold, doing it.”


I turn my head to hide a wry smile.

“Gramma . . . um, okay, I guess you’ve got this one.”

“Joe, I’ll show you in the book.  It was the same size as the yellow one wasn’t it.”

“Yessir, but not as pretty.  And it moved a lot slower.  I watched it for a long time.  I sat real quiet like you told me.”

“Did you see it catch anything?”

“What would it catch?  Never seen a fish down there.”

“Bugs.  These small birds eat bugs.  When did you see it?”


“Really!  The rain has stopped.  Let’s go down and look.  Maybe we’ll see it again.  Maybe it lives there.  We can do your homework when we get back.”

I take the book over to the stove and show it to Gramma.  It’s hard to say whether her interest is real or feigned, but she reads the text, smiles, and turns to Joe.

“Hey, baby, this bird came all the way up here from N’awlins just like me.  You go look for it, and then lunch will be ready.  I think he’s gonna eat with us, and then you gonna get your pencils and things out and earn your money.”


I think about Joe Jones, Jr. still to this day.  It’s been a long time, and there’s a lot to unpack during a pandemic as Me Too and BLM stir the nation.
Louisiana Waterthrush
Louisiana Waterthrush