“Let me tell you something child, you are the fifth secretary I’ve had in two weeks. The last boy I had came in here and tried to practice on me. He didn’t know to work that machine.”
Permanently crouched over, Mrs. Kirby pointed to the computer like it’s some kind of frozen alien, liable to start moving at any time.
“Do you know how to work that machine cause I don’t mess with that thing there. I don’t know nothing about it.”
“Yes mam I do,” I said, hoping her expectations weren’t as high as for somebody that actually knew what they were doing.
Mrs. Kitty Kirby had brain surgery a year ago and forgot parts of her life. She used to host a TV show on PBS, but she only knew this because she was reminded or more accurately, told. She used a hearing aid that would make the phone sing out of dial tone when she’d hold the receiver up to her ear and get feedback,
“These people done messed up my phone. Every time I pick up the phone I get a busy signal,” she said.
“Want me to dial the number for you?” I asked.
The phone started ringing. I handed her the receiver.
“Thank you, ah David, Tim…,” she said.
Mrs. Kirby was 80 something years-old, a five-foot-four short black woman. She wore thick brown-framed glasses, a brown corduroy skirt, purple sweater, a light brown suede cone for a hat, and matching suede stilettos. A stone turquoise Egyptian beetle encased in silver hung from her neck. Her lips were a canoe, always commanding unique sound sculptures. Her small skewed eyes were hazel green, at times with a hint of brown; her walk was slow, confident, and wobbly.
A temp agency hired me to be Mrs. Kirby’s assistant. My job was to help her write letters, to keep her distracted like a precarious child. She was organizing an award ceremony for the winners of her annual youth essay contest entitled (cue lights, fire works, live jazz band and ACTION!)
“Stories My Grandparents Told Me,” she said, eyebrows arch over her forehead. She had an upside down smile with her left hand across her heart.
She showed me the prototype of her “program” that listed the winners, age groups, presenters, sponsors and the morning of events she had planned. The inside cover read, “For without Grandparents and Great-grandparents, where would we be?”
“This is my program,” she said, pointing to the titles she gave for every age group.
Age 11-12, 1st-3rd place, The Creators, age 13, The Young Writers, age 14, The Reporters, age 15, The Editors, age 16, The Young Journalists….
“I came up with these titles. This program was my idea. I’m an artist, see.”
Compulsive and paranoid, she turned the pages of the little pamphlet back and forth, checking for errors.
“That’s cool,” I responded.
“That last boy tried to practice on me for two days,” she said, as erect as she could stand, using her right hand to put a peace sign in the air.
“He said, ‘give me ah chance to work on it.’ And I did, you know everybody needs to learn. But I pay these temp people $18 an hour and I can’t afford to have nobody come in here and waste my time. My boss…,” she pointed down the hall, “…will have a fit. Sunday ah boy from Princeton came in here that I hired myself. It took him an hour to figure out that machine. I paid him $40. And now he was from Princeton. Two days that otha boy tried to practice on me and on the third day I said, ‘You got to go.’ And he gon’ get out that chair upset yelling at Mrs. Kirby. I told him, ‘dat’s it.’ He gon’ tell me I don’t know what I’m doing!” She sat down, lowered her voice, her chin pointed to the ceiling while she signaled me to come close.
“And he, was African American. Now, let me tell you something.” She grabs a hold of my right arm. “Those people out there, they got the same secretaries every day. I’m all by myself.”
Her first test for me was to see if I could sign onto the “machine.” She stood next to me, crouching into the monitor while I punched keys. The first five minutes was like her brain was having an earthquake watching me trying log on to her computer, until I realized that somebody had printed out her screen name, password, email, fax, office number and extension, and taped it onto the hard drive that sat underneath the monitor.
“Now I need to write a letter to Honorable Richard M. Morgenthau,” she said.
She started dictating as I electronically authored her words onto the machine, making the keyboard’s keys click in response.
“You want ‘Hon.’ again?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, you got to know howda play the game in here baby. You got to address these people by they titles. See I only deal with big names. That man is chairman of the board.”
Mrs. Kirby worked for the New York police department, PAL, the Police Athletic League. She was the Director of Performing Arts. They had her office on the fourth floor, no elevator. Four flights of long narrow, dark grey stairs and her stilettos collaborated several times throughout the day. I think they were trying to kill the woman. The police precinct was located around Union Square.
Mrs. Kirby lived on 87th Street, Central Park West. She woke up at 3:30am and took the bus downtown to work every morning. She got to the precinct at 5:00am, and went home at 1:00pm. Her office door was always open, coercing her white co-workers and black counterparts to hear what was on her mind.
10:30am, still my first day at work. Mrs. Kirby stood at her desk shuffling through the kids’ essays, frantic and frustrated after accusing her part-time assistant Ernie of rearranging her work.
“These people done messed up my papers. I had everything laid out just like I wanted it.” She pointed to the table. Her folders, papers and pens were playing a cruel game of musical chairs.
“I’ma tell Ernie not to touch anything on my desk. This is my desk.”
She picked up a package labeled, “AGE 10 ESSAYS,” examined the contained contents,
“This doesn’t go in this envelope? Boy oh boy oh boy. I ain’t never seen such lying and mischief in all the time…22 years I’ve been doing this…boy oh boy…people trying to confuse me and I don’t know where nut-in is. Ernie or one of them fat white B-I-T-C-HES’s next door done messed everything up.”
The door to the office next to us slammed shut.
“This was not like this before?” Her voice cracked, “I’ve never had this much trouble in all the years I’ve been doing this.”
“Don’t worry about it. Let’s keep working,” I yelled into her hearing aid.
“But this is still going to be a good program. I don’t care what anybody think,” she said, holding one of her prototype “programs” to her chest.
“Yeah, lets work.”
“You see that picture right there?”
She pointed to a big-framed picture hung on the wall of her receiving an award from former Mayor Giuliani. I tried to study the text below, until she grabbed my right arm,
“I need you to look at me for me to talk to ya.”
“I graduated from Julliard in dance. My father went to Oxford,” she proudly declared.
“These people can’t create,” she said pointing to the doorway. “They stupid. When I leave here they’ll probably try to copy what I came up with by myself. They always copy. That’s the only thing white people know howda do, is copy copy copy. You see these people on channel 13 and PBS trying to dance and sing and play the piana. They just don’t sound right. They don’t know how to play the beautiful African rhythms. Now Duke Ellington, he was the king. Can’t nobody copy that man. Kenny Mills, my piana playa of 20 years, went on tour with the Beatles. Never had a piana lesson in his life! And can play anything just by listening.”
The phone rang, she picked it up, “Performing Arts Center.”
I could hear the loud feedback scream in pain from the receiver.
“Hello, hello?” Mrs. Kirby slammed the phone down. “That damn phone ain’t worked ever since that fat B messed with the phone lines and the cumputa.”
The phone rang again, I answered. Mrs. Kirby needs to bring her program to the printing office if she wants 300 of them pressed for her Stories My Grandparents Told Me ceremony. I offered to deliver the program personally and return with standard questions asked and answered.
I could’ve suggested email, but I knew she didn’t know what it was. Attempting to explain that concept would be an experience I knew I might never have again. I figured I’d wait till she was comfortable around me to break the news to her about this fresh ocean of communication that has flooded modern society and killed: letters, spelling, memorization of numbers, long attention spans and decent handwriting.
“No, everything goes through me. Don’t do nothin’ without asking me. It’s my program. I’ll go myself. You can’t expect that machine to do everything for you.”
She puts on her orange mink coat. Walking beside her I approached the four flights of stairs like a cliff. She held onto the railing, click clocking down the plastic grey covered steps. She swayed pulled and pushed with all grace to march forward. On 18th Street and Broadway she walked into the middle of the street unannounced, weaving through traffic. Cars sped by, honking or jerked forward when they stopped at short notice. Truck drivers grilled me as if I was daring to let my dog walk without a leash,
“They ain’t gonna run ya over, just keep walking,” Mrs. Kirby said with her arms crossed trying to stay warm. On the sidewalk she maneuvered through the crowd to avoid snow slush and puddles, “I ain’t trying to get these boots wet,” she said.
On our way back to the office she asked me,
“What are you into David, ah Tim?”
I told her I like to write.
“Oh, so you’re an actor,” she said. “Who’s that man that use to have that family show?”
I named a couple but it wasn’t who she was referring to,
“Oh hell naw, he way bigger than that man. Black actor, he still lives over there on the upper west side. He used to sell pudding or JELL-O…”
“Yeah, now that man could act. He was a sophisticated black man.”
Mrs. Kirby’s daughter owns one of the few black-owned art galleries in the city. According to Mrs. Kirby, Bill Cosby drops by there now and again and sometimes buys art.
We started climbing up the four flights of stairs. My abashed lungs dragged their feet a bit from cigarettes. She’s chillin, like she just walked a circle in her office and sat down.
“You see I come from the part of Harlem that’s not around as much anymore. I was born in the upper black class of Harlem,” she said, lips frown, eyelids half way closed, her legs crossed while her fingers dangled her glasses.
“When I was five or six I was reading Plato and Socrates…going to see dance productions of The Nutcracker and Romeo and Juliet. I was walking around when Adam Clayton Powell was preaching on 116th Street. Duke Ellington was at the Cotton Club. My mother worked every night, 50 hours a week so I could go to Julliard for dance. Can’t nobody tell me, ‘oh it’s hard…this and that.’ Life is hard honey.”
Thursday, I survived three days thus far with Mrs. Kitty Kirby. We started to get to know each other although she called me “David” or “Tim.” When I’d come in the morning I could see her before I entered the office, sitting near the doorway, waiting for someone to appear into her sight at 9:00am, “no later or sooner” as she officially requested. Her eyes popped up from reading the newspaper when she saw me.
If I wasn’t searching for an invoice after she lost it 10 times, if I wasn’t trying to convince her that I was there to help and not sabotage, if I wasn’t adding age to my life through stressing over her refusal to listen to anyone else’s voice but her own, then we were getting along. Rare moments were when there was silence broken by her random thoughts that spoke as sure as man has walked on the moon.
Sounds from the offices down the hall: typewriters tapping, phones ringing-getting picked and hung up, high heels walking, fax machines bleeping, papers shuffling each other. Enter Mrs. Kirby,
“I walked in the administrative office smiling. Mrs. Tellis just had her baby. I said, ‘congratulation Mrs. Tellis.’ And she sittin there all dry face. I ain’t seen so many dry face women. I ain’t about to let nothing get me down. I’m the Queen, baby. I walk with my head up. They sitting up in there like ‘John betta’ got’em.”
She sat down and flattened her lungs.
“My mamma said ‘John betta ain’t nothing but a little man trying to bring you down.'”
11:30am, printing programs for her to send out to the judges of the contest. Silence. Mrs. Kirby was ransacking a mountain of kids’ essays, bills, business cards and letters with running legs and good-footed feet. Through our loft-size windows clouds made the day appear old in its dim-lit mode, reflecting off the tall silver building across the street that faced our five-story blue brown stone.
“You see how it’s all dark out. That’s them chemicals they be putting in the air.”
Before I had a chance to krinkle my bow as if to ask, “what the hell is this lady…,” the sun burst through the darkness, bright and dominant.
“You see that, that’s them bombs they blowing up over there.”
When she’d get wrapped up in her chaotic fits, remembering and forgetting, I’d be surfing the web,
“What you looking up on that cumputa?”
I was checking my email.
“I’m just reading on the internet.”
She dropped all her papers, pulled up a chair and sat down facing me. She grabbed my right arm and pointed to the computer. Her eyebrows made twin tepees,
“THAT MACHINE WILL KILL YOUR IMAGINATION! You read Brave New World? Man gives everything to that machine and ends up with nothing. You can’t rely on that cumputa for everything. Think for yaself.”
“I bet you won’t forget Mrs. Kirby,” she said.
Last I heard, the doctor advised her to take a break.
2 comments On Harlem Royalty
I really enjoyed this article about Ms. Kitty Kirby. I knew her back in the late 60’s through P.A.L. She gave my sister and I the opportunity to dance, sing, and participate in shows. It’s so great to read she hasn’t changed one bit! Does she have a contact page?
Its amazing to hear from one of her former students. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if she has a contact page. When I met her, that was ten years ago. She was an amazing and vivacious women.
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