Cambridge fixture Dorothy Steele’s life of warmth
CAMBRIDGE — Whether they noticed her or not, nearly everyone who lived in Cambridge over the last few decades passed Dorothy Steele at some point, hollow-cheeked and hunched forward as she inched through the city with breadcrumbs or birdseed, pigeons and sparrows alighting around her.
She saw beauty in every bird but especially the ones most people scorned, and she used to walk close to 10 miles a day to feed them, from East Cambridge to Inman Square, Harvard to Fresh Pond. When her legs gave out she shortened her route, leaving home in a secondhand wheelchair well before dawn, shuffling her feet and pushing with her hands.
She avoided cobblestones, snow, and sidewalk cracks by sticking to the side of the road, which is why the people who stopped to talk to her — who discovered beneath grubby pigeons and tired layers of clothing a clear-eyed, self-reliant woman — feared the eventual day when Dorothy Steele would get hit.
Someone at the DPW gave her a reflective vest to drape over her wheelchair, but that reassured them all only a little.
Be careful, cautioned Dolores Lombardi, a former neighbor.
“Dolores, my friend, don’t worry about me,” Dorothy would reply. “I haven’t been hit yet, and I don’t think I will be.”
She projected a strong sense of belonging on the street, a confidence that belied her fragile build, said Kristen Emack, a photographer who befriended Dorothy along her bird-feeding route. Emack offered to push her wheelchair, just once. “NO,” Dorothy replied, moving on herself.
A picture tucked into a scrapbook hinted at the source of her certainty, but few knew anything about it.
And so they all worried, especially at Cambridge Hospital, where Dorothy greeted passersby in the cafeteria every morning from behind a cup of black coffee and a crossword puzzle enlarged with a magnifying glass. Except in the deepest snow, she was always there by 6, finding at the hospital a refueling stop and a community at the turnaround point on her route.
So when Dorothy didn’t show Feb. 28, a mild Sunday morning, hospital staff began to worry. Then word broke of a hit-and-run on Columbia Street, before dawn. A woman in a wheelchair was in critical condition. They all knew it was Dorothy.
. . .
Seventy-seven years, six weeks, and barely a third of a mile. That was the distance between the two crashes that bookended Dorothy Steele’s life, the only times she made the news across the river in Boston.
The first came Jan. 17, 1939, before mid-Cambridge had pedestrian curb cuts, let alone million-dollar condos. Dorothy’s mother, Helen, was crossing Norfolk at Harvard Street with 4-month-old Dorothy and 4-year-old Allan when a car and a milk truck collided nearby. The car caromed toward them. Helen Steele shoved her son onto the sidewalk and tried to push Dorothy’s carriage there, too.
The carriage struck the granite curb, and Helen threw herself in front of it, blocking the oncoming car. Mother and carriage got launched, overturning in the air; Helen Steele crashed down, fracturing her skull. The carriage, its side bashed, lost two wheels.
Yet somehow, “the warmly wrapped infant,” as the Globe wrote, “came to rest uninjured on the lawn.”
Beneath photos of young Dorothy and Allan, the papers carried word that Helen Steele, 26, was on the “danger list” at what was then Cambridge City Hospital. “Children of Heroine,” the Boston American dubbed them, describing how their mother “offered her own life in a sudden, desperate gamble.”
Helen Steele made a full recovery, but the episode cast a long shadow. Dorothy, too young to remember, rarely spoke about it in later years, but she kept a photo of the tabloid front page in a scrapbook, one of the few possessions that followed her through a series of spartan apartments.
At 116 Norfolk St., a former convent with dorm-style living for seniors, she preferred to chat with neighbor Lombardi about her friend’s life, or about animals. Occasionally — say, when Lombardi reminisced about working at Jordan Marsh — Dorothy would mention that she had been a salesgirl at Conrad & Chandler, one of the long-gone department stores in downtown Boston.
But she came back to the accident story with Lombardi, if not with others. Because they could see the intersection from their building. Because, she would say, Lombardi was lucky to still have her own elderly mother.
“She said she would never forget what her mother had done for her,” Lombardi said.
. . .
At the hospital where Helen Steele ultimately emerged from the danger list, Dorothy would later become “a family member, in the fabric of our organization,” as Mary Samost, an associate chief nursing officer, put it. In December, Dorothy was the only non-staff member invited to the holiday party. On her 77th birthday last fall, she wanted no gifts, only a hug from each employee who passed by. And when her wheelchair shed its treads, an anesthesia tech, Providencia Saez, surprised her with a like-new replacement from the Salvation Army.
The employees had known her five, 10, 30 years. Still, no one remembered a time before she was anything other than the woman devoted to birds. They knew little of her life story. Maybe she had been a secretary, or a nursing assistant, or wanted to be?
They remembered meeting Dorothy first through Robert “Bobby” Robertson — “her boyfriend,” they teased, lovingly — a beloved former stockroom employee who came back daily in retirement to see friends and do laundry. Some thought he had found Dorothy living on the street in Inman Square, and taken her in. When he died at 91 in 2009, his obituary called him a “dear friend of Dorothy,” no last name.
They were astonished recently to see a picture of Dorothy around age 30, tanned and healthy — every bit as head-turning as they imagined from her cheekbones. But what really drew their eyes was the white-haired man beside her. “That’s Bobby!” they all said, mystified that he knew Dorothy when she was so vibrant and young.
That was how it went around the city, a collection of friendships, bits and pieces of biography that didn’t always fit together. Only later would so many people realize how many others in Cambridge also cherished Dorothy, like fans of a favorite postal carrier who live at different points along the route.
At Fresh Pond Reservation, Jean Rogers arrived as a chief ranger in 1994 and immediately noticed Dorothy amid the joggers and traditional birders, who hoped to glimpse a great egret or green heron without disturbing the landscape. Dorothy would sit by the main building and feed “invasives” — pigeons, squirrels, even rats, cooing and sprinkling peanuts. Thirty creatures would gather around her, perching on her knee or eating from her hand.
“I kept trying to nudge her off the reservation, because she was attracting so many pigeons,” said Rogers, who wondered if Dorothy was homeless or unwell, but found her to be lucid and intentional. They compromised; Dorothy moved to the far side of the trees, near busy Fresh Pond Parkway, defending her brood from rock-throwing boys. Rogers grew to admire her “gentleness and strength of character,” her kindness toward overlooked things. Through Dorothy, her philosophy shifted.
“Good park-keeping is good people-keeping,” she now says. They chatted, almost daily. Then, maybe a dozen years ago, Dorothy vanished. The walk had become too great.
On the other end of Cambridge, Emack, a photographer and assistant teacher, was looking out from a new apartment on Columbia Street when she spotted a figure — in a wheelchair now — she recognized from around the city, those deep-set blue eyes and deeply creased skin, that coterie of pigeons.
She watched Dorothy many mornings, and then one day three years ago said hello. A friendship blossomed. On cold days, when she saw Dorothy with bare hands or pants that did not reach her shoes, she gave her mittens and warm socks. For her birthday, she bought Dorothy a 10-pound bag of birdseed.
Dorothy gave back in kind, offering Emack’s daughter, Apple, magazines about animals from a plastic bag lashed to her chair. And like scattered seeds, she offered occasional bits of biography. She had cared for patients at a rehab hospital. Her grandparents came from Sweden and the Canadian Maritimes. Also, she had a brother, still alive.
On Feb. 28, Emack woke to police lights. At first, she thought someone had been shot. When she went downstairs, there was blood on the pavement. On the ground, she recognized a bag of magazines. She saw Dorothy’s wheelchair, pushed to the curb.
. . .
Dorothy gave paramedics her first name before losing consciousness. Like others, Emack called hospital after hospital asking about Dorothy Steele, finally finding her on life support at MGH. Emack helped identify her — and because she knew about Dorothy’s brother Allan, police were able to alert him in Quincy.
At 81, Allan Steele got the news like a punch to the gut. He and Dorothy had never been close, but she was his only surviving relative, the last link to their mother.
At the hospital, he saw her with a breathing tube and bloodied forehead, numerous fractures, eyes open but unseeing. Twice he came away thinking she might recover. On the third visit, two weeks in, he learned she would not make it.
In her one-bedroom apartment in East Cambridge, she left behind only a smattering of possessions: some stuffed animals, a shelf of glass and ceramic birds. A smattering of cassette tapes and DVDs, mostly starring dogs and cats. An Audubon Society ID card. A month’s worth of mail and money-order receipts, showing that she lived on $11 a day after rent — but still managed in February to donate $35 to Doctors Without Borders, renew National Wildlife Federation and National Geographic memberships, and order daisy-print reading glasses, never to be worn.
She kept her high school yearbook (“a swell kid,” a few called her) and a box of Kodachrome slides: richly hued images of family pets and trips with her mother, stills of stewardesses in uniform, a profession she had longed to join. Also, a notebook of poems written as a teenager, mostly about lonesome lovers. The pictures she saved chiefly showed a young Dorothy, though a few showed old age, the bird woman Cambridge knew. Nothing in between.
With Dorothy’s brother on a fixed income, Kristen Emack started an online fund-raiser to pay for Dorothy’s cremation and burial. For all their chats about neighborhood cats and pigeons with unusual patterns, Emack had no sense of Dorothy’s other friends; she feared no one would notice Dorothy was gone. But in 10 days, Emack raised more than she asked for — from those who also talked to Dorothy often, from those who wished they had.
Last Monday, a hearse the color of a robin’s egg carried Dorothy’s remains to Everett’s Woodlawn Cemetery, where her parents lie. A few friends gathered in the rain, along with her brother. Nearby, two Cambridge Police officers stood at attention in uniform. They were detectives, working her case, and more than that, too. “I used to see her out and about, and always waved,” one said. A 62-year-old Somerville man has been charged with leaving the scene in connection with Dorothy’s case, but has not yet been arraigned.
The service lasted 10 minutes, mourners offering memories as Dorothy’s ashes rested in a rain-slicked urn atop a small table. Kay Victor, a disabled calligrapher who had met Dorothy in the hospital cafeteria, arrived midway through in a taxi. She recalled how Dorothy first engaged her over a crossword clue, how she always asked after her cat, Beanie. “I’m going to miss her,” Victor said.
“She didn’t have much,” Emack said. “But what she did have, she would give willingly.”
“The whole city will miss her,” said Phil Sciandra, a former neighbor.
As they turned to leave, Emack reached over and placed something on the table beside the urn: A lone pigeon feather. If you listened closely through the rain, you could hear birds chirping in the distance.