Ukrainian on My Roof


I’ve lived in a house on the side of a hill in Springs overlooking Three Mile Harbor for 42 years. A lot has happened. But nothing compares to the morning I helped save someone from certain death right in front of my home.

It happened just before Christmas in the very hard winter of 2003. A huge snowstorm had come through earlier that week, dumping 2 feet of snow on the community. A white Christmas was in the offing.

About 7 a.m. that morning, I was awakened by the sound of hammering on our roof. I was not surprised at this. We’d needed a new roof. I’d hired a company to put new shingles over the old. And now, somebody was up there doing it.

I got up, dressed, brushed my teeth. The hammering continued. I was alone in the house on this morning. My wife was at our apartment in the city, stranded there because of the storm. I hoped that she’d be coming out later.

After a bacon and egg breakfast, I went out onto our deck to see who was up there. There was an aluminum ladder. And up top, on his hands and knees, was a single workman in a knitted cap, scarf, work boots and a white and very filthy workman’s coat. New panels of brown shingles were beside him.

He saw me and waved a hammer at me. I waved back. What a morning, with 20 degrees and bright sunshine. Icicles on the trees. A white carpet of snow covering everything, including the hillside that leads down to the road which passes in front of my house — Three Mile Harbor Road — and beyond it, down another 10 feet to sea level, the harbor itself, sparkling in the sun and sporting a brisk chop.

I called out to the man on the roof. “Got a nice view? How’s it going?” He glanced down at me but didn’t speak. At least at first. Then he gestured. “No English,” he said.

This annoyed me. Not at him. But at the company that had sent him. Roofing is a dangerous business. Yes, their workers were insured, I’d been told. But now, in 2003, federal agents from ICE were rounding up undocumented immigrants and deporting them.

Who was this guy? Turned out he could speak a little English. He’d be roofing for two days. This was the first. Name? He’d rather not say. Where was he from? He hesitated. But then decided to tell me. “Ukraine,” he said, finally.

I offered him coffee. He shook his head no. But then he gave me a first name: Vladimir. Our little secret.

After that, an odd thing happened. Just adjacent to my property a driveway comes down from someone’s vacation house at the top of the hill behind me. It is a steep driveway. And there, around 8:15 a.m., both Vladimir and I watched as a black Toyota coming up Three Mile Harbor Road from town turned onto that driveway and started up.

It started quickly, the driver apparently gunning the engine, but then, in spite of the engine’s roar, it began to slow and make a loud whining noise. Its wheels were skidding. It shook from side to side. As the wheels spun faster and the noise became louder, clouds of ice and snow billowed out from under the car and then, alarmingly, in spite of everything, instead of going forward, it began to slide backwards down the driveway.

It went faster and faster, and when it reached the road, it rushed across it, leaped over the snow berm on the far side, rattled down the embarkment and flew off to splash backwards into the freezing cold water of the harbor. And there it sat. Upright. Engine screaming. Floating.

Suddenly, my young roofer, breathing hard, was alongside of me. He stared at me, pointed at a decorative buoy hanging on the outside of the house, ran to it, ripped it off its nail and ran with it down to the street to this unbelievable situation.

I started after him. Then stopped. He’d need a rope. And I knew there was coiled clothesline in a drawer in the kitchen. I ran inside, grabbed it, and ran back out, down the deck stairs and across the street.

Vladimir was standing right on the edge of the shoreline. The car, in the water about 6 feet away, was still roaring, upright, but sinking slowly. Bubbles were coming up around it.

The driver inside was a woman, about 50, her hair in a bun. A mop handle was visible in the back seat. She looked straight ahead, not at us. God, don’t let it drift off!

Vladimir, the buoy under his arm, was shouting at her something in Ukrainian. Then in English, he said “window.” He made circular motions with his arm. Roll it down. She did nothing.

I tried taking the buoy from him, but he pulled it back. I showed him the rope. He grabbed it and tied an end around the buoy. And with that she rolled the window down.

Then she spoke. She spoke broken English. “I all right. I all right. No problem. Please go away.” Vladimir shouted at her. She repeated that we should go away. And then I knew. A cleaning lady, she was undocumented too. She would rather die than get caught by ICE.

What happened after this is kind of a blur. The buoy floated alongside the driver’s window for a while. People were now arriving, pulling over in their cars after seeing what was going on, and as she continued to tell everyone to go away, she changed her mind and did grab the buoy.

Vladimir then pulled her through the window and soon, with some help, she was lying on a jacket in the snow alongside the bulkhead speaking, someone said, in Polish. Now the police and an ambulance arrived with their flashing lights to wrap her in an aluminum blanket and put her carefully on a gurney, still saying, “No problem, please go away.”

And off she went. I turned around. My roofer was gone. I looked far off. There he was. Back up on my roof, hammering away. As if nothing had happened.

I did not bother him. I returned to my deck. The hammering continued up there the rest of the day, and the next.

And you wonder why the Russians are having such trouble with the Ukrainians.