Noe Valley Voice September 2008

Florence's Family Album: Mysterious Comings and Goings

Reminiscences by Florence Holub

Editor's Note: In this essay, first published in the October 1995 Voice, Florence Holub, then 76, wrote about a summer when she and husband Leo were visited by wild parrots, strange piles of leaves, and a small slimy creature with personality.

Whenever I have to leave my house on foot, I like to return by walking over the top of the Sanchez hill, taking in the spectacular panorama of the city as I descend to our 21st Street home -- a warm and comfortable brown shingled dwelling with a view of the city from the northern front window.

From the southern rear window, my man Leo and I look out upon a growth of luxuriant greenery that accommodates a variety of birds, insects, and other creepy-crawly things. Here sunshine floods the kitchen/dining/workroom area, where we spend most of the day in close contact with our backyard garden.

Not long ago, on a stifling hot day at the end of July, the unlikely sound of rainfall captured our attention. At that same moment, Wendy, our next-door neighbor, called out for us to come look at the hawthorn tree in our back yard. There, to our astonishment, we saw six full-grown parrots (not parakeets) making their rain-like sound by cracking open the hawthorn berries with their hooked beaks, then spitting out what they didn't want. They continued feeding for 15 minutes or so, moved back to the plum tree for dessert, then flew away in unison, screeching like rusty hinges.

For the next couple of weeks, they returned many times each day for replenishment. After all, it takes an enormous amount of energy to fly!

These brilliantly colored parrots had green bodies and red or blue topped heads and epaulets. They were obviously tropical birds, so what on earth were they doing in our neck of the woods?

Since the parrots weren't talking (just squawking!), I asked Luis Baptista, ornithology curator at the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, if he could shed some light on the subject. Although he did not actually see the birds, he identified them, based on my description, as South American breeds. Those with red crowns, he said, sounded like conures. The ones with blue heads were probably blue-fronted Amazonas. He speculated that the birds might have escaped from someone involved in the legal-- or illegal--trading of exotic birds.

Another puzzling event occurred this summer. One Sunday morning when I went out to get the paper at 6 a.m., I observed a young man standing in front of our house, looking skyward and whistling repeatedly. As I watched and wondered, he offered an explanation, saying that his bird had escaped and was sitting on the edge of our roof. Since I did not have my glasses on, I saw nothing. But he sounded like a reasonable enough fellow, so I went back in the house and forgot about the incident.

A few days later, as I returned home over the hill after one of my walks, I was alarmed to see a tall ladder -- one that should not have been there -- resting against the eaves of our peaked roof. I asked Webb, our neighbor who lives closest to where the ladder was placed, if he had put it there. He replied that he had not. On the contrary, he had assumed that we had. We were baffled!

But upon further thought, I recalled the whistling man, so I phoned Webb to ask him if anyone living in his building had a bird. He answered yes -- in fact, one of them owned two parakeets. Since he and the parakeet owner were friends, he promised to inquire.

His friend did indeed turn out to be the man whose bird had escaped, and the one who had raised the ladder in order to nab him. In his happiness over finding his feathered friend, however, he'd forgotten all about the ladder, which Webb took care of immediately.

This story illustrates how inviting an open window can be to a confined bird -- a fact that may account for the numerous unlikely species which visit our garden to feed and, in some cases, to multiply.

Another mysterious and rather disturbing event took place a week later, when a man rang our doorbell saying that he was the gardener working at the Solomon house up on the corner. He said that although he usually kept all of his tools in his truck, he had forgotten his rake that day and wondered if he could borrow ours.

Leo and I both felt suspicious of this fast-talking character, so without hesitation we replied that we did not own a rake. The man then offered to do our yard work at a very reasonable price, but we declined, saying we preferred to attend to our neglect of these things in our own manner.

A short while later, we looked out our front window and were shocked to see this same "gardener" depositing a huge pile of clippings, from someone else's yard, into the middle of our driveway. It was 10:30 a.m., so we warned him that we had to drive our car out of the garage at noon and that the haystack was an obstruction.

He blithely promised to remove it within 20 minutes. After an hour, he had not returned. But when we looked outside a little later, we saw that the pile had been divided, with one half on each side of the driveway, leaving just enough room for our car to pass.

Leo then offered a glimmer of hope with the remark, "At least he's still around."

But he wasn't. We soon discovered that our good neighbor Angus Pera, with whom we had spoken earlier in the day about the shifty gardener, had kindly shoveled a path for our car.

When we returned from lunch, the piles were still there. The clippings apparently had a new home -- ours!

In the morning Leo put a note under the windshield wiper of the car belonging to the neighbor whose yard the clippings came from, then left for an appointment.

When he returned home at 5 o'clock, the note was still there, so he walked up to the front door of the three-unit apartment building and rang the bell. There was no response, although through the window he could see someone who appeared to be asleep. He then banged in frustration until a groggy figure finally opened the door.

"I am looking for the person who dumped garden trimmings in my driveway," Leo stated emphatically.

"They were supposed to be hauled away, but it didn't happen," came the reply. Leo then asked how those clippings had managed to transport themselves 50 feet into his driveway.

"The wind must have blown them there," the man ventured, indicating that he did not have a clue.

Nevertheless, Leo continued, the pile had been in our driveway for two days, and if it was not removed at once, he would be forced to take measures!

Within 20 minutes a truck appeared to collect and haul the clippings to a conspicuous spot up the street, where on the following day (our block's curbside pickup day) Sunset Scavenger would not be able to overlook them.

Sure enough, the next day the clippings were gone, along with the so-called gardener, whom, according to the Solomons' legitimate gardener, no one had ever heard of!

We dispose of our own clippings a little at a time by cutting them into small enough pieces to fit in our garbage cans. The quickest route from our garden to our cans is in through the back door of the house and out through the front.

A few months ago, as I trudged through the house with an armful of clippings, some little garden creature must have bailed out and taken up residence in our rear all-purpose room. We discovered shining evidence of his presence when we looked down at the rug one morning and saw several wriggling silver trails left by what we could only assume was a snail.

The paths were so fragile that they disappeared during the day as we walked over them, but by morning more tracks had been created. Leo and I got down on our hands and knees and followed the trails, trying to find our little friend's hideout. But we did not succeed, even though he embellished almost every inch of our seven-by-nine-foot synthetic carpet.

Given the absence of water and plants, we wondered where he was getting his nourishment. Leo argued that he ate rugs! Perhaps he did, because it seems that for everything we grow or own, something else is always waiting to nibble on it!

One morning in early September we spotted something moving slowly across the rug. It proved to be our nocturnal visitor, a mottled-brown, three-inch-long garden slug.

To observe it more closely, I got down on my knees, clutching a magnifying glass. Unfortunately, the thick lens of my dilapidated instrument fell off and landed on the little mollusk's head, causing him to retract into a round walnut shape.

He's a goner, I thought, and was about to administer last rites, when the slug re-extended himself and began making a beeline for the garden. As Leo and I watched, he slithered away, disappearing under the narrow space at the bottom of the door.

In the following week, we discovered a series of shiny, well-traveled paths leading from our deck to the garden soil below.

Before long, however, the little creature will be gone -- gone like the parrots, the berries, and the summer itself.