(photo courtesy Rob Hernandez)
I heard through the grapevine: apparently, I have competition for the crows’ affection. A neighborhood woman wearing a sweatshirt with the hood pulled up over her head was spotted throwing food out into the street the other day, according to my sources.
Aha, I thought, when I heard the news: Maybe that’s why the crows are so fickle. They’re full! This explains their erratic interest in the tidbits I try to woo them with. Normally, I’d march right down, knock on her door, and introduce myself. The thing is, the mystery crow-feeder was seen going into the house where the drug dealer lives. Sure I’m ballsy, but still.
To be fair, I’m not sure he’s a drug dealer. I have no proof. There’s just something about the way he hangs out on his front steps for hours with his phone and how, when people pull their cars over in front of his house, he leans into the passenger window and chats for awhile before they drive on. He’s been doing this almost every day for the last 13 years, ever since we moved in. He’s a skinny guy about my age or younger who wears very nondescript clothes (nothing flashy) and his hair in a big, unkempt afro (which is noteworthy since I don’t see many afros these days). The story I tell myself is that he’s lived there since he was born, with his mother and perhaps a sibling or two, and that they probably grow dope. He’s the front man. They’ve managed to support the family this way for a generation. I have probably watched too many episodes of Weeds.
But we’ve never said hello. I look at him and think, “What are you doing?” And he looks at me, like, “What are you going to do about it?” In my mind I tell him, “I’m not going to do anything as long as it’s just weed and there are no guns involved.” But he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who owes anybody an explanation and besides, I could have it all wrong.
I hope you are not shocked, gentle reader; please don’t deem me some freak, callous and depraved. Think of my context: Northern California, twenty-first century, where millions recently voted to legalize the possession of marijuana (it didn’t pass), in a small city where head shops, medical marijuana dispensaries, and grow-your-own supply stores are nothing special. In 1998 when we moved in, we were told that the neighborhood had been rather rough ten years before (a fact attested to by the security gates and reflective film on all the windows of the house we bought) but they said that the neighborhood had turned around. We removed the gate and the film. The vacant lot across the street, once full of rubbly blacktop and broken glass, was converted to an amazing garden full of fruit trees and native plants. Our neighbors are a truly wonderful bunch who volunteer in the park, give Christmas parties and take care of each other’s mail and feed pets when someone goes on vacation. We’ve never had a problem here and that skinny guy down the street might be a bit cagey and standoffish, but he doesn’t seem like a dangerous criminal.
Let me distract you from a political argument with the story about what happened when I walked out of my house the other day. I was almost to my car when I heard the crow on the corner between my block and said neighbors’, cawing loudly; caw, caw, an incessant demand like a finger tapping on my shoulder. The crow drew my attention toward the hooded woman standing in front of the supposed drug dealer’s house. It was almost as if the bird were making an introduction.
So I walked right over. As I drew nearer, I realized that the mystery woman was not alone—no—the skinny guy was there on the steps, talking to her, but by that time I was only a few feet away and it was too late to chicken out.
“Hi,” I said. When I spoke, she turned around. She was younger, dressed like a boy, with a blunt, pretty face and no makeup. “I was wondering if you were the one who was feeding the crows?”
I could see her unsmiling face shadowed by the hood of her sweatshirt. “What’s that?”
“I’m just curious. Do you feed the crows?”
“Why? Is there something wrong with that?” She gave me the same look some of my students used to give when I approached them outside of class—the back-tilt of head that sends the glance sliding down the bridge of the nose, a look that says, Why is this little bug stopping on the sidewalk at my feet? Shall I squash it now or wait to hear what it’s trying to say?
“No, no, no. At least I hope there’s nothing wrong with that, because I’ve been feeding them too. I live down there.” I pointed back to our house, then to the lone crow watching us from her perch upon the telephone wire. “See—there’s one of the crows I’ve been feeding. And a friend of mine who knows I’ve been trying to make friends with the crows saw someone at this house feeding them the other day. She called me to tell me.” At this point I was chattering on a bit, a nervous habit, and trying to smile a smile that conveyed both friendliness and nonchalance. “So that’s why I’m here. I was just curious to meet my fellow crow-feeder.”
“Huh. Well no, it wasn’t me.” She stopped looking down her nose and added, “I don’t live here. Maybe it was my sister.”
“Oh. Cool. Because I’d really love to talk with her. I want to find out what she’s feeding them. Whatever it is, the crows must like it, because sometimes they don’t even bother with the food I bring. Like I’m a lousy cook or something. Ha, ha.”
I wondered if I was pouring it on too thick but she shrugged. “I don’t know. I think they’re sort of freaky. Like that movie, The Birds.”
“Alfred Hitchcock!” I could barely maintain my composure: I mean, who doesn’t like Alfred Hitchcock? “Such a great movie!”
At this point, the man stood up from the steps and stepped closer. “You mean you feed those birds?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, my kids and I are trying an experiment to see how to make friends with crows.” Up close, I noticed how dry his skin was. He didn’t smile but his eyes were bright and pointed right at me. “To tell you the truth, so far, we haven’t had much luck. It turns out, crows are not crazy about people, especially strangers. ”
He nodded and motioned to the gutter in front of his house, where a small pool of water had formed along the curb. “They drink there sometimes.”
“Oh wow! That is really interesting because I just read the other day that city birds often have trouble finding a good, dependable source of clean water. That water looks pretty clean.” We all went over to the curb to inspect the leaf-strewn, mossy puddle. “So there’s always water here or do you put it out for them?”
“No. It just comes up from the drain. But sometimes I clean up the trash, sweep up a bit.”
Sensing our attention to its source of water, the crow cawed louder, scolding us.
“See?” I said. “She doesn’t trust us at all.”
“What do you feed them?” He wanted to know.
“Leftovers. Peanuts, hard-boiled eggs, sausage. They’ll eat anything, but they really like meat. At least that’s what the books tell me. I came over here hoping to find out what your secret recipe was.” I wanted to quit while I was ahead, so I took a couple steps back toward my car. “So I guess I’ll be on the lookout for your sister, then. Thanks so much for talking with me! Sorry to bother you!” And I went on my way.
Does this ending feel anticlimactic? Were you expecting something dramatic, something more Alfred-Hitchcocky? Was I? I don’t know.
A week later I was watering the plants when the skinny guy walked by with a little white dog on a leash. He didn’t stop but we gave each other a nod.