By Susie Christian
Contrary to what I was used to, this early December in Los Angeles had to be the absolute coldest I could ever remember. I huddled in a ball to conserve my body heat and laid motionless a bit longer in my sleeping bag. My head was pulled under the flannel-lined flap to keep my face and ears from freezing. Opening one eye I saw it was still inky black outside the windows and obviously not time to get up yet. I was lying there thinking. Thinking can be a dangerous thing when you are homeless.
Where had I come from and how did I get here? I came from one of those average Ozzie and Harriet families and had a quite normal upbringing. My mother and father supplied me with everything a girl could want. Church was a part of my life six days a week as well as private schooling. We lived in the central San Joaquin Valley in a very small, tightly knit farming town. Everybody knew everybody and cared. I did my share of working in the crops and driving tractor, pitching in to help during the harvest. Because we lived on twenty acres, I had many pets. Some were invited and others were just stray dogs and cats that were dumped beside the road by folks who no longer wanted them. I spent many long and happy carefree hours exploring the fields, canal banks and adjacent river with my entourage of four legged friends. A lovely simple life.
But where did this normal life get different? First clue was what I picked as a hopeful profession, printed under my senior picture in the yearbook. "Commercial Artist" was under my name, big as life! I looked down my nose at the girls who put "Housewife" under their photos. What a dull future that sounded like to me. During my senior year I sent away for the handbook describing the curriculum and teachers from Art Center College. I carried it with me in my yellow Pee-Chee folder the rest of the school year, as if it was sacred, fondling it and thumbing through the pages until they were worn from the constant caress of my fingers. This was the college I passionately wanted to attend. I also knew the tuition was astronomical and my chances were extremely slim. But I could dream.
Life took a totally unexpected turn and after graduating I married my high school sweetheart. We were happy for several years but when I expressed the desire to return to the local college he decided differently. However creativity was in my blood and I wasn't content to stay home and paint still lifes. A still life is what I felt I really had.
During this time I made friends with several local artists who were moving to Los Angeles to attend a well-known print making school. Los Angeles! I wanted to go too. I knew I was a good artist. On the sly, I mailed a portfolio of my drawings and paintings to Art Center. I was shocked and thrilled two weeks later when they sent me a letter of acceptance. I had heard from others it sometimes took many tries to even get accepted into this school. Now what to do?
My friends had already moved to Los Angeles and kept in touch with me. They mentioned there was a large studio apartment next door to them for $55.00 a month rent. I made the decision to leave my husband and the relative safety of my home town, to start a big scary new adventure. During the two years of my marriage I had done baby sitting and sold many of my paintings so I had some money saved up. My aunt said she would help me out with tuition and I knew I could apply for student loans too.
I packed up just the necessities that would fit into my 1964 Volkswagen van and headed for the big city. We looked like the Beverly Hillbillies as we entered Hollywood. My poor overloaded blue van struggling down Hollywood Boulevard piled high with clothes, art supplies and my lone yellow canary, Petey.
The apartment 'reserved' for me was shabby and smelled funny, kind of a stale nasty odor that gagged me. But then most of LA smelled that way I found out later. The apartment house was located in a neighborhood full of decaying derelict cars and people to match. This was just the first of many surprises for this small town girl. It was the late 60's, there were hippies everywhere and the sounds of the Rolling Stones and the Moody Blues could be heard blasting from the open windows across the way. I could peek out my apartment door and see questionable looking men in fancy colored shiny suits that drove up in big Cadillacs, being chased down the halls by the police. Drug deals were constantly being made on the street under my window. I was frightened most of the time but I was also focused on my schooling.
After the second semester my finances were beginning to run dangerously low and I moved to another apartment building to save money. This very tiny dingy studio apartment was only $40.00 a month. It was grayer and smellier than the last. At night when I turned the lights out I could hear the cockroaches scraping along the walls and ceiling. If I turned the lights on again, the huge black creatures would scurry into the baseboards and cracks in the ceiling. It didn't matter to me and I felt I could put up with anything to stay in art school.
Why I had the finest teachers in the country here. Two of my design teachers had done the art-work and animation of Disney's "Fantasia". My fashion teacher was an internationally known artist and his drawings could be seen in all the fashion magazines. My life-drawing teacher had published two books of his work. Another teacher had many paintings in the LA Art Museum and museums all over the US. I was learning so much. I felt like a giant sponge, soaking it all up to the last drop.
The passing of three more semesters more saw me out of money completely but with the aid of my aunt and a small student loan I had just enough to cover one more semester's tuition. Only thing was I didn't have the money for rent. But I had a Volkswagen van that everything I owned would fit in. Even Petey, the canary.
I noticed there was a large clump of bushes in the most remote part of the school parking lot where no one ever parked. If I pulled in just so, I could be all but invisible to most people. I had moved into my van in the fall and the custodians kept a watch on me while pretending they didn't see me. It seemed relatively safe parked here. There was no sacrifice I wouldn't make to stay in art school. I cheerfully went without many creature comforts during the first homeless autumn months but the unexpected bone chilling cold of this December was starting to wear on me. Petey and I were having trouble staying even luke-warm and we shook and froze every night.
As I lay there in my VW, which felt more like an ice-box, my thoughts drifted back to my childhood and the image of our magnificent roaring fireplace with my dad feeding huge split-oak logs to the hungry licking orange flames. I remembered how delicious the steaming toasted brown marshmallows were as he took them off the bent coat hangers and handed them to me. This special treat would melt all warm and gooey in my mouth. Thoughts like this seemed to warm my heart and body temporarily.
Very briefly I had dozed off for what I thought was a few minutes but it had to have been longer. Petey was jumping back and forth from perch to perch under his cage cover and chirping. The first weak light of the winter dawn was coming in through the psychedelic paisley patterned curtained windows. I was still hesitant to move from the warmth of my sleeping bag but I could hear a faint strange noise toward the front of the van. My first thought was that it could be a potential robber and I felt a shock of fear run through me. But it seemed to be a scratch scratching on my front windshield. Then I heard a chewing sound. Maybe it was a friend who knew I was camping out here and trying to get my attention. I quietly made my way to the front of the van and tried to see through the iced up windshield.
What I saw was unbelievable. There were several places in the ice I could see through and as I put my eye to the biggest hole, I saw a brilliant orange flash of color and what seemed to be the eye of a bird peering back at me. Oblivious to how much colder it was going to be once I was outside, I opened the door gingerly and peered around the front of the van to see what could be there. Sitting on my spare tire cover was a green parrot looking calmly back at me. I figured it would fly away when it saw me but no, it kept its position on its icy perch. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I went toward it and slowly extended my hand. I reasoned I could get bitten but I felt no fear for some reason. The large iridescent green bird with the incredible Day-glow orange beak stepped right up onto my hand as if it was already familiar with me.
I moved very slowly back into the van with my new green friend, muttering a silent prayer it wouldn't take off and closed the door gently. At least it couldn't fly away if I had it inside with me. I still wasn't sure if I was going to draw back a bloody finger full of lacerations or not. Placing it carefully on the seat back, I took a good look at it and the mysterious green parrot also seemed to be sizing me up as well. Because I loved any sort of animal, particularly the lost and strays of the world, we established immediate eye contact and in that split second we knew we would be friends.
"But what are you, where did you come from and how did you get here?" I asked of the new guest out loud. It seemed to want to reply with a low melodic sound from deep within its throat. I knew it was a parrot for starters. For some reason it seemed immediately important for it to have a name and from this artist's point of view Verde seemed to fit. I saw that word daily on all my green paint tubes.
"You must be hungry," was my next assumption, as I fumbled around to find my loaf of bread to share a crust with the creature. There was also Petey's bird-seed and a small bag of red apples I had bought yesterday. Verde-parrot was ravenous and hungrily ate everything I offered it. Petey canary hadn't settled down since he 'discovered' the visitor for me earlier. It looked like he was thrilled to have the new buddy on board.
My first class was at nine o'clock that morning and I really hesitated leaving Verde alone in my van without a cage. I wasn't too sure he wouldn't hurt little Petey or worse, gobble him up. Verde was so much bigger than the diminutive canary. Because the new bird seemed to have settled in happily using the passenger's side seat back as his perch, I put blankets and towels over the front seats in the van. Placing a dish full of food and a bowl of water on the seat I went to my class praying he wouldn't tear my 'home' up.
Curious just what type of parrot had flown into my world, I went to the school library during my morning break and had a devil of a time finding just what he was. After studying many books on birds I finally pulled an old yellowing volume from the shelf and on page 249 there was a description of a "Noble Parrot", originating from the area of New Guinea and the surrounding islands. There were no color pictures to double check but the engraving looked pretty close to my guest's appearance and the description sounded like a match. I felt confident it must be a male Eclectus parrot. I'd never seen any parrot much larger than a budgie and I remembered my cousin had a cockatiel back home. I thought of that cockatiel as a giant compared to the smaller pet birds I was familiar with. Verde I thought, at least I gave him a masculine name.
During my lunch hour I raced out to the van to make sure he was all right. He hadn't moved from his perch on the seat. As I caught a glimpse of him through the window I saw how he incredibly beautiful he was with the mid day sun hitting his feathers. He glowed! I carefully opened the sliding door and crawled in behind him. As I sat down he cocked his head, looked at me with one brilliant golden eye and said "Hello" in a clear deep voice. I about fell over. I'd never heard a bird talk before. Petey sang well, budgies and the cockatiel chattered but I could never make heads or tails out of their gibberish. This amazing parrot said hello to me. Unbelievable!
The afternoon's class seemed to drag on forever and I had some homework due the next day, which I stayed late to finish. It was almost dark when I returned to my home and my two friends. There he was sitting in the same place except there was evidence he had been down to the seat, eaten most of the food and it looked like he also drank some water. But he was a perfect gentleman and the rest of my 'home' was intact and untouched.
I managed to beg some vegetable trimmings from the cafeteria and also scored an over ripe pear, an orange and a banana from a still life set up in an adjacent class-room. He watched me intently as I cut up the fruit and vegetables and refilled his bowl. When I was done I moved away to observe him once again. We did have the benefit of a dimly distant parking lot light, which burned all night long. The big green bird went right down and ate like he was starved. Sitting there watching him eat I seemed to forget the advancing chill of the evening. When he was stuffed full he wiped his brilliant orange beak and climbed back up the seat to the top, relaxed and fluffed up his feathers. I was thrilled to see him looking so content.
Verde lowered his eyelids and started mumbling to himself under his breath. I listened hard, trying to pick up a random word I thought I was hearing here and there. I imagined I could hear him saying, "How are you," with maybe a "Hi" and a "Hello" every so often.
He kept up his chatter for the better part of a half an hour. With his head tucked under his wing it looked to me like he was talking into his feathers. But he suddenly pulled his beak out from behind his wing, extended his neck toward me and said in a very plain voice, "I love you." My eyes welled up with tears and for the first time the realization hit me that he was someone's much loved pet. I also knew I needed to figure out a way to find his owner.
People usually posted notices of lost cats and dogs on telephone poles. I had been primarily on foot the last three months and would have remembered a notice for a lost bird. Maybe I could check the school bulletin board and I knew the neighborhood laundromat had a place for notices too. I'd look tomorrow.
Worn out from a long school day and the excitement of my new friend, I crawled into my sleeping bag and fell fast asleep. At some point during the night I had the sensation of my hair and face being lightly touched and briefly opened my eyes. There he was in the dim light. He had found his way to the back of the van where I slept and was preening my hair and nibbling gently on the sleeping bag zipper. I was too sleepy to be afraid of him and dozed off again right away after watching him a few minutes. In the morning when I awoke there he was, huddled right up against the hollow of my neck and face. During that night I never even noticed the cold. It seemed the warmth of his body or maybe just his presence made the old van-home seem toasty warm.
I knew I should start looking for Verde's owner but my mind found any excuse not to. This incredible bird was rapidly becoming the focal point of my days and my life. By the next day we established he wasn't going to bite me and he would step up on my hand and walk up to my shoulder when invited. During breaks I found myself running to the van to take him a morsel of food someone had left behind in the cafeteria or just go talk to him and watch him for a few minutes. I had not let anyone know I had found him. The biggest part of me wanted to keep him forever.
I found some discarded tinsel and ornaments that had seen better days on one of my walks around the affluent neighborhood where I lived. The Hancock Park district of Los Angeles surrounded my school. This was a very old, wealthy neighborhood with magnificent homes, some of which had carriage houses in the back with servant's quarters above them. Certainly a great place for poor folks to raid garbage cans on the morning of garbage pick up.
To make our home seem a bit festive for the upcoming holiday I hung the tinsel and faded ornaments on the van's psychedelic curtains, we listened to Christmas music on my transistor radio and I bought a cheap fruit-cake with my shrinking cash reserve. Verde delightedly picked the nuts from his share of the treat. There was tinsel and decorations on the light standards and every store-front forecast the arrival of Christmas. We too had our own holiday atmosphere.
Almost three weeks had passed and it was getting nearer to Christmas. School let out for the holiday break. I was thrilled because I was able to spend more time with my little canary and Verde. By now Verde and I were inseparable, he slept right near me every night and wasn't far from my side during the day. The thought of looking for his owner had faded from my memory and his presence kept my spirits going during this cold and otherwise emotionally bleak season. I couldn't imagine life without his lovely green closeness.
It was Christmas Eve and I was cleaning things up a bit in our home. Living with two birds in a small space required me to be very tidy. As I was changing the newspaper under where Verde sat I happened to notice it was opened to the classified section. There was a fleeting thought to look in the lost and found column. I didn't want to look but I did anyhow. I had found the stack of paper in my painting class and noticed the date as being a few weeks old. Of course my eye went right to the entry in the column. It said, "*Lost* Large green parrot. Answers to the name Velvet. Hancock Park area." It had a phone number as well.
Immediately what seemed like a big dark wet cloud of gloom settled down around me. Tears came to my eyes. I put my hand out to Verde and he stepped up as always. Cuddling him to my breast I stroked him gently and as each tear dropped onto his feathers they turned a light brown color wherever each tear landed. He seemed to know what sorrow I was feeling and remained there huddled against me for the better part of an hour.
Somehow I had even given him a name that sounded like Velvet. Verde wasn't far off and he responded to it as soon as I began calling him that.
There was no way I could part with this remarkable bird. I just would pretend to myself I had never seen this ad in the newspaper and make sure no one ever found out I had him. That is what I would do.
Christmas Eve was a bitter-sweet evening for me. I felt so fortunate to have wonderful Verde and Petey there to keep me company but my conscience kept bothering me with thoughts of, "It's not right", and "It's not the honest thing to do." My mind was swimming with conflicting thoughts and it took many hours to get to sleep that night.
The morning of Christmas I woke up with the clarity of what I had to do. I reasoned if it were my bird and it was lost, how would I feel if someone found it, read the lost and found and didn't return it? This was a hard decision to make indeed but my conscience felt better because I needed to be honest.
Putting it off as long as I could, I waited until late morning, walked down to the corner with newspaper in hand, deposited my dime and dialed the number. After I dialed the last digit I had the urge to hang up the receiver and was a split second from doing so when a voice answered after the first ring. I had to talk now. It was a pleasant low masculine voice with a hint of a British accent.
"I think I may have found your lost parrot," I managed to blurt out, wanting to take the words back as soon as they were out of my mouth.
Then he questioned, "Can you describe the bird?" and "Where did you find it?"
With much hesitation in my voice I told him the circumstances and gave him a description. The minute I saw the notice in the paper I knew it was the bird that was advertised for anyhow.
He confirmed it was indeed his lost and much missed parrot and wanted to pick it up from me. I thought quick and offered to bring it to him. There was no way I could let anyone see that I lived in a van, particularly a gentleman with such a lovely polite voice on the telephone.
Dragging my feet all the way back to the van I was feeling very sad and down. What would I do without my green bird-love who had brought me such happiness and was really my very best friend. I could still change my mind. He didn't know where I lived after all. No, that thinking just wouldn't work.
Knowing I had to do this fast so I wouldn't have time to change my mind, I asked Verde to step up and I put him securely under my coat so he wouldn't fly away again. The address given to me was only a few blocks away. Walking briskly to keep the momentum of my decision going, I cuddled Verde to me one last time and told him how much I loved him and thanked him for flying into my life at such an otherwise bleak and desperate time. I peeked down at him nestled in my coat and I'd swear he also had a tear in his eye, although that magnificent orange beak retained its sad-sweet smile.
We were all too soon standing in front of the correct address. The house was enormous! One of those built around the turn of the century with three stories, turrets, many sections and gingerbread everywhere. It looked like pixies and elves could have lived here. There was a massive Della Robbia wreath hanging on the garage door and thick garlands of greenery draped over the huge front door.
Taking a deep breath I rung the door-bell and waited. The ornate, carved door was opened in seconds by a tall slender gentleman, perhaps in his late twenties. I noticed he was very handsome with perfect skin, chiseled features and an incredible mane of thick dark hair.
Intimidated by the house, the man, the whole thing I blurted out, "I have your bird for you all safe and sound."
My first thought was to hand him Verde and run the other way as fast as I could. But he was very warm and composed and delighted to see the top of Verde's head poking out from my jacket.
"Step inside please," He beckoned with a gesture of his arm.
Obeying his command, I was awe struck by the beauty of the interior of his house.
"My name is Ralph. What did you say yours was?" he asked me.
"Jane," I whispered, taken so aback by it all.
He beckoned me to follow him into the room where he kept the birds. It was a huge airy room with very high ceilings and plants of all kinds everywhere I looked. I was still clutching Verde tightly under my coat, pretty obvious I didn't want to let go of him.
Ralph led the way to a huge wrought iron cage that contained a single red parrot. He said, "This is Velvet's mate, Crimson."
From the description in the old book I knew the female of the Eclectus parrot was red. My breath caught as I looked at her. She was equally as stunning as the male, but mostly red with a brilliant blue on her wings and her cadmium yellow tail.... no words for this artist to describe her properly!
I moved closer to the cage and loosened my grip some on my green friend to let him peek out at her. He immediately saw her and struggled to free himself from my confining grip. Clutching the side of the cage, he climbed over as close as he could get to her and they touched beaks through the bars. At that moment I knew I had done the right thing even thought it was the supreme sacrifice of my life.
Knowing I had to leave quickly I bowed my head to hide the emotion I was feeling and turned to go. Ralph then asked me if I hadn't noticed there was a reward for Velvet's return. With a surge of silly pride I hastily told him, "I really can't take a reward."
He caught me as I headed for the door and asked, "Can I drive you home? I saw that you walked here."
What could I say to him? I couldn't let him know I was living in my car!
"No thank you. I'll just walk home," I replied to him as I made my way quickly down the walk.
He followed me, catching up to me with a few long strides and took me gently by the arm. My head still ducked, I just thought I was hiding all those feelings of sadness and desperation so well. He could see right through me. Lonely, poor, confused and giving up this God-sent green angel was the very last straw.
Ralph spoke to me very softly, "Please come in and have some tea with me and let's talk."
He put his arm around me and as we walked up the front steps the comfort I felt almost melted me. It had been so long since I had let any human be that close to me.
We had tea and sat in the bird room to watch Velvet and Crimson with their happy Christmas reunion. Ralph told me how he let them run loose in the house most of the time. The housekeeper had left the window ajar and Velvet flew away the day after Thanksgiving.
That Christmas afternoon seemed to pass so fast. We talked about out lives and the directions we were headed. Ralph was a screen-writer and had inherited this house from his grandmother. I told him of my passion to finish art school and finally admitted my homeless plight.....
Ralph and I will be celebrating our thirtieth wedding anniversary this coming Valentine's Day. We have two children we are very proud of and a grandchild on the way. Gracefully aging, Crimson and Velvet are still the biggest part of my life today, happily sitting side by side in their sun-lit bird room, surrounded by love and greenery. It is only because of them.....
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