The Birdman of Noe Valley

Scarlet Tanager.

I was walking to 24th Street to catch the J-Church to downtown San Francisco when I saw a man on his knees in front of a two-story home. He was crying. He wore a silk shirt with khakis, polished black shoes and he had several rings on his fingers. He didn’t look homeless.

As I neared the man he turned towards me and thrust his hands forward. He was holding a dead sparrow.

“Are you okay, sir?”

“It’s so cruel,” he answered.

He pointed to a 1960s convertible Skylark parked in the driveway. Next to the driver side door were several dead birds. “He electrocuted the car,” the man sobbed. He pointed to a car battery on cinder blocks. Attached to the battery was a cable clipped to the steel chassis of the car above the front left tire.

“Why would someone do that,” I asked.

“People were stealing his stereo. He wanted to scare them away. But he killed them.”

“You know this guy?”

“He’s my landlord.”

This is how I met my neighbor Mike Hunter. We began encountering each other at the local coffee house. We chatted about politics, the Warriors and the books we were reading. Mike was a freelance accountant who worked out of his apartment. He grew organic vegetables in his backyard and spiked his lattes with shots of chlorophyll. He claimed it “cleaned the blood.”

Mike was a passionate birder. He showed me an album filled with bird photographs from around the country. There were waxwings and thrushes and jays and loons. They ranged in color from bright yellow to dark blue. Some were striped, others spotted. One had a long needle-like bill. Another had a ruffled Mohawk. While Mike flipped through his photos, his energy increased and his posture straightened. He became a passionate evangelist spreading the word about the “angels of the sky soaring all around us.”

“How many birds did you notice today while you were walking for coffee,” he asked.

“None, I’m sorry to say.”

“Shame on you.”

Several months later I found myself in the Mendocino forest with Mike. He was searching for the elusive Scarlet Tanager, a red Cardinal-like bird found mainly on the East Coast. The Tanager had been spotted in Northern California and Mike was eager to see one up close. I had no interest in bird watching but my girlfriend was out of town and I’d been in a funk. When Mike asked me to join him I thought a trip to the woods might lift my spirits.

I learned that bird watching was actually tree watching. Mike would hear a shrill whistle or complex warble and he’d whip out his binoculars. He’d stare into the branches of a tall redwood looking for some movement or color variation. His patience seemed endless. I quickly grew bored. He admonished me to remain quiet and still but all I could think about was food. “Eat some seeds,” Mike said. “That’s what birds eat. Seeds are perfect protein.”

After a few hours, Mike finally tired. We’d seen several woodpeckers, blue jays and something called a Clark’s Grebe. But no Tanager. We hiked back to Mike’s van. He began spitting at trees and softly muttering to himself.

“You okay, Mike?”

“The Tanager is a harbinger of good luck. I guess I’m cursed,” he said.

“Why do you say that?”

“It’s just the way it is.”

He sat on a fallen tree log. I sat beside him. He pulled out a steel flask and took a deep swig. I took a tiny sip and began coughing. He told me about his time in the Navy during Vietnam. He was an artillery loader, a guy who lifts 40-pound shells into cannon-like guns.

“We cruised the coast about a mile off shore. The spotter looked for circling birds overhead. That meant dead Vietcong. It also meant live Vietcong were nearby. The spotter gave coordinates and we fired ammo deep into the jungle. At the time I was shooting up heroin on a regular basis. I kept a syringe and a stash of dope inside my cot. If the stuff were discovered I’d be court martialed and thrown in jail. One morning, about an hour into my shift, a soldier taps me on the shoulder. ‘C.O. wants to see you,’ he tells me. I froze. I was certain they found my stash. I walked to the Commanding Officer’s cabin and took a seat in front of his desk. ‘Private Hunter, I have bad news,’ he says. I’m thinking to myself, 20-year prison sentence, ass-kickings, butt-reamings, mental and physical torture. Then the C.O. says, ‘We received word your father committed suicide. Jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Sorry to break the news to you, son. Tough luck.’ I never felt so relieved in my life. I thought for sure they found the stash. Not only was I off the hook, I could return to the States for the funeral. Best thing my pop ever did for me.”

Mike took a swig from the flask and started laughing. I was stunned, not sure what to say.

“You know why I like birds so much,” Mike asked. He unrolled his shirt sleeve and showed me a tattoo on his bicep of a hawk with spread wings. Beneath the image was the inscription Matthew 6:26.

“That’s from the Bible. It says birds don’t have to do shit except fly. God feeds ‘em, God protects ‘em, God gives ‘em a place to live. Sweet deal right?”

“I guess so.”

We sat in silence. I stared at a burn mark on the fallen tree. A wide array of cracks and fissures spread from a black scar the length of the trunk. It looked like the tree had been hit by lightning. Mike finished the flask and resumed walking. I followed. I visualized birds circling over dead Vietcong. I looked at the canopy above us. The sun was setting and it was starting to get cold. I was ready to be back in the city.

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