The photo is from 1978. My son, his truck. Behind him, my truck.

Monday, March 28, 2011


Friday, March 28, 1986

The voice in the phone says: "We have woodpeckers."

"Uh, excuse me?"

"Woodpeckers are making holes in the side of our house."

Her name is Pepper. She lives in Portola Valley Ranch, which is not a ranch but a highly regulated subdivision where you have to submit plans to the homeowners association before you can paint your mailbox. Or kill a woodpecker.

Pepper greets me at the front door. She is petite, pretty. No eye contact. She leads me through the house taking unusually short steps. 

Standing on the rear deck, I see that the woodpecker holes are in an awkward spot that will be difficult to reach, even with a ladder. I’ll have to build a scaffold. As I explain the job, I notice that Pepper’s eyes are wandering in two different directions.

Aha. Of course. She’s blind.

Pepper explains that the male woodpecker makes holes in the cedar-shingle siding, hoping to attract a female. To discourage him, I must hang cut-up pieces of garden hose. The hose pieces look like snakes, supposedly. Snakes eat eggs. The female won’t be attracted. The male will move on.

This is the upper middle–class solution to woodpeckers. The blue-collar solution would be to blast the little beasts with a shotgun. Which, most likely, would not be approved by the homeowners association. 

“Do they look like snakes to you?” Pepper asks.

“Not exactly,” I say. “But I’m not a woodpecker.”

“The birds. Are they pretty?”

“Very handsome,” I say. The topknot is an exuberant red; the body, a busy black and white. They seem brilliant and hardworking, both.

Pepper is a lovely woman wearing a wedding ring. Delicate freckles. She could only learn your face through her sensitive fingertips. Her lipstick is slightly awry. Don’t even think about it.

This house, this protected neighborhood, is a safe place to be blind.

Balancing on my scaffold of ladder, plywood, and 2×4s, I replace shingles in the siding and install rubber hose “snakes” on the roof and discover more holes up there, some with acorns stuffed inside. I jam metal flashing under the shingles, a little surprise for the next jabbing beak.

Scarlet-headed birds are calling, swooping, clinging to oaks. They tap-tap-tap on the house next door where a cleaning woman is playing loud rock and roll. Carpenters up the street are shouting, cursing, joking—and also playing loud rock and roll.

It’s hot on the roof, but the view is nice: native grass and scattered trees, a well-ordered rustic tidiness. I’m shirtless, in raggedy shorts that catch on a nail and rip across the butt. Doesn’t matter; she can’t see.

A patrol car, private security, stops on the street. A man peers at me through mirrored sunglasses. I wave from the roof. He stares a moment longer, then drives on.

I write Pepper a bill that she can’t read. She says her husband will mail a check. I exceeded my estimate, but fortunately the extra roof work gives me cover.

“Thanks so much,” Pepper says. “I’ll see you to the door. Oh. Wait.” She smiles.

I like this woman, her sense of humor, her ease with herself.

As I drive away, the security car follows until I reach the main road.

People—very nice people—live here to get away from peckers like us: The cleaning woman, the carpenters, our raucous rock and roll, our mating dances. We intrude with our bright feathers and do the work that needs to be done. Then, not by shotguns but by mirror shades, rubber snakes, we get the message: We must leave.

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