Mayday, or Not
That’s a Killdeer in distress, a plaintive note of discord on a lovely August evening. The setting is a Little Free Library, generously stocked with donations by a “retired” superstar librarian. (She is so well loved that there is an Action Figure with her name, so that little girls can have a superhero doll who fights for library budgets.) The library is set across from the Catholic church right at a sidewalk cafe, with chalkboard art full of appealing specials of the day and little tables with bowls of water set out for dogs. Some nights the cafe walls even open out for a live ensemble playing smooth jazz. At sunset the baked goods are half price, so during their strolls in the cool of the evening, people stop in for little bags of bagels and crumpetry to take home.
But back to that Killdeer. In danger. She’s not kidding.
I stop browsing library books and snap to attention, looking around. (I’m fond of Killdeers. They’re so cute with their pretty markings, on their teetery legs. It’s sweet to wake up at night as they fly over with their timid pure notes lilting down through the darkness.) Now, it’s natural for a Killdeer mom to cry all kinds of woe while dragging a wing along the ground, and as interlopers chase after and get ready to pounce she’ll rocket into the air and head back to the ground nest that she just tricked us away from. Still, some critter must be really bothering her. So I go running up the street to intervene, tracking down the sound just as the poor thing seems to choke and fall silent. This time, she lost the game and her little ones are doomed.
The sound led me to a traffic circle planted with orange lilies. All along this pleasant street of tall trees, little wooden family houses and gardens on one side were bulldozed out to make room for new multi-story luxury townhouses, all professionally landscaped with boxed bushes and mulch.
The street is dead stillness for the next three minutes. Then, right around the corner, it’s a Flicker crying out for help help help help HELP Arrrrrgh! and then strangling to death. I dash around the corner to the alley, but too late. It’s over. Not a bird call anywhere.
Now it’s a Stellar Jay up in the trees, for a minute of outrage and panic coughing into quiet. Three minutes later the mysterious super-predator is taking out a Robin, to an S.O.S.! S.O.S! retching into silence again. Three minutes after that, it’s a Goldfinch. I’m circling hither and yon, craning my neck, checking the rooftops and trees and phone wires, following one distress call after another.
Finally, after enough scampering and gaping, reality dawns on Bumpkin. The bird calls are recordings. They come from those luxury townhouses, from black transmitters placed among the rooftop corners. They’re on a timer, so that different types of birds cry out from different locations all along the block. (Now it’s one thing to play distress recordings of, say, seagulls or geese at an airport. That’s a safety measure to clear the way for the planes. But even a phone app of random birdcalls during a nature walk drives the local birds nuts. How can the neighbors possibly stand the sound of animals being throttled? Do they even notice?) Somebody paid tip-top dollar to live in these new dwellings. Apparently the structures will stay in pristine shape so long as they are kept safe from the pesky little toes and nests of those darn fluffy colorful songbirds. I’ve always enjoyed walking down this street. It must be time to pick a different way to go. Judging by the eerie silence, the birds already have.
The medical bill came in for that night in the ER in May. The exams, observation, blood tests, and the ultrasound came to about $5,000. (Separate charges are still drifting in for lab fees and more.) To my extreme good fortune, insurance paid for 90%, and I paid the $500 and thanked my luckiest stars. But the bill showed that $700 was doses of anesthesia, administered throughout the night. What? No one gave me opioids or other painkillers that night; I wasn’t in pain. I called the insurance company. While sitting on hold with merry Muzak playing along, I breathed deeply and pictured my blood pressure lowering by about 20 points. Then an extraordinarily calm dulcet voice came on the line. I greeted her and pointed out the issue with the bill. The operator explained that on that night, all provider consultation minutes were described as ANESTHESIA by the software. “The charges are all correct; the medical codes are correct in the permanent record, but the description for all was “Anesthesia” on the printout mailed to you.” How about that. “That’s very good to know! I was worried that someone else had accessed my account,” I told her. “Yes, that is an understandable concern. That is what every caller today has been wondering.” We ended up having a good laugh about it. “This medical insurance call has been more fun than I expected,” I told her. “In fact, this is hilarious. Would you kindly connect me to your supervisor? I’d like to report that you’ve been very helpful today.” The supervisor and I had a nice talk. “At a time when people’s lives are falling apart, that upset is going to carry over to their medical insurance phone calls. You must hear plenty of that. You’re helping to hold the whole system together out there. Thank you for your presence and help.” We had a nice talk before signing off.
National Night Out
Today, the first Tuesday in August, is National Night Out. That used to be when neighbors on the different streets registered their blocks for outdoor gatherings. They put their street on a precinct map, got special permits and barricades, closed off the road to traffic, set out tables, and had food and music and friendly milling around. Then from the local precinct the police would stop by and introduce themselves.
Several years ago I downloaded and printed out the city notices in the Mandarin version, and knocked on the doors of all our neighbors from the People’s Republic of China. I was taking a Mandarin class that year, and even got our teacher to come to the event with her family. (At first the Night Out concept of having fun with police didn’t make a lot of sense to them. Finally I just explained that it’s the American Moon Festival, and that answer made them happy.) To prepare, I studied hard to learn useful Chinese phrases, like “Come over! We’ll have snacks!” and “Does your child have food allergies?” and learned how to sing a beautiful Chinese TV show theme song for their entertainment. I scrubbed the picnic table and bought treats, and the Chinese families brought food, and they all started talking and exchanged Weibo and social media coordinates so they could all keep in touch, and then like magic a real moon rose. That was a wonderful evening.
But life changed a lot. The pandemic happened, and people weren’t gathering, not even outdoors. They lost the habit of in-person communication. (Many still mask up outdoors, and cross the street away from one another to keep up that social distance.) The Chinese students and faculty went home and stayed there. The Chinese language program was discontinued; I loved our class, and was sad to see our teacher leave. The police were defunded; some were discouraged and quit. The others are far too stressed by rising crime to walk around and chat with folks on the beat. This year I was too late to register our block, but I went out in search of other parties to thank and encourage people. There was only one little party, a few blocks away. I stopped by, but people were too hunkered in with their own spouses and kids to talk to anyone new. So I just circled slowly around the event looking for a way to strike up a conversation, and then slowly drifted away again.
But just then, several houses down, a tiny little girl in a tiny little sundress and sandals burst out of a house and came sprinting down the sidewalk. Being a total stranger, I didn’t want to frighten anyone so small; so I stepped aside out of her way. “I’M GOING TO THAT PARTY!” she cried, beaming up at me. “Yay!” I cried back, giving her a round of applause. “It’s a GREAT party. You are gonna love it! Good for you!” A busy looking mom ran outside, maneuvering a casserole and house keys. “That was one fast-moving enthusiastic party-goer,” I told her. The mom laughed, heading up the street in hot pursuit.
Not Just The Sorrow
One of our local entrepreneurs called and waved from across the street. Clearly he had exciting news. What’s up? “My SON,” he cried. “Arrived to America last night.” Our businessman arrived in the States years ago. He started with a job sorting garbage on a fast-moving outdoor factory chute in all weather, then signed on for dangerous winter work on a fishing vessel, then began cleaning office buildings while also working nights at a gas station and also fixing used cars for resale. He’s done the work of three men in one for years, sending every spare dollar home to support his relatives. Ten years ago he applied for visas for his son and daughter. (He brought his daughter here five years ago. On her way from the airport, she had him drive her to our community college, to enroll in nursing school prerequisites.) Two years ago, on the very day of his son’s interview with the American Embassy overseas, pandemic lockdown began all over the country. The Embassy closed its doors. Since then, news of natural disasters and drought and famine and civil war have burdened the heart of this kind father in America, who just kept soldiering on. But last night, Father and Son met at the airport. They posed as someone in the crowd took their picture. They looked radiant, arm in arm. (At a time when generations can easily feel misunderstood and disillusioned with one another, it must be amazing for two young adults to know that their Old Man crossed the world alone without a word of English, and wielded all his physical strength and character and wits to make this whole dramatic epic come true.) My eyes misted over at sight of the flowers that Dad brought to the airport for his son. It was so like him, to think of that little bouquet. He and I stood shoulder to shoulder marveling at that picture, and gave each other a big hug. “Over years,” he explained. “Many times I tell you about sorrows in my country. Today, I come to tell you my joy.”