Sunday, February 22, 2009


I was walking through The City a few days ago. I came into Chinatown. A couple of Chinese grocers were loading some fish from cardboard boxes into plastic containers. There must have been about 30 fish stacked up there. Fish are Fools! They have no idea they are going to be at any moment mere decoration in a Chinatown storefront, with their blue eyes staring at passing Chinese ladies with plastic shopping bags.

Anyway, two Chinese guys were slapping them from cardboard box to plastic box, cardboard box to plastic box, and so on. One of the guys had a cigarette hanging from his mouth. A fish, who had somehow managed to survive the journey from the ocean to the store, wriggled out of the man’s hand and slapped himself down to the pavement. There he was: gaFlop gaFlop gaFlop.

The merchant picked up the fish and threw him like a slimy washcloth into the plastic bin with the other fish.

The question struck me suddenly: “Where did that fish think he was going? Did he think he was going to catch a cable car back to the beach or something?”

I felt a weak spot in my heart. To die as a fish in Chinatown has to be miserable. That fish isn’t going to end up on a $40 plate at some elite restaurant with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge with little parsley twigs surrounding him. No. His head is going to end up in a pot boiling away with green, leafy Chinese vegetables in a crowded apartment somewhere.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Today, I decided to go visit Charlie’s little grave. I was just looking for an excuse to go for a walk to San Francisco's Lafayette Park, and I thought it would be a good idea to make sure his grave was intact. I wanted to make sure no squirrel had gotten him.

I decided to stroll along the tree-lined path, listening to the radio. Suddenly, I felt some scratching on my head, as if I had run into a tree branch. “What in the world did I run into? I am not walking under a tree branch.”

I spun around and looked for the offending branch. But all I saw was a bird flying up to settle himself on a limb about a foot or two away from me. It was that bird! He landed on my head by accident! He thought my tangled, dark hair was a nest? Is he hurt?

I looked at him sitting contentedly in the foliage. Didn’t look hurt in the slightest. Just a wrong turn of some sort, I guess.

So I walked over to Charlie the Hamster’s grave. It hadn’t been disturbed. He was a nice hamster, a crafty hamster. I never had a cage he didn’t escape, and, once out, he always walked over to where I was. At the stove cooking, in the front room reading, still under my covers sleeping. He wanted fame and food for feats.

So, here I stood. Charlie was dead. I lingered for a minute, peacefully examining the earth into which his little body was set. He’ll always be home; the only cage one can’t escape, I thought.

I turned around and started to walk back the way I came, passing through the line of trees. I felt another scratching on my scalp. I looked up just fast enough to see the same bird lifting off! I saw his telltale, pipe-cleaning legs trailing behind his butt – like the wheels on the backside of a departing plane.

He was again sitting on a twig a few feet above me, quite calm. I stood there looking at him. My mouth was open with shock like a live clam who’d just been thrown to the scalding-hot, boiling pot of life.

“Why are you DOING this to me?” I said, my hand checking for bird poop in my hair. There was none. He did not peck me, so there was no blood.

The bird, perhaps a Brown headed Cowbird, found his same seat on the branch and continued sitting. I know some birds around here lay eggs in the nests of other species. I wondered if he thought my hair was a comfy-looking bed.

I turned around and began to walk once more, turned once to look back at him, then finally continued home.

What was I going to do about it, anyway? Call the San Francisco Police Department?

I hoped that nobody saw me. It looked like I’d been talking to a tree. Nobody would see me from 15 feet off and figure I was talking to this Alfred Hitchcock-inspired bird.

The strangest thing about this May of 1998 story is it’s TRUE. This really happened. Who am I going to tell? Anyone who’s ever read my cat and dog stories is going to think this is just another of my elaborate lies. But it isn’t.

In fact, makes me wonder if this bird read one of them.

Later, I told my friend John. He believed me, but advised me not to tell too many other people, unless I knew them well. John had spent years roaming about Central America.

“Do you think the bird looked at my messy hair and took it for a nest?” I asked John.

John’s face turned serious at that instant. There was a vivid memory in the air above our heads, every bit as real as that bird at Lafayette Park.

“No. Even in the South American jungle, when a war is on, and fighters are dressed in tree camouflage to fool the enemy, the birds know the difference. The birds never land on soldiers dressed as trees,” he said. “They know.” -- end --

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Published satire, “The Pigeon,” by Lurene Helzer, San Francisco Chronicle, September 24, 2000. This comedic episode is spoof of metropolitan life, most of which floats by unnoticed in its absurdity every day. It is also, on a deeper though not immediately noticeable level, a satiric comment on the dot-com revolution as it was occurring in the San Francisco Bay area in late 2000. The paper initially mistook it for a completely accurate series of events, which it was not. For example, there was no drunk on the corner, and there was no “I wonder who does her teeth” comment.

The published form can be seen in two versions, however. The original version, unedited, that ran in that Sunday’s SF Chronicle, is the one here. A second version, edited significantly, remains today on the San Francisco Chronicle’s website (sfgate) if you search for it by using my last name then, which was Helzer.

The Pigeon

I was about to cross Sacramento at Franklin when I felt the revulsion in my nerves of seeing a car rip across a pigeon on the street. Feathers were floating above the street in an eddy. The bird is struggling – frantically hopping on one leg – to reach the other side of Sacramento. The shining paint of death is racing toward him.

“Oh, No!” I exclaimed. “I can’t just let another car get him! I can’t leave him to die that way!”

By this time, because it was the start of the San Francisco Bay Area rush hour, others in my neighborhood were standing around on the corner. “Please, can you help me? I need to get this bird out of the street at least!”

There was a couple there. They had looks of concern on their faces because I was in such a state. The man, with very smooth, young skin that looked well cared for, seemed like the sort I could bother about the issue.

“Sure! I’ll give it a try,” he said. His girlfriend watched in suspense. The man reached a few feet overt where a plastic shopping bag was skipping with the wind. He quickly grabbed it. I had my hand clenched to my heart. He snuck toward the bird, quickly wrapped the feathered body in the bag, and jumped up to the curb. He placed the shocked, bleeding bird in the shadow of the fire hydrant.

“Oh, thank you so much. I just couldn’t stand to see the poor little bird hit twice, even though he’s sure to die,” I said to the man. The bird lay by the hydrant, a tiny stream of extremely bright red pigeon blood rolling down the hill toward the Hard Rock Café.

Another young woman had joined the gathering crowd on the street. She was holding a plastic storage box and had dark, shiny hair pulled away from her face with a silver barrette. She was my neighbor.

“Look!” she said, pointing to the middle of the crosswalk with her free hand. “That one’s just standing there and he won’t move!”

I don’t know how best to describe the look of this second bird. I guess the thing that comes to my mind is from the movie, “Them.” In that movie, made I guess about 1953, the atomic bomb has somehow created a mutant strain of giant ants.

The movie opens with the aftermath of a giant ant attack. A few cops are driving in the dry and dusty New Mexico desert – they don’t know about the ants yet – and they find this little girl wandering amongst the cacti, completely unresponsive and blanked out. They take her back to the station and sit her in a big bamboo wheelchair. The camera moves in to show her vacant eyes on stark black and white film.

(I have to admit it brought to me the image of the look my dog used to get in his eyes when I told him to sit, and he sat, staring hypnotically at the Milk Bone in my right hand, and in debilitating suspense, even quit breathing because that’s what he thought the word “sit” meant when there was a bone in the picture. One time I put the bone back in the box, just to see what would happen. His ears changed big time.)

You’re watching this movie and you’re thinking, “Wow! Look at her! She’s in a complete state of medical and psychological shock because a giant ant killed her dad.” The camera stays on the girl’s face and you start to feel a little traumatized yourself. I had to stop eating my meatless beef jerky for a minute. Man, that’s what you call shock.

That was the unthinkable disbelief and horror on that second bird’s face. He was standing in the middle of the crosswalk, his legs spread apart strangely, absolutely still, looking straight ahead toward the San Francisco Bay Bridge. He was unblinking, like a condemned prisoner just waiting for someone to do the vile deed. Never have I seen a pigeon so prepared to face death. Forgive me for being so frank, but I saw the face of Socrates.

Faster than anyone could think of the possibility, a car rushed toward the crosswalk on a green light to finish off this helpless one’s pitiful life. “NO!” I yelled. Too late. The car rushed over the bird.

We all had our heads down in a kind of grief and sadness for three seconds. We looked up and could not believe our eyes. The car’s tires had completely missed Socrates. He remained with legs apart there, beak proudly up, staring blankly. He was still waiting for his immortal number.

Two of us ran out to the street to stop any more cars from moving forward. Some homeless guy set his bottle by the mailbox and started directing traffic. The man with smooth skin retrieved the plastic bag from the first bird and began to chase the second bird, who was making some great evasive moves. It was rush hour. People in their cars, though, seemed to realize that we were trying to save a life. They’re San Franciscans. They’ll stop for that without honking.

I don’t think they knew it was a pigeon, though. Let’s cut the cards: If they knew, they would have hit Socrates, and the rest of us, too.

The olive-skinned man finally caught the second bird and let him down on the sidewalk. He and his girlfriend left. Now, the bird decided to take a walk, under the car of the dark-haired woman who was just minutes before intending to get in her car and go somewhere. She whipped out her cellular and called the SPCA.

“Oh, right! Like they’re really going to come for a pigeon!” I said.

“Why not?” she said with the phone to her ear. She heard something. “Oh, well I’ll leave a message.”

I ran into the apartment to get a broomstick to nudge the bird away from the car. Just as I thought I had him going in the right direction, he decided the top of the tire made a good perch. We saw a woman positioning her car just then in front of the occupied car.

“I’m terribly sorry,” I said to the woman, standing up with the broom in my hand. “We’re trying to get this bird off the tire.”

“No problem. I’ll wait,” she said. She was young and dot commish, with dark, cool sunglasses and long, straight brown hair.

I looked at the woman next to me, the owner of the red car with Socrates on the tire. “Wow, that lady is really nice. Most people would probably get sick of this and just go get another parking place.”

“Yeah,” said my neighbor. Her eyes squinted toward the woman in the waiting car. “I wonder who does her teeth.”

I finally got Socrates off the tire. The black haired woman took off, and her replacement parked there. She got out of the car and stopped to hear the story.

“This bird is in shock because he lost his leg, and the other was stuck on that lady’s tire,” I said. I was holding that broom still. The knees of my pants were dirty.

The woman patted me on the back lightly. “You’re nice,” she said, walking downhill.

I found an old tuna fish can box and put both birds in there. I set them outside near my alley. I poured water over them so they would be clean of blood. I left them there overnight. In the morning, Socrates was gone, and One-Leg was still sitting there. The next day, I bought a plastic tube of sunflower seeds and gave some to Legless. He wouldn’t eat at first, but started to peck a bit later. I brought him in the house and kept him there for a night. The next day I put him outside near the curb. I thought he would enjoy being outside.

He was looking better. He started showing signs of gratitude, responding when I spoke by focusing his eyes. The next day, I had him in the house again, and the next day put him by the curb again.

I couldn’t decide what to do with him, because when I had him indoors, the cat kept pacing by him. That pace was a little too deliberate for my taste.

I guess the best way to describe the cat’s pace is to recall the time I was at a nightclub in a seedy part of Hayward. The kind of place that is conveniently located next to a 24-hour Denny’s restaurant, and a cheap motel with hollow plywood doors.

There was this greasy looking guy that walked by me. He let his eyes travel up and down my body as he slowly walked past. I felt disgusted and preyed upon.

“Hi,” I said.

“Would you like to dance?” he asked.

“Hell no.”

Well, that is the way my cat was looking at this bird. All these years, I thought I had a nice, white-furred and pink-eared cat, but now I see that when there is a victim in the room, PolarKitty turns out to be another kind of cat altogether: PimpKitty.

So, I put the bird out by the curb again.

I came out the next morning with a cup of water. I was going to give him a bath and some fresh sunflower seed. But I saw that the box was not there. Instead, I saw a flattened out slab of cardboard near a tire on an SUV, with a lifeless wing sticking out.

“Damn!” I said, walking back toward the apartment. The meaningless sound of a distant car alarm seemed to follow up the steps. I did not feel bad, though. I did not feel bad at all. I mean, my neighborhood is usually kind of boring.

 30 –

Monday, February 2, 2009


Los Angeles. 1985. The citizens of this metropolis peacefully slept in the middle of a typical southland evening. Some were awake attending peacefully to the business of the city’s night. Driver’s drove, bakers baked, muggers mugged, cops ate donuts and beat people up. Then, it happened.

Los Angeles jolted. Earthquake.

As the horror swept the city, guests at an obscure Motel 6 awoke astounded. They saw the water in the pool swish back and forth. Sixty-seven year old Betty Hornbecker awoke in astonishment, her face pasty and white with Ponds Cold Crème, and grabbed hold of the American Flag by her bedside under the misimpression that the Russians were finally invading.

But in room number five, the stunned tourists watched in living fear of death a truly unbelievable scene. “Mom. Oh my God. Is she…could she be…?”

“Yes, Cheryl. She’s sleeping. Can you believe this? Lurene’s sleeping.”

Okay, I admit. I was going to write this heavy philosophical piece for you, Victoria, about the real meaning of growing up, of graduating, of getting older, of getting yours in life before all those other vultures beat you to it and make off with your booty. But let’s face it, you have no chance of bulldozing your way to the summit if you can’t get up at the crack of dawn.

If I am ever rich enough to be able to afford you as a therapist, I would like to explore this issue. When did this sleeping problem start? What elements of my dysfunctional family, er, that is, typical American family helped contribute to this tragedy?

It all started with Sam. One of several puppies born in a run-down ghetto kennel in suburban Fremont, California, Sam was the offspring of an overprotective, anorexic Chiwawa and an emotionally unavailable mutt from Union City who eventually ran off, using the likely excuse that there was a Garbage Man in the neighborhood to be bit.

Thinking that they were providing for my “normal” childhood development, my parents brought Sam to me for my second Christmas. I must admit, I spent the best years of my childhood with Sam; we did everything together. He stood dutifully under the table at dinnertime, eating the shriveled up slabs of meatloaf I couldn’t tolerate. We watched “Lost in Space” and “Creature Features” together. He knew how to “sit”, “stay”, and bite the neighbor boy, Martin, when I told him to do so.

There was only one problem with Sam. He was an “enabler” and a “co-dependant.”

You see, Sam always slept at the foot of my pink canopy bed. When my mother entered the room at 7 a.m. to wake me for school, he growled menacingly, “enabling” me to sleep in. In this way, we became “co-dependents” – I depended on Sam for sleep. He learned over the years that all he needed to do was growl at my mother to get what he also wanted – even more sleep.

My parents tried everything. They tried bribing him with Mom’s leftovers, for example, which only made him growl more seriously.

I heard my parents talking late one evening in the den.

“Sam has problems, dear. He’s a Fox Terrier Who Loves Too Much,” said my mother.

“It’s just not healthy. He ought to be out chasing cats like a real dog, Dammit!” my father snapped.

Twelve years later, Sam died. As a Boobie Prize, my mother bought me an alarm clock which emitted a strange growling sound. I always resented that.

Anyway, I just slammed my fist down on the snooze button and said, “Thatta Boy.”

Ten years after Sam’s death, I found myself on the couch of a psychiatrist.

“Let’s see, Lurene, your file tells me you’re upset because you were fired last week from your job.”

“Yes. I slept too long and was fired.”

“Why didn’t you get up?”

“I was hoping to get a promotion.”

“How did you figure that?”

“Because the boss was sleeping with me.”

“What went wrong?”

“He didn’t like sleeping at the foot of the bed and being told to ‘go outside’ if he had to go to the bathroom”

“Well, Lurene, it seems you are trying to re-create the problems of your childhood by finding a substitute for Sam. Face reality; you are never going to find a friend as intelligent, committed and loving as your dog Sam was.”

“Oh, I see.”

So, here I am today, the healthy and happy woman with a balanced view of life. But to this day, I wake up in the morning, hear the distant yelp of a dog, and go back to sleep.