Entries from January 2011 ↓

Marion and her salamanders…

Marion lives across the street from me . Her house sits on a slightly sloped lot and is painted brown and very tidy. Nothing out of place inside or out. The outside is clipped and cropped within an inch of its life, she mentioned that she doesn’t like or want anything to ever touch the house. The inside is dusted and dull and smells of the old family photos that fill the walls or sit in groups on top of the outdated furniture. It appears that no dust, dirt or sunlight is allowed to intrude. Marion is what I would colloquially call a spinster. Late 60′s or early 70′s in age who abandoned her career to care for her mother over twenty years ago. Marion’s mother passed away about a year ago and Marion has lived there on her own since then. I had always been cordial to her and her mother and when her mother passed I made the obvious gesture that most neighbors do, “I’m so sorry for your loss…if there is anything you need please let me know”.

It wasn’t more than a week after Marion’s mother passed that I got the first phone call. “Hello Michael, this is Marion….from across the street….” . (She has this very tepid voice as if she only has the strength for this last call) I tried to make small talk and offer my condolences and once again reiterate that I would be happy to run errands or go to the store if needed. Well that was why she was calling. She knew I went to Safeway most days and had a list she was hoping I could pick up on my next trip.  Marion also asked if I could please get her mail for her. (her mailbox is at the bottom of her driveway) I said I would be happy to and I would be right over to get the list.

Oh my.  I have never encountered anyone more specific in my life. She had color swatches to match the bananas she wanted. Copies of previous UPC codes from products that were unsatisfactory. The name of the last store manager she dealt with when she had to return a cup of yogurt. Specific expiration dates that would be acceptable for her half gallon of non-fat, two percent, non-lactose semi-milk-like liquid. Marion handed me 20 dollars and a pill bottle filled with change and asked that I make sure to use as much of the change as possible. I went to the store and returned thinking I had followed the instructions to Marion’s specifications but of course I had erred. This was not a good harbinger of how my good intentions were to be tested and strained. The phone calls started coming almost daily, “Hello Michael…this is Marion….from across the street…”. I loved how she would always identify which Marion was calling, the one from across the street, as if I receive calls from multiple Marion’s. I consider myself so lucky that I find humor and pathos in people like Marion and her eccentricities, otherwise her impositions would definitely become tedious and annoying. I would share my daily shopping failures with my family and how I actually had to return the last 3 bananas because they weren’t green enough. Not over ripe, but not under ripe enough. I guess I was getting a bit impatient as my family started to make suggestions on how to wean Marion off the daily trough of my generosity. I just wasn’t sure I had the heart to do that but Marion must have sensed it as her shopping request soon stopped and the calls I would receive were only concerning her mail. “Hi Michael….this is Marion…from across the street…did I get any mail today?”. My son would plead with me to shout into the phone, “I DON’T KNOW, DID YOU CHECK?”. He didn’t understand how she was not immobile, she drove and evidently now did her own shopping but was still incapable of walking to the bottom of her driveway to retrieve her mail. I would tell her I would go check right away and she would ask me to just leave it on the bench next to her front door.

When the winter season came and we finally started getting some rainy days I got one of my strangest calls yet. “Hello Michael….this is Marion…from across the street…when you pick up my mail today could you please check under my green garbage can that is at the top of the driveway. There is some big lizard or something underneath it.” Oh great I thought, now she is starting to hallucinate. So I walked over, grabbed her mail and walked up her driveway to where the green garbage can was sitting. It is sitting in the middle of a large blacktop section of her driveway, with at least eight feet of blacktop in all directions. At the sides of the driveway are beds of rock. I roll back the garbage can and there sat a large spotted salamander. Now where this salamander came from and how he ventured across this desolate terrain to end up under this garbage can was quite intriguing I thought. Almost as intriguing as how Marion knew it was there? Just then I heard someone tapping on a window and I looked up and there is a small window in Marion’s laundry room that is over the stairs leading up to the house and Marion’s face is peering down. “What is it?”, she shouts through the closed window. “It is a salamander”, I excitedly reply. I went on to explain that they are harmless and fairly rare these days and she should consider herself lucky to have one in her yard. “Oh, get it out of here, I can’t stand anything that crawls near my house.” I explained that we didn’t have to kill it to get rid of it, I could simply take it over to my back yard, as I would love to have a resident salamander. Marion was quite grateful and asked that I diligently check under her garbage can any time it rains to make sure no more of the creatures stalk her. I told her I would and for the next few days I did but no more salamanders appeared.

A few more days passed and I got another frantic call. “Hi Michael…this is Marion…from across the street, could you come right over, I think there is a bunch of them under the garbage can.” I explained that I had been checking and really doubted there were more but I would check. I roll back the can and there are two large salamanders and a baby. A whole family had moved in this time. I was amazed they were there and at the fact that somehow Marion knows when they are there. I gathered up all three and took them over to my backyard and put them back by my wood pile where it is dark and damp. In the next couple of weeks I retrieved two more singles from under the green bin bringing the total to six salamanders that have been compelled to crawl from somewhere to take up residence under a garbage can on a blacktop driveway. I tried to identify the type of salamander and I believe they are Arboreal salamanders, (if interested, http://www.californiaherps.com/salamanders/pages/a.lugubris.html ) and I hope they like their new home.

The weather is warming and it looks like the rains may be over for the season so I don’t know if I will find anymore but I will tell you this, first rain of next winter I will make sure to check under Marion’s garbage can for anymore salamanders looking to relocate to the other side of the street.

a mysterious death of a friend

(I started this blog shortly after this happened but only got through the first paragraph before putting it aside until six months later. This is my best recollection of a few very strange sad days last summer.)

Thursday July 15th, 2010, I had started my day as I do most, wait for my wife Amy to start the water and then come downstairs and make a cup of coffee. My wife Amy had an appointment in San Francisco at 11:00 am, which is about an hour and a half away from where we live and I had selfishly talked my way out of driving her. I had my Chronicle to read and was hoping to catch the tide correctly and get in a body surfing session. And of course any gaps in my day could be filled with replays of the British Open on ESPN. I took my first look at the beach around 9:30. I was way off on the tide and  bought a 2nd cup of coffee and drove home. When I got in the house there was a message on our answering machine. I worried it might be Amy as she was unsure of finding her way in San Francisco. I hit the button on the machine and was stunned by the message, “Hi this is Kim, Damien’s roommate and Damien is missing. I called his ex-wife and she contacted a psychic who said she thinks he might be in the gully behind our house, so I was wondering if you could help Kenny look behind our house. You know Kenny had a stroke so I was hoping you could help. Could you please give me a call at 222-2324″ I called Kim back and she was at work. She proceeded to give a very strange rambling story about coming home from work, speaking with Damian who said he wasn’t feeling well and was going to bed early, something about being in a small car accident earlier and then thought she heard him leave the condo out the back way in the middle of the night. In the morning her concern escalated when she noticed his bed hadn’t been slept in and his bathrobe, (the last thing she saw him wearing) was on his bed.

This is definitely not how I thought this day would go.

I quickly got dressed and drove over to Ken’s condo complex. I parked and started walking towards the back of the complex where the gully is. (Basically, a ravine lined with eucalyptus trees that works as a seasonal creek for rain run off. Untended and a jumble of eucalyptus litter.) Anyway, I immediately saw Ken walking towards me and he had obviously already been back there looking around. Ken confirmed he had stomped around behind the complex but saw no sign of anything. He said with the thick underbrush and tree droppings it would be fairly obvious if someone had stumbled through the night before. I asked for his take on the situation and he said he was working on the disadvantage of only having Kim’s story to go on. Kim is an old friend and roommate who tends to go off on jags fairly regularly. So her stories do not always maintain the sober clarity that would be useful in the actual situation we were dealing with, a friend who’s gone missing. But still it was all we had to go on so Ken and I reviewed what he knew, (or thought he knew) so far.  The only additional information I hadn’t heard is that Kim had found Damien’s car keys and cell phone is his room when she went in to check on him in the morning. Kim had to get to work and that is why Ken and I were recruited to see what we could figure out. Unfortunately, nothing. It really was strange if it happened as Kim remembered and we were now left with nothing to follow up on. We didn’t know the friend he supposedly met for lunch, we didn’t know who he might have gotten a ride home from and we certainly couldn’t call him as his cell phone was in his room. Ken assured me that there was nothing I could do to help at the moment but promised to keep me in the loop. Kim evidently had already filed a missing person’s report with the Sheriff’s office but there isn’t much they do as he hadn’t been missing that long.

The next day Ken calls and says that the Sheriff’s showed up to talk to Kim first thing in the morning as they had found Damien’s car on a side road in the old Fort Ord property. The fire department had responded to a vehicle fire and found his car completely ablaze. There still had been no information on Damien but the story was definitely getting stranger by the day. The torched car was quickly matched to Damien and prompted a heightened interest from the Sheriff’s department in his disappearance. They interviewed Kim and Ken and said they would keep them informed on any updates.

Ken called me early the next day. His voice was quivering and I immediately braced for bad news. They had found Damien’s body washed up on the beach a few miles from where they had found his car. He was naked but with no obvious signs of trauma. Ken said the police may need them to drive down to identify the body and wondered if I might be able to drive him and Kim. I assured him I was available day or night for anything they needed, just call. Ken called later to say the police decided they didn’t need to drive down but would let them know what the next step in this process was.

Now I personally never had any contact with any of the law enforcement personal involved in this investigation but at this point, there seemed to be more questions than answers regarding Damien’s death and from what I was hearing from Ken, not much concern on the part of the Sheriff’s department in answering any of them.

After a few days the Sheriff’s department told Kim and Ken they were going to list Damien’s death as an accidental drowning. As bizarre a story as you will ever run across and that is what they were going with, accidental drowning. Did his car accidentally combust? Did he accidentally forget to get dressed when he left the house the night before without his phone or car keys and then decide to go for a midnight swim in the Monterey Bay?  There was also some speculation that Damien may have taken his own life. It turns out his mother committed suicide but there was certainly nothing apparent in his behavior that would indicate he was that troubled. The saddest part of this whole situation, besides losing a warm, funny, intelligent friend, is that those that loved him, (and there were many as evidenced at his memorial) is that the question as to what really happened to our friend on his last day will never be known.