As simple as that

As simple as that
 
Driving a cab wasn’t a job that I had dreamed about as a young boy, or even something that I thought of “moonlighting” at for extra cash as an adult. It was a job that seemed full of confrontations and the ping-pong game of “can’t you go any faster” and waiting for the next fare.
 
 
The sudden lack of funds due to my involvement in the PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) strike necessitated my finding employment of some kind to pay the rent and put food on the table. It wasn’t the time to be picky about what you were doing to earn money, as long as it wasn’t illegal.
 
I was still supporting the strike by picketing during the day from 08:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. so I was only available to work the swing or midnight shifts. Somehow I ended up working both.
 
When the strike happened, one of our suddenly unemployed controllers applied to a local cab company and got hired. The owner of the company was leery of what he was getting into because of what he had heard on the news. Federal government agents had worked hard at putting out negative information about us to the media and it had employers scared of us.
 
The controller, affectionately known as “Mad Dog,” (a Marine veteran, father, home owner, and decent guy) proved to be an intelligent and responsible driver. He always showed up fifteen minutes early to work and never forgot to do his log sheets at the end of his shift. The boss was so impressed that he asked if there were any more of “your kind” that were in need of a job and Mad Dog contacted me.
 
My response was immediate; we needed money. I quickly went down to the Albuquerque police station and got myself finger printed, photographed, and duly licensed to drive people around. The police officers were “unofficially” very supportive of our strike, but had to be careful what they said due to government pressure. The interaction with the police was a positive experience and I had not expected it to be.
 
Albuquerque, New Mexico was a lovely city in 1981 when I hired on with the Albuquerque Cab Company. The weather was good most of the time and the streets were well laid out, making travel relatively easy to anywhere in the city. You didn’t see any “gridlock” on the streets like in Los Angeles.
 
Due to my driving shift of 3:30 p.m. to 08:00 a.m. (scheduled double shifts) the question most frequently asked by my friends and family was, “When do you sleep?” “When I can” was the only answer I could give them. If I got off early from driving I would sleep for however long I could. Occasionally someone would cover my responsibility as picketing captain for a couple of hours and I would sleep then. It was hard, but I had to do it.
 
To make enough money for us (my family) to survive I had to drive the cab sixteen hour shifts seven days a week. My responsibility to my striking brothers and sisters was equally pressing. There was no room for personal weakness or silly things like being mortally tired. Fortunately, the military had conditioned me for extended periods of physical abuse and sleep deprivation.
 
At the cab company I was assigned ID number 28 for radio calls and given the keys to a checker cab that had more room in it than any car that I had ever seen before. The boss did a walk around inspection on the vehicle with me showing me what to check and write down when I signed for a vehicle each day. He really was a nice man and proved to be a good boss.
 
The man who owned the Albuquerque Cab company was a self-made man from India and expected everyone to work as hard as he did; at least that’s what he wanted. He wasn’t ignorant to the ways of the world though, and counted himself lucky when his drivers showed up for work and didn’t steal from him. His rules were clear and those who broke them were fired. It was as simple as that.
 
Out of a crew of a dozen drivers, there were only three who had worked for him more than two years in a row (some had quit and come back.) Those three had been with him for ten or more years and were decidedly grumpy towards new drivers. Seniority was everything to them and having the choice of vehicles (which cab you drove) and schedules went by continuous length of employment.
 
The rest were either gypsies (independents who owned their cab, but wanted the protection of working for ABQ Cab) or “revolving door” drivers. A revolving door driver was one who quit one company to work for another every year or two. They were chronically unhappy and always came back complaining about the “other guys” they worked for.
 
Mad Dog and I were a constant source of amusement for the professional hack drivers who considered us to be “playing at” being a cabbie. I guess we were, as we had no intention of making the job our long term career. We always gave 110% at our job though, whatever it was, and the boss appreciated us for it.
 
One dispatcher, Diane, (there were three counting the owner’s wife) had been a driver herself. She was shot during a holdup fifteen years earlier, leaving her partially paralyzed and unable to do that job. She was the one that I worked with the most and liked the best.
 
The story of how she went from being America’s girl-next-door-cheerleader to the permanently disabled victim of a senseless crime needs to be told.
 
A short side story
 
Diane had been driving a cab to help pay for her school expenses at the University of New Mexico. Her main focus of study was Criminal Justice Communications; she wanted to become a police department 9-1-1 operator and help people.
 
In a bizarre twist of fate, the drug addict who robbed and shot her was a fired police officer from Arizona. He had been a young cop from a small town who wanted to move up to the “big time” and transferred to Phoenix when an opening came about.
 
The pressure on “the new guy” to perform like a veteran under fire and his own weakness of character, lead him to pills. He took pills to help him be more alert and pills to help him sleep. Those drugs quickly became not enough and he switched to harder stuff.
 
Soon he was stealing drugs from evidence and pressuring dealers to supply him. He was found out by other officers and terminated with charges pending. They didn’t want to trust their lives to a junkie and a thief.
 
Knowing that he was going to end up in jail, which would be a death sentence for a police officer, he ran. By the time he reached Albuquerque he was out of drugs and in need. He had to find someone to rob and then a dealer that would sell to him, or that he could overpower.
 
Spotting a pretty, young, and petite woman driving a taxi leaving a fairly deserted bus station he figured that he had an easy mark. He flagged her down around the corner from the terminal, where no one would see them. She didn’t have a fare waiting so she stopped for him.
 
Catching her completely off guard with his easy smile and good looks, he calmly walked up to the driver’s side window. Looking around for witnesses and then leaning in on the open window ledge he stuck his gun barrel in her eye socket. With the experience and knowledge of one who had done many traffic stops, he wrapped her hair around his hand so she couldn’t hit the gas and get away.
 
He demanded her car keys and for emphasis, shoved the gun barrel hard enough against her eye to cut her with the front sight. She turned off the car and handed him the keys. The emboldened man demanded her cash and she handed over what she had in her cigar box next to her on the seat.
 
It wasn’t as much as he had hoped for, which enraged him and he hit her across the face with the pistol cutting her cheek and breaking her nose. She screamed at him for hurting her and the man went berserk with rage. He shot her in the left side just below the ribs. As the bullet passed through her it hit her spine, causing bone fragments to cut into her spinal nerve.
 
A janitor taking the trash out heard the shot and called the police. Fortunately they had a car in the immediate area and responded quickly. Within a few minutes of being shot she was in a hospital being worked on.
 
The shooter realizing that cops were all over the area ran into the bus station, hiding in the bathroom. He was spotted going in with blood on his clothes by the same janitor who had called the cops. The janitor called it in and they were soon there to question him.
 
He didn’t have the gun (it was found years later on the roof of the bus station) and had gotten rid of his bloody shirt and washed up. He denied everything and being a former cop himself, he knew how to play the game. They had little but gut feelings to go on.
 
They had no evidence, no witness besides the unavailable one in ICU at the hospital, and no way to prove what they were sure was true. The only suspect they had was allowed to bail out (using the very money he had taken from the cab driver.)
 
The police officers cautioned him to stay in Albuquerque and had someone following him twenty-four hours a day. They had hoped that he would lead them to his weapon, or that the victim would soon be able to look at his photo and identify him.
 
When the bus station toilet plugged up and maintenance recovered a ripped apart blood stained shirt from it, they went forward with charges. The judge didn’t require more bail citing the continuous police tail on the man already as being sufficient.
 
The evil former policeman found himself a drug dealer to rob and overdosed on nearly pure heroin (and died) while out on bail awaiting the trial for shooting the cab driver. Because there was no longer a defendant the case was dropped, leaving Diane with no judgment or settlement. 
 
That caused all kinds of problems with the insurance claim. The insurance company tried their best to not pay anything at all. The owner of ABQ Cab got fed up with them and paid for her medical bills himself. He then sicced his lawyers on the insurance company for repayment, which he got, but it took years.
 
On with the story
 
My first day on the job I was sent out onto the street solo, with no training other than, “If you have a fare in the cab, run the meter. When you get where they want to go, charge them what it says on the meter.” It was supposed to be as simple as that.
 
I had hoped that I knew the streets of Albuquerque as well as I thought I did when the boss was interviewing me. Doubts were creeping in and it began to feel a lot more complicated. The city grew by leaps and bounds in my mind, as I waited for my first fare.
 
The radio crackled and the dispatcher called, “Number 28 are you available?”  I almost snatched the microphone cable out of the radio in my haste to answer her. I simply said, “Affirmative.” What else could I say; I was sitting there doing nothing, waiting.
 
She sent me to the airport to pick up a fare going to UNM. I said, “I’ll be there in five” and she acknowledged. As I pulled out of where I had been parked I hoped that I hadn’t estimated my time wrong. I also worried about if I would know how to get to wherever on the university campus the fare wanted to go.
 
Such were the thoughts, doubts, and fears that worked through my mind as I drove to my first ever customer as a cab driver.
 
I was brand new to the business or I would have known better than to give an estimated time over the radio that was accurate. As I pulled up to the curb at the airport baggage claim area, a Yellow Cab was pulling away with my fare. The driver even smiled and waved at me.
 
Yellow Cab drivers monitored our radio frequency and would “jump” (steal) our calls if they thought that they could beat us there… which he did. I just sat there with a stupid look on my face, watching my first fare drive away. I did have some choice words for the parentage and behavior of my now, foe; but I kept them quietly inside of my cab.
 
But, that’s life in the fast lane I figured, so I called in to dispatch and informed her of what had transpired. She said to just hang out there by baggage claim until they ran me off. We (cabs) weren’t supposed to be in that area until called for, but I didn’t know that yet, truly making ignorance blissful.
 
It was only a minute or so until a gentleman opened the passenger side door and asked if I was available. I happily said yes, and before I could jump out and help with the bags, they were inside and ready to go. That was more like it!
 
Of the two gentlemen who entered my cab one man looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. Not until the other guy called him “Candy” and then it hit me, my first fare was Candy Maldonado, the baseball player! The “Candyman” was about to become a Los Angeles Dodger and a big deal, but that night he was just another nice guy.
 
Naturally I was thrilled to see such a rising star but I didn’t go nuts on him and ask for an autograph or anything.  I paid attention to my job and quickly and safely navigated through the city to the address they gave me. They must have liked what I did because they gave me a twenty dollar tip.
 
I was fired up from that great experience. The idea that I would be able to make some money from the tips, if not the minimum wage pay, was bouncing around my impoverished mind. There were visions of actually surviving financially until we went back to work (as controllers) bouncing around before me.
 
As the reality of driving all night set in and the usual tips proved to be a dollar, or the change that it took to round up to the next dollar, my euphoria wore off. I realized that it was going to be rare to get a tip like that first one.
 
At the end of that sixteen hour shift I had just over thirty dollars in tip money. Right then I was glad that there was a $3.00 an hour salary involved too or I could not have done it. It took me sixteen hours (salary) to earn what I was used to getting in just under five hours. The tip money helped make up the difference.
 
My second night I was on my own from the time I clocked in (no instructions or pep talk), but I felt more confident about handling whatever came up. I was determined not to let those suckers from Yellow Cab steal any more of my fares.
 
When I pulled out onto the street the dispatcher sent me out to the west on Central to standby. I didn’t have to wait long at all before I got a call to pick up two passengers at the bus station. Never having been to the Greyhound station I wasn’t sure how best to approach the passenger loading area and said so to my dispatcher, who quickly directed me around and into the terminal.
 
As I entered the area where cars were allowed (versus buses only) my fares were right there on the curb waiting; two teenage boys with backpacks, as described. Two white kids with brown hair and big grins on their faces who seemed nice enough. They were very chatty when they first got in the car, but got quiet as we neared their destination.
 
I took them to an apartment building in an older section of town which wasn’t all that far from the bus station. When I stopped the car and turned around to tell them how much it would be, they bolted out the doors and ran in opposite directions. I jumped out and yelled at them, but they were more experienced at this game than I was.
 
What a great way to start my shift; in the hole. The driver was responsible for paying the meter charge, whether he collects the money or not. I called it in and got a, “Tough Break 28,” from the dispatcher. “Yeah, Right” I thought. My attitude was certainly dark and getting worse. I wanted to rip somebody’s head off about then.
 
My next assignment was to go to the airport “bullpen” or waiting area for cabs. It was a vacant gravel covered lot close to the airport entrance road with room enough for several cabs. That lot was constantly under a territorial battle between ABQ Cab and Yellow Cab for the prime spots closest to the narrow driveway (entry/exit point.)
 
The calls were sporadic as the flights came and went. The Yellow Cab drivers were playing “daisy-chain-drive-by” where several of their taxis would drive around the loop into the baggage claim area. They would delay there until chased off by airport security.
 
Another of their cabs would be in the entry drive creeping along as slowly as possible until the security guy left and then they would park at baggage claim. That made it highly likely that if someone needed a taxi, they would be the closest. Eventually security caught on and chased them all off.
 
If Diane was on duty she would watch the flight schedule for known producers (needing transportation) such as international inbounds from Mexico. Sometimes she would then put out a bogus call for the Hyatt saying that it was for “a man in a hurry.” We knew that ruse.
 
Every driver knew that a man in a hurry would tip well if you got them to wherever they were going in time. The Yellow Cab guys would all go screaming out of the airport trying to beat us there. Meanwhile, our cabs were lined up for the arriving flight and got all of the fares.
 
I had been taking my turns and had made about six dollars in tips when I was called to go to a restaurant on east Central Avenue to pick up a fare going to the hotel in Old Town. I left the airport and made good time, wondering the whole way why one of the cabs on the east side didn’t get this one.
 
As I drove along Central Avenue looking for the restaurant entrance, I passed driver #15 waiting on the side of the road with a very flat left front tire. That explained why I was called and I was glad that it wasn’t me stuck there making zero tips.
 
My fare looked like a Midwestern traveling salesman with a bad haircut and cheap plaid suit. I thought it funny that he was waiting at the opposite end of the restaurant building from where the entrance door was located. There was a strip club right next to the restaurant on that side, which is probably where he really was, but I didn’t care.
 
When I dropped him off at the hotel in Old Town the fare was ten dollars. He handed me two fives and two ones and told me to keep the change as he faded into the crowd of tourists. Briefly, I had a two dollar tip… until I realized that the fives between the ones was actually one bill folded over. The smiling creep had shorted me three dollars and I had thanked him for doing so.
 
Along about 9:00 p.m. the dispatcher called for me again with the usual “Number 28 are you available?” I held my sarcastic response and just answered “Affirmative.” It wasn’t the dispatcher’s fault that I was a rookie cabbie.
 
 I was dispatched to a residence for a trip to the hospital. “This can’t be good” I thought as I drove “there are no doctor appointments at this time of night. Why didn’t they call an ambulance?” The streets were clear of traffic and the route was easy so I was there in no time at all.
 
As I pulled up to the address a woman and three kids came out right away. Fearing the worst I was out of my cab and around to them in a flash, but I didn’t see any injuries. I started looking around quickly for an irate husband or boyfriend, fearing that I had gotten into the middle of a domestic squabble and violence was coming my way, but that wasn’t it.
 
We got everyone inside and I took off for the hospital, driving the speed limit and obeying all of the traffic lights and stop signs. I had yet to see any reason for urgency so I asked the woman if everything was all right and she said, “No stupid, or I wouldn’t have called for a Fxxking cab!”
 
Just as soon as those words exited her mouth I hit the brakes and screeched the car to a stop. I was not interested in being abused when I was trying to help and told her so in no uncertain terms. I probably would have been fired had the boss heard what I said, but I was already angry from the earlier problems so it didn’t take a lot to set me off.
 
She backed off on the attitude instantly and said that the twelve year old boy had “accidentally” consumed some perfume and she was worried about poisoning. “OK, I can go with that” I thought, “It sounds pretty dumb even for a twelve year old boy, but not everyone is a genius.”
 
I radioed in that I had a possible poisoning and asked the dispatcher to alert the Emergency Room at the hospital that I was inbound with a twelve year old male who had consumed perfume. She said, “Ah ha, OK. I’ll call them.”
 
That kid had a wise guy look about him and kept grinning at me in the mirror. I knew that something wasn’t right with that story. And then the truth came out… all over the back of the front seat, the rear floorboard, and the rear seat. He vomited just about everywhere in the rear section of that cab. The two younger kids were climbing up into the rear window to get away from the mess that their brother was making, while his mother just sat there in it; she had nowhere to go.
 
Before you get to feeling too sorry for this kid, let me clue you in on an observation that came to discerning nostrils immediately… that mess didn’t smell like anything other than BEER! There is nothing like getting sick to bring the truth out. The boy confessed his “evil” deeds to his mother who had him by the hair, holding onto his head while he redecorated my cab.
 
He had stolen his dad’s warm beer out of a locked wooden crate in the garage and he and a friend had sucked it all down as fast as they could. Getting too smart for their own good, they then wiped some perfume on their faces to cover the smell.
 
Not convinced that the perfume bath would work well enough, the friend suggested that they take a little drink of the perfume so that their breath wouldn’t smell like the illicit brew. So they both did that, drinking a small bottle of scent between them. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
 
The woman asked me to turn around and take them back home at that point, but I asked her to wait a minute and contacted dispatch to ask if she had gotten through to the ER. The answer came back in the affirmative and she stated that they were standing by. I asked her to call them back and then stay on the line to relay for me.
 
When that was set up I informed the ER crew what had transpired and asked them for guidance. They said to bring him in and they would check him over, some perfumes have chemicals that will damage the stomach, especially when combined with alcohol. I looked at the mother and she nodded her agreement, so I advised my dispatcher and completed the trip.
 
When I unloaded that poor woman I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her; she looked awful and smelled worse. It took both of us to get the younger kids out of the back window, they were afraid to get the “yucky stuff” on them. You really couldn’t blame them for that.
 
The meter read $16.35 and the woman gave me a twenty and said to keep the change. She had an embarrassed look on her face as she surveyed the mess and started to say more, but I just held up my hands and shook my head. The poor lady just nodded and turned to enter the hospital with her three children.
 
I said, “Good Luck!” which I meant for her, not the twelve year old knucklehead. She kept on walking but replied, “He’s going to need it when his father gets home and finds out about his Antique Beer Collection.” Maybe justice would get served after all.
 
“Too bad I can’t have the kid clean my cab” I thought as I drove away.
 
I spent the tip money she gave me, in the car wash cleaning the car as best I could. There were very few calls coming in that night and none for me. The dispatcher had me move to another location to wait every couple of hours and I drove the rest of the shift with my head hanging out of the window.
 
When the dispatcher called me to “bring it in” at 3:30 a.m. my thoughts truly were sympathetic, “I pity the day shift driver who draws this cab and has to drive it in the heat.”
 
There was no reason to worry, it wasn’t a new thing to the garage guys and they had a cleaner that deodorized really well. They made it all as good as new again by starting time.
 
Maybe it was just as simple as that.

A Taco with feathers

A Taco with Feathers

I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico during 1980-81, and my life was full of cultural diversity and wonderful smells and tastes. The lifestyle of the area was a beautiful mixture of Native American and Mexican influences which brought flavor to the very air. Albuquerque was a large, modern city, but still had a distinct individuallity.

One of my very favorite places to go was “Old Town” where San Felipe de Neri church has been guarding the square since 1793. Shops full of art and treasures border all four sides of the square and extend down all of the narrow streets. Several excellent restaurants were to be found there, including my favorite, La Hacienda, which sadly has burned down and been replaced since those days. I found myself going there frequently for dinner.

This restaurant was such a pleasure to eat at! It had excellent meals at decent prices, a welcoming atmosphere, easy parking behind the building, and musicians playing every night. Most of the time there was a flamenco guitarist named Stanley performing. He was a man who played so beautifully that I found myself sitting with fork in hand and food untouched while I listened, mesmerized. I recorded his efforts on an old cassette tape player, people noise and all.

There are also stories to tell about the tormented artist, John Yazzi, whom I befriended at this restaurant and believed in enough to purchase several of his paintings. But, I will leave those stories for another time, when you have asked to hear them.

On the way to Old Town from where I lived, the road took me past a newly opened pet store. Like the old “muscle car” saying from the past, “It can pass anything except a gas station!” I never saw a pet store that I could drive by without stopping. This one was even worse, because on the sign were the words “Bird Store.” Who could pass by a “come on” like that? Not me!

I should have hit the gas and sped off to the restaurant. It would have been far cheaper and less time consuming. Oh yeah… I was hooked from the moment that I walked in the door. It had only been a little more than a year at that point since I was a pet store manager. As I walked in I found myself taking “inventory” and assessing the displays for position and sales effectiveness.

Each direction I turned, there were more beautiful birds looking back at me. The bulk of the live feather dusters were little birds; finches, canaries and parakeets. Those species are the bulk of the commercial retail bird trade. There were also cockatiels, conures, love birds, and Quaker parakeets in good numbers. Then I saw the parrots.

The owner of this shop had a very impressive array of birds. There were multiple species of cockatoos; Umbrella, Greater and Lesser Sulphur Crested, a Major Mitchell, and a Moluccan just that I could see. Macaws were well represented with Blue Hyacinth (like “Rio”), Blue and Gold, Scarlet, and Military all out on perches. A black Mynah bird sat in a cage by the cash register, letting out a disagreeable screech occasionally.

That added up to thousands of dollars, even in 1980! No wonder the supplies on the shelves were only two or three deep and well spaced, all of their cash was in feather goods (live birds.)

The owner and his wife were soft spoken and in their late fifties, both having just retired from 30 year careers; his in construction, and hers in a school office. George was tall and lean, and Mary was short and small, both were grey haired and tanned.

They had been raising finches, parakeets, cockatiels and love birds at their home as a hobby for several years. Unlike most hobbies which are endless money pits, theirs became so profitable selling all the birds they could raise to bigger dealers like Hartz Mountain, that they were able to save a good amount of money. This cash was used to add more walk-in flight cages, which again increased bird production. As the baby bird numbers grew, so did profits.

George and Mary had a dream, and the bonus income allowed them to reach for it. It was a big leap for them to open a store of their own, and one that they were very nervous about. They knew about raising and caring for their birds, and how to ship them safely; that they had done for years. What they didn’t know about was dealing with the bigger birds, or how to run a shop that dealt directly with people.

So one day, in walks a person (me) crazy enough to volunteer countless hours of help, for no pay. I taught them retail business procedures like how to set up displays and organize inventory so that they could see what they had, or needed, at a glance.

They were selling the usual pet trade products that were designed and marketed to make the wholesaler/manufacturer money, but not the retailer. For example: birdseed for the little birds was offered in prepackaged boxes marketed by Hartz Mountain, which contained just a few (6 or 8) ounces, and was priced like gold. I convinced George that we could do better and both make a profit, and serve the customer better.

To accomplish this we went to the feed store and bought 50 lb bags of seeds and mixed up our own packages of birdseed in zip-lock bags. These packages we then sold by the pound (usually two or five lb bags) and saved the customers huge amounts. They got real value for their money and sales went wild! George still carried the Hartz Mountain boxes and a couple of little old ladies bought them anyway. They didn’t trust change of any kind I suppose.

I also taught them what I knew about the various big birds they purchased, calling upon what I had read and what I had picked up from working in pet stores. Trimming toenails, beaks, and wing feathers on parrots takes experience and a willingness to endure the occasional nervous bite.

I knew something about animals of all kinds, but I was really more of a reptile expert. It felt kind of like a post-grad student trying to teach someone about to complete their BS degree. I knew a little more than they did, but they were closing in on me fast!

George and Mary had a great sense of fairness and no “get rich quick” delusions to ruin the feeling. If you bought something from them it was at the best price around and they stood by the sale. There were a few times that they took a loss, knowing that it was a scam or unjust for them, but they felt it was better to take a couple of losses and be seen as fair dealers than fight over it. They were right. Business prospered because of their policies.

After a couple of “boom” months, George felt like he had to buy something to show “prosperity” in his shop. In other words, that he was doing well and investing back into his business. I was of the opinion that maybe some fancy parrot cages, or bird fountains would be nice (and they didn’t eat or die), but I was just an unpaid volunteer and didn’t really have a say. He did commission a metal smith in Old Town to build a grand wrought iron cage for the Blue Hyacinth macaws, but that was already in the works before his latest idea.

It was a good thing that I didn’t have a voice in his plan, because I would definitely have been against it. George purchased a “crate” of wild caught African Grey parrots, to be shipped directly from Africa.

I was not then, and am not now; a fan of wild caught “anything” being sold in the pet trade. The argument continues today, and I still believe that captive breeding is the only acceptable way to supply the pet industry.

As I walked into the store on the day that the crate arrived, my first reaction was that I was appalled at the size and shape of it. That crate looked like it held an oil painting. In fact, I had recently received a painting in just exactly that kind of box. It was about 24″ x 36″ and no more than 8″ or 10″ in depth. The crate was marked “FRAGILE” in bold letters and from the black marks and dings in the boards, I was sure that the freight guys had “carefully” thrown it with both hands.

George and I picked it up off of the floor where the delivery man had unceremoniously shoved it off of his hand truck, and carefully placed the crate flat on a counter top. There we hastened to undo the nails, prying carefully not knowing how the squawking birds inside were contained.

The sight of a burlap bag gave George confidence and he ripped the side panel up quickly, causing me to move backwards to avoid being hit in the face. Just as fast as that, his hammer went flying forward with a resounding whack on the counter top.

Wow! That was a weird way to deal with a loose parrot I thought.

Looking down at where his big framing hammer had landed, I saw a very large baboon spider (which I now know as a species of tarantula) with his hammer head driven completely through its body. Wow again!

We were a lot more careful (and nervous) as we found and cut the twine holding the bag shut. I think that if anyone had sneakily touched either George or myself at that point we would have screamed like little girls, as images of giant brown spiders played in our minds.

As we proceeded with freeing the parrots, Mary stood by with a large fishing “dip” net, just in case a bird got loose. She had also temporarily locked the front door, to make sure that no one opened it at just the wrong moment.

There are two varieties of African grey parrot; Congo and Timneh. They are nearly identical in appearance but the Timneh is smaller, calmer, and learns quicker at an earlier age. These grey parrots are considered to be the “Rolls Royce” of talking parrots, with seemingly endless capacity for learning.

The purchase order was for six baby Timneh grey parrots at $500.00 each, making this a $3,000.00 order. The baboon spider was free. By that point I was more apprehensive about what we would find in the bag, than worried about spiders.

Inside of that bag were six grey parrots alright, one with an eye missing and in a very weak condition. It was also the only Timneh. We placed it, unresisting, in an enclosed cat carrier, which Mary departed with for an immediate trip to the vet. It later died from shock and dehydration the vet said.

The other five were adult Congos and they were not happy campers. Their eyes were dilating and shrinking like a junkie on a needle (injecting drugs.) Rapid pupil fluctuation is a sign of extreme distress in parrots.

George had put welder’s gloves on and I had on regular leather work gloves, in an attempt to protect our hands from the bites that we knew were forthcoming. We both ended up with multiple punctures and bruising like the hammer had been used on our hands.

All five of the remaining birds ended up in individual cages and sat there shaking and making weird noises from fear and shock. I started filling water dishes and covering cages with whatever cloth I could grab. We moved them to the back room where it was warmer, quiet, and away from drafts and bright lights; and hopefully to let the birds relax. I could not imagine the horror of being crammed into such a dark and restrictive box for days for such intelligent creatures. It was a wonder that they survived at all.

One bird was particularly aggressive and was not in the least afraid to make eye contact. He actually growled at me. Him I liked right away. What a wise guy!

George called the shipper and got nowhere. The man on the other end (in Africa) made excuses and vague references to possible substitutions at various locations on the journey. The problem was beyond his control he kept saying.

One thing was abundantly apparent; he (George) was stuck with these grown, aggressive, expensive birds. Mary had already sent the half payment in advance to the shipper, as was customary. At my insistence that they were being taken advantage of, she did not send the remainder. What were they (the sellers) going to do about it? It was obviously a scam operation and they would just move on to the next victims.

What should have been highly marketable birds, had just become a big problem.

It was during that first period of adjustment that I somehow was convinced that I needed to own the bird that had taken such a liking to my flesh. A “half of the cost” deal was offered to me and in a moment of weakness I forked over $250.00 for a crazy, grown parrot. Since we were in Albuquerque and my favorite things were all connected with the local culture, I named the bird “Taco.”

Taco and I had many, many battles until he figured out that I wasn’t going to hurt him, and that no matter how many times he bit me, I was coming back for more.

I spent another couple of hundred dollars on a cage and supplies, all at wholesale cost, of course. I got the bird habit bad and “Bird-vana” was created. Over the next few months I also brought home parakeets, canaries, finches, love birds, a Nanday conure, and a Senegal parrot. All of them were rescues or rejects from one place or another. We rehabilitated them and got them healthy and happy, and then found them other homes.

My house looked like a zoo with dogs, a cat, birds and the human caretakers. Of course, my daughter thought it was great. She had a red Doberman that was nearly as tall as she was that slept at the foot of her bed (or on the couch) and a parrot that growled. She giggled constantly, we were having a ball.

Once, Taco stopped eating for a few days and just sat on his perch. I took him to a veterinarian who would see a parrot (they don’t all do all animals, which surprised me) and had him checked out. She couldn’t find any parasites, disease, or reason for not eating and was puzzled too.

The doctor suggested that I make a mixture of peanut butter and honey and tempt the bird with it to see if it would “jump start” his appetite. When the stubborn bird refused to try it, I put some in a large syringe (without a needle) and squeezed it into his mouth and onto his tongue. That did it and the battle was won.

Taco learned a new word from that experience, “some”. I kept asking him if he wanted “some” of the mixture as I was trying to tempt him and the word stuck in his mind. He would ask for “some” frequently after that and I would mix him up a little batch of it. It was just too cool to have a bird actually “ask” for something, to refuse him.

Through constant attention Taco turned into a nice guy and would willingly step up onto your hand and accept treats without taking your finger too. He also learned a few words, (no cuss words, I was careful) and sounds, including wild bird calls and cat noises. I thought his best trick was “growling” in the dark. When Taco growled, the Dobie would leave the room. It was truly one of the scariest sounds that I have heard.

The success with Taco encouraged us, and through a lot of hard won battles with the other African Greys, we got them into shape to sell. We sold two of them to advanced bird handlers in the area. These guys had demonstrated the ability to handle a nervous adult parrot and we saw them regularly. George sold and shipped the other two birds to a pet store in Los Angeles, and I can only hope that they fared as well.

The PATCO (air traffic controller) strike of 1981 cost me a lot professionally, financially, and personally. One of those losses was Taco. When I couldn’t afford to pay the rent and feed my family, I had to sell the birds off to make some money. I held onto Taco as long as I could. Even the Doberman was given away (so we didn’t have to buy as much dog food) to a lucky college student who enjoyed her tremendously.

I sold Taco back to George for double what I paid him, which bought food for my family and allowed us to stay in the house another month. He was immediately sold for twice that to a retired physician who knew all about Taco and had wanted to buy a grey earlier, but didn’t like any that he found. I have no doubt that the crazy bird is still alive and growling, maybe even still in Albuquerque, but I’m not sure. The old doctor who bought him has since passed on and I don’t know who inherited the bird.

The usual question that I ask myself whenever I have owned anything and want to evaluate its worth is simple, “Would I do that again?” In the case of that feathered Taco, the answer is definitely, yes!