Waiting tables, dyeing textiles, separating goats in heat
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I worked for seven years in Silicon Valley, for a big computer company. During that time, I occupied ten different cubicles in six different buildings. At first I had a low-status cubicle, located in the middle of a large room partitioned into a labyrinth. My view was either of the gray, tweedy material that covered the cubicle walls or, if I stood, of the tops of partitions and the tops of people’s heads moving among them. Later on, when I’d achieved some seniority, I advanced to the cubicles with windows. My first window cubicle faced a long, sunless courtyard between the two wings of the building; my second looked into a parking lot; and my third, by far the grandest, was six floors up and overlooked a great sweep of the valley — a lumpy carpet of housing tracts, shopping centers, office complexes, and streets spreading all the way to the hills.
My job was to write computer training programs. But sometimes my mind wandered, and I turned to look out the window at the people in the parking lot, the cars on the street, and, especially from my sixth-floor cubicle, the birds that soared in the gulf of air between me and the ground.
My guess is that most writers with windows are bird-watchers to some degree; writing requires a lot of staring out the window, and the eye naturally follows what moves. That’s the way I’d first become a bird-watcher — staring absently out the window of another office. In those days I spent a lot of time walking in the woods and marshes with my binoculars. Later on, though, after I’d taken the job in Silicon Valley, my range contracted. Instead of seeking out birds in their territory, I saw only the ones that occupied my territory: the town birds, the freeway birds. The glass between us was no longer the lens of my binoculars but the windshield of my car and the panes of my cubicle windows. You could say, if you were using computer jargon, that the interface between me and birds had changed.
Interface is a word we throw around easily in the computer industry. It means the surface where two worlds come together, usually the computer and the human. We’ve also turned it into a verb. “You’re going to have to interface with Fred on this project” means there will be contact during this project between you and Fred. We strive for a friendly interface, one that works well for both parties.
The interface between me and birds was friendly at home: I had a hummingbird feeder, a seed feeder, and a birdhouse for chickadees. That was my friendliness; the birds’ was just their cheerful and beautiful existence. But in Silicon Valley, the interface between me and birds changed. It didn’t become unfriendly, exactly, but sad.
For example, there was the red-tailed hawk I often saw on my way to work, a regal bird perched on the crosspiece of the tall, metal light pole beside the freeway. His view of the landscape must have consisted mainly of pavement — six lanes of traffic, overpasses, on-ramps, off-ramps — and always lines of cars speeding or crawling along, filling the air with their roar and stink. But all his attention was focused on a little slope of ice plant beside the freeway, a pitiful quarter-acre or so that was his territory. He was to me a beautiful but melancholy sight. He reminded me of those Native Americans of the last century who survived the extinction of their way of life and lived on for a while, sternly silent, in an alien world.
It’s possible, I suppose, that the hawk prefers the light pole to a tree. Certainly birds are adaptable. They have what appears to me a touching and admirable willingness to discover the advantages of whatever situation they find themselves in. Turkey vultures seem genuinely fond of electric towers. Blackbirds seem to like parking lots. Still, I could not help feeling that the environment of Silicon Valley — all the glass and metal and asphalt, the shiny, sharp-cornered buildings sticking up into the sky, the intersections with six thundering lanes of traffic, the sky dull with smog in the afternoons — was hard on birds, no matter how cleverly they fitted themselves into it.
At the center of one of the buildings where I worked was an open-air garden with trees, shrubs, and a little fountain. Birds took up residence there. A dove built her nest in the crotch of a tree right outside a window in the hallway to the cafeteria. I checked on her every day on my way to buy my Danish and coffee, and she sat fatly and softly on her eggs for a while, seeming unbothered by the programmers and product managers and marketing executives loping along on the other side of the glass not six feet away. But then she disappeared. Something must have disturbed her. Was it the cigarette smoke of the people having lunch on the benches below? Was it the claustrophobia of a world bounded on all four sides by glass and concrete?
Robins spent time in the courtyard too. While I waited for the elevator I could watch them hopping on the tanbark just outside the glass, snatching bugs from underneath the ferns. It was like watching birds in the aviary at the zoo, in a cleverly constructed environment designed to match the natural one. Only here I was the one encased in glass.
There was a patio outside the cafeteria of this building, a pleasant, small space of lawn and pavement surrounded by pepper trees and bottlebrush bushes. Sometimes, when the weather was warm, we had our meetings out there at the round glass tables, drinking coffee and talking. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember the hummingbird flashing and whirring beside us in the bottlebrush, the blackbirds hunting for doughnut crumbs around our feet, and the ravens yelling hoarsely from the dumpsters. All of them seemed like contented, well-adapted birds. Still, I felt a sadness along with the pleasure I took in their beauty.
I used to eat my lunch sometimes at a nearby park that had a crowded, murky duck pond. Beside the park was a small apricot orchard, bordered on one side by a parking lot, on the other three sides by houses. I’d sit in my car in the parking lot as I ate, contemplating the orchard, which was a kind of getaway spot for the ducks, a place where they could have a little quiet and solitude. But last year the trees were ripped out to make room for a big community center. I imagine this put pressure on the birds in the park, squeezed them a little closer, made them more easily annoyed with each other. I imagine they resented having their space, which was already small compared with spaces designed for people, even further diminished. Now I occasionally see, along the wide, crowded street that runs by the park, a dead duck in the gutter. That duck, the occasional hawk mashed on the side of the freeway, and the robins that lie like limp beanbags on the edges of the on-ramp where the pyracantha berries grow — they are the proof that living in this high-speed, sharp-edged place isn’t easy.
It once occurred to me to write a children’s story that would show how the birds must feel, how we would feel if our world were taken over and made uninhabitable. What if the birds were large and powerful, and we were small and weak? What if the birds came into a lot of money all of a sudden, and they bought up huge tracts of property in Silicon Valley, all the land between the bay and the hills, and started converting it to their purposes? They would tear down most of the houses, office parks, and shopping centers and replace them with orchards, forests, large fields of weeds and grass, ponds, and a lot of red, trumpet-shaped flowers. Of course, people would be displaced. All the people who had lived in Valley Green Estates and Orchard Park and Apricot Gardens would have to move somewhere else. Businesses would fold; computers and swivel chairs and file cabinets would be out on the street. The birds would realize that this was rather unfortunate for people, that it was causing them certain hardships, but because bird interests had to come first, development would continue. The freeways would be dismantled; plate glass would be outlawed. Pretty soon people would be confined to reservations in San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland, where they would have to manage as best they could.
This is going a little far, I know. Blackbirds and mallards and even red-tailed hawks are not endangered species; they’re doing fine. It’s only in my imagination that they think, in their small, keen brains, Why is life getting so hard?
One afternoon not too long ago, I was driving along a section of freeway edged with ice plant, too preoccupied to notice much except the infuriating slowness of the car in front of me. But out of the corner of my eye I saw something fall, a downward blur. I turned my head and glanced out my side window. There was the red-tailed hawk rising from the ice plant, its wings wide and pressing the air, its claws clamped around a mouse whose tail whipped desperately from side to side.
In all the time I’ve watched hawks through binoculars I have seen them in the moment of catching their prey only once or twice, and from a distance. Here, in the split second it took for my car to pass that spot at sixty miles an hour, this drama occurred, timed with impossible precision. The drop, the catch, the rising — all in the moment I glanced out the window as I shot by. It was as though it had been staged for my benefit. I thought hard about what it could mean — a bright, clear instant of life and death piercing the gray thoughts that fogged my view.
I quit my job a few months later. It’s difficult, when I talk to people about it, to explain exactly why. I didn’t hate my work. I had no complaint about the salary, or my co-workers, or my accommodations. I just couldn’t be there anymore. The environment had begun to feel wrong. I kept noticing discouraging things about the building: no one seemed able to load the fancy toilet paper holders in the restroom, for instance, so the roll was always sitting on the floor; the automatic doors to the elevator lobby closed and locked every time there was a power outage; and inside one of the elevators someone had scratched fuck and pussy into the new walnut paneling. But mostly it wasn’t the building; it was me. I had the irrational feeling that there wasn’t enough air between the carpet and the acoustical ceiling tiles of the sixth floor. The blue-and-gray walls of my cubicle pressed in on me, and the surfaces of the desktops and the file cabinets and the storage shelves were too hard and polished. Even my window seemed less like a connection with the outdoors than a barrier cutting me off from it.
Now I work in the back room of my house, where I can look out through the sliding-glass door at the mourning doves waddling in the grass and the towhees hopping back and forth. If I want to, I can open the door and go out onto the deck. The hummingbird will come and drink from the feeder even if I’m standing right next to it, and the bushtits twitter in the Japanese maple only a foot or two away from me. We have a more porous interface here, the birds and I. It’s friendlier. I don’t feel so much that vague sorrow and guilt, as if something important were being coldly disregarded, hurt by inattention to its needs. The towhees peck at the seeds I put out for them, I peck at my keyboard, and we all feel more or less content to be where we are.