A Stranger to a Gray World Points Out the Way

By

My first real job was with a small firm in southern California. The manager's offices faced north toward the mountains, invisible through the smog, and the technical staff's faced east toward the corner service station, oil-sodden behind a chain-link fence.

It was during the 1970s, and my office mate talked endlessly of the human-potential seminars that sucked up his paychecks. I remember all kinds of strange techniques, many of which never made the lifestyle pages of Newsweek.

We were encouraged to stay late and come in on weekends, and to leave our doors open so that our corporate commitment could be verified, but we were discouraged from actually getting anything done, as that might have undercut the rationale for intrusive management.

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I charged my hours as an atmospheric scientist, but was formally reprimanded one day for stepping outside to admire a stray rainbow. It was a dreary place: dead lawns and pavement outside, bare doors and sterile-looking halls inside. Even the graffitiless bathrooms were characterless. Lunch was a hamburger in a grease-stained bag; dinner was the same with fries.

One afternoon all this changed.

Under my window a thistle had grown tall, supported by the gas station's chain-link fence. A flicker of motion at one of its purple blossoms caught my peripheral vision as I tried to appear busy while thinking. I turned to catch a flash of yellow, the bright yellow of exotic flowers. It was a small bird, and like me and the weed, it was a stranger to this gray world.

I have since learned to recognize finches, but my first was a creature outside the categories of existence, beyond naming; he was singular, a wonder. And it was right outside my window, pausing to look straight at me, an emissary bearing glad tidings, sent to secure my release! Flooded with joy, I rushed to alert my closest fellow captives.

That week was among the most joyous of my life as the finch returned again and again, bringing ruby colleagues as well as yellow family to share the harvest. Although I couldn't articulate what it signified, my wife remarked on my renewal, and we celebrated a weekend unshadowed by dread of Monday's return. On Monday morning, I hurried to my office window - to find only the hacked root of the thistle, victim of the station manager's ''beautification'' efforts.

I had now tasted freedom, however, and soon followed my birds to happier surroundings.

This memory bubbles up as I sit in my backyard, soaking up Midwestern sunlight with my family on an unseasonably warm Sunday. This morning I dressed without an undershirt, and the air stirring inside my buttondown reminds me how California used to feel after I'd returned from Christmas trips home to New York. I have just received another visit from nature, this time in the unpromising form of a large black crow.

I didn't notice this ''trash'' bird light on a bare branch of the tulip tree by the gate. If my mind didn't automatically filter out most of the crows, cars, pigeons, and power lines I encounter, I would have little attention left for anything else.

Nevertheless, I became aware he was making a sound that departed slightly from the crow sounds my ears disregard. I don't know how to describe this sound - an oratorical throat clearing, perhaps, or a familiar voice speaking unfamiliar words.

My daughter, an ardent amateur of other languages, produced something like a myna's impression of a rooster when she answered back from her perch in the big maple. Although clearly limited by her thick accent, she did succeed in engaging the creature, to our delight, in a few phrases of dialogue.

As I was wondering aloud whether this was truly a crow, the apparition started to emit an accelerating series of sharp clicks, like a hinge groaning in slow motion, capped by two or three dipping notes, soft droplets of clear liquid sound. These notes, in their unexpectedness, were almost inaudible to me.

Our gracious visitor repeated this entire call two or three times, then lifted from the branch and flew off across the yard. In flight, for the first time, he cawed. He - she? - was a crow, after all! And what was it I had heard? I think it was the message the finches had given me long ago: ''Be of good cheer, for there remain surprises in your life.''

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