My Search for the Red Phantom

Photo Credit: budandjackie via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: budandjackie via Compfight cc

Sixty years ago I saw my first scarlet tanager. I was ten.

I was sitting outside “in the country,” and I don’t know what made me look up, but there was the most beautiful bird I had ever seen.  I called it a “real bird” because it was different than the plain brown birds I was accustomed to seeing. A “real bird” was the kind of bird I only saw in the Golden Guides my parents bought for me.

The scarlet tanager was in a tulip tree. The tulip tree was a “real tree” which I had also recently identified from my tree books. The days of pouring over those books were finally paying off.

I don’t know how long the gorgeous red bird graced me with his presence, but I do know that at the age of ten, it was one of the most joyous experiences of my life.  It was the day my hobby was born. After that day, and for the next sixty years I searched for another scarlet tanager and another tulip tree. The tulip trees were easy. I saw many of them.

But the scarlet tanager quest was unfulfilled.

The sad part of the story is I admit, “I am the worst birder in the entire world.” On Audubon outings when I am on my best game, and I can see color, I can identify birds that are close up. On outings when I am on my regular game, I can confuse pigeons with bald eagles.  I have learned to laugh at myself and have tried to educate myself. Even though I am “the worst birder,” I love being outdoors, being silent, and absorbing the sights and sounds of nature into my soul.

No scarlet tanager. How can that be? The bird books says he (the bright red male with black wings) is up there, but hard to find. Hard to find! I wonder how many other scarlet tanager searchers have been seeking the red phantom for sixty years? I am supposed to listen for him. Well, I mix up all my bird vocalizations, much as I try to work on improving my sightings.

I’m sure if I asked for help, from the many wonderful birding guides I’ve known over the years, I might have seen my tanager decades ago. But I didn’t. Mine was a private desire, lingering in my psyche for so many years—my tanager was becoming my holy grail.

(Of course, between my cataracts, retina surgery, touch of macular degeneration, hearing problems, perhaps I should be given a bird watching handicap…I don’t know what that is, but I know golfers get one) Oh well, I digress.

So the other morning I’m just sitting at my kitchen table and looking out to my deck where I have a bird bath (a plant saucer with two rocks in it for balance) and guess what! There, sitting on the edge of the plant saucer and leaning in to sip the water, is my scarlet tanager—the bird I have not seen in sixty years!

The last time I saw him, I was wearing plaid Bermuda shorts, a sleeveless shirt, and red or blue Keds sneaks. I probably went into the house and ate a tuna fish sandwich on white Wonder Bread, cut in squares by my mother. Maybe I cooed to my brother sleeping in his crib. If it was a Sunday, maybe my father was there reading the travel section of the paper and eating bread and butter, or maybe borscht.

That’s why, the other day, when I saw the scarlet tanager, I cried, hard.

It took me a long time to recover, and I was glad I was alone. I thought “No one will understand.”

But I do hope you will.

And, my scarlet tanager? I don’t know where he is now. But I am hoping he will drop in again.

Adirondack Chairs in God’s Country


I see kids today doing their homework while reclining on their beds.

People of my age did not do that. We used desks.  If you are a contemporary of mine, I bet you remember taking great pride in your desk and feeling like a real hot shot when you organized your drawers with your new school supplies and, then, topped it off with your new green blotter.  I even had a special desk lamp!  Yowza!  Sitting at that desk, I felt like I was in the Oval Office.

That feeling lasted for the first week and a half of school. Then, I started hating homework, messing up the drawers, and listening to songs on the radio like Runaway by Del Shannon.

But, anytime my parents came in the room, there I was, at my desk, looking studious.

I think desks were a part of my parents’ American Dream.  Desks were ergonomically designed for work, and hard work meant success.

Speaking of success, as those of you who follow my blog know, I married Jerome, the Great and Good. We bought a home in what our parents called, God’s Country, because it was forty-four minutes from the Bronx. Also, our home was a real house, not an apartment with a screen door on the third floor or the elevated train running outside the living room.

Jerome and I bought two Adirondack chairs for our backyard. OK, so the chairs are plastic, and they are not exquisitely carved by Native American craftsman.  When you pull into our suburban driveway and see those two forest green plastic chairs under the trees on our dried up brown grass, you can almost hear the call of the loon and the howling of the wolf.

Unless you’re an astronaut manning a control panel during takeoff, Adirondack chairs are not designed for work. True, you can set your glass of iced tea down on the wide arms of an Adirondack chair, but if you drink your iced tea in your reclining position, you may choke to death on an ice cube.

The green plastic Adirondack chairs in our backyard are not suitable for reading a book, or writing a personal manifesto, or even a shopping list.

Adirondack chairs are only good for looking up.

Looking up is great, perhaps even greater than doing homework.  There is never a test on “looking up,” and you don’t have to study for it. Often I sit in my Adirondack chair, look up and think about the same stuff I thought about as a child. I count the leaves on a branch of a tree.  Then I try to figure out how many leaves there are on the tree. Then I think about all the other trees on my block, my town, my state, my country and the world.  Then I feel alive, even more alive than I felt when I listened to Runaway by Del Shannon.



Did You Grow Up in an Apartment House?

Photo Credit: wallyg via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: wallyg via Compfight cc


Let’s play a game. I am going to say a word, and you say the first thing that that person would say?

OK. Here’s the word…


If you said, “Get outta here,” then you are probably a person who grew up in an urban apartment house, like I did. If you are anything like I was, I bet you were always being chased by the super for being in the bike room, laundry room, cellars or just for hanging around in the front of the apartment.

In these days of niche marketing, there’s probably a whole bunch of people, currently living in their own homes in the suburbs, who grew up in urban apartments.  Actually to get the demographics of this group, I started to read a bunch of charts, tables, and graphs. Then I remembered the D I got in college statistics in 1964, (a gift because I was dating a friend of the instructor),   and decided to skip the spreadsheet approach.

Anyway, I don’t need statistics. I am a “grew up in an apartment house” profiler. If you answer “Yes” to these questions, chances are you grew up in an apartment house too.

  1. Do you save quarters in a little jar, just in case you need them for the laundry room?
  2. Now that you live in your own house, do you do laundry in your house at midnight wearing only your underwear?
  3. When you are in a building with an elevator, do you assume a pose of vigilance before the door opens, prepared to kick someone where it hurts?
  4. As a kid, were you able to exit your “building” (an apartment word) by jumping down flights of thirteen steps at a time?
  5. Do you remember your mother or father throwing down money wrapped in a tissue from your third floor apartment when the ice cream man came?
  6. As a kid, were you afraid of some weird guy who used to stay in a little smelly room and be in charge of the garbage? Did you hate to bring the garbage down to the garbage room?
  7. Did you ever steal the wheels off baby carriages in the bike room?
  8. Did you sit on a bench in the laundry room looking at the suds and lint glopping up the drain in the floor?
  9. Did any member of your family get in to a fight with another human over taking the other person’s stuff out of the washer?
  10. Did you ever ring the call bell on the elevator just to make the super crazy?
  11. Did you have a screen door on your third floor apartment door?
  12. Was Halloween trick or treating absolutely the best in an apartment house?

Well, did I out you as a former apartment dweller?

If I did, and you are like me, you will compare every house you have ever lived in with Apartment 33, on the third floor of the B Building.  And, maybe when you have nothing to do, you might just ride over to your old apartment house, and look at it, longingly.