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Ruffled feathers

It was a lovely spring day in lovely University Park, and the sun was shining, the breezes were blowing, and the birds were chirping.

Which was a problem.
It wasn't a problem for the birds, of course. They were quite carefree--screaming their silly songs, mauling the mulberry trees, doing that rites-of-spring thing all over this beautiful bedroom community.

No, it was a problem for the people of 4112 Glenwick--a tidy, modest apartment building filled with tidy, modest apartments and upstanding young graduate students and twentysomething professionals. All of them had moved to this short, densely populated street filled with reasonably priced apartments so they could work furiously all day and sleep peacefully all night.

Lately, though, the sleeping part had been a problem--at least for the woman in apartment No. 6. At about 4:30 each morning, the woman awoke to the cacophonous sound of chirping birds outside her second-story window. In her mind, this was no coincidence. She knew that while she worked furiously all day, the tenant just below her in apartment No.9 did not; she stayed home all day, watching the soaps and dispensing bird feed to as many feathery things as she could cajole onto her patio.

One morning two weeks ago, the woman in apartment No.6 decided she couldn't take it any more and tearfully complained to the apartment's managers.

This little triangle of tension would probably have continued unnoticed, mind you--these Park Cities people don't like to air their dirty laundry, whether scandals or socks--except that last week, the whole Tippi Hedren thing came to its inevitable, awful climax.

On Earth Day no less.
That was the day the landlord decided to get rid of the birds. That was the day Dinah Vande Lune, the lady who feeds the birds, left apartment No.9 for a dentist's appointment and returned home to find a woman from the management company on her patio in the process of absconding with three industrial-sized bird feeders. That's the day neighbor relations on Glenwick frayed so dramatically that they now seem destined to make Cinemark vs. Dallas look like simple miscommunication between mature adults.

"There are no villians in this story--they're all very nice," said one neighbor, peering furtively out a curtain and declining to give a name for fear of getting caught in the catfight. "But it's a trashy little fight. And everyone loves a trashy little fight."

There is nothing quite as venemous as a fight between neighbors.
Five years ago, I wrote a column about a thirtysomething, upwardly mobile couple who moved onto a reputable North Dallas street filled with spacious homes on large lots. But the couple built a really big home on the big lot--so big that by the time they got the driveway laid out, the newcomers had managed to pinch a nice slice of their neighbor's property, and had even pulled out a row of the neighbors' bushes to do it, all while he was conveniently away from his abode.

The neighbor was not happy. And he was a bit eccentric. So when the thing played out, reaching that unmistakable crescendo of territorial madness, the eccentric neighbor came charging out of his house with a shotgun, which he fired at the neighbor wife, who was eight months' pregnant and allegedly out in the yard doing something predatory and irritating at the time.

There are no heroes in these matters. Things get too emotional too fast for anyone to keep their hands clean--no matter who started the problem. Even when it's all over, no one ever sees his or her role in the fiasco clearly. I learned this firsthand when, several years after I'd written the driveway column--which distributed the blame rather equally, as I recall--I ran into the wife in a tony North Dallas restaurant, where she proceeded to lock me in her sights and address me in extremely loud terms, across a very crowded entryway, as "you lying bitch."

I thought of this woman almost wistfully last Friday morning during a visit with Judy Lisenby, manager of Lantower Property Management Inc., landlord for 4112 Glenwick, and a key player in the bird triangle.

"You'll never guess what I want to talk to you about," I said, reaching out to shake the hand of what for the moment was a smiling, happy woman.

"Bird feeders."
Suffice it to say there's nothing quite like having your hand in the grip of a bright, good-looking Texas woman wearing a $500 alligator belt and the glare of a hungry tiger--it's as close as you'll ever get, I suppose, to a sneak preview of the fiery depths of hell.

"I'm not going to discuss that," Lisenby told me, her eyes narrowed, her fine, straight teeth clenched into an agonizingly tight expression of serious unhappiness with my presence. "I don't see that there's anything newsworthy. I guess I wonder what your motivation is."

 

There was no motivation--just a phone call from Dinah Vande Lune who, apparently believing media attention was good ammunition for the Confederate side, wanted me to know that these people had come for her bird feeders. On Earth Day, of all things. Which, at first blush, seemed like a pretty classic, extremely uptight Park Cities thing to do.

But as I and Vande Lune talked further, a memorable scene from Hitchcock's The Birds popped into my head--the one where the camera focuses on a kid's jungle gym that soon attracts one bird, then two, then a few more, until it--and then the entire playground--is filled with large, predatory, crows.

"So, how many birds do you feed over there?" I asked tentatively. "A dozen? A hundred?"

"Oh, not many," Vande Lune replied. "Let's see: two cardinals, a morning dove, a few finches."

Two days later, sitting in her apartment, listening to the story in more detail, she answered the question again: "two male cardinals, one morning dove, five-to-six finches, some chickadees, a woodpecker."

A woodpecker?
"Yes, I've seen him a handful of times--he's not a regular visitor," Vande Lune said. "He comes about 11 a.m.--right when I'm hightailing it back from Starbucks to catch All My Children. That's when I'd hear the "tap-tap-tap."

Is that it?
"I do get lots of sparrows," she said. "They're like the common man. There was a song once: 'If God can love a sparrow, he must love me.'"

Anything else?
"Well, squirrels come down and eat in the feeders," she said. "One squirrel runs to the door here--he stands right on the threshold, not quite on the carpet--and he makes a little noise and then runs back out. That's to tell me that the food is out."

And how much food are we talking about here? I asked, envisioning--in my worst neighbor nightmare--about a bag a month.

"Two gallons a week," she said.
Sure seems like a whole lot of eatin' goin' on, I replied.
"It's not like I'm Grizzly Adams or something," she said. "But when you're trying to heal yourself and get in touch with your spirituality, tranquility is real important. It just is."

As she said this, "Katy" the lovebird--Vande Lune's token house bird--was sitting on a swing in her big, metal cage, belting out her 100th shrill tune since my arrival several hours earlier. If this was Vande Lune's idea of tranquility, I remember thinking, then I must be one uptight human being.

Apparently not. Because at that moment, Vande Lune jumped out of her chair, glared at her bird, and exclaimed: "OK, that's it, Katy. You're going to sleep." She grabbed a dark-brown towel, then threw it over Katy's cage. "Mommy's getting a headache listening to you."

She smiled. And saw no irony in any of this.

I once did a story about a Miami, Fla., woman who planted some tomato seeds in a small pot on her breezeway. To her surprise, the plant grew vigorously, and before long there were tomato vines creeping off in all directions, and by the time the reporter arrived on the scene, several rooms in her house had been completely overtaken by curly vines and ripening fruit. I remember the woman telling me, as I stood there gaping at what I considered to be a downright disgusting mess, that it had just, well, happened.

This is just how Judy Lisenby and her employees at Lantower Management must be feeling these days.

After all, the rustication of this tiny, 1940s-era, chalk-white building just off Preston Road just kind of happened. One day it's an unassuming, uncomplicated place that stayed amazingly quiet--downright vacant during working hours. And the next day it's a pet store.

Vande Lune, you see, is not your typical Glenwick resident. She is not a single, twentysomething elementary-school teacher, or clothing-store buyer, or medical resident like many of her neighbors. She is a vulnerable, 48-year-old woman who is still reeling from an unexpected job layoff from corporate America two years ago--one of a long line of personal setbacks that include, in chronological order, a bad marriage, a divorce, single motherhood, a 1981 rape that occurred while both her children were in the house, and, finally, a crippling bout with carpal tunnel syndrome, which produced irreparable nerve damage in her wrists and arms and contributed to her losing her job.

"The school of hard knocks," she tells me bravely. "I think I have a Ph.D. in that."

Losing her job was the hardest part, she says. "I took it real hard. I know everyone does in this situation, but work was such a huge part of my life. I've had to work real hard--painfully hard--to learn that work is just a job. It's not family. For the last two years, I've been going through a transition period, trying to get to the spiritual side and heal myself."

 

In large part that meant adjusting to a drastically smaller income. For two years, Vande Lune has been living on workers compensation and long-term disability, both of which end a year from now. In anticipation of that, Vande Lune cut her expenses in half last year by moving from an 1,800-square-foot apartment on Abbott Street to the 10-by-14-foot single room she lives in now for $325 a month. She sold almost all of her furniture, keeping only her most prized possessions: music, books, art prints. And bird feeders.

"The only reason I decided to take this apartment is because of the yard," Vande Lune says. "You'd never be able to live in a space this small if you didn't have the yard. The yard is where I spend most of my day. I love nature. I just always have. I'm out there all day."

The "yard" is a 10-foot-wide, 30-foot-long strip of earth that runs along one side of the apartment building. Technically, it's a common space, but because it's fenced, and because Vande Lune's studio-apartment door opens onto it, it's pretty much the private yard of whomever inhabits that apartment.

Until Vande Lune, though, the people who inhabited it just ignored it. "It was all just dirt and ants when I got here. You see this sidewalk?" she asks, pointing to a walkway that bisects the yard. "They didn't even know it was here until I dug it out."

Vande Lune insists that when she moved in, she told Lantower that she planned to fix up the yard--adorn it with plants and bird feeders and wind chimes. "They vetoed the wind chimes--they looked at them and said they were ugly," Vande Lune says firmly, "but they looked at the bird feeders and said they were OK."

The folks at Lantower deny approving the bird feeders. Both sides, though, agree that on the first day Vande Lune moved in, Lantower balked big-time when Vande Lune promptly hung two enormous bird feeders right outside the window of Lantower's offices, which were located right next to Vande Lune's apartment at the time. Words were exchanged. Vande Lune threatened to move out--but Lantower would have to pay moving costs, she warned. In the end, Vande Lune kept the bird feeders--but she had to move them away from Lantower's window.

Eleven months later, a once-completely-barren yard is a none-too-tidy, somewhat charming, hodgepodge of flower pots, bird baths, plastic pink flamingos, wrought-iron furniture, white gravel, monkey grass, gardening tools, and assorted other yard bric-a-brac--including, of course, myriad decorative and operational bird feeders. On the gate of the fence, which Vande Lune keeps padlocked, a funky, wooden sign, surrounded by wooden hearts, reads, "Welcome Friends." Inside the tiny apartment, it's more of the same--not unlike a crowded booth at one of those antique malls.

All of this has made the folks at Lantower progressively crazy, according to several people in the building. Though Judy Lisenby declines to share the intimate details of her growing distaste with the Woodstock scene happening under her nose, folks around the building contend that nary a day goes by when Vande Lune isn't pushing her luck, asking for something for her little menagerie--a screen door, some flats of monkey grass, some shelves, a bit of gravel. At one point, Vande Lune built herself a greenhouse, which just as mysteriously disappeared one night to Lantower's extreme delight. "I only built it to protect my plants during the winter," says Vande Lune.

What also unnerves her landlords is that Vande Lune, with her many flocks of birds, is the first person to complain when someone else is infringing on her peace and quiet.

She protested early on when the complex's maintenance men were gathering in the gravel driveway in the mornings to load their trucks and chat over coffee: Their talking disturbed the tranquility of her hourlong morning bath, she said. She was quick to confront a man whose dogs were making a racket in his garage. And she's the first person to leap from the building to strike up conversations with people who are most keenly interested in getting from their cars to their beds with the least amount of diversion.

Everybody put up with all of this. Until nesting season 1996, when tenant No.6--a young, professional woman who's lived in the building for more than four years--put her foot down. (We slipped a note under her door asking her to call us, but she hasn't.) When she complained, Lantower landlords, known for being attentive and prompt to respond to tenant complaints, did two things. They hammered extra plywood around the complaining tenant's air-conditioning unit to try and muffle the chirping noise. And then they descended on the bird feeders.

 

Though landlady Lisenby won't discuss the intelligence of that ham-fisted little move--you can't just haul off and confiscate people's property, especially without notice--the action has certainly gotten Vande Lune's dander up. "I intend to have my feeders back up," she says. "Period."

All of this could go away, of course, if Lisenby simply refuses to renew Vande Lune's lease, which is up June 1. Heck, Vande Lune is tired of living there anyway. "This used to be a peaceful place, but now the vibes are bad," Vande Lune tells me. But Lantower has to be hesitant to do that, suspecting that Vande Lune will respond with both a lawsuit--she's threatening to file one even now--and a TV crew.

On the other hand, it is spring. And, quite frankly, there are birds all over the place. Across town in Oak Cliff, where I live, the birds are busy, busy, busy--chirping away from dawn until dusk, circling the houses, diving through the trees, and building nests under my eaves in all the places that were freshly painted and supposedly bird-protected a mere three months ago.

"I think the birds are kind of nice," says one of Vande Lune's fellow tenants who was recently confronted by tenant No.6, who's been polling people about the bird problem. "I don't pay any attention to it. It's people driving on the gravel that really gets me."

Lisenby might be surprised to discover that there are actually two tenants who really dislike the loud crunching and sputtering that goes on outside their windows every time a car pulls into the driveway.

Sounds like the making of a full-scale University Park revolution to me.


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