Today I was writing about 1980 when I first moved to Tampa (I’m still living here almost 35 years later). I made the wrong kind of friends at school; of course we decided to start a rock band and I was the lead singer. They were all 18 already, I was still 17, but we thought it would be a great idea to rent an apartment and move in together. I don’t know why Dad and Liz went along with this idea; maybe they were ready to get me out of their hair.
My stint in the apartment lasted only as long as the first and second month we had paid for up front. I came back home shortly after my 18th birthday, 95 pounds of skin and bones and sleep deprivation. As surprised as I was they had let me go, I was even more surprised that they took me back.
One of the conditions of my being there was that I had to get a job. I found work as a retail employee at a big plant and landscape nursery a few miles away. I was fascinated by the lush beauty of the place and really loved working there.
The retail portion of the nursery opened at 9:00 am, so I had to be finished with my watering by then. After that, I stayed close to the front of the property to assist the customers, weed potted plants, sweep the patio area in front of the office, and feed the birds. There were two cages full of ring-necked doves on either side of the walk which was the main entrance. The doves cooed and looked peaceful to the casual observer, but I knew that they were really just mean and messy. The doves pecked at each other, plucking feathers and fighting for first access to the food dispensers. They defecated on each other, all over the artfully placed branches decorating the cages, and right in their food and water. Cleaning out those cages was a nasty chore; we had to do it once a week to keep them looking nice.
The owners lived in a large, low house right there on the front of the property about 40 feet to the side of the nursery office. Mr. H had traveled many times to South America and captured macaws with his own two hands, then flown them back to the United States and kept them in a small complex of habitats in the backyard. Visitors to the nursery could get within touching distance of these big, gorgeous, loud, aggressive parrots in rainbow colors, including a pair of large deep blue hyacinth macaws that he could have easily sold for many thousands of dollars each. Customers would walk through the unfenced yard, prompting the macaws to begin their deafening screeches all at once, forcing observers to cover their ears or run away. Sometimes the macaws were placed in breeding pairs and after the female laid an egg she would become aggressive, charging anyone who dared to walk too close to the habitat. Most of the time, though, the birds were docile but unpredictable. Their huge hooked beaks were strong enough to crack hard nuts, and the big Hyacinths could even break open coconuts to consume the water and meat inside. To demonstrate that, Mr. H would place nuts and coconuts inside the habitats for the birds to snack on. There were no signs warning customers not to touch the macaws, but as far as I knew, no one ever tried. It was easy to surmise that a beak that could crack hard shells would have no problem removing a finger made of flesh.
The habitats were raised up off the ground about six inches, with a wire floor to allow waste to drop through to the ground. Most of the waste would compost under there, but rats loved to make nests in the waste, feasting on the parrot’s leftover food that dropped through the wire. I didn’t know why, but H’s preferred method of getting rid of the rats involved hoses and baseball bats. When I was recruited to help with this task, I always wanted to man the hoses but once or twice I was on the baseball bat team. After closing time, when all the customers had gone home and only the employees were still around, the people with hoses would stand behind the habitats, turn the water on and flood the area underneath, which would force the rats out. They’d come running across the backyard to get away from the water, and those of us with baseball bats would be waiting there to smash the rats and kill them. As gruesome as it was, there was a sporting element to it. Half-drowned rats can still run pretty fast, and the big ones took more than one whack to kill. Shouts and whoops would mix with the loud screams of the parrots reacting to the commotion.
Past the house and just behind the retail area the rest of the property was reserved for wholesale plants and stock for the landscaping crew. There was a pond right there where the main road split off into the circle that surrounded the “back nine” acres. It was about the size of two backyard swimming pools placed side by side and housed large ornamental carp fish in white, orange, red, and black and all combinations thereof, and living there on the side of the pond was a small flock of Bremen geese, the tallest and largest domestic goose breed. The geese were protective of the area leading up to the pond and didn’t like it when customers would get too close, and they often did, even though we always warned them when they came into the nursery that there were geese back by the wholesale area. The level of aggressiveness depended on the mood of the flock, but if you got too close they’d attack you. Most people, seeing a large goose coming after them, turned around and ran, but that only encouraged the geese and resulted in a comedic chase, complete with honking, hissing, and screaming, back up the dirt road to the retail area. Once I saw a woman undressed by the alpha goose. She was looking at the macaws and for some reason the goose had wandered up further than usual, caught sight of her, and decided she needed to be evicted from the premises. The customer was wearing a wrap skirt that tied at the waist; the ties dangled down and were a convenient way for the goose to get hold of her as she tried to run away. The goose pulled the ties and the skirt unwrapped and fell to the ground, leaving a very embarrassed customer standing in the backyard, gathering up her skirt and holding it against her body in a frantic attempt to cover herself, with all the macaws loudly proclaiming her presence.
There is so much history surrounding that beautiful nursery where I used to work. The property has been sold now, the nursery no longer exists. It makes me sad and seems such a waste, especially since I know some of the details of why. But such is life.