Photograph by Denise Rehse Watson
Of a Feather?: Bus drivers by day, lawn flockers by night, this trio tiptoes across suburbia spreading pink plastic birds wherever they go.
Flamingo a Go-Go
The divine secrets of early-morning lawn flocking
From the brightly lit main road, a nondescript van turns slowly, enters the parking lot, and makes its way back to where I am sitting in my car. It's just before 4am, and the night has been cold and dark--perfect conditions, I am told, for a drive-by flocking--and here I am, waiting for the arrival of the Flamingo Sisters.
The van rumbles up and stops. Inside, three women are bundled up against the cold, with the van's cargo area jammed with plastic pink flamingos and other strange objects. Flossy Flamingo motions me quickly inside, where I am immediately offered a brownie and some black coffee as the van turns around and heads back to the street.
"Sugar and caffeine!" exclaims Sweet Pea Flamingo from the front seat. "You gotta have caffeine and sugar if you're gonna go flocking houses at four in the morning."
"Yeah. We're always excited and amped when it's all over," adds Foo-Foo Flamingo, "but it's usually a little slow-going at first. Up until right about now."
"Right about now?" I ask.
"Yeah," grins Flossy. "When we're finally awake, and we're just around the corner from one of our victims."
"They're not victims, Flossy," reminds Sweet Pea with a laugh, glancing my way to explain. "You'll have to forgive Flossy. We forgot to bring her muzzle this morning."
"So then," I wonder aloud, "what term do you use to describe your . . . uh, victims?"
"We just think of them as very, very lucky people," Foo-Foo says.
That's good to hear. Because in this case, the Flamingo Sisters' next lucky victim is my mother-in-law.
The Flamingo Sisters may have the world's best part-time job. Bus drivers by day, clandestine "flocking engineers" by night, these anonymous ladies are the brains and stealth behind Yard Deco, a "lawn greeting" operation. Modeled after similar services (such as the Oakland-based Flamingo Surprise), Yard Deco provides the kind of service that the word "unique" was pretty much invented for.
Depending on which package a person requests, the Flamingo Sisters will visit a designated domicile under cover of darkness, depositing several dozen plastic pink flamingos on its lawn. In most cases, they leave a marquee board with a custom message spelled out in great big letters, such as "Happy Birthday!" "Congratulations!" or "Hey, I bet you didn't expect a yard full of flamingos!"
Along with flamingos, clients can also select from a number of other objects and animals: cows, dinosaurs, teddy bears, buzzards, plastic hearts, cartoon golfers, storks--the list goes on.
"We can even dress up the flamingos if someone wants us to," says Flossy. The Flamingo Sisters always return late the next day to remove all the decorations, leaving a big gift bag full of flamingo-themed goodies and a color photograph of the house as it looked with the eye-catching array in place. Such services run from $77 to $105, depending on the number of items requested.
Spreading awareness has been a challenge, they all agree. The Sisters have spent several weekends handing out flyers at shopping malls, in full disguise of course. Flossy frequently dresses up as the Flamingo Lady, appearing in parades and various other public events.
"It's a good way to get publicity," she says, "which is pretty important for us since what we do is so off-the-wall. When you start thinking about giving someone something special, the idea of having three bus drivers flock that person's yard in the middle of the night might not be the first thing you think of. We're trying to change that."
The other challenge, one would think, is avoiding getting caught (or being shot at) by anyone waking in the middle of the night to see a bunch of people sneaking around on the lawn. So far, at least, that hasn't happened.
"We've been told we're pretty quiet," says Sweet Pea. "We've done houses with dogs; we've done houses with people sleeping in the front room right by the lawn, and later they say, 'We didn't hear you at all!' Last month we did a place in Sebastopol, a house right off this gravel road, and she had bushes, no lawn at all, so not only did we have to put the flamingos in the bushes, the bushes were right up against the house. It was kind of freaky, but we pulled it off, and they never heard a thing."
"A grandma hired us to do this one place," adds Foo-Foo, "and we went over there and it was this nice, big, huge lawn--and the lights were all on. We thought we were gonna get caught for sure, but it was a skate-through. No problems. We hit 'em and ran."
Shhhh," whispers Sweet Pea. With headlights now off, we've just coasted past the house where my wife's unsuspecting mother, retired schoolteacher Mary Evelyn Panttaja, is hopefully asleep. Pulling up to the curb just beyond the big corner lot with its vast yard, Sweet Pea cuts the engine, and the Flamingo Sisters go to work. The back door lifts open, and Flossy and Foo-Foo quietly grab armfuls of flamingos, all neatly arranged in orderly rows, many bunched together in plastic milk crates. With no discussion, they move out silently across the shadowy lawn, each of them poking several metal-legged birds into the grass in various formations before heading back to the van for a another batch.
"Grab some, but be real quiet," murmurs Sweet Pea, who's stationed herself at the van, where she will be handing out the various props in order to speed things up a bit. Clutching a quartet of flamingos, which rattle and clatter as I carry them across the lawn, I realize that it takes a lot of skill to carry a bunch of hard, plastic thingamajigs without banging them together. Scanning the house for signs of life, I arrange the birds in a little line--a flamingo parade. By the time I'm done, Flossy and Foo-Foo are already heading back to the van for their fourth load. These ladies are fast!
"Look," Sweet Pea says, showing me the marquee they've prepared. Per my suggestion--this not being Mary Evelyn's birthday or anything--the sign reads, in great big letters, "Happy National Children's Book Week." She used to be a schoolteacher, after all. And, hey, it really is National Children's Book Week. As I snatch up an armful of bears and plastic cows, Flossy quickly hauls the sign over by the front door, aiming the board so its greeting will meet its intended recipient when she opens the door later this morning.
Finally, with the yard loaded up with 60 or 70 birds and cows and hearts, looking like an explosion at a novelty factory, we are done.
"That's it, let's go," whispers Foo-Foo, nearly sprinting for the van as Sweet Pea closes the back door gently and slides in behind the wheel. We all climb in, but don't slam the passenger doors until we've driven a half a block or so down the street.
"Well, ladies," says Flossy, "I'd say that was a pretty good flocking."
In a few hours, Mary Evelyn will step outside for the morning paper, and once the shock wears off, she'll spend the next hour calling people to see who was responsible, then calling everyone else to stop by and see what's happened to her lawn. By 10 o'clock in the morning, neighbors will be gathering in groups on the sidewalk, taking pictures.
Though the Flamingo Sisters' phone number is prominently displayed on the back of the marquee, they promise they will never let on as to who was responsible.
In the hit-and-run flamingo-flocking business, anonymity is crucial.
"People usually call us and say, 'Who are you and why are these flamingos in my yard and who hired you to do this?'" Sweet Pea admits. "One lady was very insistent, but Flossy kept saying, 'I'm sorry, but this is done anonymously, so I can't give out that information.' She never did find out, did she?"
"Not from us," says Foo-Foo.
"I told her, 'I've been sworn to secrecy. I'll have to eat glass before I'll tell you who hired us,'" says Flossy. "But people are excited and they want to know who did this. Of course, everyone we've flocked so far has really liked it, even if they don't know who was behind it."
Yeah," says Sweet Pea, "but what's not to like about pink flamingos?"
Yard Deco can be contacted at 707.546.2481 or by visiting www.yarddeco3.com.
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From the January 8-14, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.