here there be woodpeckers*

My friend Randall, a good and idealistic and hedonistic man, is like a character out of a novel: something intelligent and literary, vaguely glitzy, maybe something Fitzgerald would write if he was living today on the west coast. But when you meet Randall in person, he doesn’t seem larger-than-life. He seems like a lean, polite, soft-spoken man, who happens to work harder than most.

He’s not even tall.

But he founded a dot.com, and to say this company is successful is like pointing out that Tiger Woods plays good golf. Not too long ago, Randall agreed to attend the birthday party of a twentysomething guy he had never met but who was a friend of a friend. News leaked back that this guy was going around bragging to people — to women — about his friend “Randall the billionaire”, which quickly got shortened to “the billionaire”. Randall was disgusted. Got two close friends to boycott the party with him. They spent the weekend raising hell in another city instead.

Randall invited my husband E and me and a few others to his property in Mendocino for the July 4 weekend. We watched the smog of Los Angeles fall away from the windows of Randall’s jet; we descended into air so sharp and clear you could smell the pine and feel the tingle even when you were still in the plane. I had the naive idea that by ‘property’ he meant ‘house’ or possibly ‘estate’; what he actually meant was a kind of private upscale summer camp complete with enormous acreage (and magnificent redwoods), ten charming cabins, pool, dining lodge, business center, and my favorite: wine cellar and adjacent lounge. (Randall likes wine and knows something about it, but can’t remember which of his bottles are stored on which of his properties). If I have the chronology right, the place was a boys’ camp in the 1930s and then some kind of buddhist retreat — there was a zen koan carved into the wood in one of the cabins — and then a summer camp again. Now it belongs to Randall. There have been renovations. The wine bar was his own addition.

Not everybody can handle it there. The quiet, the nature. “Bill” — Randall was referring to our friend Bill the Hotel Guy — “went nuts. Couldn’t handle it. Kept saying stuff like, ‘Where are the bars, dude, where are the clubs?’ Kept saying, ‘Let’s go into town and make some trouble.’ I had to explain to him that those three buildings we passed up the road, there? That is the town.”

The six of us went straight to work hanging out by the pool. Our city eyes picked out hawks in the distance — “Those aren’t hawks,” Lee informed us. “Those are turkey vultures.” And the woodpeckers. A flock of them — black woodpeckers with splashes of white on their wings — nestled in a nearby tree. Every so often one would emerge from the branches, wing across the pool, disappear into another tree, then re-emerge with a bright piece of fruit in its beak and flap its way back to the others. The birds did this all afternoon. “It’s a plum tree,” Randall explained, and wandered over to it. He looked at us in our lounge chairs. “I used to wonder what I’d do with all these plums,” he said happily, “but then I realized — the woodpeckers come and knock them to the ground, and what they don’t take, the deer come and eat.” He seemed pleased and touched by such an economy. He was not, of course, completely sober at the time. None of us were. He told me, “When you write about this weekend in your blog, promise me you’ll write about the woodpeckers.”

The next night we had a remarkably good dinner at a local restaurant and he brought up my blog, the woodpeckers. I asked him if he wanted to choose his own pseudonym. “Randall,” he said immediately. “That’s one of the names I use anyway. I use it when I’m up here.”

I had known he deals with unwanted attention. We once went with him to South Beach and Randall brought along a bodyguard (idiot that I was, I didn’t even realize the guy was his bodyguard until we were at a club and the guy kept refusing the drinks I kept offering). “It’s a different kind of attention than a famous actor deals with,” he said now over dinner. “People read about me, they ask me for money, to pay off their debts. I get a lot of business proposals, charitable requests, things like that. They can get pretty weird.” And what he didn’t say — didn’t have to, because I’ve heard it from others — is that some people get angry when you tell them no. Some people don’t give up. I had a vague memory of E telling me about an incident — somebody camping out by his house — that might have triggered the bodyguard thing in the first place, but I couldn’t remember the details, and I didn’t bother to ask.

*this is of course a play on the phrase “here there by tygers”, which I didn’t know the origin of — only knew the King and Bradbury stories that share that title — until I researched it on the Internet minutes ago. Medieval cartographers used to write it on maps to signify unknown territories, possible danger… I think that’s cool.

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