A Considerable Town

Alice and Gertrude: Inseparable Angeleno Geese

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Thu, Jun 23, 2011 at 1:31 PM
click to enlarge Alice and Gertrude, right, have already made friends in their new home. - AMIT ITELMAN
  • Amit Itelman
  • Alice and Gertrude, right, have already made friends in their new home.

The two white geese, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, were carried down from the house by Allie, the 16-year-old daughter of an animal rescuer up in Laurel Canyon. The mother-and-daughter team scours county animal shelters, from Los Angeles to Riverside, to save beasts scheduled to be killed that day.

There had been three geese, Allie points out, but recently a coyote had picked off one of them from the yard -- inflicting on the two survivors the goose version of post-traumatic stress disorder. This took the form of them clinging desperately to each other, checking in multiple times an hour with a honking call and response.

Since the attack, Gertrude and Alice had been confined to a bathroom for their own safety. Allie knew this was not ideal, which is why the birds were donated to LA Weekly earlier this year, along with a huge bag of goose food.

The newspaper was looking to fulfill a marketing campaign promise it had made for its annual theater awards show in April -- the appearance of one live goose.

Amit Itelman, who runs the Steve Allen Theater, was co-producing this year's theater awards. The whole goose thing was his idea. He had prepared a refuge for them in the garden of his Glendale home. It's a sloping yard, with a flat patio. He had hoped they would stay on the hill, by the vegetation, but geese like flatlands, so they parked themselves mostly on the patio, where he had placed a small plastic bathing pool. This resulted in what Itelman describes as mountains of excrement, which he tried in vain to hose off and away into the hinterland. In the race between man and goose shit, the shit kept prevailing.

Even so, Itelman discovered that he was becoming bonded to the geese, and they to him. They greeted him when he arrived home. They followed him around the garden. Birds and man started to share a common language. He learned to distinguish between their expressions of fear and joy. He learned to differentiate among their variations of barking.

One particularly stressful day, he couldn't get them to shut up. Then he realized that, from the patio, they were seeing their own reflections in a sliding glass door and panicked that Itelman had entrapped two other geese in his living room. It got worse, he says. When he opened the glass door, he wiped out the goose reflections, thereby sending Gertrude and Alice into a frenzy. That was when the neighbors started cursing from the street.

As the awards show approached, it was evident that Gertrude and Alice were inseparable. They would have to appear onstage together, or not at all. For the show, Itelman built them a dollhouse set, a miniature office, with a tiny neon sign flashing on one wall. Gertrude and Alice would appear inside the "set," honking nonstop -- at least that much could be relied on. This would be presented as a scene from David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, which the geese performed valiantly, their barking "translated" by Itelman from the stage.

The show went as planned. Afterward, temperatures in Los Angeles rose and the geese showed the first signs of irritability, squabbling, biting each other for the right to occupy the tiny pool. Itelman knew the situation was unsustainable, but with hundreds of geese scheduled to be evicted from Echo Park lake (which is to be drained and cleaned), no bird sanctuary in three counties would take them. After a month of rejections, Itelman found a referral to "Guido," a young guy who had just inherited his grandmother's estate in Bodega Bay. The land included a huge lake with an island in the middle. Guido and Itelman spoke by phone. "Sure, bring 'em up."

For the eight-hour drive in Itelman's jeep, Gertrude and Alice were separated into different cages, probably convinced they were en route to slaughter. They shrieked as though meat hooks were descending in front of their eyes. On the Golden State Freeway, Itelman stumbled upon his latest goose insight: They like Led Zeppelin in general, and "The Rain Song" in particular. From there on out, it was smooth driving.

On the lake bank, Itelman opened the two cage doors. After Gertrude and Alice emerged, they flapped their wings while standing erect. They bumped chests -- a goose expression of joy. And then they descended into the great expanse of water, floating as though on a bed of silk. Guido and Itelman floated beside them in a rowboat to the island. The geese dunked themselves in the water. They luxuriated in the cool Sonoma County breezes. They had arrived in goose heaven.

On the ride back to shore, Gertrude and Alice tagged along beside the boat. All understood that this was a parting. Itelman says he started to sob, from love, from gratitude, from sorrow, while Guido respectfully looked away.

The men trudged up the embankment, two great white birds, like angels, floated away from shore.

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