RIP: Pink Flamingo, 1957-2006

An old friend sent me a note to point out the passing of the company that made the original pink plastic lawn flamingo. She figured I wanted to know since pink flamingos were involved in my first mention in a newspaper article. The story goes like this:

I was working at a place called the Information Technology Center at Carnegie-Mellon University, funded by IBM. A new building was being built for the center. We moved in before the building was completed. It was quite a piece of modern architecture. A building that architects get awards for. Sleek and unrelentingly black. Surfaces that only Steve Jobs and Darth Vader could love. It had a terraced pyramid-ish shape. This was 1984.

Shortly after moving in, several of us were in a bar down the street, downing beers and bitching about the blackness of the building we now worked in. Someone at the table said something like "it needs a bit of color - like a pink flamingo". I'm not smart enough to come up with that idea, but I am dumb enough to implement it. I went to a local gardening store and bought a couple of flamingos, mounted them on a little wooden platform and placed them on the little rooflet-thing outside my office window. It was a thing of beauty. The flamingos were small, but intensely pink. From many blocks away, they were clearly visible. Tiny pink dots in this immense blackness. Sitting in my office I could watch people stopping on roads and sidewalks and staring, trying to figure out what the bright pink beacons were.

Many forms of hell broke loose. One of my favorite happened one day when I was sitting in my office hacking away with my door open. The building was finally completed and representatives of the university, the contractor and the architect were doing a walk-through to hand-off the building from the construction company to the university. They happened to walk down the hall by my office. Through my open door, past me, and out the window, the flamingos were clearly visible. The architect really lost it. He hated the flamingos. He started yelling at the contractor who (roughly) deadpanned "We didn't put it there. It's outside the scope of the contract. It's not our responsibility". The university folks tried to get me to remove it, but I pointed out that I didn't work for them (I worked for IBM - it was an odd arrangement). So they departed down the hall with the architect ranting. But the Flamingos stood.

Bombs started going off in the University administration. Work orders were issued. Memos to have me reprimanded got issued. But somehow the admins and maintenance folks who actually run the place managed to make none of these things actually happen. It got noisy enough that the Pittsburgh Post Gazette did a story about it.

A month or two later I accepted a job offer at Sun and headed off to California. I got off the plane, rented a car, and drove to the house that I had rented from a friend. As I drove up to the house, there was quite a crowd on the sidewalks: some folks at Sun had gone out and bought every plastic flamingo from every garden shop for miles around and stuck them on the lawn in front of the house. Newspaper article #2.

So I start working at Sun. After a few weeks I take all the flamingos off my lawn and put them in a big heap in my garage. I keep getting emails from folks at CMU about the flamingos. Quite a cottage industry had sprung up to protect them. And they started to spread. One of the maintenance crews who had an electric mini-truck to drive around campus took a flamingo and sawed it in half vertically from nose to tail. Then they glued the left and right sides of the flamingo to the doors of the truck. Made quite a sight driving around.

Getting close to Chistmas I came up with an idea for disposing of the heap of flamingos in my driveway: I made a Santa costume to fit a flamingo and built a flamingo-sized sleigh for him to ride in. I then placed Santa Flamingo in his sleigh pulled by rein-flamingos in the gardens next to Sun's building (manufacturing was downstairs; engineering, sales, marketing and administration were upstairs). I had enough flamingos to make a complete second Santa Flamingo set, which I mailed off to CMU.

Quite by accident, my timing was excellent. Unknown to me, while the box was in transit, one night a frat across the street scaled the building and stole my pair of flamingos. The frat brothers victory didn't last long: the Santa kit showed up almost immediatly and magically where once there had been two flamingos, there were now 9.

I still have some left, fading and in my garage.

The big tragedy is that I have no pictures of any of this. So if any old friends are reading this, I'd love to get scans of any photos you might have.


Great story!
An idea come to my mind. NetBeans team is moving to new Sun building in Prague soon. The new building is in business center called "The Park".
When I worked at that place a few times. The offices and the building looks sterile to me. It needs something like a ping flamingo. When it will be sitting on the glass wall of the building all the white collars from other companies will be surprised.

Thanks for the idea. I hope that I'll find something like a flamingo in shops around here. If your bag will be empty when you'll go to Prague you can bring a pink flamingo.

Posted by Lukas on October 31, 2006 at 03:49 PM PST #

Nice story. :-)

Also, nice to have you back in the "pink" of health ;-)

Posted by Mayuresh Kathe on November 01, 2006 at 09:55 PM PST #

I remember you telling this story before, it's still just as hilarious. Glad you are doing well - the beardless photo is quite something, not sure what I'd look like now. Cheers.

Posted by Andrew Nicholson on November 02, 2006 at 01:39 AM PST #

Hi James, I'm now learning the Java language... and it's being tough... thanks for inventing Java so the profs at my University can send me so many \^%#&%# assignments! I go to U of Alberta, and I just found out you are Albertan too... go oilers peace martin

Posted by martin on November 02, 2006 at 05:14 AM PST #

Reminds me of the time your dad put up a second oil drilling rig to tick of the Calgary Mayor's office. They had asked him to remove the one there and were very insistant so he erected a second beside the original through the night! Your dad's cousin Ben used to put kangaroos for his reindeer every Christmas as he was born in Australia. Too funny. This is an email from your your 3rd cousin Bev.

Posted by Bev Lewis on November 06, 2006 at 03:51 AM PST #

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