I really didn’t want to hear this from someone I’d just met: “I spent $500 on an impulse buy at Children’s Fairyland’s live auction years ago, and I don’t know if I ever received what I won.”
Still, I needed all the details so I could make things right. What followed was a highly unlikely story that we’ll both be telling for years.
The item that attorney Dawn Newton had successfully bid on was described in our 2006 Gala program this way:
“YOUR LIFE AS A DOG: Bid on a shot at immortality — the right to name a pet dog belonging to a character in the next novel of Pulitzer Prize winner and Berkeley resident Michael Chabon. Chabon’s previous novels include ‘Kavalier & Clay,’ ‘The Final Solution: A Mystery of Detection,’ and ‘Wonder Boys.’ Donated by Michael Chabon.”
“It was the coolest live auction item I’ve ever seen,” Dawn recalled when we spoke. She’d read “Kavalier & Clay” and thought it was “phenomenal”; she’d had had a couple of drinks; and her husband hadn’t accompanied her to the event to offer any cautionary words of advice. Which is how she found herself the highest bidder, and the winner.
It was only afterward that it hit her: “What have I done here?” Calling her husband as she exited the event, she realized how silly it must have sounded. “Guess what I just won! The right to name an imaginary dog!” she remembers. Her husband’s mellow reply: “Huh. Have fun with that one.”
But then came the tough part — choosing a name that was as cool as the prize. Dawn briefly considered honoring a deceased family member, but decided against it. “Such an amazing author deserved to have a great name,” she says.
In the end, she chose the name Fifty-Eight. It refers to a now-discontinued bus line in Oakland that for six years carried Dawn to and from her downtown job each day. She loved that it had been an important transit line for people living at the base of the Oakland hills (“not the ritzy part”); that it was utilitarian, with no need for transfers; and its clientele was devoted and diverse. “I thought—Fifty-Eight, that’s a quirky, intense name that hopefully the author won’t hate.”
She conveyed the name to Chabon’s assistant, whose response was a brief “OK, thank you very much.” And then Dawn waited.
Two years later, she got an email from Chabon himself. “You thought that I forgot about the dog, didn’t you?” he wrote. He went on to ask if it would be OK if the name was given to a parrot instead. “Sure, I’ll take the parrot,” Dawn said. And that was the last she heard of her prize. She assumed that if Fifty-Eight had ever made it into print, it would be a minor character, and that she might never hear about it.
When Dawn mentioned a parrot, I had a flash of recognition, but I did a Google search to confirm my hunch. I had read “Telegraph Avenue,” Chabon’s big, jazzy celebration of Oakland published in 2012, and in it, an African grey parrot plays an epic role, even starring in a 12-page tour-de-force chapter consisting of one insanely fabulous sentence that book reviewers loved to discuss. I Googled “parrot Telegraph Avenue,” and up came the bird’s name: Fifty-Eight.
I immediately called Dawn, whose busy law career “doesn’t allow me to read as heavily as I would like,” and informed her that Michael Chabon — and Children’s Fairyland — had, in fact, come through for her. In the glorious book about the city we both love, Fifty-Eight is described as “some kind of prodigy, a Mozart of the birds.”
But it is in the 12-page third chapter of the book that Fifty-Eight literally and artistically takes flight. An open window provides the bird with the chance for independence, and he takes it. The parrot flies from character to character, catching glimpses of their lives, and ultimately flies off to freedom over the flatlands of Oakland and Berkeley.
As you can imagine, Dawn could not be happier. For years she had carried around the story about her craziest impulse buy, saying that it usually tops everyone else’s. But now she’s part of literary history, and the story is one she looks forward to sharing. “This one’s in my pocket, and I’ll bring it out at any occasion,” she told me, laughing.
Dawn is planning on attending Fairyland’s gala fundraiser on June 4 — her employer, Donahue Fitzgerald Attorneys, is a sponsor. Nine years ago, when she made her fateful bid, the gala was held at a restaurant. Now, although she sees Fairyland every day from her office building across Lake Merritt, she’ll be visiting our park for the very first time. No word on whether she’s planning to bid at our live auction.
While I was Google-searching “Telegraph Avenue,” I came across a May 3, 2013, post in an Amazon discussion forum. “Can someone better versed in music than me please explain why the bird was named Fifty-Eight?” someone had written. The writer had assumed a musical connection because so much of the book is about jazz and records.
Her query went unanswered. Until now.
C.J. Hirschfield has
served for 13 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is
charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park.
Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television
industry. C.J. is former president and current board member of the
California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of
Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District. C.J.
writes a weekly column for the Piedmont Post and OaklandLocal, where she loves
to showcase the beauty of her city and its people. She holds a degree in Film
and Broadcasting from Stanford University.