In the Crescent Park area of Palo Alto, a realtor who admits to being the top salesperson in the U.S. is offering a home with 7,216 square feet of living space. A sleek brochure advertises the merits of this home with such captions as La Dolce Vita, La Belle Epoque, and La Puerto del Sol. No price is listed, but a quick visit to Google brings up the realtor’s site, which informs its discriminating clientele that this property can be had for $8,800,000.
This outlay would purchase such amenities as a sense that one has been “transported to Monet’s garden in Giverny,” a pool designed by a specially commissioned waterscape architect whose plan was inspired by the pool that graces Hearst Castle, solid granite counter tops, handcrafted 24-karat gold light and bathroom fixtures, and heated towel racks. Ownership will also place one among neighbors who include “many celebrities, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, well-known power brokers of the high-tech industry, and leading academics from nearby Stanford University.” Any curious passersby who has plucked the brochure from the plastic case at the edge of this property can only imagine the heady conversations that float through the citrus air when this class of persons gathers for a catered social occasion.
A few blocks from Giverny, one comes across a neighborhood consisting of substandard apartment buildings and an occasional small house on the mend. Here the population tends to the bilingual and drives used cars. Weekend nights are a time for birthday celebrations featuring high-decibel salsa and coolers packed with Corona Beer.
Within this district, hidden behind an aging redwood fence and under tall, untrimmed oaks, sits a 960 square foot cottage that rents for $1200 a month. To those few who know its secret, this tiny dwelling seems as out of place in its neighborhood as it would be among the mansions of Crescent Park. It serves not only as Rosemary Lombard’s home; it also contains what she calls “The Chelonian Connection,” a “private animal behavior laboratory” consisting of a mix of sixteen turtles: seven eastern box turtles (Diode, Farfel, Shelley, Angel, Jo, Spin, Nin), eight pancake tortoises (Willow, Wedge, Heidi, Wafford, Scuter, Dittow, Quake, Toot), and a lone red-eared slider (Salty; later, Saltz).
The minds of these descendants from pre-Jurassic times are arguably more fascinating than the minds of the Homo sapiens who inhabit the mansions across San Francisquito Creek, which in effect acts as a moat protecting Palo Alto proper from East Palo Alto. And the conversations that occur in Lombard’s modest laboratory could well be more provocative than those that occur in Monet’s garden. For the turtles, Lombard claims, are literate. Over a period of over a quarter of a century, she says, she’s taught them to read and write—or, in their own lexicon, to “read-talk.”