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Digging Niches:flamingo attack 

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The flamingo planter must be discreet, calm, focused. He should have a good grasp of geography, an eye for spatial relations, a valid driver's license. He must possess extraordinary sangfroid and, if caught, a healthy admiration for the absurd. After all, his nightly task is to creep onto the pristine suburban lawn, stab it with several dozen pink plastic flamingos, and then disappear.

It's a ruthless business.

Flamingo inflicting wasn't always so high risk. In fact, there was a time when self-respecting home owners would proudly flamingo themselves. But those days have largely gone the way of Hawaiian shirts. In these cynical times the pink plastic lawn ornament has been redeployed as a weapon.

The amateur flamingoizer will find it rough going. Ammunition is available at downscale home-supply outlets, though a round may run as high as $12.95. Threading the steel stake through the pink torso can be tricky, proper lawn alignment isn't always easy to gauge, and the chance of detection--not to mention dog bite, arrest, or manslaughter--is high.

Which is why the professional is recommended. Rick A. Fazio, owner and president of the Original Flamingo Surprise, offers reasonable rates and guaranteed delivery, and he hasn't lost a man yet.

Fazio grew up outside Cleveland in Brook Park, neighbor to Parma, long the butt of "flamingo and white socks" jokes. He was schooled early in the withering effect an inert flamingo can have on the unsuspecting. At football games against Parma, taunters packed a hard-bodied bird or two. After high school Fazio got into restaurants, ran his own place in Montreal for a few years, and in 1991 came home itching for a new business idea. That's when it hit him: Stealth flamingo.

Under the tutelage of Don Featherstone, who in 1957 invented the pink plastic flamingo ("the tackiest person I've ever met," says Fazio), and with the aid of twin brother Ralph, Fazio launched the Original Flamingo Surprise. The service now operates in Cleveland, Columbus, Atlanta, and Chicago, stunning innocent victims with a lawnful of pink pests about 50 times a night, every day of the year.

Evildoers can peruse their options at www.flamingosurpris.com, then phone ambush orders into headquarters, a spare warehouse in Bensenville (708-350-1280). The occasion might be a birthday, anniversary, or graduation and might, in fact, not call for flamingos. Lining the plywood shelves and poking out of rolling cardboard crates are platoons of identical pigs (popular with law enforcement), sheep (popular with clergy), frogs (popular accompanied by the message "Welcome to your new pad"), parrots (wildly popular with Jimmy Buffett fans), ducks, geese, bunnies, teddy bears, soccer balls, chickens, and of course white, yellow, blue, green, and pink flamingos. Instead of the familiar Pepto-Bismol pink flamingo, produced locally by a company called Lawnware, Fazio works with the fuchsia flamingo developed by Featherstone. There are 40 types of artillery in the arsenal, but Fazio insists, "The flamingo part was the driving force." It's $60 to $125 a whack, depending on location.

Drivers plot a night's work on a pin-studded wall map and load up the cargo--50 shots per order plus a customized billboard. Then, armed with a clipboard, toll card, street finder, and sheaf of invoices, they venture into the dark. Using Original Flamingo's trade-secret strafing, spacing, and signage techniques, an experienced hand takes 10 to 18 minutes to hit and run.

Original Flamingo guarantees the deed will be done between midnight and 6 AM or it's on the house. Better yet, second-shift workers clear away the savagery the next afternoon. Company policy used to dictate that yards be deflamingoed in the dead of night, but Fazio was losing too much product to poachers. "We discovered that most hoodlums get home from school, eat dinner, then steal," he says. Offering victims a keeper for $5 also reduces theft.

Even with such precision execution, trying to "say it in the yard"--as the company's slogan goes--has inherent risks. Sometimes the victim will return home during the strike, which can be awkward all around. Every now and then a driver will festoon the wrong home. ("We work on a zero-tolerance policy," says Fazio. "They lose their jobs.") Dogs can get territorial, though 95 percent snooze right through. And the flamingo professional is routinely mistaken for a common criminal. "We get stopped by police four nights out of seven," says Fazio. "Neighbors and block watches work well." After the confusion is straightened out, police officers make excellent customers and, in some instances, devoted moonlighters.

So far none of the reverse burglars has been assaulted, though one bathrobe-clad birthday boy pursued Ralph Fazio, pink-handed, through the streets, ending his chase nearly nude in a mud puddle. "People who use our service aren't usually going to pull stunts like that," says Fazio. "If you know the guy sleeps with a shotgun, he's not going to want a flamingo on the lawn." Still he worries. "Atlanta might be the first place we get shot. "

It's tough duty in other ways. Fazio counts 17 competitors in Cleveland, 5 in Chicago. "It doesn't take a brain surgeon to do what we do," he says. "That's why it's easy to copy." So he's busy diversifying. He now offers a retail line including a canned toy flamingo and a flamingocam. He dreams of spreading his wings in New York, as well as expanding to yard-free territory, such as offices and condos. He even envisions a caper in which every mayor in the Chicago area would get flamingoized on the same night. Still, Fazio has his regrets. Working so intimately with the product, he fears he's developed an immunity. "I'll never be able to experience the essence of having a flamingo surprise," he laments. "It probably wouldn't do a thing for me."

--Leah Eskin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Three photos of Rick A. Fazio with flamingos by Randy Tunnell.

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