By Dennis McCarthy, LA Daily News

Timewise, it was only a few heartbeats, but enough to save the lives of the postman, the young maid, and her grandma.

If Alan Nicoletti had been a few seconds sooner turning his mail delivery truck onto the 10700 block of Viking Avenue in Northridge a few weeks ago when the winds were howling, he would have never seen 2014.

If 20-year-old Marlene Martinez, and her grandmother, Domitila Martinez — working together for the first time as a two-person house-cleaning crew — had walked out of the home on Viking Avenue just a few seconds earlier, they’d probably be dead now, too.

That’s how massive and mighty the 70-foot tall pine tree was that fell across this cul-de-sac of residential homes, and brushed by the rooftop of Paul and Alana Berkolds’ house — killing a 1998 Toyota Camry parked on the street along the way.

A car dies, big deal. But this story was only a few seconds from being front page, tragic news. Instead of tragedy, though, we have a story of resolve. Instead of feeling bad we’re left feeling … I don’t know … you tell me.

“Her car took the place of my body,” says Nicoletti, who has seen a few things in his 40 years delivering mail. Biting dogs? Sure, goes with the territory. But trees big enough to block out the sun landing a few heartbeats away from your head? No, that would be a first.

“If I had been a few seconds sooner pulling up to that mailbox I’d have been crushed. I was so relieved to be alive, but when I found out whose car it was, I felt sorry for her.”

The life of a cleaning lady is tough, hard work. Since she graduated from high school three years ago, Marlene’s been supporting herself with a vacuum cleaner and a mop.

“She was working 10 hour days, six days a week for a maid service paying her $200 a week,” says Marlene’s mother, Kimberly Lopez. “One day she was an hour late getting to a house and was docked $100 in pay for the week.

“I was so mad I decided to open my own maid service,” says Lopez, who named her company Fancy Home Cleaning.


The house on Viking Avenue was the company’s first client, and Marlene’s first day on the job. She arrived driving the first car she’s ever owned — bought just three months earlier for $2,400. That 16-year-old Camry.

She parked it across the tree-lined, residential street, and walked into the house with her grandmother, who wanted to help out in her daughter-in-law’s new business.

“The wind was blowing so hard, and I had this feeling about parking there,” Marlene says. “But I didn’t listen to my gut. If I had just parked a few feet away on the other side of the street.

“It was a two-hour job, and Grandma and I were getting ready to leave when I asked her to wait a second while I mopped a spot on the kitchen floor. That’s when we heard the branches cracking. Then a big boom and the windows went dark.”

The fallen tree was on city property, but any liability is foisted off to an “Act of God,” which is a nice way of saying “tough luck.” To save a few bucks on her car insurance, she had not taken comprehensive damage coverage on the car.

“She called me crying,” Marlene’s mom says. “I told her, ‘Honey, the car’s replaceable. You and Grandma aren’t. Stop crying.”

When he got home from work that night, Paul Berkolds found a mammoth tree stretched across his street, brushing by his roof and coming to rest a few feet from his kitchen window. Under the tree was a dead car.

The next day city crews showed up to clear the street, but it would be almost a week staring out his window every morning at the flattened car before it was towed away. It gave him time to think.

“A few days after the tree fell, my mailman knocked at the door,” Paul says. “It was his day off and he wasn’t in uniform. Alan talked to my wife and I about how close that tree came to crushing him and how he wanted to help the cleaning lady replace her car.”

So, while the mailman has been making the rounds of car dealerships looking for help in making 2014 start better for a cleaning lady, Paul and his neighbor Lynn Cory have been contacting the neighbors and cutting up fireplace sized logs from the tree to sell.

The price is right. Whatever you want to give. One hundred percent goes to the owner of the dead car so she doesn’t have to borrow her grandma’s car to get to work now.

“When I heard what they were doing for me, I thought, ‘Wow, these people don’t have to do that, they don’t know me.’ But they want to help. I just feel so grateful to them for even thinking about me.”

So, that’s the story. Just a few heartbeats away from being a tragedy.

If you need firewood or just want to help out, give Paul a call at (818) 645-8754, or email him at

Dennis McCarthy’s column runs every Friday. You can reach him at

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