Jailbird

By Laurel Woods

Memoir

The Eighties, you may recall, were an era of flash and decadence. Now think 1984 — Ronald Reagan was president, Dallas and Dynasty were on TV, Michael Jackson and Madonna ruled the radio waves. It was all about pastels and lightning bolts, Aqua Net and Pac Man. I was fifteen, had big permed hair, and favored a pink and green polka dot sweatshirt dress, belted naturally, with white bejeweled cowboy boots. Country-western consumed my mom, who wore flowing plaid skirts with too much lace trim. Dad wasn’t immune to pop culture either. He began wearing pink and yellow blazers like Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor. Dad had a museum of cowboy boots — about twenty pairs ranging in color and animal hide, his favorites being crocodile and ostrich. He liked big gold rings and chains, and wore a gold bull, a Taurus, around his neck.

Behind the curtain of Dad’s eccentricity was a loving father. He’d grown up in the projects in Hoboken, New Jersey, one of nine children, mostly unattended by his mother, while his father had been committed to an insane asylum. He stole food from the Twinkie and Tootsie Roll Factories to survive and as a result, had no teeth of his own.

Family meant everything to Dad. Spending the holidays away from home was not an option. My parents enrolled us in private Catholic school, nuns and all, to ensure a good education. Dad went to church with Mom on Sundays, not because he was religious, but because he knew how much it meant to her.

He ran a tight ship at home, and there were severe consequences for busted behavior. Once when I was sixteen, I snuck out of the house wearing a leopard-print tank top and leather miniskirt. This was after my parents had told me “no daughter of theirs would ever wear such a thing.” I went to the night club 3-2-1 in Santa Monica, and drank and danced and smoked cigarettes.

The next morning, my dad approached me.  “Did you wear that outfit after your mother and I told you not to?”

I loved him too much to lie.  “Yes, I did.”

“And were you drinking and smoking, too?”

“Yes,” I said, in shock.

“Okay.”  He walked away with disappointment in his eyes.  It turned out Dad’s adult entertainment attorney had spotted me at the club. Just my luck. Two days later, Dad sold my car, my beloved Saab, and grounded me for six months. I was so ashamed that I’d let him down.

In contrast to my flashy yet Republican, pink-blazered father, was his business partner, Mac. Dad tried but could never hold a candle to all 6’7″ of Mac and his ostentatious lifestyle. My sister and I visited Mac once at his penthouse apartment in Inglewood, and met his beautiful Cockatoo -– large, white and friendly. “Go ahead, you can pet him,” he insisted, in his Barry White voice. He also had a separate ranch full of exotic animals and fancy cars. Mac had a python and was too cheap to buy the live animals for the snake’s meals, so he’d peruse the Recycler‘s classifieds pet section, looking for ads that read “Loving pet looking for good home.” Let’s just say that Mac’s python fully enjoyed several beloved pets, with a special taste for rabbits. Dad never let us visit, but I was told that going to Mac’s ranch was like walking onto the set of Miami Vice — you could almost hear Herbie Hancock’s “Rock It,” synthesizer and all.

After the penthouse visit, Dad put the word out that he wanted a parrot too. His Doberman puppy had died suddenly from a virus, and he was ready for another animal. Dad had a knack for filling the house with novelty items — carousel horse, English phone booth — all things he purchased on a whim. So one day Big Wally came to the Jet Strip, one of the strip clubs by LAX Airport that my dad owned. Big Wally had spent more time in prison than on the street, mostly for theft. One day, Wally approached Dad at The Jet and said, “Hey, I hear you like parrots.”

“Yeah, I do,” Dad responded.

“You wanna buy a parrot?” Wally opened up his coat in the dark bar and revealed a red and green Amazon, shaking and scared.

Dad panicked.  He felt sorry for the bird and offered Big Wally a couple hundred bucks. Story has it, Wally got the parrot from a guy named Johnny Sanchez who owed him some money.

Dad brought the parrot home late that night, and in the morning we woke up and saw a beady-eyed, green-cheeked Amazon sitting in a black cage in our kitchen.

Mom was furious. “Who the hell do you think’s going to take care of it during the day?” 

I wondered how long we’d have the bird. It was just a matter of time before Dad would move onto something new. The bird kept wolf whistling and saying “hello” to us. He seemed friendly, so I stuck my hand right in the cage and he pierced it sharply with his beak, drawing blood.  He then screamed “ouch!” I had to shake him off me to release his grip, and my family laughed. My hand burned. The bird talked a lot and always said “Huey, gimme a whistle,” so we decided to call him Huey. We realized later that Huey was probably his previous owner’s name.

The vet confirmed that our Huey was indeed a boy and approximately fifteen years old, with a lifespan of fifty to seventy years. My mom hit the roof.  During the Eighties, with the Miami Vice hype, exotic birds became popular and people spent lots of money buying them from breeders. What people failed to realize was that parrots had a lifespan almost comparable to a human’s.

Huey slowly became a part of our household and he quickly warmed up to me, as I was giving him lots of attention. I felt sorry for him and wondered what home he’d been in before ours. I discovered that birds find a mate for life and I apparently, quite by accident, had become Huey’s. I was lathered in unconditional bird love. He tolerated my sister because we looked so much alike, but as soon as I came into the room he’d bite her silly. Once, my mom leaned in to kiss Huey and in an instant he latched onto her lip, hanging, flapping his wings, while my mom screamed loud enough to be heard on the East Coast. My dad beat him off and Mom began to cry. Her lip was swollen for a week, and she needed stitches.

Huey said hello, goodbye, Huey gimme a whistle, and screamed CRACKER! when he was hungry. He loved laughing, and rocked back and forth on his perch as he did. If he didn’t get the attention he craved, he’d scream and open his wings. And while Huey couldn’t really fly, when he tried he looked like a green chicken flailing around. He liked to sing along, especially when you sang “Happy Birthday” to someone. So many friends received phone calls over the years with Huey and I wishing them a happy birthday. Huey sounded more like Ethel Merman than Ethel Merman.

He also loved food, all food, and always wanted what you were eating. He would get very excited when Mom started cooking — his eyes would dilate and he’d pace back and forth on his perch saying “cracker.” That darling bird loved pizza, popcorn, hot dogs, chicken bones, ice cream and peanuts. He also loved grapes that mom peeled for him. (Yes, she peeled grapes for the bird she never wanted.)

I was off to college at UC Santa Barbara and only saw Huey when I breezed in every few weeks, with my beaded hair, tie dye skirts, humming Grateful Dead tunes. I felt guilty; he wasn’t getting much attention anymore. Dad teased him a lot by putting him on the floor and chasing him around. Huey would scream and violently attack Dad’s shoes. I yelled at Dad but he just laughed and laughed. Mom drowned out Huey’s screeching fits with John Denver music.

At home, I’d spend as much time as I could with my feathered friend, making up for lost time. He loved grooming my eyelashes and eyebrows, and would sit in my lap and groom himself. Bird dander and feathers flew everywhere. I kind of missed that, I missed him, our routine and our camaraderie. He loved taking showers, and I’d perch him on the shower curtain rod. He would get all excited and wolf whistle at me in the shower. We were convinced he learned that in the strip club.

During college, Dad’s partner Mac was gunned down outside of his ranch, my dad being the investigators’ prime suspect. Shortly after, my parents’ house was raided by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. Police tore the place apart, just like in the movies. Huey ended up surviving two house raids, unscathed.

I graduated from university in 1990. Afterward, I lived in Los Angeles and worked at Playboy Enterprises before moving to the Bay Area. I saw Huey several times a year. My parents were always threatening to send him to a bird rescue sanctuary. Taking care of him full-time demanded a lot of work and attention, kind of like a petulant five-year old. Taking him meant being chained down, and I was enjoying my freedom too much to assume the responsibility. I somehow convinced my parents that he’d get more attention if he stayed at home with them.

In October of 2000, I moved back home after my dad was arrested for Mac’s murder. I didn’t have much time for Huey as I spent most of it in court, jail, and at Dad’s strip clubs. Nonetheless, Huey was happy to see me more often than our long distance relationship had permitted.

After Dad’s eventual murder conviction, we sold my parents’ house and cleaned out all the stuff that they had accumulated over the years. I equated Dad’s life prison sentence to a death in the family, except that he could still call us collect once in a while. It was hard to get any real closure; the appeals process began immediately. Mom was getting rid of everything — the cars, boats, guns, toy train collection, and Huey. I called up all the credit card companies and closed out his accounts. They asked me why and I’d tell them the truth: sentenced to life in prison. Silence and awkwardness always followed.

I drove Huey up to his new home with me in Marin County, California, before eventually moving to New York City. My best friend, Anne, was a flight attendant, and we flew Huey and one of my cats first class. I carried Huey through security at SFO.  He laughed the whole time and said “hello” to everyone. He sounded like an eager child. When we boarded the plane, the other first class passengers were not happy.  The flight attendant, lucky for me, was also a bird owner, and kept bringing Huey snacks and water. Huey stayed quiet for the most part — until I got up to use the lavatory. I came out and the other passengers were glaring at me as if I were the mom who had the screaming baby onboard — in this case, a screaming bird. Huey settled back down until we landed, at which point he began laughing hysterically. Some passengers even laughed with him.

In New York, Huey and I quickly re-bonded; we were like roommates. When I woke up every morning, he always said “hello!” with a southern ladies’ drawl. He showered with me in the morning and followed me around the house, laughing and cleaning his beak on my toe nails. He loved toothpaste and had his own toothbrush. Whenever I left the house he screamed “goodbye!” and I heard him all the way down the stairwell, into the street, still saying it. My poor neighbors. I loved his attention and companionship, and I didn’t have to worry about him eating all my food or hogging the bathroom. Some nights we stayed home, eating popcorn and watching TV. We’d take long walks in Central Park, and he’d sit on my lap as I read and returned phone calls. He mostly just groomed himself and greeted passersby. He was a bit of a celebrity, the laughing parrot in Central Park, and was always getting his picture taken. He was like the son I never had.

He also became a quick favorite with my friends. At parties, my guy friends played with him all night, covered in parrot pecks, convinced they could win him over. Huey was never much of a man lover, though. He did, however, have a thing for blonds and flirted whenever any stopped in. He was very social and wanted to be in middle of everything. He even had his own Facebook page, Huey del Fuego, with over sixty friends.

One day last year, I realized Huey wasn’t acting himself and took him to the vet. He had several rounds of tests before the vet discovered a tumor. He had stopped talking and eating.  The poor bird.  I soon realized it was time to bring him to the vet one last time. This was St. Patrick’s Day, and I was taking my green parrot for his last walk along the park. The vet offered to do an emergency surgery to see if she could save him. She said it was a less than ten percent chance that she could, but my little bud was worth it. As I sat with him in the clinic, I could tell he knew what was happening. My eyes and face were blotchy and red from all the tears. My mouth tasted like salt. As I left Huey there, I heard him screaming “goodbye” with a sense of panic in his voice, all the way until I was outside on Columbus Avenue.

The next day I was at the airport, en route to Tunisia for a trip long-ago planned. Just as I entered the plane, my vet called me to say that Huey’s cancer had spread.  He could not be saved. I was blubbering like a little girl and the Air France flight attendants quickly became aware of my unstable status. I made a mad dash to the lavatory to wash my face, and a male flight attendant asked in his finest French accent, “Excuse me mademoiselle, is everything okay?” I proceeded to tell him through my sobbing breaths about my dead parrot. He had a look of deep sorrow on his face as he rested his hand softly on my shoulder, “May I please ask you which parent this was?”

Parent? PARENT?

“Not my parent, my PARROT!” I shrieked.  The flight attendant backed away slowly, in silence.

I told Dad about Huey dying; somehow I felt responsible. He became sentimental, recounting the story of how he got Huey from Big Wally. “You gave that bird a damn good life,” he assured me.

Huey dying was not only the end of a unique, twenty-six year companionship; it was the end of an era. He was the last remaining possession from my dad’s crazy and outlandish existence. I had now lost both the main men in my life. Huey embodied the lifestyle I experienced with my dad — through his garish colors, his loud wolf whistling, his flirty behavior, his peeled grapes. Gone were Dad’s fleet of exotic cars and boats; our backyard that resembled a tribute to Disney’s Thunder Mountain ride; the family trips to Vegas and Hawaii; strip club Christmas parties; Dad’s managers doubling as my personal chauffeur at the airport; my endless supply of lap dance passes. Before I moved to New York, I owned four cars. Now I was riding the subway, with extra hand sanitizer, to my corporate job. I’d spent the last ten family Christmases in prison, most recently with Phil Spector and some very nice sex offenders. Dad’s wardrobe now consists solely of double denim and flimsy white tennis shoes.

I took Huey’s birdseed and donated it to his vet clinic. His vet told me they had a baby parrot named Rocky looking for a home. “Just think about it,” she said.  “You already have the cage.”  Trying to cheer me up. I ran it by my therapist, who quickly and forcefully suggested that I take my energy and focus it on finding a man.

My once rowdy apartment was now silent. There was no hello, no cracker, no Ethel Merman, no peanut tossing or celery crunching. All the things that drove me crazy about that bird — the noise, the mess, the neediness — I really missed. “He was just a bird,” friends would say. No consolation.

I finally threw away Huey’s toothbrush and donated his cage. I could still see his seed in the floor cracks and pieces of the kitchen cabinet he chewed off.

In the fall, I moved downtown; it was much easier finding an apartment. I didn’t have to answer the million dollar broker question:  “How loud does your bird chirp?” I could socialize without the need to rush home and let Huey out of his cage, and I could easily travel without having to find a bird sitter or worry about him being lonely and locked up. Most of all, it was now safe to invite a guy over knowing Huey wasn’t going to attack or suddenly fly into the room landing on the bed, saying, “Hello!”

I now eat popcorn in front of the TV with my lazy cats. Sometimes I still make enough popcorn for two, out of habit. I gaze at Huey’s ashes sitting in a box with some feathers on my bookshelf, and wonder if I’ll ever find someone, feather-free, who will love me as much as that bird did.

Then my dad calls — collect, of course.

 

 

The photograph to the left (which has been cropped and can be clicked to view the full image) is one reason. I took it on 31st Street off Fifth Avenue looking north one oh-so-mysterioso night around midnight…an hour in town from Texas…a spring rain having swept through like drum brushes only moments before…still cool enough for some manhole steam, just warm enough to bring out a few optimistic short skirts and frilly dresses. God love those.

I’d like to think it captures some of the majestic monstrosity of Manhattan, which Kurt Vonnegut called Skyscraper National Park, but it’s really just an impulse shot taken in a moment of loneliness, like a lamb in a large country, as my minister father would’ve said.

Of course, everyone adores and worships New York — when we’re not hating it. But I’ve found in my wanderings that what makes a great world city, whether it’s Rome or Rio, Buenos Aires or Berlin, is often not the grandeur or the big picture stuff that gets written about and photographed endlessly; it’s the smaller, quiet things that we personally take away and make our own.

I remember once in Beijing, with literally millions of people all around, I chanced to see an old man leaned up against a wall. He grabbed a tiny frog from off the pavement — and Lord knows how that frog came to be there just then. He put it in his mouth and smiled at me. Then he opened his mouth and let the frog go. Everything else I saw there lives in the shadow of that one scene. The eye contact. The feel of that frog in my mouth. The puzzle of its being there.

Cities are puzzles — and the world’s greatest cities are revealed in the little details and passing moments. The smell of the Union Square subway station — the remnant of a Cuban cigar left smoldering on a curb — they’re part of the puzzle that’s New York for me. But here now are the five essential things that make Manhattan worth coming back to in my mind.

  1. High on my list of favorites is the rightfully famous Carnegie Deli on 7th Avenue at 55th Street. This is a Midtown establishment that still delivers far beyond any tourist district standard. It has that old authentic deli atmosphere — lots of shouting and jostling, and no question that your sandwich is being prepared by human hands right on the spot. And what sandwiches! The first pastrami I ordered from there, I literally had to sit on in the bag, just to crush it down to eat without dislocating my jaw. They also do knishes, matzo ball soup, and pickles that make your eyes water. And they do good shouting, which I appreciate. But their pastrami sandwiches are simply in a class all their own.

  2. With so much great art to see in the city, whether on the acres of museum walls or the galleries of Chelsea — wherever — it seems sort of criminal to return time again to work I know well, but I can’t help it. Whenever I’m in town for a few days, I always make a pilgrimage to the Guggenheim to experience again Kandinsky’s watercolors. Seeing them close up somehow helps prepare my mind for other art and new visions. I get tuned in again to the synchronicities of the city.

    Once, coming out of a reading, with snow falling, a crazy Jamaican Rasta man cab driver pulled over for me. He had my book on his front seat.

    One late summer day on the steps of the Museum of Natural History, I was for some reason discussing with a female friend who I was trying to bed at the time, Jane Fonda’s curious insistence on portraying non-penetrative sex in the film Coming Home with Jon Voight, and how disappointed she was in researching quadriplegics to find a man whose paralysis triggered four hour erections — when who should I literally collide with but Jon Voight. What are the chances? An obscure, unlikely conversational topic, a metropolis of millions — and there’s Jon — right up in my grill (and he’s a big guy to run into).

    Kandinsky gets me synched with the coincidental magic of the place, so that I’m loose and ready when, for instance, filming rotisserie chickens spinning and spitting fat in a window on First Avenue, I suddenly turn to meet an old neighbor from College Avenue in Oakland. That kind of thing could be upsetting if unprepared psychically — especially since he did jail time and I walked.

  3. New York is of course a great city of sound — often so much so that you stop listening — and shut down. But then there are those lovely lulls in the rhythm when you momentarily hear deep into the machinery of the whole carnival, and you wake up. One of my favorite sounds in the entire world is the sensual percussion of Puerto Rican girls in very high heels click-clocking between the traffics of the traffic. I have a special admiration for their ability to outright sprint on knifepoint heels to hail a cab or catch a bus-and to never lose their composure or their balance. They are some of the hardest ass females I’ve ever encountered  — yet they are the most sincerely gracious and thankful if you hold a door open for them or pick up a package that’s been dropped. One thing they for sure don’t teach the nice white private school babes from Connecticut is how to say a simple thank-you to a stranger. Those girls just grow up to be editors for Simon & Schuster. Give me a Puerto Rican shoe store chick a long way from the Sarah Lawrence degree and the family house in the Hamptons. There will be a lot more blood in her heart and a musical smack and crackle in her walk. You can fool people with a cashmere sweater and an Upper Westside apartment. You can’t fool music — and a New York City sidewalk is where some of the most fundamental music in life is made.

  4. Growing up in a religious family, I was steadfastly steered into not causing trouble — which is of course why from an early age I’ve often felt obliged to promote whatever commotion I can. Fortunately, I’ve learned a few lessons and have structured my perversity in ever more subtle ways (police beatings will do that to you). One little form of discord I particularly enjoy stimulating concerns the chess players in Central Park.

    I don’t play a good game of chess, but I don’t play a bad game either. And my real game is finding out a bit more about who’s playing at any given time. I like to target those older Jewish guys who take it very seriously, especially the ones who insist on playing without their shirts on come the warmer weather. They may beat me — but by the time they have, I know a lot about their style and what gets their goat. Then, when they’re playing amongst themselves, I start to kibitz and lurk around, occasionally flashing some bills. It’s the “betting” money I’m holding, you see. And I always have some names from the local chess clubs to throw around.

    While they were fixated on whipping my ass, I found out the names of their kids and where they grew up. They wouldn’t remember if I was left or right handed — but I can almost tell their blood pressure. They know I can run an opening gambit. They see the money. They hear names from the city chess scene they’re familiar with. Man, you should see how I can escalate a friendly game between old friends into a pitched battle. These old-timers are so inherently competitive, behind their friendly façades, it doesn’t take much to move them like pieces on a board. Chess? I have my own kind in New York. I can make a jeweler or a tailor at a glance. If you were in retail or sales, I need five minutes to nail the main industry. Food or hospitality? Three. Wholesalers just give it up. It doesn’t take much to make these guys really believe there’s book made on them, and suddenly a quiet game (that actually wasn’t very quiet at all) can become a contest of wills and spirit that makes a sweet counterpoint to the gentle clip-clopping of the carriage horse hooves and the tinkling of the merry-go-round. Check mate.

    Someone really into the grift once told me, “The secret is always making the other party think they’ve won.” He lives in Belize now and isn’t coming back stateside any time soon, but I like applying that good advice in humbler, sillier ways. There’s twisted fun in manipulating people who think they’re smarter than you, when they don’t even know what you’re doing. A little show of cred, a flash of real money, and some research — that’s still the essence of every scam. It’s just a question of scale and intent on return. Me, I like to see proud, puffed up old men have punch ups over chessboards, not knowing how the game got away from them.

  5. If I sickly stir up some heated feelings amongst arrogant old farts, I do my atonement by supporting the city’s very fine musicians, at what are still some of the greatest clubs in the world — for jazz, anyway. I like the Lenox Lounge in Harlem and the Zinc Bar in the Village (they moved from their wonderful but very small quarters on Houston Street to great premises at 82 West 3rd Street, between Thompson and Sullivan).

    The Lenox Lounge is at 288 Lenox Avenue, or Malcolm X Boulevard at 124th and 125th. There’s a lot of history in this venue, and a lot of musical life still going down. At the Zinc Bar, you can hear phenomenal talents like Cidinho Teixeria, the Brazilian pianist, who’s a get-the-party-started-no-prisoners player if there ever was one. If you don’t have fun listening to him, better check that pulse.

    Even more commercial, somewhat cynical clubs like the Blue Note at 131 West 3rd Street or the Iridium at 1650 Broadway in Times Square, are still great places to really hear music — and they continue to draw rich talent.

    New venues keep popping up, thankfully. Such is the nature of live music. But you can’t go past B.B. King’s joint on 42nd Street. Some rather important people have a way of appearing there — and James Brown was on the way to that door when he died. We should all have such a good destination in mind when the sand’s running down.

    On my last visit, I realized, while doing book interviews, that Irma Thomas the Queen of New Orleans was playing. Six bourbons down, the latest interview done, I charged the box office. “I have to see her. I must be right down front.”

    I was told, “I’m sorry sir, we’re all sold out.”

    “You don’t understand,” I said. “I have only two weeks to live. I know all her lyrics. This is a chance for you to gain some karma credit.”

    I got my seat. Right down front. And the security dudes were very kind when I attempted to take the stage. Some of my tablemates from Westchester County were a little surprised at my doings — but that’s because they didn’t know the songs.

    The girl on the ticket desk who I’d spun the yarn to get in spotted me on the way out. “Two weeks to live, huh?”

    “Maybe three now,” I said. “Thanks.”

    “Well, you told the truth about knowing all the songs,” she said. “We heard you from here.”

    “This is New York,” I said. “If we don’t remind ourselves we’ll forget.”

    “You’re not from New York,” she said, noticing my accent.

    “Perhaps not,” I replied. “That’s why I know I’m here now.”