It was 1977, Apple debuted its first computer, Star Wars ruled the world, and my dad started a new secret job. Dad previously was a California Highway Patrolman, just like Erik Estrada in CHiPs. He retired in 1974 after an auto accident and got into the exotic car business, refurbishing and selling cars at several lots around Los Angeles.

I was six years old the first time Dad took me to his work. On the weekends, my younger sister, Kristen, and I played hideandseek in the car lots, giggling away in between vintage ModelT Fords, Rolls Royces and Porsches. Customers told Dad how adorable we were as we climbed in and out of the cars.

Mom liked it when Dad took us to work. It got us out of her hair, and we returned home sapped of energy and ready for bed. When I turned nine, however, I noticed Dad stopped talking to me about work. He had a new job, and no longer shared his wild car stories with me. I thought I had done something wrong.

Mom wouldn’t let me wait up for him, but Dad always came into my bedroom and kissed me goodnight when he got home. My parents shot each other looks at the dinner table, as I shifted in my seat. I wondered what they were keeping from me; why they were upset with me.

My parents started whispering in the kitchen. While we watched Bugs Bunny in the den, my sister and I tried eavesdropping on their conversation.

“I don’t like you coming home every night at three in the morning smelling of booze and smoke.”

I can’t help it, the club was packed tonight and I got stuck working the floor.”

“Can’t you air your clothes outside of the house?”

One Saturday night, the babysitter cancelled for the next day. Mom’s face was strained when she hung up the phone. The inevitable happened: she had to work all day, and the neighbors were out of town. After exchanging tense glances and whispers, Dad walked into the den, grabbed my knee, and announced he was taking us with him to work the next day.

There was nothing more fun than a day with Dad — hello Fruit Loops and Disney, goodbye Corn Flakes and Mr. Rogers! I couldn’t sleep a wink that night.

Amy Grant gospel music played in the kitchen as Mom made us breakfast that next morning, stoically hacking bananas for our cereal. Dad walked into the kitchen wearing a maroon leather jacket and matching ankle boots over grey polyester slacks and a white dress shirt — think Gene Hackman in The French Connection. He grabbed Mom in a bear hug and gave her a Cheshire Cat grin. She squirmed away to place the cereal bowl in front of me.

“Will you let us dance?” I asked. We only knew two things about his new job: they played disco music and served burgers.

He looked down sheepishly while mom stood there, frozen. “I really don’t like the idea of this,” she said.

Distracted and running late, she needed us out of the way. She donned her white kitty-print nurse’s uniform and brushed her Dorothy Hamill bob instead of readying us with a backpack full of sandwiches and coloring books.

She grabbed me gently by the shoulders, leaned forward and looked me in the eye. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

Stethoscope and nametag in place, she yelled to us, “Somebody clean out Coco’s litter box,” as she slammed the front door, leaving without a kiss goodbye.

We drove down the 405 freeway for about an hour and got off in Inglewood. Kristen and I were both born there, but now it wasn’t that great of a neighborhood. I made sure my door was locked. We drove down Imperial Highway — it was empty on a Sunday morning. Dad pulled our orange van into a gated parking lot. As the door slid open, I could see airplanes flying overhead and a neon sign. We climbed out of the van and I squinted in the sun to get a closer look at the sign. It had the silhouette of a woman riding atop a plane and the name “Jet Strip.” My sister and I exchanged looks of excitement: maybe he worked at the airport! He parked the van and adjusted his handgun resting in its ankle-strap holster. I decided to leave my Holly Hobbie doll behind.

“Here we are.” We walked to the back of the building. He turned off the alarm, unbolted the door and let us in.

It was like walking into a matinee movie. The place was pitch black. It took my eyes awhile to adjust. I smelled Windex and stale smoke.

Dad held our hands and escorted us in until we could see. He tossed his keys on the bar and turned on the stage lights to reveal a rotating disco ball. Soon the Bee Gee’s Night Fever played over the stereo system.

Kristen and I ran to the stage and climbed up with Dad’s help. We danced on brightly-lit colored floor panels surrounded by mirrors, and laughed as we pointed to where the disco ball reflected on our swaying bellbottoms. We played hopscotch with the colored panels, and our hands squeaked as we swung around the shiny brass pole in the middle of the stage: it was little girl heaven.

Bright blinding sun filled the room as pretty women filtered in one after the other, smiling, laughing and giving us puzzled looks as we carried on. Somehow I thought I could blend in as an adult at the club, I mean I was eight years old after all. That was only two years before double-digit years. But when the dancers arrived, I felt embarrassed. I froze in place, and fumbled off the stage like a little girl.

“Oh girls?” Dad yelled across the club. Kristen and I ran over to the bar and met a tall, thin woman, with perfect blond hair straight out of Alice in Wonderland. She told us her name was Kelly, as she played with our pigtails and asked, “What would you ladies like to drink?”

Unsure of what to order, I asked for milk.

“I’m fresh out of milk. How about two Shirley Temples?” she suggested, and came back with two drinks for us, decorated with umbrellas and maraschino cherries.  “What’s in it?” Kristen asked. I had already slammed down half of mine and asked for another cherry. Dad had his signature tonic water in hand. He was always trying to get me to like it, so I pretended I did.

More women came over to us at the bar; Dad was proud to show us off. We met dancers named Crystal, Amber, Destiny, and I could swear I met one named Jell-O. “Those are their stage names, not their real names,” Dad revealed. I wondered why anyone would want two names.

We grabbed our drinks and followed Dad into the games room in the back corner. It wasn’t at all like the vibrant and crowded video arcade at our local mall. This one was dark, empty and complete with cigarette machine, pool tables and video games. Dad pushed some buttons so we could play “Space Invaders” for free.

I was buzzed from all the excitement, and the chance to experience the adult world. But what was so adult about it? It seemed like the perfect place for kids.

The club officially opened at 11 a.m., as customers trickled in. Dad told us the women were professional dancers. They would each dance to three different songs, but we were only allowed to watch the first. This sent my mind racing — what the difference was between each dance?

Crystal was the first to dance. She wore a long, red rhinestone dress with slits up the side. She looked like a beauty pageant contestant. She slinked onto the stage and danced slowly. Men tossed dollar bills on the stage and applauded when she ended her dance.

As another song started, Dad rounded up my sister and me and herded us through a secret door. The passage led upstairs to an office with wood-paneled walls, beige shag carpeting, a gray metal desk, and a worn out burgundy, pleather couch with gold rivets. There was a TV sitting on a glass coffee table. Along the wall opposite the couch were several security monitors displaying small, fuzzy, blackandwhite views of the parking lot, the bar, the door, and the stage.

A door opened onto the roof, and we joined Dad out there to watch airplanes fly overhead. When we returned inside, he slipped a bootlegged copy of Star Wars into a Beta videotape player.

Dad told us we could eat anything we wanted from the kitchen, and his cook Carl took our order for lunch. We both went straight for the hamburgers with extra ketchup and pickles.

“Don’t watch the security monitors,” Dad said sternly. “I’ll come back up to check on you in a bit.”  We sat on the couch, ate our burgers, and watched the movie, drinking from glasses of Coke garnished with umbrellas.

After lunch we shoved Double Bubble gum into our mouths and read the comics on the wrappers. I ran over to the monitors and Kristen followed me. There was no audio feed, but we could feel Journey’s “Wheel in the Sky” vibrating through the floor and walls as a dancer, now topless with high heels and dark hair, swung around the pole. Our jaws dropped; our eyes were glued to the stage monitor.

Carl returned and collected our dishes. “Would you young ladies like a tour of the kitchen?” Actually, I was pretty settled in at the moment, secretly watching naked women dance, but I didn’t want to be rude.

“Sure,” I said. Kristen was silent but followed us back downstairs for a tour of the kitchen.

We stood mesmerized by ice cream and the raw meat hanging in the walk-in freezer. As Carl walked away, we peeked through the order window at the live stage. Kelly came on, wearing high-heeled shoes and a sheer nightgown.

She shimmied out of her nightgown to reveal bright pink sparkling underwear which, as she swung around the pole, I noticed was missing the back. How did she get her underwear to stay on?

The customers whistled, and she seemed to be having fun — dancing around, flipping her hair, legs in the air. As the song ended, Kelly grabbed her clothes and the dollar bills, and scurried off the stage.

“Isn’t she embarrassed?” Kristen whispered to me.

Dad found us in the kitchen and promptly returned us to the office, where we stayed put until he drove us back home.

On the ride home he promised we could visit the Jet Strip again, “Just don’t tell your mother you saw the dancers fully nude.”

We asked questions about the girls being naked in front of an audience.

“They make really good money, that’s why.”

“So are they real dancers like me? Do they take ballet?”

“Yeah, some do have a dance background.”

“Do you feel bad about the dancers being naked?”

“No, sweetheart. The girls make good money, so I make good money, which means I can provide more for our family. Do you understand that?”

“Yes Dad.”

His customers were mostly married, he said, but wanted to look at pretty girls with nice bodies. “Not all women have bodies like that.”

“Why do the men’s wives let them come here?”

“Oh, I doubt they tell their wives, honey.”

As we walked in the front door, John Denver blasted on the stereo, and Mom greeted us with dinner. Kristen and I told her all of our stories. She mostly responded with curt “mhmm’s,” but continued listening.  “Mommy, don’t you want to know who we met?” We told her about Kelly serving us Shirley Temples and Carl grilling us burgers. We left out the naked dancing part because we wanted to go back.

I was afraid to tell her that I was still full from all the food I’d eaten, and tried to finish dinner. Her face was stiff, her eyes weary, but I knew she wouldn’t be mad at us if only she knew how much fun it was. “Girls, I don’t think it’s a good idea to tell your friends at school about the Jet Strip, she said.

Kristen and I looked at each other and giggled, trying to conceal our smiles. And that’s when she knew.

After dinner, we ran to play in the backyard, where we put two picnic benches together in a Tshape. I played Barry Manilow’s “Copa Cobana” on our tape player, and Dad introduced us with our new stage names, Holly and Coco, as we walked onto our stage, dancing around.

“Look Mommy, look!” we waved to her in the kitchen window as she washed the dishes. She gave us a halfwave and said “Hi, girls.” Then she bowed her head down to the sink and returned to her work.

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.