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?”
“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.