For the Birds

by

03/12/2004

35th st & 3rd Ave ny 10016

Neighborhood: Murray Hill

This week’s meeting of the New York Companion Bird Club of Manhattan was held at the Jackson Hole Restaurant. This would be the first bird club meeting of my life.

I have never liked birds very well. In my last year of undergraduate college, I transferred to San Francisco State University, and discovered that the cafeteria there was infested with birds. I believe these birds were robins, and while I ate my daily burrito, one would perch across the table from me, its claws hopelessly seeking to dig into the impenetrable plastic of the back of its chosen chair. The bird would look at me sideways, one eye always watching. It would open its mouth and emit a gurgling, scratchy sound from its throat. Others had told me that if you didn’t move for a given period of time, a bird would dive for your food. Birds are disgusting and ruthless, but there are people who love them.

I wanted to meet these people, to try and see what they see.

I wondered if I was dressed right. I imagined rich people in fancy suits with parrots perched on their shoulders, smoking those long cigarettes that rich people smoke. I was wearing corduroys and Converse, and I suddenly noticed a small blueberry stain from this morning’s breakfast on my shirt. I buttoned my coat closed. It was too late for concerns like these. Besides, the name of the restaurant provided some relief—Jackson Hole might really a hole.

But it could also be a fine restaurant with a crummy name.

There seemed to be three doors at the entrance, but this was all cleared up by a sign that read “Use this door.” I did, and it worked.

The Jackson Hole is a bar and grill like any other—cluttered but cozy, all done up in browns. I asked the man at the host podium how to get downstairs.

“The bird club?” he asked. He stared at me a second too long, with what I suspected was a smile creeping onto his face.

Embarrassed, I hesitated before saying yes.

He pointed towards the stairs, and I made my way down.

Three women and one man sat at a cluster of tables in the back of the room. It was immediately apparent that we did not share the same worlds. My instinct was to leave, but I pushed forward. Remember Frida, I instructed myself.

Frida was the imaginary finch that my neighbor gave me when she moved. I had decided that Frida was a female zebra finch, but it struck me as I approached these women and men in their fifties and sixties that I didn’t imagine Frida’s age, my neighbor’s name, or the color of the beak of a female zebra finch.

“Hello,” I said.

“Are you Angela?” A woman with the orange lipstick that perfectly matched her orange sweater extended her hand. This was Anna.

“I have a zebra finch named Frida,” I blurted, as I took Anna’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”

Anna is the founder of this incarnation of the New York Companion Bird Club of Manhattan. She had a solid handshake, and a smile that was both friendly and concerned. I had emailed her about the club after seeing a flyer posted at the Skylight Diner on 34th St.

“Everyone, this is Angela. She has a zebra finch.”

Two old women stared at me with the icy indifference of veteran police officers introduced to a rookie. One finch?, I could hear them thinking. I had to account for myself.

“I have one finch. A friend gave it to me. I’m just here to learn.” Could they hear my lie unraveling?

Anna quickly came to my rescue. “You’re exactly who this club is designed for.”

She led me to Roger, who had a diamond stud in his left ear. While Roger wore a dress shirt and tie, the other women wore jeans and sweaters. I was in the clear.

“Roger can tell you all about finches,” Anna informed me, before abandoning me for the old ladies back in her corner.

“I have thirty to forty finches,” Roger said.

Alarmed, I realized that I did not know the location of any pet stores in New York. Where would I tell people I get Frida’s feed?

“Wow. Where did you get them all?”

Roger liked to talk about his finches. He went on for a good five minutes. This gave me plenty of time to wonder where Roger works, how he lives, where he came from.

“…and this one friend,” Roger concluded, “had a crested finch.” He paused and looked into my eyes for some flicker of recognition. I could tell he wanted me to be impressed.

“Wow,” I said. I could not think of a new question. “Where did she get them?”

“A pet store.”

“Oh.”

There was an awkward silence.

“Are you from New York?” I asked.

“No,” Roger said. “But I’ve lived here for twenty-three years.”

Roger politely inquired about myself, and I answered, but he did not seem to want to talk about where we are from.

“What do you feed your finches?” I asked.

Rogers got excited and his hands began to move quickly as he talked about the various types of vegetables a finch will eat. They eat all types of sprouts and love Romaine lettuce, but you have to cut everything up finely.

“I just have feed,” I ventured.

“Oh, no. You have to give her greens. Especially in the winter.”

I did not know what this meant, but I was nodding vigorously when two pictures of a black parrot were shoved in front of my face.

I took them out of the hands of the woman next to me. I had been too engrossed with Roger to see her come in. This was Roxanne. She had a bowl cut and a turtleneck and glasses.

“That was Fury,” she told me. Her eyes were trained on me intensely. They jumped to the pictures, then back to me. “He wasn’t noisy at all.”

“What happened to him?”

“He was stolen.”

Roxanne had a creepy stare, but she obviously wanted to discuss Fury’s kidnapping a bit more. There was no way out of hearing the story. Fury was stolen from a friend’s house in Rochester. For weeks, Roxanne was frantic. She announced his disappearance on the local radio station, put up flyers, took out ads. One day, she received a call from Fury’s kidnapper. The man on the other end of the line told her he’d taken Fury and he was keeping him, and there was nothing Roxanne could do about it.

“I’m not ready for another parrot,” Roxanne told me. I returned her pictures. She took one long look at Fury and gently returned him to her wallet.

There was a very good turnout at this week’s meeting—fifteen people, myself included. We had to rearrange to make room for everyone. Roxanne was a bit aggressive in the shoving of tables, and she shattered a ketchup bottle on one fierce push.

I ended up next to Diana, a thin woman with a black shoulder-length perm. One long strand of hair had somehow escaped the perm and black hair dye. It flew free, beyond the boundaries of her helmet-shaped hair. Diana had the deep, throaty voice of a smoker. She could have been fifty or eighty years old. Her face reminded me of a fish, the features exaggerated by deep grooves. She looked as though she’d lived a difficult life.

She leaned towards me.

“Anna is a good person,” she said. She spoke in a low voice. Clearly whatever followed was meant in confidence. “This club is new. The last woman who ran it was into control. But Anna’s not in it for herself. She’s in it for the birds.”

Diana spat on my arm as she talked, but there was really no way to maneuver out of my position. On my left sat Jane, who I believe had a parrot, and had also recently spent $30,000 renovating her apartment. On my right sat Diana, the owner of one Amazonian yellow-headed parrot, a parakeet, and two other birds whose names I could not understand.

Nina across from me had a parrot too, the same type as Diana. Nina was wise and calm. She had a long, knowing face and a British accent. Nina’s parrot, George I, sounded a bit more aggressive than Carrie.

“How old is Carrie?” Nina asked.

“Six,” Diana said.

“Just wait,” Nina replied ominously. She spoke elegantly and looked each of us in the eye. “Parrots hit their sexual prime at six or seven. George used to be a love sponge, too. He wanted to be in the room with me all the time. He wanted me to carry him everywhere. Then he hit adolescence, and everything changed. Now he’s more like a cat.”

Nina and Diana had mentioned their husband and boyfriend, respectively. All this talk about sexual parrots got me thinking.

“Do you think your parrots get jealous of men?” I wondered.

Nina said they just have to realize that a different type of relationship exists between a woman and her bird. Diana said she’s not yet in the stage of her relationship to worry about it.

“Anyway,” Diana said, “Carrie sees me as a mother. Not a mate.”

“He does not see you as a mother,” Nina said. “You are his mate. Or his slave.” Nina and Diana laughed. I did too, uncomfortably.

Anna waved her arm and loudly but kindly announced a Question and Answer session.

“Angela,” she said. “Do you have any questions about your finch?”

I’d almost forgotten about Frida. The bird club members were satisfied talking about their birds. They did not ask many questions about mine. It was like a group of parents discussing their children. Each of them had the smartest, most beautiful bird, and they only wanted to talk about him or her.

“No,” I replied to Anna, rather wobbily. “Roger answered all my questions.”

Roger smiled at me. Anna looked disappointed.

A woman at the end of the table spoke up.

“I normally feed my parakeet millets and oats—”

The table murmured millets like a dirty word.

“Millets are terrible for a bird,” Roxanne said. “No nutrition.”

“But I feed her oats, too,” the woman protested. “Big, fat oats.” The table looked somewhat satisfied. The woman continued. “I just switched brands, and he won’t eat a thing.”

“I never switch brands,” one woman said.

“I buy my parakeets expensive restaurant salads. They’re gourmets…I mean gourmands,” said another.

“What about pellets?” Roxanne asked, in a mildly accusatory tone.

“I don’t know,” the woman said. “Pellets are so…They just seem like they have mad cow disease or something.”

The table murmured again. Everyone looked at one another. The balance of power was clear: this woman knew nothing, and the bird club knew everything. I felt a rush of relief that I was not this woman, that I hadn’t asked a thing.

“Are you projecting your negativity towards pellets to your bird?”

“No—I—“ “Try Nutri-berries,” Nina interrupted. The bird club nodded. The tension broke as everyone discussed the benefits of Nutri-berries. The woman at the end of the table looked grateful.

Diana leaned over and informed me that I could mix vitamins into a finch’s food or water. “Good idea,” I said flatly. I am already a terrible liar, and my lies were wearing thin. Diana had been spitting on my arm all through her tuna on rye. White globs of coleslaw had collected at the corners of her mouth. I was tired of the bird club. I had seen the club get ugly; its members had turned on one of their own. Earlier, Nina had told me that it had been seventeen years since she and her husband had traveled anywhere together. “One of us has to stay with George,” she said. George is twenty-three. Nina looked to be about forty-five. George could live to be as old as eighty.

Jane was the first to leave. This left an open spot on my left, a space that I could use to make a graceful exit.

“I have to go,” I told Diana. “It was nice meet you. Goodbye.” Forever.

I had not even risen before Anna came hauling towards our end of the table carrying a green parrot book larger than the Bible. “Wanna look at this parrot book?” she asked me.

“I have to go,” I told her, and a young woman two seats down eagerly took the book.

I put my jacket on, grabbed my purse and thanked Anna for the meeting. I took one last look at the ladies, at the two men. I would never know them.

Outside, the gloomy day had gotten even darker. I pulled the hood of my jacket over my head, but it didn’t matter. The sky was misting, and it covered my face. As I made my way down 34th St., a fat man staggered towards me. He had a wide, red, comical face though he seemed to be crying. I looked at his face, but he did not look back. In the basement of a restaurant less than a block away, thirteen people remained, speaking of love and birds.

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