We kick off another week. Our bare mannequin is draped with the story of a parrot’s first words. A New York parrot. Yes, language!

What I’m Writing

Today I’m sharing a fun story. I hope it gives you a smile as you start your week.

A Parrot’s First Words

Bob Gillen

I’ve heard longtime residents tell the story of a parrot that rode the NYC subway system. Rode back and forth, only on the elevated lines. Never underground. The bird was first spotted at the Howard Beach station in Queens, near the  transfer point to JFK airport. 

New Yorkers with a long memory recall a man who rode the train with his parrot sitting on his left shoulder. Mostly rode south to Rockaway Beach. Got off at Beach 116th Street and walked the boardwalk. The man spent hours sitting on a bench watching the older men play handball. Men with deep tans on their legs and arms, milk white torsos if a shirt lifted in the breeze. 

One New Yorker, a man who rented a beach bungalow every summer, told me that the bird liked lemon ice. His owner let it eat from his cone. The bird’s owner always wore khakis and a Hawaiian shirt, sometimes with birds on it, sometimes flowers. A tan porkpie hat sat on the back of his head.

The handball players would yell to him, Hey, where’s my margherita? The man smiled, the bird ignored them. 

Credit: NY Daily News

Someone claimed to have once spotted the man and bird riding north from Rockaway on the A train, then transferring back to the Lefferts Blvd. station. The two got off near the public library. The man was seen a few hours later riding back towards Rockaway with a handful of books. No one recalls hearing where the man lived.

The subway bird sported a beautiful array of colors. A largely red head and chest, with blue and green plumage. A big bird. Almost the size of a child’s head. One day, in late summer, a few days before Labor Day, the bird rode the train alone. His owner was never seen again. The bird rode the train to the last stop in Rockaway, flew about for a few minutes, and perched in the returning train.

A proud, cocky bird, he knew his place and would yield to no one. He preferred the ledge between two opposing seat backs, and no one would sit near him. Everyone said him. I have no idea how you tell a parrot’s sex. One know-it-all was quoted saying he was a Macaw, and both male and female were colored similarly. The bird would occasionally poop on the seat back. Once a guy sat down in it. He never knew. At least not till he got home.

In all of his travels back and forth the bird never spoke. Not even a squawk or a screech. On days when the train was pretty empty, no women and kids around, there was always a guy who tried to teach the bird to curse. He cocked his head but remained mute. Not a word.

One day a subway conductor spotted the bird riding between the rail cars. He perched on a platform and let the breezes rush through his feathers.

Funny how the bird never had a name. No one ever christened him with an identity. Always just the bird or the parrot.

No one knew how or what he ate. People would offer him a piece of a donut or a snack bar, but he never touched them. And he never, ever let anyone hold him. He perched only on the train seats.

One day in late fall Animal Control showed up with a big net. Someone must have thought the bird would not survive the coming winter. They went home empty handed. The net man waited till the doors closed on the car to move against the bird. But a passenger opened the door at the end of the car and the bird flew out and lit on a handrail. 

The bird got to be well known. A reporter from The New York Times, one of those guys like Meyer Berger who hunted down all the quirky stuff in the city, wrote up the bird in a story. Photo and all. Lots of people called the paper, said he was their bird. No one showed up to actually claim him.

One day in racing season the parrot was sitting on the northbound train as it pulled into the Aqueduct station around the time the race track closed. Men and women dragged themselves on the train after losing at the track. Threw torn-up betting stubs on the car floor. The bird was annoyed at the crowd. Not much space for him to perch. 

Anyway, one guy who looked especially despondent sat where the bird liked to perch. The bird even fluttered his feathers but the guy paid no attention.

After tearing up his last betting stub, the guy looked up. He let a thin smile cross his lips. “Dinner,” he said aloud. “Can’t afford anything else tonight.” He reached for the bird.

Credit: Pinterest

The bird flew off a few feet. The guy got up to reach for him again. The bird flew around him and perched on the seat where the guy had been.

The guy lunged for the bird. It flew down the car a few feet. Out of reach. But it left poop where the guy had been sitting.

“Damn bird. Now I can’t sit.”

The guy stepped closer to the bird, and in his frustration spat at the bird. He missed. Much to his later chagrin, his spit landed on the neck of an off-duty cop. An off-duty cop leaving the track after betting and losing a lot of money. 

Now, New York has a lot of laws. One is, you don’t spit in the subway. An unwritten law is, you don’t spit on a cop. Especially an off-duty cop who now has an incident to deal with. After losing at the track.

The cop turned. “You.” 

The guy glared at him.

“You spit on me?”

The guy said, “Maybe I did, mac. I was aiming at the bird.”

The cop swiped the spit off his neck with his left hand, wiped his hand on the guy’s shirt. 

“Fuck you, mac.” The guy shoved the cop. Not knowing, of course, that he shoved a cop. The cop spun the guy around, pushed him down against an empty seat. Empty because another man was smart enough to get out of the way.

“You just shoved a cop,” the cop said to the guy.

“Fuck you, mac,” the guy said again. Not smart.

“You’re under arrest,” the cop said.

The bird had been watching this action closely. He hopped down on the seat next to the guy. Got right up in his face.

The bird squawked. Then it said its first words.

 “Fuck you, mac!”


What I’m Reading

I’ve done a lot of reading on my three-week hiatus from the blog. Next week I’ll offer comments, after I organize my thoughts. I especially enjoyed re-reading The Old Man and the Sea and Hatchet.

More next week. Thanks as always for stopping by.


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