not your typical african grey parrot

I MET THE GIRL OF MY DREAMS in the last month of the last year of the last cen­tury. I was 47 and Berni was, well, let’s say younger. People who know us now think we’re a per­fect match, a ‘nat­ural’ couple. But it wasn’t al­ways so—especially not in the be­gin­ning, when I was gaga over her but she was con­sid­er­ably less than gaga over me. But it was our third date where things started to click, and I owe much of it to my room­mate Chet.

As I said, after only two dates I was al­ready ob­sessed with this beau­tiful woman. I also knew that so were at least two other guys. So, for a third date, I ad­ven­tur­ously in­vited her to my place for dinner. My hopes were high that I could win her over with my cooking.

I had promised her a spe­cial tofu-spinach-vegetarian lasagna that she would never forget. As I said, Berni was un­der­whelmed by me at that point, and she late let me know that she had only agreed to the date be­cause she wanted to meet my room­mate Chet.

Now, Chet is not your typ­ical Congo African grey parrot, who can learn hun­dreds of words in any lan­guage. He was very old, as I had in­her­ited him from a neighbor who was re­cently de­ceased. I had bragged re­peat­edly to Berni that Chet could sing sev­eral pop­ular Christmas songs. 1

I even messed with her by claiming that Chet could do a mean im­i­ta­tion of Elmer Fudd doing a mean im­i­ta­tion of Elvis singing Blue Christmas! Even down to Elmer’s rhotacisms: “Ah’ll have a bwoo Cwiss­muss without you.” 2

So on this second Sat­urday of De­cember, 1999, we went to a movie and I lucked out: the Roo­sevelt in Seattle was playing Strictly Ball­roomas part of a se­ries of hol­iday season mati­nees. The movie was a fab­u­lous ro­mantic comedy-drama built around com­pet­i­tive ball­room dancing in Aus­tralia. I knew from ex­pe­ri­ence that chicks just couldn’t re­sist a guy who took them to a chick-flick on a date! 3

 

Timneh_Strictly

Scott (Paul Mer­curio) and Fran (Tara Morice) in com­pe­ti­tion. I had to make my way through quite a few scenes from Strictly Ball­room to find this one and all it made me want to do is own this movie so that Berni and I can watch it again and again. And again let me stress this for those guys reading this who don’t dig chick-flicks: when you see how bloody mas­cu­line the man above is when he’s dancing the pa­sodoble, you are gonna wish you knew how to dance it too!

Berni wanted to hear Chet sing

Af­ter­wards, we went back to my place. It was raining so I fixed a couple of hot drinks: Bac­ardi rum with honey and a sliver of butter in not-quite-boiling water. Yummy and the heat seems to ac­cen­tuate the feel of the alcohol.

After one sip, Berni said she wanted to hear Chet sing. So I led her over to the corner of the living room, where I had Chet in large cage, which I had made by hand from pieces of scrap metal that I got from the scrap-heap of an artist friend who did metal assemblages!

I pulled back the paisley scarf that I used to cover the cage, and there was Chet: a beau­tiful grey bird with a dark white mask and keenly in­tel­li­gent yellow eyes.

So I in­tro­duced the two of them: “Chet, I want you to meet Berni.”

Chet just stared blankly at a space some­where in front of him.

I turned to Berni and said, “Berni, this is Chet.”

Chet re­fused to coöperate and con­tinued staring into the Void. (I think Chet was a Bud­dhist in a pre­vious life.)

So I said a little more force­fully, “Chet loves to sing, doncha Chet?”

Chet fi­nally in­ter­rupted his fur­sh­lug­giner med­i­ta­tion and looked in my direction

“Come on, Chet ol’ buddy. Sing a Christmas song for my girlfriend.”

With the word “girl­friend,” Berni gave me that girl-stare that all guys know but can never pull off on their own.

Chet gazed down at the naval he doesn’t have.

Berni later told me that by this point, she was be­gin­ning to think that I was pulling the wool over her eyes about the singing parrot, and that she was get­ting a little testy about the whole date.

All she said to me was, “You said he could sing!”

Well, I knew Chet, so I said, “Watch this!”

I pulled an old Zippo off my book­shelf. (I kept the old lighter next to my col­lec­tion of first edi­tions of James Clavell’s six Asian novels. Be­cause of the big deal he made out of the King’s cig­a­rettes in King Rat, I al­ways pic­tured him smoking as he sat at his typewriter.)

 

Timneh_KingRat

Clavell’s first novel was King Rat, orig­i­nally pub­lished by Little, Brown and Com­pany in 1962. This US edi­tion was pub­lished a year be­fore the UK edi­tion, and only 7,500 copies were printed. De­spite the small run, it’s not a big-ticket item among col­lec­tors. (All of Clavell’s books are great reads but only this one was made into great movie, the other Clavell-based movies being artistic duds!)4

But still Chet didn’t sing

When Chet saw the fa­miliar lighter heading in his di­rec­tion, he moved an inch far­ther back on his perch.

But he still didn’t sing.

So I opened the door to the cage, and Chet slid back a little more.

But he still didn’t sing.

So I flicked the lighter on; there was small but steady flame.

I moved the lighter into the cage and then moved it slowly under Chet’s perch.

But he still didn’t sing.

I slowly moved the lighter under Chet’s bottom.

Then he slid as far back into his cage as he could.

Then he stared at the flame for a moment.

Then he cocked his head and looked up at me, imag­ining what would happen next. (Did I men­tion how smart African grey par­rots are?)

Then he looked up at Berni and stared straight into her eyes and crooned, “Chet’s nuts roasting on an open fire …”

 

Timneh_header3

HEADER IMAGE: I found this great close-up of this beau­tiful Congo African grey on the Windy City Parrot web­site. “Greys come in two sizes, Congo African Greys and Timneh African Greys. Congos have light grey feathers, cherry red tails, and an all-black beak. Tim­nehs have a darker char­coal grey col­oring, a darker ma­roonish tail, and a light, horn-colored area to part of the upper beak. They can be good talkers, we rec­om­mend not putting your bird in the same room with a tele­phone or you may be an­swering your bird for years.

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