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
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.)
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 …”
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.