Saturday, May 06, 2006

Everyday Lessons

I had four boxes of men's hair dye (left over from my dad's hair-coloring phase, now abandoned) to give away, so I posted an ad on Craigslist, found a taker and made arrangements to meet him at a nearby Starbucks. The skies were cloudy, but the kiddo and I were due for a little walk.

Upon reaching the Starbucks patio, my son spotted a green parrot perched on the back of a chair. The parrot's owner was as colorful as her charge: strawberry blonde hair; ultra-tiny, twinkling facial piercings; gauzy, flowing turquoise skirt and tiny, black tank top; scrolling, thin-lined tattoo on the left side of her chest; and a smile that more than made up for the gray weather. How she wound up with the surly-looking guy seated nearby, I couldn't begin to figure.

We were early for our meeting, and I didn't see the blue car I'd been told to look for, so when the kiddo asked if we could talk to the parrot, I told him to ask the owner. I always tell my son that it's okay to say hello to strangers when he's with Mommy or Daddy, but not okay if he's by himself. So far he's never been by himself in public, so the latter is a non-issue at this point.

The parrot's owner was happy to bring the bird over to us, and invited us to pet it. "He's really, really tame," she said, "and he especially likes kids and women." I'd never touched a bird that size, and I was surprised by the almost waxy feel of its feathers; I'd expected them to feel fluffy and light, but they felt stiff and coated. Interesting. My son was a bit wary, especially when the bird inched over as though it wanted to climb onto his arm; the bird was about to use its beak to grasp my son's sweatshirt sleeve, and the kiddo recoiled. I explained that birds use their beaks sometimes to grab onto things, but I made sure the kiddo's face stayed away from that sharp, curved beak. The owner set the parrot on the back of a chair near us. As I leaned over to pet it, it started doing that thing large birds do, galumphing sideways, step by step. My hair, which is quite long these days (about to the small of my back) was hanging down near the bird, which dipped toward me as I flipped my hair out of the way. "He loves long hair," explained the owner. "He likes to hide in it."

"Wow, Mommy," said the kiddo, "seeing this parrot is making me think I would like to have a parrot for a pet." I told him he'd have to be a lot older, like maybe a grownup, before he could get a parrot, and he wanted to know why. "Because parrots need special care and live for a long, long time," I said. The owner agreed. "They're like two-year-olds, but with the right diet and care they can live up to seventy years," she said.

A man in a parked blue car glanced at me. "Are you ____?" I mouthed. He smiled, opened his door and approached the patio. As I handed him the bag of hair color, he smiled again and I noticed he was missing some teeth. He wore aviator-frame glasses and a baseball hat, and a small ponytail extended just past the back of his collar. "You can tell I really need this, right?" he asked, scratching playfully at his short, gray beard. I smiled and shrugged politely. "My dad used to color his hair, but he gave up on it," I said. "I'm just glad someone can use this stuff." He thanked me and, before leaving, squeezed my elbow gently and thanked me again. It wasn't a creepy gesture at all; rather, it was a handshake kind of thing -- a small moment of connection. I wondered why he wanted to color his hair. Maybe a job interview coming up? Maybe a date? I felt good about being able to give him something he could use.

We turned our attention back to the parrot, which eyed us steadily and responded to our repeated hellos with "Hi" or "Hello," much to our delight.

"He likes you!" the owner exclaimed. "Look at his eyes." Indeed, the bird's pupils were dilating and contracting somewhat rapidly. It was wild. I'd never seen anything like it. "Their eyes dilate when they like something," the owner said. "And look how he's fanning his tail. He really does like you." She seemed pleased, and for some strange reason, I enjoyed thinking the bird liked us, as if that said something meaningful about us as people. Silly, perhaps, but it's always nice to be liked, eh?

After buying an overpriced cup of plain milk for my son, who'd already had milk at home, but who seems to believe there's something special about Starbucks milk, we headed for home. On the way, I pointed out a clump of short, bright-orange flowers stubbornly growing next to the sidewalk. "Those are California poppies," I told the kiddo. "Aren't they pretty?" He agreed that they were indeed pretty, and we continued on. Something across the street caught my eye, and I dragged my son along to investigate. "Wow!" I exclaimed. "See these big flowers that look like fried eggs? These are my favorite -- Matilija poppies," I said. "Hey, today you've seen two kinds of poppies in our neighborhood: California poppies and Matilija poppies. Neat, huh?"

My son paused to consider this for a moment. "So is there a state called Matilija, too?" he finally asked. I grinned and tousled his hair. "Nope, but that's a very good question," I told him. And on we walked.