Lewis Rosensteil, head of Schenley Distillers, once had 5,000 parrots trained to say “Drink Old Quaker” bourbon, then gave them to bartenders.
The Wall Street Journal, review of “Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey” by Reid Mitenbuler
I believe it was Montaigne who first said, more or less, that no man is a hero to his valet, but the Frenchman never met my parrot “Poll.” He’s named after the bird in the TV ads of my youth whose Poll Parrott Shoes, it was said, would enable me to run faster and jump higher. Since I was slow of foot and once injured myself by hitting the crossbar high-jumping, bringing a stanchion down on my head, I longed for those shoes but could never convince my mother to buy them for me. After my tragic high-jumping accident Karen Smirtka’s mother drove me home while Karen sat in the front seat looking at me with a mixture of disgust and disgust. “It looks like you have an egg growing out of your head,” she said. Karen pulled wings off flies for her science project.
I got Poll for a song, even though he’s not much of a songbird. He was laid off by Schenley Distillers after a failed marketing move in which he and 4,999 other parrots were taught to say “Drink Old Quaker,” a second-rate bourbon whiskey. I guess nobody ever told the executives at Schenley that when you get the urge to have a shot of bourbon, the first religious group you think of is not Quakers.
Poll’s getting up there in years, like me, but he’s the restless sort while I’m slipping into senescence sensibly, slowing down, assiduously pursuing my new hobby of collecting sibilants.
“Are we going to do something tonight, or are you going to sit around listening to the Greatest Hits of the Thirties again?” he asked, and rather sharply I might add.
Old Quaker bourbon: Try it with oatmeal!
“Is it my fault you’ve never shed the impulsiveness of youth, unlike the feathers you molt around the house every year?”
“You never want to go out, you just sit there looking stuff up in books.”
“You might feel differently if you had prehensile ability and could turn pages.”
“I want to go to a bar,” he snapped.
“It’s cheaper to drink at home.”
“That’s not the point. You drink to be social, to meet other members of your species.”
“Sorry, I’ve already met enough of ’em.”
“Well I haven’t–let’s go to the Coach & Four.” He was referring to the faux-Colonial watering hole where the elite of our little exurban town likes to meet and mate. On any given night you may meet a local zoning attorney, perhaps a selectmen or an insurance broker on the make, wooing a no-longer-young divorcee from a neighboring town to the west who’s trying to climb her way into our acre-and-a-half zoning paradise.
“Don’t even think about sitting next to us unless you’re a millionaire!”
“All right, but don’t blame me if you come up empty-handed. You’re not exactly a spring chicken anymore.”
“Look who’s talking,” Poll said, giving me the gimlet eye of disdain. “A guy who’s literally counting the days until he qualifies for the Senior Citizens Discount at Applebee’s.”
We hopped in my car, which elicited another critical remark from the bird in my hand. “You know, the Olympics is every two years, presidential election is every four, census is every ten.”
“What’s your point?”
“Do you think you could wash this accident-waiting-to-happen once before it dies?”
“I’m waiting for spring pollen season to end,” I said as I squirted wiper juice on my windshield to clean off the sickly-green coating that greets me every morning.
We drove over to the bar and took one of the high tables off to one side, at Poll’s suggestion. “This way you can scan the whole scene, and you’re not tied to the women on either of side of you.”
“Sort of like being a linebacker instead of a defensive lineman in a three-point stance?”
“I wouldn’t know–try to catch the waitress’s eye, would you? You’re bigger than me.”
I raised a finger and attracted the attention of Dottie, a veteran of “The Coach” (as locals refer to the place) who has, in her twenty years on the sawdust-coated floors, seen it all.
“What’ll you boys have tonight?” she asked with her genuine smile as she wiped the table.
“I’ll have a Michelob Ultra and he’ll have the suet and a shot glass of water,” I said.
“Coming right up.”
“A Michelob Ultra–whadda you, training for the Marathon?”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“We’ll do a blind taste test and see if you can tell the difference between that ‘beer’ and my water.”
“I didn’t know you were such a connoisseur.”
Dottie brought placemats and Poll hopped on his, eager to get at his suet.
“Pace yourself,” I said cautiously. “Eating that stuff will make you drink faster and you won’t be able to perform if you get lucky.”
He gave me that querulous eye parrots are known for. He started to speak–seemed to hesitate–then plunged ahead. “You’re not actually trying to give me advice in the romance department–are you?”
“I’m a married man, just passing on–gratis–wisdom I’ve acquired at great expense.”
“If you think I need your help,” he said with a voice that was pregnant with machismo, “just hide and watch.”
With that he flew haltingly–I warned him about the suet–over to the bar and landed between two bottle-blonde–is “bimbos” too strong a word for the internet? My guess is they’re either real estate brokers looking for listings or secretaries looking to quit their jobs and become kept women.
“What a cute little bird!” one says as she offers Poll a pizza-flavored goldfish. He sniffs at it but doesn’t bite, clears his throat and, despite all the bravado he displayed when he was just hopping around on my table, he seems to–freeze in the face of the waves of peroxide that hang from the heads of the harpies of the bar.
Pizza-flavored goldfish: Yum.
“What’s your name?” the other asks.
I wait, on tenterhooks, to hear his response, but nothing comes. The tenterhooks are starting to dig into my Dockers “No Wrinkle Zone” chinos, with signature “Iron Free Straight Fit”–and try saying that five times fast. I could hardly bear to see the little guy suffer, but since he was so insufferable just a few minutes before, I found the inner strength–somehow–to endure it.
He opened his little beak and, as I’ve done so many times in my own life, haltingly began to stumble over his words.
“Drink . . . Old Quaker!” he finally spat out–and the two women began to laugh hysterically!
“You’re so cute–I’m going to take you home with me!” the more buxom of the two said, as she tucked him into her cleavage and stood up to go.
“Don’t mean to suggest you’re a bird brain, but is that a parrot on your head?”
I could only look on in envy as the three settled the tab and got up to go. Poll looked rather snug tucked into the décolletage that bounced by on their way out. “Poll didn’t want a cracker,” he says as he passes by, “so you can have my goldfish.”