I’ve always had the good fortune to see lemonade when confronted with any sort of lemons. Living in New Jersey for some people—perhaps most of the developed world—would be considered trashy, tacky, too Italian. Whenever I am out-of-state or country, and asked where I live, a look of pity or disgust subtly sweeps over the question asker’s face when I tell them “New Jersey.” I never defend my state to them, Tom Waits did it for me. I love NJ for all the reasons it’s hated. I also love it for what it once was, all farms and those glorious pine trees that I learned how to climb high and daydream in.
Drive up or down any one of New Jersey’s many ugly corridors and you will pass a shop I’m sure you’ve never been in. Just today I marveled at Wicker Dynasty, which is also—rather puzzlingly—selling gluten-free food products and bottled water. Perhaps to offset the presumed decline in wicker sales since the 80s? It’s not just the wicker and gluten-free combo-shops here in the Garden State. We have a crazy high number of exotic bird stores too.
I visited Todd Marcus Birds Exotic once a couple of years back and, of course, when I drive by it, I always smile to myself while thinking “Can these birds really be considered exotic since they live in a cage in a warehouse on Route 130 in Delran, New Jersey?”
I—not using the time my kids are in school to jog with other women wearing baseball hats, bake, or do any of the things that would justify my five hours of stay-at-home mom free time as put to good use— found myself pulling into the parking lot of Birds Exotic last week.
I went in and was suddenly overwhelmed with extreme joy; this was one happy and very clean place. I was quickly visually confronted with two women, one who worked there and the other a customer, both had birds on their shoulders and one of the ladies had a bird inside her cardigan. They were both wearing bright turquoise eyeliner, thick under their lower lashes. I wondered if this was some sort of bird lover’s identification makeup like how jeep owners wave at each other or the hanky code, a secret society signal.
I decided that this could end up being my favorite place to waste my five hours of kid-free time rather than lying on top of my neatly made bed listening to Led Zeppelin while staring at the ceiling wondering why Robert Plant had such bad taste in women. MQA definitely needed to further probe the crazy beautiful world of exotic birds. I asked the eyeliner woman if I could return with a friend of mine, who would film me asking her questions about this wonderful sanctuary, assuring her no one would probably ever see it because I’m nobody. She said I needed to talk to Todd and went and got him. He came out and agreed to be filmed with very little concern what I was doing and gave me his phone number. I left Todd Marcus Birds Exotic very happy that day.
A week later Lisa and I showed up and this is what she filmed.
After the camera was turned off I asked if Todd and his wife would consider adopting me if I ever became an adult orphan because they are perhaps the nicest people I have ever met. I called my Mom after leaving Birds Exotic and picking up some take-out Indian buffet to see if I could bargain a bird purchase out of her.
“Hi Mom, I met this bird today with a hair style very reminiscent of Whitney Houston at certain points in her career, he’s some sort of toucan with black curly hair, I wanted to know if you could buy one like him for me?”
“How much is he?”
“Oh Ingrid, that is too much.”
“Yeah, but he NEVER has to go to the beauty parlor.”
“Why don’t you want me to be happy?!?”
“No, that’s too much, wasn’t there one there that was much less?”
“Sure, but I want the one with the black lady hair. Mom, remember when I was in fifth grade and you, in your stoic get-the-fuck-over-it-already Norwegian way, informed me while I still had my book bag on after school, that you mistakenly pointed out from the kitchen window my cat Meow-Meow to be a groundhog, your caddyshackish mortal enemy, so Dad also mistakenly shot and murdered my pet? AND now I tense up around all pets afraid you or dad might show up out of nowhere and murder them ‘by accident’? This $6000.00 bird could fix that.”
“No, it’s too much.”
“I didn’t go to college, this is so much cheaper than Sarah’s Dad paying all that money to Emerson so she could NOT end up an actress.”
“You made that decision to not go, just like you wouldn’t do ballet, join Girl Scouts, or go see Santa. I had nothing to do with it.”
“What if I drive you down the shore and buy you a hamburger?”
She laughs, “No.”
“Ok, will you at least agree to go with me to Todd Marcus Birds Exotic and meet this toucan?”
“See Mom, now that’s a democracy at work.”
We hung up and I wondered why she doesn’t ever express guilt for the murdered cat. The story ends with a sweet mention that my dad really liked that cat—as if his one-time only cat affection made Meow-Meow’s murder less in vain—or why she doesn’t ever just say yes to any request I have since I’ll forget about it in a week. I don’t want to take care of a bird anymore than I want to take care of a bouquet of flowers.
I thought about New Jersey, too. And how I’m proud of my filthy bruised motherland, which I could never leave for long. The first place I go when returning from any trip is 7-11, to get a Coke Slurpee, hope somebody bumps into me, or starts yelling at somebody else, while I smile silently comforted by the commotion and absolute zero pretentiousness. Just like Birds Exotic, the lemonade is all around me here.
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