In birthday song for a parrot, a note of melancholy

Castiglione and Lolo are homeless and frequently sleep in the Manhattan park

Sarah Maslin Nir, New York Times News Service
13:15 October 17, 2016
Hellen Castiglione

New York: At first glance, the parrot wearing a tiny paper party hat and gorging on a cake made of birdseed, as a jazz band played “Happy Birthday to You” in Washington Square Park on Saturday, looked like another example of charming New York City quirkiness.

A closer look, though, revealed that the quirkiness came with an edge: The parrot, a white cockatoo named Lolo, was tattered, and the woman whose shoulder he preened on, Hellen Castiglione, struggled to smile. Her blond hair was perfectly done, but her sweater was smeared with dirt.

Castiglione and Lolo are homeless and frequently sleep in the Manhattan park, the bird nestled in her backpack for warmth, she said. He has become something of a fixture in Greenwich Village, and his admirers were throwing him a 21st birthday party.

As the band played and Lolo groomed the bare spots beneath his wing, Castiglione, 52, spoke of battling mental illness, of Lolo’s distaste for sleeping on the subway when bad weather forces the two of them underground, and of how the bird, whom she has had since he was a chick, soothes her soul.

“I’m able to study myself” because of Lolo, she said, as the cockatoo hung from her collar. Castiglione says she has bipolar disorder, which makes her prone to bouts of rage. When Lolo nips her, she said, he triggers that emotion; his mere presence then helps to quell it. She explained: “I’d stop myself, and say, ‘Wait, it’s only a little bird. Be gentle. It’s just a little creature.’”

She said she became homeless about three years ago after a fire destroyed her New Jersey home. That she lives on the streets surprised many of the 20 to 30 people who filtered in and out of the festivities — she keeps it secret. Those in attendance included other homeless people as well as animal lovers like Suzan Goren, who identified herself as a rehabilitator of urban wildlife and handed out business cards that read “Squirrel Whisperer,” and Erika Siegel, who came with her pet hedgehog, Meatball, wrapped in a pastel-blue blanket.

Few of those on hand knew that Castiglione took showers at a gym, storing Lolo in a locker while she cleaned up and hoping he did not make his presence known with an errant “hello.” Nor did they know that she survived by charging tourists $5 apiece for a photo with Lolo on their shoulders.

“It’s a good ray of light,” Castiglione said of the party. “I’ve just never had so many people around me.”

The party was the idea of Joy Pape, 63, a nurse practitioner who lives near the park and became transfixed by Lolo, visiting him regularly and making his picture the background screen on her phone. Pape and her husband, Brian, 71, an architect, advertised the party in a local newspaper, the WestView News, and persuaded a birdseed company to provide the cake.

“I know everything about this bird,” Pape said. “The only thing I don’t know is his favourite colour.”

“He doesn’t have a favourite colour,” Castiglione said.

After Lolo, with some help, had blown out the cake’s 21 candles, the band, Rasheed & the Jazz Collective, played an extended version of “Happy Birthday” while Castiglione swung Lolo around on her wrist.

The band is a Washington Square Park mainstay, having played there for 18 years. That longevity is a point of pride for Doris Diether, 87, a park advocate who has repeatedly fought city officials’ efforts to curb noise in the park, arguing that they stifled its creative spirit. She surveyed the group gathered to honour Lolo — some who live around the park, others who live in it — and suggested that it represented the Village’s dog-eared, beatnik days, before the neighbourhood became glossy.

“They were all part of the character of this park,” she said, gesturing to the small crowd. “And they are all that’s left.”

As the party wound down, Fatima Morris, 46, who said she, too, was homeless, stopped to wish Lolo well. “He makes me smile because he lives day-to-day and I live day-to-day,” Morris said, scratching the cockatoo’s chin.

Castiglione offered a half-smile. Though Lolo is indeed 21, few of those gathered on the birdseed-strewn benches knew that October 15 was not actually his birthday. She said it was her late mother’s, making the event a reminder of both a beloved woman and a more secure time in Castiglione’s life.

The band played on. She took the little red hat off Lolo’s head and smoothed down the crest of yellow feathers underneath.