I attended a christening on Sunday at a church on 49th St. in Manhattan in the Theater District near Times Square, the church named after St. Malachy, who it turns out is the patron saint of actors. I got there a few minutes late, and the place was packed—I thought at first with friends of the family, but the church attracts
many tourists in New York to see a show—so I stood by the back door and watched the proceedings from there.
My location I figured was probably good, since the baptismal font was stationed in the main aisle only a few feet from me. Things started out fine. But then someone opened the door behind me, a blast of cold air struck my neck, and I turned to watch as a very small woman with a mane of black swept-back hair entered the church.
It took me a second to realize that she was holding a parrot perched on her hand.
I normally don’t mind birds. As I’ve grown older I’ve experienced a growing and eager fondness for anything that’s alive at all—for obvious reasons. The parrot was not large either and seemed well behaved— although was that the nub end of a hot dog the woman was holding between her fingers and from which the bird was pecking and tearing off bits? Are parrots carnivores, I wondered? And then there was the question of what kind of parrot. I’m no expert. The parrot was mostly green but had a distinctive black head, and I wondered if it weren’t a black-headed conure, a rare bird in New York that’s more frequently observed in Southern Ontario.
Then there was the more disturbing question. What was the woman planning to do with the parrot? Baptize it? For what other reason would one bring a parrot to a christening? Companionship? The service proceeded, the time of the christening arrived. My friend’s beautiful daughter was duly held up in her exquisite white dress and water dabbed on her head. My view was good, though a crush of people arrived from other parts of the church to mar it slightly, and in the meantime, despite my worry, I must have been swept up in the moment; I lost sight of the woman with the parrot.
The baptism was done, people soon returned to their seats, and it was then I again caught sight of the woman. She had moved to the other side of the aisle and was now near the rear line of pews. But what was particularly disconcerting was that she no longer had the parrot!
You can imagine what I must have thought. Had this sick, tortured being drowned the parrot in the baptismal font in the confusion surrounding the legitimate baptism of the child? This is New York after all. Times Square. I considered going to the baptismal font to investigate, but the idea of finding the drowned form of the bird lying in the water was a shock I wasn’t prepared to withstand. And so I did what I always do when I’m not certain what to do. I did nothing.
The service proceeded but I couldn’t help but throw a few looks in the direction of the woman, who was nonetheless all piety. What was her game, I kept wondering? The service passed in this fashion. Now the minister was giving the final benediction. People were turning to go, but wait: the woman was coming toward me, and the parrot was back, perched on her shoulder. What had she done with it during its absence? Had it flown to a rafter for a better view? I was baffled until I saw the bird hop with expert skill from her shoulder and across her shirt, and then poking his head into opening above her shirt’s top button, simply crawl inside, disappearing within. She gave me a look, the woman with the parrot in her shirt, that seemed to contain within it some reluctant acceptance that something embarrassing, but also necessary and unavoidable, had just happened, and that this was not the first time. I can only say that the sight of the bird’s tail as it poked out of the shirt for an instant and then disappeared held a peculiar horror for me. It must have been some childish sensation that the parrot in merely hiding inside her shirt was actually going inside her. My sense of horror augmented. I felt stifled in the press of the crowd, and I quickly made my way outside in the cold clear morning of midtown New York.