05/17/2011 12:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Astoria Characters: The Lady and the Parrot

There will be poop.

Laurie Lieberman pops open the top of the green plastic carrying case, which looks like something Lady Gaga would use to tote her stuff around in. She asks for a roll of paper towels.

Let's get a couple of things straight; this story is not about Laurie, or at least that's what she says. It is, according to her, about Zeus, who has just hopped onto her fingers.

Zeus is her 4 ½-year-old Congo African grey parrot, who is ruffling his feathers to stretch his cooped-up, clipped wings.


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Laurie usually is seen with a parrot on her shoulder.

He's not accustomed to being carried; when he and Laurie take walks, Zeus is generally tethered on a lead, holding onto her hand with his reptilian talons.

"I wore grey so we would both match," says Laurie, a honey blonde with big brown eyes for no one but Zeus, whose grey is punctuated by a prissy petticoat of scarlet tail feathers. (More photos.)

Oops! We need a paper towel!

Zeus does talk; he has been taught to say all kinds of things, including his name. He can bark like a dog, meow like a cat and even mimic the blipping sound of the TiVo remote control and the electronic hum of the treadmill when Laurie turns it on. Sometimes, Laurie can't shut up his stream-of-consciousness chattering and singing.

"Zeus, you can't kiss me now," she says. "I'm wearing lipstick, and it's not good for you. And it's probably not good for me either."


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Zeus wouldn't even say "cheese" for the camera.

Perhaps it's the strange surroundings, but he's not saying anything, not even when Laurie prompts him. So, for now, we'll have to take her word for everything.

Let's start with the name Zeus, which Laurie gave her feathered friend because she considers him the king of birds. But hold on! Zeus may not be a he; in fact, Laurie says she's leaning toward she.

Anyway, it's amazing how quickly Laurie fell for Zeus. When she was growing up in Fresh Meadows, she never even had a pet.

In fact, she had a rather hard life that took her on what she calls "many detours" that led her in a circle three times to the present.

By 15, she was out of the house and into what would become her first residential treatment program, at Samaritan Village, where she earned her high school equivalency degree. By her twenties, she was hanging out all the time with her best friends -- heroin, crack and cocaine.


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Laurie and Zeus, the two lovebirds.

"I ended up homeless in Hunts Point, living by my wits," she says. "I was 95 pounds soaking wet, and I knew I was going to die if I kept using."

Zeus looks at her, cocks his head and gives her a long, shrill whistle.

A paper towel comes to the rescue again.

She was riding to nowhere, when a stranger on the train, who worked in detox programs, gave her his card. Again, she got her act together at Samaritan Village. For 3 ½ years. In 1994, she made a third trip to Samaritan.


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Laurie and Zeus in their casual greys.

"It took two times for the detox program to take on me," she says as she pets Zeus' black crescent-shaped beak. "I've been sober now for 17 years."

She jumped back into life with both feet in running shoes and became a paralegal. "But it didn't speak to me," she says.

Just as Zeus isn't speaking to her now. She tries to get him to do his animal imitations, but all he's saying is "water" as he puts his wing over her face then starts pecking her sterling silver ring.

School worked well for Laurie. She earned a bachelor's degree in human resources, a master's degree in public administration and is a credentialed alcoholism and substance abuse counselor and a credentialed prevention professional. After working as a secretary at The Doe Fund, a nonprofit that helps the homeless, she ended up where she started: Samaritan Village.

As program director of the 160-bed center in Jamaica, she helps people like herself overcome addictions, and when she's off duty she trains counselors.


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Zeus helps Laurie see the lighter side of life.

"Samaritan was like home to me," she says.

Zeus, as if suddenly waking up, now wants to have his say. "Hi, Boo Boo," he coos, pecking at Laurie's earring.

But that's all Laurie can get out of him, so she steps into the silence. "Mark Twain once wrote that 'she was not quite what you would call refined. She was not quite what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot,'" she says. "That pretty much sums me up."

OK, OK, enough about Laurie. We'll talk about you, Zeus.

Zeus wasn't Laurie's first bird; she started with a cockatiel and worked her way up to Zeus, as she succumbed to what she calls "larger-bird" lust. "The African Congo is the Lexus of birds," she says. "It's the perfect mixture of brains and beauty."


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Zeus shows off his showy red tail feathers.

Laurie got Zeus when he was eight weeks old; he slept on her chest like a newborn. "He's like my child; he acts like a five-year-old kid," she says. "There's a real bond."

At the first light of morning, Zeus calls out "Hi" from his cage. Most of the time, Zeus treats the apartment like his private aviary: Laurie and her husband work opposite shifts, so he remains cage-free when they're in.

He has a standing play date with them at 8 p.m., where he does things like tumble down Laurie's chest, and he's keen on singing along to the radio. He eats a mix of pellets and fruits and vegetables. He's particularly partial to cantaloupe and takes great delight in plucking corn off the cob with his beak.

"Zeus is always happy and jolly," Laurie says. "He likes to laugh at himself, and he's always looking for fun."

Congo African greys like Zeus have been known to live for a half century. Zeus is still in the puppy stage. That may be why he keeps attacking Laurie's office chair, pecking the stuffing out of it.


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Laurie and Zeus have started their spring strolls on the street.

A wisp of Zeus' white down, the kind in pillows too expensive to let you rest easily, floats to the floor.

"When Zeus loses feathers, I give them to clients," Laurie says. "For them, it symbolizes putting down the bat and picking up the feather, allowing them to stop beating themselves up."

She grabs another paper towel.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at
Copyright 2011 by Nancy A. Ruhling