Behind the centuries-old bricks and shutters of the French Quarter are many lives that passersby cannot see. Any glimpse into a shadowy courtyard is a teaser.
But there is one resident on Burgundy Street who beckons the outside world to take a longer look.
“Hello.” The greeting is so low and so soft that pedestrians often pause, perhaps thinking they imagined it. But there it is again. “Hello.”
The voice emerges from an open doorway behind a metal grate, much like the screen in a confessional booth. The greeter has reddish brown eyes that size up those she summons; her silence prompts the one on the other side of the screen to continue the conversation.
This is how Iko, the cockatoo, spends her day.
Such a neighborhood fixture is this bird that carriage drivers, pedicab cyclists and tour guides going by extend greetings before she can offer hers. Neighbors often take a detour to work just to stop and exchange hellos.
Twenty-three years ago, a woman with a nomad past walked into a Gentilly bird shop. The 4-month-old white cockatoo cuddled up to her to be petted, and B.B. St. Roman melted.
St. Roman, then the road manager for Dr. John, came back first thing the next morning. The two returned to Burgundy Street to put down roots.
“When I was here with Dr. John, something had come over me. I felt this desire to own a house in New Orleans. I had never wanted to settle down. I had always rented because I always wanted to be free,” said St. Roman, who has traveled to more than 40 countries as a sound engineer on documentaries about such notables as Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama.
She was living in New York when she started managing Dr. John’s tours in 1983 and was still with him in 1991 when she put a $104,000 bid on a Creole cottage to make New Orleans her home and the French Quarter her neighborhood.
But something, she said, was missing.
Enter Iko to fill that void.
Free as a bird
Iko (named, of course, for Dr. John’s legendary hit song) was free as a bird to be neighborly. She had her freedom inside the house and its courtyard. But her perimeters did not stop there.
“Iko would hop from roof to roof to scout out parties and watch the people. If she heard music, she had to go see, but she would come home to roost,” said St. Roman.
When a man named Richards “Pops” Stroman walked into St. Roman’s life in 1994, Iko’s world would expand even more.
St. Roman would marry this motorcycle man with a white beard and a generous spirit. (This is when B.B. St. Roman changed her name by taking the first letters of her original name, Barbara Becker, and putting a period in her new husband’s last name Stroman to create B.B. St. Roman.)
In a larger-than-life ceremony at the House of Blues, the wedding was attended by more than 1,000 guests, including a motorcycle caravan.
The headdress on St. Roman’s veil, fashioned by Little Shop of Fantasy mask designer Mike Stark, was inspired by Iko’s feathered crown, which unfolds like an umbrella at anything worthy of her attention.
During the ceremony, Iko perched on an arch of palmettos and moss on the altar.
The fairytale romance, however, was short-lived. Stroman would die a year and a half later. St. Roman said Iko tried to open Stroman’s eyes when he closed them for the last time, and as St. Roman grieved in the weeks that followed, Iko would put his beak to the tears on her cheeks.
During his time on Burgundy street, Stroman had proposed keeping the front door open so Iko could see out onto the street.
And that’s how the front door with its lattice-like screen became Iko’s window to the world, filled with an assortment of people stopping by to converse with a welcoming friend.
Those who peer through the barrier can see that the front room is St. Roman’s kitchen, and Iko’s perch is situated right by the door on Burgundy Street.
Performance and playtime
Iko has entertained herself from time to time by throwing a few kitchen items around, St. Roman says, and she often executes a twirling choreography on her rope that for Iko is part performance, part playtime.
Iko’s antics also earned her an appearance on Animal Planet’s “Pet Star,” a pet talent show hosted by Mario Lopez that ran from 2002 to 2005.
Iko’s vocabulary is limited to basics such as “hello” and “goodbye,” and “Goodbye, Iko.” When the feathered greeter is ready for her visitor to depart, she repeats “Goodbye, Iko” until her company gets the message to move along.
But Iko often mutters a few sentences under that strong beak of hers, and it is her inflection that relays the message.
There is a slight lilt in her voice when she asks a question, and there is a grumbling monotone, giving a visitor the feeling he has just been told off.
The 24-hour-a-day traffic in front of Iko’s door is made up of the homeless, tourists, neighbors and those who work nights.
“My neighbor called me recently to tell me that there was a woman at Iko’s door making strange gestures toward Iko, and she was concerned,” said St. Roman, who later checked her surveillance camera footage to see this woman dancing strangely, though apparently harmlessly, in front of the bird.
“The next morning I walked into the kitchen, and I see this same woman standing at the door talking to Iko,” says St. Roman.
“Iko saved my life,” the woman told St. Roman. A prostitute named Jasmine, she said that she was in a very bad place in her life the night she walked past Iko’s door, and the bird had called to her. Jasmine began to tell her troubles to Iko.
The cockatoo had come down from her perch and started to dig toys, corks, and paper from a cubby hole in the door frame, placing the objects in front of Jasmine.
“She was telling me I had to dig deep and to get in there and dig myself out of my situation,” said Jasmine.
Earning her keep
Many who stop to visit her want to express some kind of gratitude. In the past, they slipped dollar bills under the iron door, and Iko chewed the paper into lace. Recently, though, St. Roman put out a small container for tips. Now, Iko basically contributes to her own keep.
As director of NOPD’s homeless assistance unit, St. Roman exhibits a similar generosity of spirit in her job. She has even given a TED talk to help others understand the plight of the homeless.
In the ‘80s, while on the documentary crew filming Mother Teresa, St. Roman said she was struck by the nun’s “aura of calm.”
“I realized I had to have it for myself,” said St. Roman. Iko reinforces her owner’s peaceful nature.
“If there is an argument in the street, Iko usually ends the conflict,” she said.
“After long days working out in the streets, it feels good to come home and sit down and relax with a close friend. Most people have a spouse, family members, a roommate, a dog or cat, someone in the household when they come home. When you live alone, which I have for 38 of the last 40 years, the house feels empty without some kind of life in it,” says St. Roman, who feels that Iko chose her as much as she chose Iko.
“I look forward every day to coming home and sitting down for a moment with Iko. She always greets me and flies to my lap and wants to be petted. She brings life and love to my home, a quiet comfort. Well, not always so quiet.”