My Fine

William Grimes
(North Point)
Those who make their home in New York City are passing strange. They live in tiny dark hovels called apartments. They brag when they find a room for under $3000 a month. They've been in a massive traffic gridlock since the days of brass hubcaps. The sun barely shines, and casts a perpetual yellow-grey fried egg color over all buildings and faces.

To actually see the sun, one is required to pass over to New Jersey (for the poor) or to Long Island (for the rich). To see a tree, New Yorkers ride in a hole in the ground --- a subway --- to a place called Central Park where they can sit on crowded benches and get harassed by panhandlers.

Citizens of that city consume, daily, enough air-borne filth so that their lungs compare favorably to those who mine coal, mercury, or uranium. The ritziest street in Manhattan is called Park Avenue --- although there is no park except in the middle of the street which is primarily home to several hundred thousand rats who live and frolic in the greenery. The biggest town dump is called a "Kill" which pretty much says it all.

Compared to anywhere else in the U. S., New Yorkers pay double for their food, triple to park their cars, and quadruple for a cup of coffee. To get away from the city, one either has to go through one of five carbon-monoxide storage facilities known as tunnels, or ride over one of seven vertigo-inducing bridges.

After the events of 9/11 --- there is often a pause and a prayer before people venture to the upper stories of the 100 or so skyscrapers in the city. Upper floor rentals in Manhattan have fallen to less than a half of those of offices in the lower floors. Yet to demonstrate their chutzpa, all the plans proposed by the New York Port Authority on the site of the old World Trade Center feature one or more towers of 80 stories. As far as we can see, this will become the location of choice for corporations who are willing to sacrifice their future health and safety for pretty views and ghetto-style rents and dangers.

§     §     §

People in New York cultivate thousands and thousands of dogs and cats to decorate their streets, but are astonishingly illiterate about other animals of the world. Proof of this is the discovery of a chicken (a chicken!) in the back yard of one of the columnists for the New York Times. Immediately, Chicken --- her nom de plume --- became a folk-hero. Articles were written about her (where she came from, how she got there, what she ate for lunch). Photographers with $10,000 cameras arrived to get her picture. Chicken's step-father, William Grimes, the restaurant critic for the New York Times, became a pop personality --- all over a commonplace and fairly dull looking Australorp.

Grimes and his wife live in Astoria, which is over the bridge or under the river from Manhattan. Astoria is the location of choice for warehouses, dismantled cars, rendering plants, and grime (and a couple named Grimes). Apparently Chicken escaped from a nearby poultry execution factory and, knowing a good spot when she saw it, moved in and started laying eggs.

"I didn't know a hen could lay an egg without a rooster," confesses our narrator. Obviously he's no Okie from Muskogie. In any event, he took his new-found foster-parent duties seriously, studied up on chickens, wrote some articles about Chicken for the Times which, needless to say, heretofore had never had a farm report except on the financial pages. Lo! ... Chicken became a star. It apparently, doesn't take much to excite city slickers. It's what we newspaper people call a man-bites-dog story.

Let it be said that the author shows an appropriate enthusiasm for his new-found career in animal husbandry. He determines that Chicken is a Black Australorp, first cousin to the Black Orpington. He gives us a brief history of the breed, and a brief history of the role of chickens in American life. He even has his mother in Texas send him some scratch --- and not the folding kind. This Chicken Care package being sent from Texas might be considered overkill, for even in the wastelands of New York, there are granaries. It's not unlike you finding a newborn babe on your doorstep and having your mom in Milwaukee FedEx a couple of warm baby bottles filled with formula.

§     §     §

In the interests of fair disclosure, I should tell you that I've been raising chickens --- in the city (not New York) --- for the last twenty-five years. I can also report that no photographer from the Times ever knocked on my door to capture the profile one of my White-Crested Polish pullets (which are far more photogenic than some silly Australorp --- See Fig 1).

In fact ten years ago I got cited by the city fathers for having roosters in an otherwise respectable neighborhood. We went to trial, the cocks and I, I lost, they got sent out to East County Siberia --- and now I have a misdemeanor on my rap sheet. I even had to promise that I would take a two-year hiatus before taking up chickenry again. At least they didn't assign me six months cleaning up the Augean hen-houses out there at Foster's Farms.

Despite my colorful experiences, if I were to follow in Grimes shoes and send off a manuscript to North Point Press about the many funny birds in my back yard --- waxing lyrical about their industry, vigor, color and caginess --- I am guessing that editors wouldn't be pounding on my door to publish my feathery tale. I imagine it's all in who you know.

§     §     §

My Fine Feathered Friend is what we in the business call "an easy read." If it sells well, it becomes another farmyard animal of note: a cash cow. It's printed in soothing wheaten type on classy paper, complete with little chicken drawings. It runs $15 for 85 pages which works out to 17.6 cents a page. But for such a wee little tome, it's a hotbed of misinformation. His mother's scratch is, as he reports, a mix of milo, corn, and oats. But you don't give scratch to chickens for all three meals. If it's a hen, you give it laying mash --- not so it'll get laid (roosters not necessary), but so it will produce eggs. For chickens, scratch is like candy. They go nuts for it. To dole it out with every meal would be like your giving your kid Hostess Twinkies for breakfast, lunch, and supper.

Grimes tells us that before the mid-nineteenth century, chickens in America were primarily for fighting, and stuffing pillows, not for eating. This is a cockamamie story. A look at any historical account of life in Colonial America would easily disabuse him of that notion. If the pilgrims were eating turkey with Indians in the 17th century, they certainly were at the same time roasting, frying, fricasseeing, boiling and baking chicken.

He says there was a general chicken mania in the country, starting in 1845. This is so and many breeds --- what we chickenheads call "the fancy" --- were imported at that time, including the Cochin from China.

    They were enormous, and their egg-laying ability astounded the British,

he tells us. I can report on the size of Cochins from personal experience. Many years ago, before I got nabbed by the chicken police, I had two fine black-and-white barred Cochins. Cochins do look to be huge. I gave one of them to my good friend Elmo who, one day, drunk and disorderly, murdered my baby, defeathered her, and consumed her entire, the creep. He reported that she was nothing but skin and bone: "Scrawniest little bastard I ever ate," he complained. I was not amused.

Grimes tells us that "Ulisse Aldrovandi, a sixteenth-century Italian scholar and chicken fancier, described Asian chickens 'clothed with hair like that of a black cat...'" He speaks of them with awe, as if they had somehow disappeared from the face of the earth. The breed is known as "Silkies." They are a much-beloved if especially stupid member of the fancy. I have several of them that I have smuggled into my back-yard. They're covered with what appears to be hair. They also have black skin under their fluffy fur suits, and a jewel on the front of their little bone heads instead of a comb. They are a sight to behold.

§     §     §

Grimes' book ends sweetly and sadly. Chicken disappears one day while he's off sneaking into some restaurant: that's his job, apparently ... to eat with a bag on his head (at least, that's what we gather from the photograph on the back flap). His hen never returned.

Grimes wrote an obit in the Times --- Old Ochs must be turning over in his grave --- and tells us that the disappearance is still a mystery. He and his wife go through the Kubler-Ross stages: denial, bargaining, anger, et. al. Since there was no mound of feathers left behind, he suspected kidnapping or worse --- a result, perhaps, of the bird being "the most photographed, most talked-about chicken of our time."

It may be simpler than that. A chicken's worst enemies, after humans (we eat 2.5 billion of them a year) are coyotes, foxes, skunks, raccoons, 'possums, raptors, and dogs. I doubt there are many coyotes, foxes, skunks, 'possums and raccoons in Astoria --- at least of the furry variety --- but there are dogs of all descriptions.

One day I was sitting at the window of my garden, admiring my Cochin who was standing there, posed between steps, appearing just like a baby dinosaur (they are the creatures' last surviving kin on earth). A stray German Shepherd jumped into the yard, grabbed Bigfoot (that was her name) and, in an instant, snapped her neck. He then jumped the fence taking his supper, my baby, in his mouth, leaving howling me behind. There were no feathers, not even blood; only me in a brown study with the memory of my fine feathery friend who had done no harm to anyone, who had regularly presented me with a new fresh baby for breakfast every day of the week.

By-the-bye, if you are interested in real chicken lit, there's a new book out from Lyons Press called Living with Chickens. It's by Jay Rossier. It contains everything you could ever need to know about raising chickens, even in the big city.

--- L. W. Milam

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