Friday, May 12, 2006

The Astoria Chicken

Well, some strange shit happens every now and then in the city. The strangest to me will always be those things containing vestiges of small-town life transplanted to the city, as in my earlier story about the family of the raccoons in the Bronx. Frankly, the stereotypically strange stuff – random violence, bad manners, etc. – gets to be like ugly, peeling wallpaper after awhile, and not something I dwell on.

On Thursday night, I came home from work feeling pretty beat. The previous night, I helped out with a museum party that ran until 9:00 pm, and I’d been feeling lackluster ever since. I opened the gate on my landlord’s property, only to see a handful of kids, probably between the ages of eight to 12, congregated along the ledge of the wall running along the sidewalk. The house is right next to a small playground, so it’s not unusual during baseball season to see kids there looking for balls hit into her yard. Certainly not a daily or weekly experience, but every now and then.

Naturally, I don’t like seeing anyone on her property. She’s had problems in the past with shithead kids from the neighboring public school getting on to her property, simply for the sake of being devious. (There’s now a very imposing, shaved-headed teacher stationed on that side of the school to prevent this at the bustling arrival and departure times.) Last July, during the few weeks of summer school, I kept seeing this morose, improbably gigantic white kid sitting on her steps before school started. He apologized the first time he saw me coming out for work in the morning. The kid looked so hang dog, so demoralized to be there, that I just said, don’t worry about it. Mistake. By the last week of summer school, there was a small gaggle of douche bags hanging out on her steps, which I promise will not happen again this summer.

So, I see these kids, who immediately freeze when they see me coming, and call out, “You guys looking for a ball?”

“Nah, man,” one of the kids says, “yo, you got a chicken in your backyard, mister.”

“Get out.”

“Look! There it is!”

Sure enough, there was a god-damned chicken crouching in this strange branch-laden crawl space between my landlord’s back patio and the adjacent wall running along the sidewalk (she uses this to dump branches and any other sort of mulch-material from trees). The kids were freaking out as if the chicken were poisonous and trying to bite them. I figured it must be an escaped chicken from the poultry processing plant located about half a mile down the adjacent avenue, well past the Steinway Piano factory and supermarket. (That same plant, which closes down periodically due to sanitary issues, also does cows, and one of them famously broke loose a few years back and wandered the streets of Astoria before being lassooed by an off-duty cop.) How the chicken got this far away, I have no idea. But here it was, trying in vain to hide from these weird kids.

After a few minutes, it became obvious that the kids didn’t know what to do and were looking to me for guidance. I may be from the country, but I don’t know shit about chickens, save that they taste good. I do know that unless you’re dealing with a rooster, you can more than likely just pick the thing up and put it in some type of cage. One of the kids suggested I call 311 and get in touch with Animal Control Services. Which I did … only to have them inform me that it was too late to send out a team, and apparently for him to take down my information, so I should safely entrap the chicken and call back the next morning, at which time a team would be sent out to take the chicken and do god knows what.

At this point, also, my landlord hangs her head out the door by her back kitchen, and yells out, “Ah-Billy, just ah-kill that crazy chicken and get those kids out of here.” She ducked back in, which was unusual – she usually takes a perverse pleasure in being a mean old lady to neighborhood kids. Most times, she’s right on, as so many of the kids around here are total pricks, but these kids were actually pretty cool – two white kids, two Latinos, all of them friendly. They got my name, I got theirs, and one of them started crying over the thought that I might kill the chicken.

“Please don’t kill the chicken, Billy, I want it to live!”

Even without the water works, I wanted the chicken to live, too. Why the fuck not? It’s such a rare occurrence for me to have a positive experience with city kids, and I was so glad to see these kids had heart, that I set about saving that god-damned chicken.

Which took all of five minutes. I simply put on some work gloves, ran up into that little area of tree branches, grabbed it and put it into a large blue trash container. The kids were amazed at this, as if I had just stormed the beach at Normandy. I guess for the past half hour, they had been chasing the chicken around and running away any time it got within five feet of them. I brought the chicken in the container back into the yard. The best course seemed to be leave it in there, but put the landlord’s wire laundry/grocery cart over the top of it so it wouldn’t jump out. Also, the closing touch, put the blue trashcan lid over the top of the wire cart – we were due for some hard rain Thursday night and all-day Friday. I didn’t want the damn thing to drown, and the cart being over the container's top would allow enough air to get in.

As I did this, these kids were simply amazed that this was happening. It’s pretty rare for me to have these adult/authority moments with kids – and I kind of like them. Because it’s at times like this I can see kids for what they are – essentially blank slates that need some sort of positive guidance. And it seemed to me that saving the life of a stray chicken was an adventure these guys would most likely remember for a few years and feel good about.

I told them I’d call Animal Control the next morning and get the chicken picked up by them, hopefully on Friday. If not, we’d get the chicken when I got home from work on Friday, say our farewells, and walk it down to the poultry processing plant. None of us were equipped to take care of a chicken, plain and simple. To set it loose would most likely result in the thing being run over by a car or killed by some jackass for no good reason. So, I told the kids to go on their way, and I’d take care of it. They all waved goodbye, and I felt touched that I actually dealt with some relatively normal kids. (If they were completely normal, they wouldn’t have been on my landlord’s property without permission – but kids will be kids.)

The landlord freaked out when I got back into the house.

“Ah-Billy, I know those crazy kids put that chicken there on purpose!”

“No. Those kids were scared to death of that chicken. Maybe the chased it onto your property, but I know for fact they didn’t put it there on purpose. All of them ran away when that chicken got within five feet of any of them.”

“We should kill that chicken!”

“No. I’ll call Animal Control in the morning. They’ll take care of it.”

I couldn’t vouch for that. Most city services are for shit, and everybody knows it. But what choice did I have? It was call these pricks in the morning and hope they came, or take the damn bird to the last roundup at the plant. My landlord probably had visions of doing up the bird with a hatchet like in the old country, but that wasn’t going to happen.

At about 10:00 that night, I went out with a bowl of water and another bowl of pretzels I had crushed into a near-powder. The bird looked fine when I came out, seemed to be sleeping, but was calm, after clearly being scared to death when they kids were chasing it around.

I got up this morning and went out around 7:45 to check on the bird. Still fine – and it had eaten all the pretzels! So I went back in, refilled the water, crushed up some more pretzels, put them back, and left the bird to its own devices. School was just loading in, but I didn’t see any of the kids around. Besides which, even if I had, the bald-headed teacher would have busted their asses for coming over to our side of the street.

I got to work, called up 311, got put through to Animal Control, was put on hold for 15 minutes and finally got through to a guy who had the IQ of a bowling ball.

The first thing he says after I explain my situation: “Look if you want me to help you, you’ll have to tell me your name and address.”

“Gladly.”

“You know, you have to tell me your name and address.”

“Great. My name is …”

“What’s your name. I’ll need your address, too. You’ll have to tell me these things.”

“Buddy, I’ll tell you everything you need to know. What do you need to know?”

"Your name and address. Why won't you tell me these things?"

It was like a scene from Waiting for Godot. I had a hell of a time explaining that I don’t know my landlord’s phone number or last name – according to her bills, she has about five different last names. The guy was on the verge of blowing me off, but I made it crystal clear to him that this was no joke, sorry, we’re dealing with mysterious Greeks here who only take cash, but I can assure you, this address is right, my landlord will be there all day, she’ll know you guys are coming to get the chicken, she’ll be glad to help you get it off her property, please call this cellphone number I'm calling you on if there is any trouble at all. It finally registered, and he said he’d send a team out later that day. It took about 20 minutes to disseminate about 45 seconds of information. My hopes weren’t too high that they’d be picking up the chicken.

I got home around 6:30 tonight. Walked back to the patio … and the chicken was gone. The bowls were gone, the landlord’s wire cart was back in her storage shed, and everything was in place. When I got back in the house, the landlord was in a joyous mood – she was elated that the chicken was gone. Her only question: “Ah-Billy, how much will this cost me?”

“Not a dime. It’s a city service.”

“That’s ah-good. Here, have some white chocolate rabbits.”

She gave me about six white-chocolate rabbits she had been saving up for her one set of grandkids, but I imagine she’s still fighting with that particular daughter. (I know her other set of grandkids showed up for Easter, which is good.) She’s always siphoning off food to me that’s meant for these kids, so when she's rumbling with either of her daughters and they don’t show up, I get the goods. And this is fine by me!

About half an hour later, the kids rolled by. Again, they made the vital error of not getting my landlord’s permission before going onto her property. This time, she burst out her door, going full throttle, shrieking: “You ah-kids, get off my land! Get off! You no live here! Go away! Lousy bums!”

(I’m still not sure how this didn’t happen the night before, as those kids were on her property a good half hour before I showed up, and she was in her house.)

As the kids were slinking away, I got up the stairs in time to yell out, “Hey, kids, the chicken’s gone. Animal Services picked it up today at noon.”

That’s about all I could get out before she shooed them away. But the kid who had been crying said “thanks, Billy,” one of them clapped and the others smiled.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they spray-paint “suck my dick” or something like that on her outer sidewalk wall tonight – kids tend not to take kindly to getting kicked off property. Who knows, I’m hoping those kids are smart enough to see that something good and worthwhile happened here, no matter what happens to that chicken. And I have no idea what would happen to a stray chicken taken in like that by the city.

But it helped me out in terms of seeing that there are some good, if flawed, kids living in this weird neighborhood, and I was glad to actually have a real interaction with them. I could talk to them like normal human beings, not lay any fatherly/adult bullshit trips on them, and simply communicate the shared idea that saving a chicken, for no other reason than it was a good deed, mattered.

1 comment:

Drooch said...

"so I should safely entrap the chicken and call back the next morning, at which time a team would be sent out to take the chicken and do god knows what."

Entrapment!! Scandal!! Free the
Astoria Chicken!! Free the Astoria Chicken!!