Sunday, March 27, 2011

My History With Chickens Or An Attachment To Roosters

The Albany Common Council (the City’s local legislature, more or less) has been debating whether to allow the keeping of chickens in the backyards, I assume, of residences within the City of Albany: up to six chickens for which their owner must pay a yearly fee of $37 (for the gang or per head, is not clear to me). Over lunch last week, a friend who is a member of that august body solicited my opinion on this loosening of restrictions on chickens at home. Why he bothered to ask me for an opinion is also unclear to me. So I answered him with this parable:

Once there was a 12-year-old Catholic boy who thought that he had a vocation to religious life (mistakenly, as it turned out) and so went away to a high school on the North Shore of Long Island, namely St. Anthony’s Juniorate, which was run by the Franciscan Order of Teaching Brothers (Yes, I had them in grammar school, coincidentally, at St. Anthony of Padua). Franciscans ran the ‘juniorate,’ named that since it was an incubator for Franciscan hatchlings, like the Cubs waystation on the road to Boy Scoutdum. I remember ‘Smithtown’ (that’s what we called the place), fondly as my rural adventure, having till then never been away from New York City for more than a few days. It was located on a couple acres between the towns of Kings Park and Smithtown in Suffolk County, surrounded by potatoe fields. This was in 1954; one of the high points of that year for us was a trip in the yellow School Bus to the movies in Kings Park; we saw The Bridges at Toko-Ri and I wrote a review for the school paper. We really liked taking the bus into Kings Park because the route took us past the Kings Park Psychiatric Hospital where the patients never failed to yell at us from their barred windows.

I met my first chicken, ’up-close and personal’ as police interrogators say, one Sunday morning early in my stay at Smithtown. We had work details daily. Mine that morning was to help kill our Sunday dinner: to chase down, capture and behead a chicken. I remember vividly the scene fifty-seven years ago as I laid her head on the block--still reminds me of the old ‘Three Musketeers’ movie when Lana Turner puts her lovely, treacherous neck on the block as Van Heflin watches from the wings-- and chopped. Unfortunately, I was a clumsy executioner: the victim jumped up and ran away. I don’t remember anything after that except the warmth of the water in the pot as I plucked her feathers and the warmth of her entrails as I cleaned her.

Birds of all stripe fascinate me, but not chickens so much. Roosters, however, are another story. For some, probably dark, reason they command my attention wherever I go. Driving on a country road in Mexico last year in the State of Nayarit, I heard them off-road in the distance. I drove toward their calls, and eventually found them. I left my car to approach closer to the yard. Although it was the middle of the afternoon, they strutted about--eyeing me, I swear-- crowing again and again as if on cue.

I know when I got hooked on roosters. As a patrol cop in the Bushwick, Brooklyn Precinct in the mid-to-late 1970s, I’d be working a late tour in the radio car when ‘round about 5:00 a.m. when all the bars are closed and all the trouble has left the streets, your eyes would begin to droop and you’d pull the car over out of sight to let nature take its course. But then, as the dawn broke, the roosters would crow, their boastful cries piercing the air like the whoops of a band of Indians hiding in the dark yards all around.

So I said to my friend, the Councilman: Where there’s a chicken, a rooster can’t be far behind. You can take that to the bank.

Robert Knightly

1 comment: