The hatching of memory

Wednesday, Jun 27 2001

There is no garden, only patches of community-owned ivy adjoining the Hollywood condo where I live. But in last summer’s heat, against house rules, I planted Kentucky Wonder pole beans, which climbed from long, narrow containers up a wrought-iron railing and through bird netting attached to hooks on the eaves of my roof; beefsteak tomatoes, in tubs, which strained through vertically linked wire rings; and potted marigolds and garlic to help protect my crops from aphids. Neighbors carrying garbage bags downstairs had to step gingerly around the foliage, but if you give away a few homegrown beans in the middle of a city, much is forgiven. By October, my summer crop yielded to cool-weather bulbs and sweet peas. I‘ve been marking the seasons in various Los Angeles homes this way for some 20 years. In Southern California, if you want seasons, you have to contrive them. And this is a story of seasons.

Last fall, Home Depot had a sale on a new brand of potting soil. After lugging a green plastic bag of the stuff upstairs, clutching it against my chest, I scooped wads of loam with my hands into empty pots. That’s when it hit -- the smell of chicken manure in the soil, under my fingernails, triggering a cascade of vivid sensory recollections: the

ostentatious explosions of golden acacia along Sonoma County roads, blackberries and thistles growing in tandem along roadside ditches, the pungent smell of eucalyptus windbreaks. And, getting to the heart of the matter, the musk of dust and ground corn, blighted feathers and chicken shit -- all mixed into the sawdust that once lined the floors of the old wooden sheds where I spent so much time during 1963 and 1964.

They‘re all gone now. Those long poultry barns, piles of compost against the outer walls, were already starting to sag, like old men in open fields, even then, when I was 9 years old.

I came to Northern California with my parents, brother and sister, green cards in hand, on August 29, 1963, on the S.S. Oriana. We sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge after a 16-day passage from Southampton -- a dazzling arrival in America from the concrete-and-brick suburbs of southern England. My parents’ endeavor to start a new life in California had been sponsored by distant cousins Joe and Sheba Rapoport, then in their early 60s -- themselves immigrants, but from the Ukraine in the ‘20s. Joe and Sheba were part of a Sonoma County enclave of old commies -- Yiddish-speaking radicals who were visited by an FBI agent, just checking in, every year until their deaths, over a quarter-century later. (Sheba’s lectures on the beauty of the Soviet Idea remained intractable until she died at the age of 89, though her defense of Stalin softened somewhat as historical evidence kept pouring in.) Joe and Sheba had helped unionize garment workers in New York, before being hounded west by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his anti-Communist witch-hunt. Afterward, all that was left to Joe, professionally, was chicken farming, which he despised. (Sheba worked as an executive secretary in San Francisco.)

Almost every morning, before school, I helped Joe on his rounds feeding the chickens, sometimes picking up dead birds that had been crushed into the floor, or killing the sick, dangling them by their feet and slamming their heads against a post, just like Joe did, then chopping them up with a hatchet on a stump outside, before tossing dismembered feet and wings to eagerly awaiting cats.

The ranch housed some 15,000 Rhode Island Red meat chickens, many of whom I grew to know by appearance and personality -- a perverse attachment, since every 14 weeks, large flatbed trucks carrying stacked wire cages rolled onto the property with a trio of men with rubber boots and gloves, who would seize yelping birds, three at a time, holding them by their feet upside down, and stuffing them into the cages on the trucks. Hysteria yielded to complacency: The birds were quite docile as the convoy rolled away -- beaks and combs craning into the breeze. Chickens are like that. They live in the moment.

Every day, I would walk up the hill to visit Joe and Sheba in their white cottage. On their black-and-white GE television, I watched the Beatles ensnare the heart of America, the aftermath of JFK‘s assassination, and reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies. It was through Joe’s halting Russian accent and Sheba‘s brisk stridency that I absorbed the heroic rhetoric of Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers, of Martin Luther King Jr. and the fledgling civil rights movement, as well as my cousins’ rabid opposition to the quickly escalating war in Vietnam.

It simply didn‘t occur to me that not everyone in the county actually opposed the war, or other imperatives of big business. I was a popular, exotic fourth-grade entry at Cotati Elementary School, until I started criticizing American foreign policy, aping what I’d heard in the white cottage on the hill. That‘s when my popularity plummeted as abruptly as it had been bestowed on me: “If you don’t like it here, why don‘t you go back to where you came from?”

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