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Chicken-Hearted 

The hatching of memory

Wednesday, Jun 27 2001
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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?”

For solace, and refuge, I’d sit with the chickens, sometimes in an old chair that I‘d brought for the occasion, sometimes for an hour or two, frozen like a statue. Sometimes it was just to gaze at the behavior of the day-old chicks lounging in fresh sawdust under a suspended gas heat lamp. The birds made little contact with me in their infancy; they confined themselves to the area of the heat. But as they feathered out, and chirping turned to clucking, Joe raised the lamp via a pulley, and the chickens ventured into an expanded terrain. I trained myself to sit in the chair, moving nothing but my eyes, and the chickens would approach, torn between apprehension and curiosity. One would peck at my shoelace, then another would imitate, until the first would take the brave jump to my knee, realize what it had done and run away. Then all would flee, stepping on each other, squawking in a farce staged by instinct until, following some leader, they would re-approach, this army of the doomed. They really couldn’t help themselves, being so inquisitive by nature. One on my knee, then two, one on my shoulder. At the end of an hour, I was covered in chickens, absolutely enchanted.

In the middle of Los Angeles, almost 40 years later, it all comes rushing back, triggered by the smell of chicken manure on my fingers. Even after washing my hands, I know I have been infected -- a kind of lunacy is now gnawing, growing, and there is nothing I can do to stop it.

When I see “fertile eggs” at the Mayfair Market, I immediately buy half a dozen, along with some sponges, a 25-watt bulb and a thermometer. I retrieve a shoebox from a closet. Yes, I am going to build an incubator in order to hatch my very own chickens.

“And what are you going to do with them after they hatch?” ask friends, colleagues and my perplexed wife. “Are we going to turn the apartment into a chicken farm? What about the furniture?”

These are foolish questions to ask anyone who is living in the moment.

After prodigious research on the conditions needed to hatch chickens, through Google.com and About.com, I place a quartet of eggs into my shoebox incubator. The temperature must remain stable at 100 degrees, but in my shoebox the temperature wobbles lethally, dropping at night to a frigid 90 degrees. I make a tiny adjustment, moving the eggs millimeters closer to the light bulb. The thermometer shoots up to 110, meaning that I have just cooked the little ones -- presuming there are little ones to cook. After repeated attempts over two a and a half weeks, I realize that the shoebox isn‘t working. I order a $20 incubator online and head back to the Mayfair. Still no luck. I go through 24 eggs over 10 weeks with no success.

Then, one morning at the Hollywood Farmers Market, I meet Ken, a gentle, bearded fellow with a slight potbelly held in by an apron. Ken operates two stalls, one for knife sharpening and the other for eggs. One bin is marked “fertile eggs.” I say that I’d like some of his eggs and tell him of my plight.

“You can‘t use these eggs to hatch,” Ken explains. “And for sure, not from the grocery store. They’re bumped around too much.” Then he rolls two eggs into each other so that they tap, ever so lightly. “See that? If there‘s an embryo in there, it’s all over. They have to be held reeaaal delicate. You want hatching eggs, come up to my farm.”

He gives me a business card with the address of his farm, a mere 20 minutes away in semirural Van Nuys. I drive out there with my teenage stepdaughter, Sasha, to a large one-story stucco house, a chained fence across the driveway, and a dusty front yard with kids and dogs playing in a mound of dirt. There is no way in but to hop the wall, and I‘m not about to do that. As he later told me, Ken has barricaded his property after being raided by the LAPD, the Department of Building and Safety, and the Health Department after a neighbor’s complaint about his 3,000 critters -- chickens, rheas, goats, pigeons -- and the buses that he collects and stores on his property. The expression he uses most frequently is “violating your civil rights.”

The centuries-old American confrontation between the country and the city has now been replaced by equally hostile feelings between the country and the suburbs. It‘s always about neighbors. The farm and the city are now at a more exotic distance from each other, separated by the ’burbs, allowing for a greater measure of appreciation than when they rubbed up against each other -- in geography as well as in attitude. Raising chickens in the suburbs is considered deranged, whereas raising chickens in the city is merely eccentric -- that‘s the difference.

Ken sees me and comes out with an egg carton. Six eggs, six bucks. “What breed are they?” I ask. “No idea,” he says. “Mutts . . . Anything could come out of these.”

On the way home, Sasha holds the carton like a treasure, suspended above her lap. Three eggs go into the incubator that afternoon. Three are held in refrigerated storage, where they can last no more than a week.

My wife and Sasha fly to Moscow the next day, for a month. I am now living alone.

On my third day of solitary, late at night in my living room, with all the lights out, I hold an egg behind a flashlight’s beam, and there, floating on a very clear yolk, is an equally clear red-black dot, the size of a pinhead, with two hairlike follicles extending from it, curling and pink. Life -- as unmistakable as it is miraculous, as it is common. Life and blood. Three days. The heart is already beating -- make that two hearts, for there‘s life in two of the eggs. The third reveals nothing.

On day four, the pinheads have become double pinheads, linked by flesh into a hook, with a network of ruby arteries that now reaches through the entire yolk. But on day five, a bright-red ring encircles one of the embryos -- what one Web site calls “the ring of death.” The embryo has expired, and all the blood has been drawn to the perimeter. There remains one survivor. I pull a new egg from the fridge, let it settle to room temperature for three hours before placing it in a second incubator.

At day nine, the replacement egg shows signs of life, while the senior partner, now named Thornton, starts to disappear behind a black veil of skin. If you hold a flashlight up to any store-bought egg, you can see through its translucence. But Thornton’s mass has rendered his home impenetrable to light.

Just past midnight on Saturday morning, from the incubator to my left, Thornton abruptly announces his impending arrival: three shrill chirps from within the egg, and then silence. After my initial euphoria wears off, I whistle back, through my teeth, in imitation -- a trick I learned on the ranch. Thornton answers -- three more chirps, and then silence. We go on like this for about half an hour.

I send an e-mail to my friend Cathy, who has been monitoring Thornton‘s progress through the prior week. Indeed, the younger embryo is named Betty, in Cathy’s honor. (Cathy, an expat New Yorker who lives down the street, routinely uses the proper noun Betty as a common noun -- as in “Then this betty with the big hair says . . .”) Thornton and I chirp to each other until 2 a.m., after which, evidently more fatigued than my new, unborn friend, I go to bed.

By 8 a.m., upon staggering to the incubator to check Thornton‘s progress, I observe a small triangle at the top of his egg -- not so much a hole as a crack. By 10 a.m., the outer shell has dislodged around the crack, revealing an inner membrane with the appearance of thin white paper. This, too, has a tear in it. Through the tear, a little yellow beak emerges, chirps, pushes at the paper membrane, then withdraws. And that’s the sum of activity for the next nine hours: chirping, beak emerging, tasting the membrane, withdrawing.

A few things concern me. First, if the hatch is not completed within 24 hours from the first chirp, something is wrong. Thornton is now at the 19-hour mark and shows absolutely no interest in, as they say in the neighborhood, taking this to the next level. Also, sometimes his cheeping has the distinct tone of frustration. What if he‘s stuck?

A chicken-themed Web site directs me to a woman named Kelly in Pennsylvania, whom I call. Kelly shushes a number of children, and adopts a tone of cool compassion.

“Now let me get this right. You’re in the middle of Hollywood, and you‘re hatching chickens?”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“Well. [Pause] Okay . . . And where are you going to put the chicks after they hatch?”

“I have a cardboard box with wood chips, and a lamp for heat.”

“And they have room to get away from the heat if they want?”

“Oh, yes.”

“You have food?”

“Medicated chick-starter from a feed store in Silver Lake.”

“Sounds like you‘ve thought this through.”

“I have.”

“Okay . . . If the chick doesn’t break out by midnight, you might want to start helping him, but to tell you the truth, it‘s really hard work for the little guy to punch that air hole through the shell. After that, sometimes they just relax for hours. That’s pretty normal . . . Call back if nothing happens by the morning.”

I check the incubator and find Thornton on a tear, in every sense of that phrase. His chirping has turned to chattering, pieces of shell are bouncing off the inside of the dome, and two large cracks have now formed, streaking across the egg‘s radius and diameter. Not only is Thornton twisting his body around the egg in order to drill a circle about an inch below the egg’s tip, he simultaneously flexes with a ferocity that threatens the egg‘s entire structural integrity.

Within seconds, the egg is in two halves being kicked by a sopping-wet bird, all beak and claws and blood spots, flat on his back, shrink-wrapped in cellophane and squeaking like a rusty hinge. His back is still attached to a large piece of shell, and he contorts with such violence, he knocks the lid from the incubator. Then a purple, clawed foot pokes through -- a massive appendage, seven times the size of the body, it seems. This is not pretty at all.

In a mild panic, I stuff the leg back inside the rickety incubator and hold the lid down as Thornton kickboxes and writhes, trying to liberate himself from the confines of the eerie transparent membrane that is smashing his head and body into the likeness of a dinosaur, or an alien. In seconds, he peels away the membrane, ripping it from his head, so that two eyelids, sealed shut, can pry themselves open -- a pair of dark pools on either side of a narrow yellow beak. Thornton now just lies there on his back, panting, staring at me, as though accusing: “Are you the one who’s responsible for this?”

I gently pick him up and detach the piece of shell still glued to his sopping hindquarters. Thornton is too exhausted to argue. That‘s when I notice that something is terribly wrong.

Protruding from beneath Thornton’s wing and stomach are two gray fleshy tubes that conjoin into a larger tube, or artery, or something, that leads to a black-and-silver sac -- all of which is dangling from the chick‘s torso. As the horror sinks in, with this fragile bird in my hand, the walls literally start to shake.

Forgive the melodrama andor biblical allusion, but you can call Caltech for verification: At about 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 13, a small earthquake was felt across the Los Angeles basin.

Thornton, now back in the incubator, lying on his stomach, struggles to stand, impeded by this grotesque dangling organ and cheeping with annoyance. I call Kelly back.

“I think it’s his liver,” I explain. “He‘s dragging it around behind him.”

“Just stay calm,” Kelly says in a silky tone. “I don’t think any animal can live dragging around a vital internal organ. I‘m not there, so I can’t say for sure, but sometimes, if they hatch early . . . Did he hatch early?”

“Uh, yeah, he wasn‘t due till tomorrow.”

“Sometimes when they hatch early, not all of the yolk is absorbed into the body. He may just be dragging around some leftover yolk. Keep the chick in the incubator until he’s completely fluffed out. Don‘t let him eat or drink until then.”

Sunday morning, turning Betty’s egg, I see the thermometer has fallen because her egg rolled sharply into the mesh wall. Probably during the earthquake. Her egg oozes a sticky liquid, signifying the end of Betty, the tremor‘s one fatality.

Thornton, now the only living chicken on the block, stands proudly, chirping, head bumping the top of the dome, almost knocking it away. The appendage appears like a piece of lint attached to two brittle twigs. I pick up Thornton and snip the twigs away with a pair of scissors. No protest. No writhing in my hands. After setting him back inside, I tie down the incubator’s roof with string, and wait for Thornton to dry. By Sunday evening, he looks magnificent -- a little puff of flaming gold.

I could regale you with tales of Thornton‘s penchant for baby’s-breath flowers, of Thornton yelping until I set him on my work desk, of Thornton pecking at the keys of my computer and crying (a feeling I know well), of Thornton napping on my shoulder, of Thornton standing on my head before tumbling into my macaroni-cheese dinner, of following Thornton around the living room with toilet paper and a wet, soapy sponge. But that would be sentimental.

I will say that when Thornton was a week old, sprouting brown feathers on his wings, he struck me as being very alone in the fowl world. I brought the two incubators out of storage and started heating a new clutch of four eggs -- three of which hatched without incident. When Thornton met his younger reflections of himself, he was the only one with feathers, which he puffed up and in which he allowed the infants to snuggle. This supported Cathy‘s hunch, stated at the outside, that Thornton was a female, and that dubbing her a male, with no evidence whatsoever, was mere gender chauvinism.

Thornton is now fully grown and very henlike indeed, a beautiful rust-toned Rhode Island Red pullet with a golden head -- an eagle among chickens.

When the weather warmed, the flock was moved to the back yard, into a little pen with a coop. In the pen, they walk on strips of sod. Every day, I hose their waste into the grass, where it dissolves. The pact I have made with apprehensive neighbors is that this project will be odorless and noise-free. The agreement appears to be holding, though among the younger birds is a Barred Plymouth Rock rooster named Janucz, who I bring inside every night to sleep in a darkened box; this prevents him from crowing at dawn. Thornton’s younger sister, Betty II, completes the flock, for the fourth, Dionysius -- a beautiful white bird streaked with caramel -- was snatched from the coop in the middle of the night by a coyote. The roof had been weighted down with bricks -- insufficient protection. All that was left was a pool of blood on the cement and a few feathers down the driveway. It starts and ends with blood.

The following day, my next-door neighbor Trevor, on his own initiative, attached the roof with hinges and sealed it with a padlock.

Meanwhile, the birds have attracted the attention of neighbors living in the adjacent apartment complex. Last Sunday morning, a 7-year-old named Christopher came by with his mother while I was feeding the birds. He wanted to step inside the pen.

I placed some birdseed in his cupped hands and let him in, telling him to squat, hold his hands to the ground and remain still as a statue. As Thornton, Janucz and Betty ate from his hands, Christopher beamed widely enough to reveal his missing front tooth. Thornton then leapt onto Christopher‘s shoulder, Janucz onto his back and Betty all the way up to his head. The boy was covered in chickens, absolutely enchanted.

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