Cock Tale: A Spiteful Rooster

Right: That Wascally Mayor: When Colleen Bellenfant, 11, of Rancho Palos Verdes won the regional Literacy Poster Contest, she was slated to be honored with an inspirational book reading by L.A. Mayor James Hahn and an appearance by the Nestlé® Nesquik™ Bunny. Uninspiringly, the incredible shrinking mayor never showed at the event, held at San Pedro’s Gaffey Street Vons, but the Bunny made out like Warren Beatty.

Last spring, I plucked Janucz from his shell, the only male chick in a clutch of three that I’d assisted into life with the help of a $20 incubator. While his girlfriends emerged as two golden puffballs fascinated with everything in sight, Janucz just lay in his egg snoozing, poking his beak out for air and even chirping on rare occasion, but generally displaying little interest in being born, or in the challenges that might ensue from it.

Black with gold trim, he appeared more like a penguin than a chicken, holding himself more upright than the others. At just 2 weeks of age, Janucz was at least a third larger than either of his nest mates, being the only one to sport a conspicuous comb and wattles that were already turning pink. That’s how I knew Janucz was a rooster.

Where the girls were inquisitive, Janucz was merely quizzical. Where they looked at me straight on, Janucz would observe with his head slightly tilted. I believe he saw everything from an angle.

The birds were all housed, during their youth, in a large dog cage — carpeted with cedar chips and decorated with perches and a heating lamp — that was parked in a corner of the living room in my Hollywood apartment. Once or twice a day, I would let them cavort in the room. As the females assertively pecked flecks of lint from the carpet, Janucz watched cautiously before he tried the same. As I lay on the floor, the girls would jump onto my back. Janucz might eventually join them, but never would he initiate such a bold adventure.

The females metamorphosed into rust-colored pullets; Janucz feathered out into a statuesque, living weathervane with black and white stripes, looking (and behaving) something like a prison convict. At the age of 3 months, they all moved outside into an enclosed pen with a hutch. Shortly thereafter, hormones must have kicked in, for Janucz, already intimidatingly large, grew fat, and his voice got very deep. His walking turned into slow-motion strutting, propping up his new-felt responsibility for protecting his hens with overblown self-importance.

About this time, Janucz started to crow — not the penetrating soprano crow you hear as rural atmosphere in so many movies. His crowing was more husky and crude, like that of a child learning to play alto sax. My first in a series of apologies to neighbors on Janucz’s behalf came after somebody inquired when the rooster might perfect his technique. I answered truthfully: That’s as good as he’ll get. A chicken expert told me that crowing is the rooster’s way of saying, “I am here, and I am in charge.”

To avoid Janucz’s waking people with a sunrise serenade, I kept him in a cardboard box every night in my darkened hallway, not letting him outside until at least 10 a.m. This established a ritual of carrying the bird in my arms to and from his pen. On these trips, I would rub his chest and talk to him, and he would cluck back most amicably in his basso profundo. During these sessions, I grew very attached to him; and, I believe, he to me, even though one morning, while in my arms, he took a rather sharp peck at my wrist. I explained to him the moral of biting the hand that feeds, but I don’t believe he understood or cared.

He was no more considerate of the girls. Upon being set outside, Janucz would immediately chase the hens, grab them and mount them with no illusion of romance. On one occasion, they flew from the ground to my shoulder for protection — a leap he was too fat to make. He stood at my feet, circling, gazing upward — at an angle — clucking in obvious agitation.

Another morning, while I was setting the food dish in their pen, he took another shot at my arm. I responded with a sharp swipe to his head — a gesture that shocked him. He never attacked me after that.

One time, a woman in open sandals was carrying clothes from the laundry room near the pen to her apartment, when Janucz, roaming free, waged a rather hostile campaign against her painted red toenails, forcing her to jump around while balancing a bag of underwear and towels. After rescuing her, I explained that he had probably mistaken her toes for rose petals. She didn’t really believe me, and neither did I.

Meanwhile, Janucz’s afternoon crowing grew increasingly incessant. My downstairs neighbor, John, who lives directly across from the pen, told me that after placing a radio in his window to drown him out, Janucz would crow more loudly until he actually lost his voice. John is convinced it was spite, that the bird aimed for his window. “When I open the shades,” John told me, “I can see straight down his gullet.”

With remarkable sensitivity, John proposed adding greenery and vegetables to Janucz’s diet in order to add distraction, to quiet him down. We were at the pen when he was saying this. The birds were free — Janucz tends to crow less when roaming. Moments later, in the garage, I heard John’s plaintive call from around the corner. Racing back to the yard, I saw that Janucz had backed John against a brick wall and was holding him hostage.

My friend Cathy helped me transport Janucz back to the Van Nuys chicken farm from whence his egg came. The owner, Ken, was impressed not only by Janucz’s visual splendor but with what a personable character he had. Janucz would be kept separated from the other roosters, he assured me, free to roam the yard like a pet. We walked away from the upsetting sight of Janucz in a wire cage, bewildered and awaiting vaccination.

I wasn’t there, but Ken tells me that the next morning, Janucz attacked him, scarring his left arm. Janucz was then summarily deposited into a pen with a dozen other roosters, all of whom Janucz reputedly defeated in battle. I later pointed out that he had returned home like King Oedipus to Thebes, and that he might even be living with his parents. No sentimentalist, Ken answered, “He’s probably kicking the shit out of them as well.”

But when I went to visit him a week later, I saw a very different picture. The flock had wreaked its revenge. Janucz sat cowering, his feathers in tatters, his comb bent and caked in dried blood, his face chalky gray, one eye swollen shut, an abscessed boil below his ear. He had lost a quarter of his body weight and had stopped crowing, Ken reported, saying that he could not vouch for the rooster’s survival.

Janucz sleeps once more in the dog cage, quarantined. As I write this, he sits on my thigh, where he’s been perched for about an hour, napping, sometimes clucking. He won’t eat unless it’s from my hand. He won’t drink unless I hold a water dish to his face. Three times a day, I dab antibacterial ointment on his swollen eye, which he tries to open on occasion, but I suspect it’s now a useless appendage.

There are many allegories in the chickens’ cycles of violence, but you can find them for yourself. My only comment is a lesson that even Janucz has learned: Crowing can be as lethal as it is presumptuous. That’s why he stopped. Take it from a rooster who knows. —Steven Leigh Morris

Getting Physical: Spin Cycle

It’s just past 9 on a Wednesday morning, and spinning instructor Laurent Boye, tall and wiry in short shorts and a scoop-neck tank, bounces along to Chic’s “Le Freak” in the mirrored third-floor training room of the Hollywood YMCA.

He moves as if his back were attached by a string to the ceiling, enabling him to sway and writhe while maintaining superhuman speed. The 20-odd students do their best to keep up. “Geev me ev-ry-sing!” Boye shouts in nasal Bordeaux-ese. “Everysing! Yeee-esssss! You cahn do eet!”

Spinning, or teacher-led stationary bicycling, has been around since the mid-’80s, long enough to become a gym-rat mainstay. And the key to the success of any spinning class is the teacher — someone who can make sure you never once look at the clock. There are many ways to do this. At the Hollywood Y, one instructor employs what I call Western Spin, in which he refers to the seat as a saddle and the pedals as stirrups. Pedaling at a moderate pace becomes galloping. When he wants the students to sprint, he tells them to “chase the bunny,” conjuring images of a dusty scramble through the underbrush. Periodically during class he’ll slap his thigh and shout, “Heeyah! Heeyah!” Several other teachers have adopted various forms of Eastern Spin, which involves a lot of deep breathing, yoga-inspired stretching and an end-of-class â meditation during which one must lie on the sweat-puddled floor. There are also those who swear by what can only be described as Boot Camp Spin, entailing much grunting, barked orders and shouted counting.

And then there is Laurent, whose schtick might best be described as Whirling Dervish Spin. From the moment he steps onto the bike he is a man possessed, pedaling so fast and hard he vibrates, all the while shouting encouragement into the mike. “Today you weel be strongehr, fastehr zhan evehr befahr! You cahn do eet! Come weez me!” He is a hummingbird, a hand mixer, a washing machine on, well, spin. He tosses his head and jerks his shoulders forward and back, flipping his shaggy brown hair in a balance-defying, coquettish manner during which he still, somehow, manages to remain centered over his seat. Throw in that Bordeaux accent and he is ridiculous, over the top and hilarious — Richard Simmons, Mike Meyers and Dudley Moore all rolled into one. And he knows it.

“I am here to entertain you,” Laurent explains later, in a normal tone of voice that sounds strange because I’m so used to hearing him shout. “My job is to make you forget.”

Four years ago Laurent was fat, unhappy and living in Orange County, where he worked in a bakery: “I once lost 26 pounds eating only German shok-o-lat cake.” Then he moved to Los Angeles and discovered spinning. The quantity of sweat alone impressed him. “Zee fahrst time I was not just dreepping. I was being a waterfall myself. Zehr was like a reever under my bike. It was amazing. I lost, like, 10 pounds in 45 minutes. I felt so good, it was eencredible

Pretty soon Laurent was spinning so much and so well he was bored with his instructors. Last January he started teaching, and word soon spread about this son of a French club owner who spends two to three hours a day trolling the Web for the best dance mixes to fuel his flamboyant style. Other instructors come to his classes to get the intense workout and to gain insight into his technique. His students (especially the women) bring him treats, like special music tapes, CDs and chocolate croissants. It is not uncommon to hear a few phrases of awkward high school French rolled out at the start of class. Some of his most devoted fans have been known to attend an earlier, less popular class just to ensure they will have a seat for Laurent. After class, his cuteness — that certain je ne sais quoi — is a favorite topic of discussion in the women’s locker room.

But Laurent is not for everyone. The music is ear-popping loud (I wear earplugs), occasionally offensive (2 Live Crew’s “Smack My Bitch Up”) and the pedaling moves are sometimes impossible to follow. If you don’t have a certain level of spinning experience you can be wrecked for days. And yet, some of the more particular experienced students find his form lacking — in moments of extreme abandon he tends to pedal with his toes pointing down. It’s true that he has gone through so many spinning shoes in the past couple of years, their soles snapping in two, that he stopped counting at 20. “They break,” he said with a shrug. “They are not used to extremes.”

One day, after spinning through Laurent’s class and imagining him as a boy, tearing through the South of France on some fancy 10-speed, and now, pedaling madly through the San Gabriels every chance he gets, I ask him where he likes to ride for fun. He shrugs. Laurent’s world of bicycling, apparently, stops at the spinning room door.

“I like my 45 minutes and then, after, my shower,” he said. “I am not interested to go far away and be stuck somewhere with a flat tire. No way.”

—Sara Catania

Spectacles: Blood on the Ice

The things we love about figure skating are not simply the grace and athleticism, but the disasters, and I’m not talking felonious feuds between Harding and Kerrigan, but those little slips of the skate that mean the difference between Olympic gold and a career as a dancing teacup in Holiday on Ice. It is this perversion that drives me to take my 12-year-old daughter to the 2002 State Farm U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Staples Center.

“I always get so nervous, thinking they’re going to fall,” says Tafv, as we wave off the guy hawking $15 programs. “But that’s also the part I like.”

Our seats are 10 rows up from the rink, which is much smaller than it appears on TV. “We can see their birthmarks from here,” says Tafv. It’s Friday night, the pairs final, in which 14 couples incorporate lifts with full arm extensions, one or two death spirals, and solo jumps into their four-and-a-half-minute routines. While there are swelling trumpet fanfares and skintight peacock-colored costumes — the flourishes that make televised skating so operatic — in person the effect is at once less dramatic and more excruciating.

Lindsay and Brian Rogeness lead the competition. I am horror-struck, after they slip several times, to realize that all their years of training have been distilled into this routine, and that they’ve blown it. When Lindsay wipes out, I am so nerve-racked I want to pull out my teeth. I squirm as I watch, close-up on the video monitor, the Rogenesses’ tremulous smiles upon receiving their scores: nothing more than a 3.9, out of a possible 6.

The debacles continue: Marcy Hinzmann, skating to “Swan Lake/Sleeping Beauty” in midnight-blue velvet and a wreath of stars in her hair, falls twice within the first 15 seconds of her routine with partner Ronnie Biancosino. They get nothing over a 4.2.

“He has a huge behind,” says Tafv of Amir Ganaba, skating with his sister Sima, local favorites from Burbank who electrify the crowd with their perfectly executed death spirals until, plop, down goes Amir on his Clydesdale-like rump.

“Eeeee!” shrieks the crowd, as we bleed empathy.

And so it goes. We cheer as couples ace landings and execute impossible triple axles, flying and gliding as we mere mortals do only in our dreams. We pound our fists into our thighs when Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, who’ve skated a spectacular routine full of smokiness and sex, screw up at the last moment. We gasp when Hartsell and Hartsell, one of the top four going into the event, leave the rink in tears, unable to compete for one of two spots on the Olympic team due to injury. O, the humanity!

All sympathy turns to ecstasy when Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman take the ice. She is a gorgeous Japanese sylph in shimmering aqua, he movie-star handsome with flowing Byronic locks; they are elegant, strong and fearless, performing moves none of the other couples have. Their routine, skated to Paganini’s “Variations on a Theme,” is ballet, music, theater and sports rolled into one, and they nail it — nothing below a 5.7. For the first time, the crowd is on its feet.

It doesn’t last long. At the end of the night, a dolly is rolled onto the ice, some crummy green mats offloaded, a platform set up for the awards ceremony. But by the time Ina and Zimmerman take a celebratory lap, the crowd is mostly gone. We’ve tasted blood. Glory is not what we’ve come for.

—Nancy Rommelmann