Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Live Nude Chickens

This summer, while in the process of moving to New York, I regularly stopped in to visit my friend John in Alexandria. John was an amazingly helpful resource: he once lived in the Bronx, had several other friends who had also made their homes in the blighted borough, and generally had a good feeling for how things worked in the City. Also, his home lay roughly halfway between New York and Southwest Virginia, which made it the perfect stopover if I was feeling particularly exhausted. Best of all, John's local bar, Kitty O'Shea's, is the home of the infamous Three Mile Island shot, not to mention a pretty impressive selection of more generic tipples.

Anyway, one evening, as we were drinking beer in Kitty's, John and some of his friends started telling stories about the Bronx. John's big tale of the night began with a train stoppage. Apparently, John was on his way home from work when his subway train randomly halted in the middle of the Bronx. The conductor kicked everyone off, leaving them to find their way home. Anyway, John had to walk a mile or two through some pretty skeevy neighborhoods. On the way, he passed a store. Sitting out front were two Muslim boys who were crying inconsolably while their mother was inside with the proprietor. Looking closer, John realized that the store was a live butcher, and that the mother was dropping off a goat.

John paused to take a sip of his beer and light a cigarette. As I waited for the conclusion, one of John's other listeners looked up from his drink and said, with beery gravitas, "They named it."

John laughed and said "they named it." The rest of his listeners nodded their heads like a jury confirming a verdict. "They named the goat." We all paused to reflect on the cruelties of youth, the hard-won wisdom of age, and the fact that a half-pint beer glass is pretty insufficient for anything more taxing than a urinalysis.

Flash forward a couple of months, and I now realize that every third or fourth butcher in my area has a sign outside his store that says "Vivero" or "Pollo Vivero." When I initially saw these signs, I felt a little thrill. The idea of live animals struck me as quaint and amusing, a sort of nod to the past. I liked the link to a simpler time, when healthy animals were fed by humans, not feed tubes, and killed by butchers, not machines. This, I thought, was infinitely more attractive than the concept of said animals being slaughtered, plucked, chopped, shrinkwrapped, shipped hundreds of miles, and rearranged in a grocery store to hide the scrapes, freezer burns, and assorted rotted spots.

The reality, I must admit, can sometimes be a little disturbing. As John and I were walking back from the Hall of Fame of Great Americans, we came upon a Pollo Vivero store. I was immediately disarmed by one of their signs, which read "Nobody Beats Our Prices: We Kill Halal."

I'm not sure how I'd advertise a live butcher, but I have a feeling that cute little pictures of rabbits, turkeys, chicks, and roosters isn't quite the way to go. On the bright side, it probably weeds out the squeamish, but it also might drive away customers who don't want to imagine their dinner posing for a Keane painting. In the painting, the animals appear prosaic, filled with barnyard dignity. They don't look like food so much as characters from Babe or Charlotte's Web. I don't mind eating real, live animals--in my opinion, we have canines and incisors for a reason. For that matter, most of the vegans that I've known have been passionless, weedy-looking people who did not look even remotely healthy. That having been said, I have also read The Chronicles of Narnia, and try to avoid eating animals that look like they have souls. The chicken, in particular, gets to me, as I can easily imagine her singing "One Day More" from Les Miserables.

Moving on...

The next sign was equally disturbing, in its own special way. It featured the name of the company above a picture of the World Trade Center. I'm not sure about the juxtaposition of the words "New York Live Poultry" and the scene of New York's greatest tragedy. I wondered if the idea was that patriotic Americans eat live chicken, or if the owners are somehow hinting that live killing keeps the terrorists at bay. Regardless, it seemed a little exploitative.

I'm guessing that Thanksgiving is a big time in the "Pollo Vivero" biz. After all, with the family coming by, every cook wants to do his or her best. And what, after all, is better than a freshly-killed turkey?

That having been said, I really could have done without the irony of a picture of a turkey, over the words "Holiday Special," with its head missing.

While we were hanging around outside, I peeked through the door. It looked like a vet clinic or a pound, with row after row of cages. Overall, it seemed pretty clean.

A little story about the woman in this picture: while John and I were looking inside the store, a young Dominican woman came out clutching a bag. As she exited, she opened the bag, glanced at its contents, and dry-heaved. John and I agreed that she was probably a first-generation American doing errands for her mom, and was unprepared to face the bloody realities of where dinner comes from. I'm not sure that I can blame her.

As a side note, it isn't always easy to get pictures of things in the Bronx. Usually I can get away with taking things from oblique angles, using the close-up function on my camera, or pretending that I'm taking pictures of my kid. On the occasions when these options aren't open to me, I do my best to be quick and subtle. On this particular day, I was neither, and one of the Pollo Vivero guys came out to express his displeasure with my photojournalism:

John and I went quickly on our way.

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  • Despite growing up on a farm and plucking my fair share of freshly killed birds, I grow ever more squeamish. Yuck.


    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At November 20, 2007 at 12:58 PM  

  • I hate people like that. This isn't Singapore. We have the right to take photos in public wherever we wish, though I've always felt a bit self-conscious, even when working as a reporter.

    Nice track suit, dude.

    I was fascinated as a 10 year-old to watch our beef calf, which we had named, get slaughtered by some redneck in our yard.

    By Blogger M@, At November 20, 2007 at 5:49 PM  

  • None of your photos will show up...must be a thing on my end.

    Happy Thanksgiving! :)

    (Still laughing about the beer episode...)

    By Blogger Echomouse, At November 20, 2007 at 8:18 PM  

  • You sure are getting an education there! wow...are you sure you live in NYC? YOu in the blighted borough and me in the forgotten borough. You as far north in the city as you can get from me....two completely different worlds...stange, isn't it?
    Good post !

    By Blogger Odat, At November 20, 2007 at 9:02 PM  

  • Puss-
    Did you ever read Naked Lunch?

    I had an aunt who made friends with the Thanksgiving turkey one year. It wasn't live or anything. No, she became pals with a dead, plucked Butterball.

    Aunt Cathy's kind of a loon.

    Thanks. I only reports 'em like I sees 'em.

    Regarding the pictures, I'm trying out Picasa's blog posting feature. So far, I'm not all that impressed.

    Beware--I shall work my way South, learning as I go!

    Besides, Union Square is convenient to both boroughs!

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 20, 2007 at 9:33 PM  

  • Judy watched her grandmother kill a chicken once, in Fargo, North Dakota, and refused to ever watch again. She almost wanted to avoid chicken altogether if she could have. Eventually, a kosher butcher set up shop in Fargo, and her grandmother took her chickens there for slaughtering. My wife never forgot.

    By Blogger The CEO, At November 20, 2007 at 10:42 PM  

  • This is why I'll be eating (meatless)"turk'y roll" on Thanksgiving. Although I can get behind a fish market. Where are those pictures??

    By Blogger JamieSmitten, At November 20, 2007 at 11:35 PM  

  • First off, an announcement: I will no longer be using Picasa's "publish to blog" feature, as it apparently doesn't publish on all browsers. That having been said, I've uploaded most of the pictures from my desktop, as per always, so you should be able to see them!

    Yeah, that's a lot to put on a kid. Or an adult!

    Isn't it funny how we don't feel any kinship to fish? After visiting an ostrich farm (and taking home some ostrich meat), I have very few illusions about birds; they're the direct descendants of dinosaurs!

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 21, 2007 at 12:11 AM  

  • you should come to SA my frined some people slaughter their anamals on the side walk
    would that be simple enough for you

    By Blogger Nosjunkie, At November 21, 2007 at 2:22 AM  

  • I'll be eating my turkey this year happy in the thought that I had it brought to me already wrapped and frozen. I'm a bit squeamish that way.

    Great post, great observations. Poor Bill laughed out loud at some of this as well!

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 21, 2007 at 8:32 AM  

  • Nosjunkie-
    I'm having a lot of culture shock here. I don't even know how I'd respond to sidewalk slaughterings.

    Although I've got to admit that it would be incredibly convenient.

    Our turkey (and our ham, for that matter) have come pre-packaged. In plastic, not feathers. I understand your squeamishness.


    Anyway, glad to have made Poor Bill laugh. I bet he can pretty easily visualize the neighborhood!

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 21, 2007 at 4:30 PM  

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