All over the west and south sides of Chicago there are still live poultry shops. It only now occurs to me that I’ve never actually been in one. Americans are particularly squeamish this way– we never want to look the creature we’re about to slaughter in the eye. We’d rather see it fried with some biscuits and gravy on a plate, or in nugget form in a small styrofoam box; or even better, chopped up with a bunch of vegetables in some soup. We’re not much for the blood and the feathers and the screeching death that comes along with butchering poultry.

A number of people in the city have begun to keep chickens in their yards in Ukrainian Village they raise their own eggs and I have to admit it is kind of heartening to see a plump chicken or two walking the alleyways. You want to warn them that: feral cats, large rats, raccoons, and now coyotes also now walk these alleys, and would gladly feast on them; but then you notice these are some big-assed chickens and when you get right up close and look them in the eye?  You see all of the madness in the world.These chickens are Chicago chickens and they just might be able to hold their own.

Years ago, when I first opened my studio on Damen Avenue, there was a small bodega a few doors down from me. The older Puerto Rican guy who ran it made change out of his pocket, rather than the cash register. The store was badly stocked, open when it  wanted to and closed at odd hours. We struck up a friendship by virtue of being neighbors and sometimes having to look out for the same goofs who would run in and grab stuff when you weren’t looking. We were also the only Sox fans in that part of town. I liked him, He had thick bifocals and a sad smile and spoke the kind of English that one speaks when they learn it first in Chicago. He referred to the alderman as “our guy” with a roll of his eyes.
I only knew him as “Popi.” One day, I noticed these Polaroids taped to the side of his antique cash register. They were all pictures of roosters…more specifically, fighting cocks. He told me, that in Puerto Rico, he’d raised many champion birds. He said where he came from people weren’t  hypocrites about things like cockfighting. He’d tell me, “You gringos get all weepy about  two chickens fucking each other up WHILE you eat your McNuggets.” He had a point.
He also, once in a while, would stop me in my tracks when this line of conversation occurred. He would ask me if we cared as much about people as we did about the chickens. “There you go– white people will wring their hands over cockfighting, where each bird has a fifty-fifty shot at coming out alive. But kids in this city are blowing each others’ heads off for dime bags and where are your tears for them?”
Bucktown changed and the bodega is long gone, as is Popi and his backyard full of fighting cocks. There were a few of them that were beautiful in a wild, mad, kind way. Rubio, a starkly black, long-plumed bird with a blood-red head. Pinto, a speckled mess with sharp thorny spurs, and Azul who. Popi explained. was a rare blue-faced gamecock who he’d paid better than a grand for back home. He fed them only prime feed and fought them in Indiana, he explained, “with a bunch of white guys who look like a dumber version of you.” It was nice to know that somewhere out there there is a dumber version of me.
I guess what has changed about Bucktown the most is the absence of people like Popi and the fact that I used to walk my neighborhood and sometimes hear three or four different languages being spoken in the length of a couple of city blocks.
Now there is a Marc Jacobs store and restaurants that people blather on about on Yelp! all the time. I’m old enough to know that this isn’t bad or good–that change is the human experience. I don’t miss the days when you had to look over your shoulder in this neighborhood, though. Judging from the gun violence you STILL kind of have to.  I do realize that in very short order, it is a different city. That for all of the technology that was supposed to connect us, it feels like we are more alone. For all of the cameras and crime-prevention gestures and feel-good documentaries, we are still apt to maim and kill each other.
It has always been a cruel city– it is our history; Steel, slaughter, railroads,and bootleggers made the cash register ring, and this was the only music anybody with any power danced to.
Popi was right. We’re still killing each other in Chicago over dime bags, and still wringing our hands over smaller cruelties. Everything has changed, and everything remains the same.
Published in: on May 13, 2014 at 5:47 pm  Comments (1)  
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Bucktown All-Star (Goat Man)

The Bucktown All-Stare (Goat Man)My neighborhood, Bucktown, is named for goats;  male goats, specifically.  Four or five decades ago, this neighborhood was almost exclusively Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, and other eastern Europeans like Latvians and Slovaks.  Almost everyone had goats for milk and cheese; a hold -over from the old country.  Goat cheese is delicious and the Europeans sold it to Italian and Greek restaurants in the city. Like many new immigrant groups, at times, they felt, intuitively, the disapproving gaze of other tribes that surrounded them and endured the ethnic baiting and slurs that come with being the  newest immigrants.  The phrase “DP” was a hurtful reminder of the xenophobia that was not uncommon, often spewed by other immigrants.

Bucktown was a tight community and there were goats everywhere and they loved running the streets.  Goats are the randiest of creatures and not particularly picky about what they mount.  One older gentleman told me of having to chase off a goat who, in his words. “tried to put the dick to my beagle.”

It was not uncommon to see goats banging like jackhammers in the middle of Damen Avenue.  It is no accident that they are the symbol of the sexually insatiable satyr.  In Bucktown, it was one big goat fuck-fest.  They would bang dogs, cats, and even the odd large opossum.

Still,they produced the milk and the cheese and were in this neighborhood for years and endured the goat orgy as part of the life-cycle; a necessary part, actually.

Bucktown has changed a lot over the 16 years I’ve been here.  It used to be a perfectly good bad neighborhood, full of shysters, thieves, hookers and junkies. . .the good old days.

Now there is a Marc Jacobs store on Damen.  The bodega down the street from me with all of the fighting cocks in the backyard is an interior design studio.  The churro guy is gone and you can get croissants now.

I like my new neighbors; I just missed my old ones.  They were the ones with the stories, and the lives lived curb to curb, and by their wits.   I miss the bakery across the street that made the best rye bread I’ve  ever eaten and also sold salty creamy butter with it.  It was butter that didn’t come in a square or a brick.  It was amazing.

There is a lovely flower shop there now, Larkspur, and its owner, Beth, is my dear friend and I become instantly cheered up whenever I walk through the door and smell all of the  flowers-.  They are the smell of life and repositories of light.

I still love Bucktown.  Once in a while, I’ll walk down the street and hear snatches of Polish and Spanish and realize that the real estate creatures have not been able to wipe out the immigrant flavor of this place completely.  And this thought gives me great comfort.

Published in: on July 9, 2010 at 1:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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