Azul

Azul

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.
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Published in: on May 13, 2014 at 5:47 pm  Comments (1)  
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Coal City Cockfighter

Coal City Cockfighter

In the 1974 Monte Hellman film, Cockfighter, the late, great Warren Oates plays a miserable sonofabitch named Frank Mansfield who, in the film’s beginning, bets his trailer, girlfriend and all of his money on his prize cock, whose beak he cracks intentionally before the fight in an effort to increase the action against him.  This, of course, backfires and he loses everything; because of the cracked beak, ironically.  From this moment on, he decides he will not utter a word until he becomes the number one cockfighter.  This film is based on Charles Willeford’s novel, who wrote wonderful, bitter, biting novels mostly set in his native Florida.  His best known books are the Hoke Moseley novels, Miami Blues being one of them, which was also turned into a film by George Armitage and starred Fred Ward and Alec Baldwin in a comic-psycho role that cemented his reputation as a solid comic actor. Cockfighter is one of those underground classics because of Oates, whose silence speaks more eloquently than most Shakespeare.  He is a taciturn, embittered American with a lot to prove through the ritual of blood sport.  It is a fascinating and uncommon film which was banned in England for cruelty to animals.  It is a necessary film in that it underlines the madness that failure entreats in men.  It shook me.

It is probably not a suprise that Cockfighting was big with hobos, as was dog-fighting and bear-baiting.  That economically disenfranchised people visit cruelties upon animals is not news.  Oddly though, cockfighting throughout much of the South and in the Caribbean is considered a gentry sport.  Many wealthy men (and it is almost exclusively men) raise and fight gamecocks.

When I first moved to North Damen Avenue, there was a little bodega down the street.  It was run by a friendly older Peurto Rican guy I knew as Popi,  who raised fighting cocks.  He often shook his head at me when I mentioned the cruelty of it.  He said, “You gringos get so upset about chickens fighting… but you still eat the McNuggets and wings and barbeque. . .reelly vato.  What the fuck?  At least the fighting cock has a 50-50 shot, you know?”  I had to admit he had a point.   I’ll eat a plate of wings without pitching any boo-hoo for the chickens.  I guess it is where you are in life that constitutes what cruelies you can live with, what blood you’ll willingly shed; what and who’s pain is negotiable.

Published in: on March 24, 2009 at 11:03 am  Leave a Comment  
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