Monday, May 16, 2011

Chickens on Hertel

Chickens on Hertel Avenue

A Hardman Family Story

We have a family story about Jay and his encounters in Kuala Lumpur with the man we named “The Chicken-Plucker.” Memories of chickens in my childhood are from the chicken store on Hertel Avenue in Buffalo in the 50’s.

My family lived in the first of a group of three houses next to a car dealer and across the street from the dry cleaner/bookie. (I don’t know if there was really a bookie, but my father said that there was because he saw people go in empty handed and come out the same so I wasn’t allowed to walk in front of that building.)

Sometimes my mother sent me past the other two houses and the church parking lot, on the good side of the street, to the brick building that held a car repair shop and a chicken coop on the ground floor and apartments above.

Entering the shop was strange because, on the inside, it didn’t look, smell or sound like the city. The floor was covered in sawdust. The owner walked through the mist of odors, leading with his enormous belly, wearing a blood-spattered apron over his long-sleeved white jacket. The sawdust on the floor behind his counter was not fresh but mixed with chicken droppings and feathers.

The back of the store had cages and a chopping block. The wire cages held chickens, sometimes more, and sometimes fewer, but always noisy. The birds would pompously strut with their darting beaks. Their combs proudly dressed their heads and their bead-like eyes sparkled in the light of the bare bulbs hanging on black wires.

The man sold eggs in gray, cardboard boxes tied with a string that spun from a spool on the counter, traveled through a wire loop above and came back down to his flying hands to be wrapped around the carton, tied and snapped, the small sound of which was lost among the clucking. Placed in my hands, those eggs were carried, cautiously, back to the kitchen at 1101.

Sometimes I was not an egg customer but a chicken customer. The chickens knew the difference. “My mother wants a nice, fat chicken and she doesn’t want any feathers. She hates the feathers!”

Then he went to the cage to select a chicken for butchering, the noise was deafening. Shouts of chicken kinship or chicken fear were far more hectic than those of egg loss.

His counter was too high for me to look over though I could peek around the side. I didn’t see the business that so fascinated and shocked Jay in Malaysia because The Chicken Man stepped outside the back door to do the serious stuff. When finished, he would hand me the still-warm chicken wrapped in paper and tied with his flying string. It was okay to skip, run or even to roller skate with a package of chicken and, when I was holding a dead chicken, a chicken so recently gone from life to meat, moving faster seemed like a good idea.

There were always a few small feathers and my mother would burn them off with the flame on our gas stove before she washed the chicken and started dinner.

The man and his chickens were gone by the time I was ten years old and could walk all the way to the corner drugstore or ride my bike around the whole block. I remember stopping once to look in his dark window. The cages were empty, a few feathers were on the floor in the dusty corners and the quiet, so unusual for that store, was eerie.

Elaine Hardman is a retired teacher/potter/tin cutter who gets eggs from Meredith and stories everywhere.

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