UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Poultry in motion
In 1969, desperate to escape my crappy job at a Daitch Shopwell supermarket, I secured a better crappy job in my Yorkville neighborhood. Ben’s Meat O’ Mat was a Mom and Pop Butcher/Grocery store, except there was no Mom or Pop, just two oafs named Pete and Harry. They weren’t twins, but they could have been. Wearing pork pie hats on top of their giant heads, they resembled Anthony Quinn in La Strada. Their massive fingers resembled boiled frankfurters. They picked their noses with their pinkies then played with the contents. Their father, Ben, was the guy with the grin in the photo on the store’s swinging sign. Dad also wore a pork pie hat. An older stock boy told me Dad died years before in his bloody apron with his finger on the scale.
My job was simple: get there early, stay late, and do anything I was told to do. Rotate the stock, deliver, but mostly work in the meat freezer. Pete and Harry were famous misers. Two weeks into the job, their accountant tipped me off that they were knocking ten minutes off my time everyday, claiming I was coming in late, (untrue), while ignoring the fact I stayed fifteen minutes after closing each night to mop up. They were the first butchers in Yorkville to take the hearts and livers out of the chicken and package them in a separate sale. My job was to dig into the chicken and pull the innards out.
One day, while my hand was inside a chicken, I thought about the first person to decide he was going to eat the next thing that came out of a chicken’s ass. What a brave soul.
“Here’s to the first egg eater,” I said to a side o’ beef hanging in the freezer.
My second freezer assignment was spearing the birds. The store’s entire front window was one giant rotisserie. I loved watching folks in the street lick their lips as they stared at the rotating fowl. Hungry people eyeballed the chickens the same way fifteen year old boys gazed at Jane Fonda coming out of her spacesuit in Barbarella. Store traffic was heavy. This meant constant vigilance to ensure each barbecue rod held five chickens in perfect rotation. As chickens were sold, I was expected to consolidate the birds, take the dirty rods into the freezer, wash them down, and return the rod with five new chickens ready to spin. My trouble started here.
Pete and Harry demanded no less than five chickens on a rod meant for four. These were plump Perdue birds. One of these hens in your car’s passenger seat would get you into the rush hour HOV lane. There was no way five of these tubbies could sit comfortably on the standard four-bird rod.
On my first day of work, I walked towards the front of the store with four birds on the spear. As I passed by the cash registers, I noticed Pete and Harry shaking their heads in rhythm side to side. As I placed the skewer into the roaster’s grooves, Harry came up behind me and said sternly, “That’s not how we do it here.”
I made a quick bet with myself that he was going to show me. With a “Tut, tut, tut,” Harry adjusted his hat to the top of his head, pulled the rod out and motioned me with his eyes to follow him back to the freezer. Like a baseball pitcher pulled out of the game in the first inning, I followed him down one of the store’s two narrow aisles. In the freezer, Harry plucked me for the role of the green rookie, while he took the role of the weary, seen it all veteran.
“Well, Tom, as I told you a few times earlier today… five chickens to a spit…five…always five. This is the reason we do so well. People love our chicken. The birds move!”
Up yours, ran from my brain to my tongue but hung there behind my teeth for the rest of the speech.
“Tom, I can’t begin to tell you the pride Pete and I have for these chickens. We hope you grow to share it. How did we get here?”
My mouth opened and closed involuntarily. I was vaguely aware this man was talking to me. I finally figured out he was waiting for me to say how.
“How?” I said.
“I’ll tell you. Dad started a simple “Butter & Eggs” shop 50 years ago, right here at this location. Our Mom was a large German woman and loved her meat. Dad was going broke feeding Mom. He didn’t know what to do. His brother Ned suggested he expand the business with beef, pork and poultry. Selling meat and feeding Mom wholesale saved the family financially. A few years later, Dad noticed that people on the block loved to eat meat off a stick sold by an Italian guy with a barbecue that he wheeled around on a small wagon. Dad’s head nearly exploded when that light bulb went off. He built the rotisserie, the people came, and they never left. We must put five chickens on the spit. We owe it to our loyal customers!”
While he’s yapping, I’m thinking, you bastard, your hands are the size of two catchers’ mitts and your fingers could individually star in their own porno movie. Of course, you can slip five chickens on a stick.
He wasn’t done, “So Tom, you sit on a chicken box and place the first three chickens on the spit nice and easy. The first three are a charm. See?” I shook my head up and down like a trick horse in a circus. I saw myself dressed like a cowboy. I was a chicken wrangler.
The lecture continued, “Add the fourth chicken and press one hand over it with all your muscle. Now work your free hand over to grip the fifth chicken. While you do this, don’t let any pressure off the fourth chicken making love to the third chicken. Bring the fifth chicken down with equal strength turning the fourth chicken into Lucky Pierre.”
I was getting most of the conversation’s drift, but the Lucky Pierre comment threw me. I never knew they had a name for the person in the middle of a sex sandwich. Learning this fact was the highlight of my employment.
Harry said, “Free your hand from between chickens three and four, grab the locking nut sitting to your left without releasing any pressure on chicken five. Finally, push the lock nut firmly into #5 till all the chickens are snug in bed.” At that moment, with great clarity, I saw my Meat O’ Mat career winding down.
So five it would be. I shirked all other responsibilities. My deliveries slowed. Stock sat unrotated. I lifted weights at home. I did push-ups in the store’s aisle while chanting, “Five to a perch, five to a perch.” I never left the back of the store other than to retrieve an empty rod or return triumphantly with my full chicken compliment raised over my head. I was Jason presenting the Golden Fleece to my Argonauts. By the end of the fifth week, tussling chickens onto the spit, going in and out of the freezer, my body broke down. I was losing weight and my stomach was killing me.
I figured staying out of the freezer would slow my death. I dragged a crate of chickens out to the small doorway separating the back of the store from the shopping aisles. There, the chickens and I wrestled without rules. I’d sit on a chicken box with the spit between my legs. I’d work the first three chickens on, then curse my way through the fourth, the fifth and the locking nut. Everything was slippery. No matter how hard I tried to secure the fifth chicken, it would occasionally pop off into the blue. This was not an issue in the freezer. A chicken hitting a side of beef was nothing if no one saw it, but out near the doorway friendly fire was always a possibility.
One day, feverish, fatigued, soaked through my clothes, I deliriously worked a fifth chicken into place. I brought the wing nut down. My arm shook. Standing over the rod, I swayed and let out a belch that started in my feet. My hand slipped. The wing nut flew off, hitting a Cheese Whiz display I was supposed to take down a week before. The fourth chicken drove its full force into the fifth chicken sending it airborne. The chicken rose in an arc out over the aisle. Losing its height, it descended like a space shuttle disaster.
It slapped the back of a customer’s broad cloth coat.
She let out a blast of air, turned to look at me, then looked down at the lifeless perp lying on the floor.
“He threw a chicken at me! Aaaah!”
Her scream rolled three bodies over in their graves in a cemetery a mile away.
Finished with all of it, I replied to the lady, “No, that’s not true. The Meat O’ Mat maniac in the front of the store threw the chicken at you. You want to shop safely? Shop at a store where there are four chickens on a spit. Otherwise wear a helmet.”
The following weekend I began to bleed. I spent nine days in Polyclinic Hospital on West 49th Street settling my new ulcer down. Recovered, I did no further business with Ben’s Meat O’ Mat. Eventually, I was able to take small bites of a well-cooked chicken cutlet -- but I never ate another egg.Thomas passionately explores his warren, New York City. He burrows through Manhattan's Yorkville neighborhood during the 1960s. Regular visitors to his tales include his teachers, the Sisters of Divine Charity, and various shopkeepers who either liked his company or threw him out of their stores. His work has appeared in "The Prairie Home Companion" and "Mr. Beller's Neighborhood." Thomas is writing a book, "Yorkville, Stoop to Nuts." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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