The Chicken Story

When I was twelve, my friends and I found a chicken in the bushes in Queens. For those of you who already know this story, there is a dramatic revelation ahead. For those of you who don’t, you’re in for a real treat.

Just another chicken story.

A heartwarming story about a boy and his chicken.

But first, a stunning acknowledgement. Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again.

What, you may ask, do Thomas Wolfe and a wayward Queens chicken have in common? Be patient, dear reader, I’m getting to it.

My friends and I found the chicken in the bushes as we were coming home from the park. Keep in mind that this was 1977. There were no backyard chicken coops in Queens for the homesteading New Yorkers who wanted fresh eggs to go with their morning organic wheatgrass juice and kombucha colon cleanse. We might as well have found a live alpaca, or a Martian. How on earth did that chicken get there? Your guess is as good as mine. We didn’t ask the poor thing too many questions. The first thing we did was to take it to my house. There was no way we were going to leave this defenseless chicken in the bushes like that. I, for one, am a lover of all living things, except when I want to eat them. In this case, it seemed like the kind thing to do to take the chicken home and care for it.

The second thing I did was to call the New York Post and tell them to send a photographer.

Which they did.

I have been telling this story for years, but I have never been able to produce any evidence of the event. I am happy to report that I have been telling the truth, and I shall now habeas clipum:

chicken clipping

New York Post – December 30, 1997 (a very, very slow news day)

You might be unsurprised to learn that twenty years after this auspicious debut as a self-promoting flack I would be a press secretary on Capitol Hill.

(The sidebar to this story is that the chicken spent the winter in our garage in Queens. We neglected to tell the photographer that we were looking for a good home for the poor creature, and he added a line of total hooey to the caption about how we took the chicken to the police, who called the ASPCA. The New York Post, by that time, had abandoned all journalistic tendencies. They’ve gone downhill since then.)

I’ve often thought of that chicken, and the guys who I grew up with, (although not necessarily in that order). I moved out of the neighborhood when I was seventeen and eventually lost touch with the gang (as well as with our ringleader, my childhood best friend Sam). Most of us were reunited here last month at a surprise birthday party for Sam, but I didn’t want to lose the momentum, so we organized a dinner last weekend with the guys in the photo, from L to R: Neal Sanders, Steve Klein, Rick Del Favero, me, and Bryan Sanders (Neal’s twin).

chicken clipping 37 years later

37 years later. We look exactly the same, don’t we?

Our hairlines and waistlines have changed, but not much else.

I hadn’t seen these guys in almost thirty years, but if it wasn’t like we had seen each other yesterday, then it was possibly the day before. We settled into the kind of comfortable evening with old friends that everyone hopes for. Someone remarked that our childhood was a lot like a Little Rascals movie – we wandered the neighborhood in a tight little scrum playing sports, trading baseball cards, riding bikes, launching rockets, building go carts, and getting ourselves in and out of various scrapes.

Little rascals, circa 1975

Little rascals, circa 1975

We’d leave the house in the morning and return home at dark. Somehow we got ourselves fed and we managed to avoid being hit by moving cars. (I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the time Bryan tossed a match into an empty gasoline can, with predictable results. Luckily, he walked away with some singed eyebrows and some funny looking bangs, but he was otherwise unscathed.) I don’t know if it was really a more innocent time then. In fact, New York was something of a hell hole in the 70’s, having reached its modern low point on practically every social measure. And yet we roamed free, for good or ill. Nevertheless, we survived the era more or less intact, Bryan’s encounter with the gas can notwithstanding.

Needless to say, our reunion was filled with stories like our experience with the little farm animal. The guys hadn’t forgotten. I had searched for years for my copy of the Post story and was delighted to hear that Neal, Bryan, Rick, and Steve all still had copies of the newspaper. I had long since lost mine, which was too bad, since I tell the chicken story at all professional gatherings to illustrate how I was good at tactics (getting us in the paper), but not yet so good at strategy (finding a good home for the chicken). It was clearly a formative experience for us all.

When the evening was over, I was really happy that we had finally gotten the band back together, but sorry that it had taken so long. I have had no shortage of opportunities to reunite with the gang, but for some reason I never went to the trouble. I’m not exactly sure why, but it’s unimportant now. I came from a funny little village called Queens in which I spent thousands of hours of my very formative years with a bunch of guys with enormous hearts who know more about me (and I about them) than almost anyone else. That shared experience, as I came to realize this weekend, means a lot. The good news is that you can go home again, and then some.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I hereby issue a challenge to the lot of you. Look somebody up whom you’ve been dying to reconnect with. I promise that you’ll be glad you did.

Oh please let me eat at your restaurant!

The other day, I was scouring the internets, as I often do, looking for offbeat dining options, and one very tantalizing item caught my eye – a restaurant with no address and no phone number. I love a challenge.

In order to dine here, you have to get the number from someone who has already been there or you have to be invited by the owners to make a reservation after sending a request by email.

This sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Sometimes, Groucho Marx’s old saw about never wanting to be in a club that would have him as a member is exactly wrong. Who’d want to go to some restaurant that makes you jump through that many hoops just for the privilege of shelling out a bunch of money to eat dinner?

Um, me.

Yes, I’m that guy. I’m not ashamed to say that I desperately want to go to the speakeasy restaurant. I want to show up at the unmarked door and tell the guy the secret password or do the special interpretive dance, or whatever else is required to gain entry. Oh please let me into the speakeasy restaurant!

Those of you who have been to Chumley’s, that great former actual speakeasy in Greenwich Village, know what I’m talking about. Chumley’s waited for you behind an unmarked door in a courtyard at the corner of a quiet residential street. When you opened the door you passed from one world to another. True, you didn’t need an invitation to get in or any of that, but you had to know it was there. To sit in a little snug in Chumley’s was to be a member of an exclusive club that anyone could join as long as they knew which unmarked door to push. Mind you, this was before the internet, which has revealed every last secret possible. Sadly, the bar closed suddenly in 2007 when a chimney collapsed. Apparently the owners have spent the past seven years in the permit office and battling lawsuits from the neighbors as they attempt to bring the old place up to code. It conjures up the worst remodeling nightmares I can imagine. Mr. Blandings builds a speakeasy.

As for this mystery restaurant, since I do not have the secret phone number, nor do I have any friends who have the secret phone number, I attempted the digital equivalent of tying a note to a rock and tossing it over the fortress wall. I sent a note to the email address on their very cryptic website. “Please let me come to your restaurant,” I whinged, and hit send, and waited, with pathetic wallflower self-loathing.

My spirits soared the next day when the reply arrived.

“Not yet,” it said, more or less. Before we grant you a reservation, we need to know a little more about you, the note explained.

I was undaunted and unashamed. I can be interesting if I absolutely have to be. My wife and I quit our jobs, sold our house, and we’re on a world tour, I begged. We’re interesting! Then I started worrying that they’d think I was trying too hard. “Oy,” they’d say. “Another world tourer. How gauche.” Or worse. I could almost hear the eyerolling. “Not that cock and bull story again. These people.” I was transported back my early twenties, in which I would try to reconcile my desperation to get a date with a tendency to be a bit forward. I wasn’t Rico Suave lounge lizard forward, mind you. I was just trying a little too hard. I scared more than a few away. Who wants a desperate oversharer for a boyfriend?

Thus I was worried that I’d overdone it with the speakeasy people. On the other hand, my crazy story had the added benefit of truth. I was prepared to provide the closing papers on our home sale if that’s what it took to eat a speakeasy dinner.

I needn’t have worried. The response was swift and positive. We’ve been given the magical top secret number to call for a reservation!

I considered the following reasons why I might have been successful:

  1. They believed my story and felt honored to have such a fascinating guest at their restaurant.
  2. They felt sorry for someone who was so desperate for a reservation that he would make up such a lame story.
  3. It’s all hooey designed to make the place feel exclusive. Anyone who bothers to try to get a reservation gets one anyway.

No matter. We’re in! You might have noticed that I have not mentioned the name of this special place. I’ll withhold that bit of information until we consummate our evening, lest they deny me entry when they find out that their guest is a famous blogger with over fifty readers.

Our dinner is next week. I can’t wait. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Scarlett’s lips, Grable’s legs, and J Lo’s Patookey – my trip to Citifield

As I mentioned in the Nantucket post, one of the joys of travel is taking in an evening of local theater. I remember seeing a production of Annie Get Your Gun at some little community theater in Jackson Hole, Wyoming when we were moving out to California (by RV! We had two dogs, a cat, and two fish, and an RV seemed like the only sensible way to transport them). The production was made up of college kids on break from school around the west and gol’ dern it if it wasn’t one of the more fun evenings of theater I’ve had. It was some combination of the iconic setting and rock bottom expectations, but it can be amazing what you stumble across if you are curious and unafraid.

Incidentally, in the equivalent of a blog selfie, here is a blog I did of our second RV trip – yes, you read that right, we’ve done it twice.

When I travel in the U.S., I try to find a minor league baseball team for many of the same reasons. The quality may not be the same as the big leagues, but you get to sit closer, it’s cheaper, and every so often you see a diamond in the rough who will go on to great things. Some of the same conditions apply when one visits a New York Mets game, which I did the other day. I haven’t been to a Mets game in years. I’m usually too busy when I’m in New York, but since we have a little extra time on our extended visit, it didn’t feel like I had to give anything else up to go to a game. It was a beautiful day for baseball, but given how badly the Mets stink, I was able to grab a ticket on Stubhub that was about half of face value. They’re practically giving them away these days.

Many of you know that I’m something of a Mets fan. I’ve attended Mets fantasy camp twice, and I still play in a men’s hardball league in San Francisco. Fantasy camp is where middle-aged men travel to Florida, put on uniforms, and pretend they’re major leaguers. As mid-life crises go, this one is pretty tame. You can read about that little adventure here if you’re so inclined. (Yikes! Blog selfie #2!) Anyway, fantasy camp is amazingly silly good clean, fun.

At Mets Fantasy Camp

At Mets Fantasy Camp

Here I was in New York, home of my beloved Mets, so I endeavored to trek out to Queens to hope against hope that they would beat the excellent Washington Nationals and stay in the pennant race for just another day. Citifield is where the hapless Mets ply their mediocre trade.

At Citifield, with hope in my heart.

At Citifield, with hope in my heart.

It’s a lovely, well-designed, but soulless place. Architecturally, it’s the greatest hits of baseball stadiums. The façade and entrance rotunda are copied from Ebbett’s Field, the home of the late, lamented Brooklyn Dodgers. The right field bleachers hang over the field like the old Tiger’s Stadium. And there’s a food pavilion that’s stolen from the Orioles’s Camden Yards, and they are said to have appropriated features from at least four other recently-built stadiums. But something is not at all right. They seem to think that they could take Scarlett Johansson’s lips, Betty Grable’s legs, and J Lo’s tuchis, put them on one body, and that would be good. It’s like going to see the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower in Vegas.

On the plus side, there’s a Shake Shack (very good burgers from New York restauranteur Danny Meyer) and an outpost of the Manhattan restaurant Blue Smoke, a barbeque place that made a very edible chopped brisket sandwich. The sauce was smoky, sweet, and tangy, with a nice bit of mouth-numbing heat. Was that Sichuan pepper in there? It was served on a nice, fluffy bun with a few sweet crunchy pickles. Nice. In the old days, you got a dirty water frank with a packet of mustard.

(A non-baseball digression. For some reason, I find that I’ve been eating a lot of barbeque in New York on this trip. New York has never been much of a barbeque town, but the hipsters, with their mountain man beards and plaid flannel shirts, are making it so, and for that I am truly grateful. Go, hipsters! So far, I’ve been to Mighty Quinn in the East Village, Hill Country in Midtown, and Beast of Bourbon in Bedford Stuyvesant. I haven’t been to BrisketTown in Williamsburg yet, and there are a few others on my list, but my current favorite is Mighty Quinn, which made a brisket with such unapologetic unctuous fattiness and tenderness that I nearly wept. As did my cardiologist.)

Of course, every baseball stadium in America now serves good microbrews, so our nation is making progress. After drinking nun’s tinkle for generations, Americans have finally discovered beer. Yay. I also noted the no smoking signs everywhere, which, believe it or not, produced mixed feelings. Whenever I smell a cigar, I am transported to Shea Stadium, the former home of the Mets, where I spent some of the happiest moments of my childhood. At Shea, some old guy would invariably be sitting in front of you huffing on the cheapest, stinkiest cigar you can imagine.

Shea Stadium was a dreary, rotten, ugly albatross of a place, but I loved it dearly. I remember the day that my father pulled me out of school without any warning to take me to a day game. It is my fondest memory of him, by far. On July 4, 1972 I remember watching Tom Seaver’s no-hitter broken up with one out in the ninth in the first game of a doubleheader (remember them?) by a journeyman outfielder for the lowly San Diego Padres named Leron Lee. Leron Lee, how I hated you for that! By the way, Willie Mays went 1 for 3 that day. It would take another forty years before the Mets had their first no hitter. And I remember pitching an inning on the Shea Stadium mound when our fantasy league had a day at the ballpark as part of our reunion.

Yes, that's me pitching at Shea Stadium. Citifield is rising in the background.

Yes, that’s me pitching at Shea Stadium. Citifield is rising in the background.

That was the last year before Shea was to be torn down, and the Mets, in all their cheapness, were avoiding even basic maintenance. I remember that there was a toilet off the visitors’ dugout that members of the opposing team could use during the game. The pipe from the urinal had rusted out but nobody had bothered to fix it. A nice touch. Welcome to Shea Stadium! It was a pit, but it was my pit.

With childhood nostalgia warming my little heart I made my way out to Queens to take in a game (Janine had to make a quick trip to LA to tend to some family matters). As I said, it was nice, but good gravy it’s boring out there these days, unless you happen to be rooting for the other team. The only thing palpable is the ennui. I mean it’s really quiet in there. I looked around and saw that people were sitting in all the sections, but they were scattered around, almost so they didn’t have to talk to each other. Mets fans don’t even want to commiserate any more – it takes too much energy.

One thing that teams do these days to attempt to generate excitement is to allow each player for the home team to select a song to be played when he steps up to bat. It’s fun to hear what players pick. Eric Young, Jr.’s song is “Young Forever” by Jay Z – cute. Daniel Murphy has a song by the Irish band Dropkick Murphys, which is fine, except the song was “I’m Shipping up to Boston,” which seemed like an odd choice. Jonathan Niese, who pitched that day, chose a song by Ted Nugent. The thing is, Ted Nugent is a lunatic. He’s issued a long list of unprintable things from various parts of his body about women and Barack Obama and people who don’t like guns. Here’s just one of many – “Apartheid isn’t that cut-and-dry. All men are not created equal.” I guess we can get into that old debate about whether you can like the work of bad people, but I dunno, Ted Nugent? Seems icky. Just curious, what song would you want them to play when you come up to bat?

The Mets lost 3-0 in typically desultory fashion, although they mounted just enough rallies during the game to fill us with hope yet again, only to dash that hope against the wall, yet again. Being a Mets fan is not as depressing as being a Cubs fan, but it’s pretty close.

And I enjoyed myself all the same. It was a beautiful day. The view from my highly discounted seat was excellent. The brisket was tasty. The beer was hoppy. There are worse ways to spend a Sunday.