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.

There once was an aunt from Nantucket…

I really have an aunt on Nantucket. She’s not actually from Nantucket (she’s from New Jersey – it could happen to anybody) but she has lived there for twenty years. Given that we are on the east coast, and that we seriously owed her a visit, we endeavored to travel to Nantucket to see Aunt Valerie. Thus, we fled the melty humidity of New York and arrived in breezy, lovely, Nantucket. This place is so rich and famous that it makes Robin Leach feel out of place. If you sneeze, a dozen millionaires catch cold. Scions, heirs, and oligarchs swoop in on their private jets and yachts to take in the charm of the only quaint whaling village where you will find a Louis Vuitton bag at the thrift store.

With all that, it’s really very charming and it’s always fun to go to Nantucket.

Now, a word about my aunt and how I came to have an aunt on Nantucket.

My Aunt Valerie married my beloved Uncle Joel several years ago. Uncle Joel was a terrific guy. At my wedding, he stood in for my father (who died when I was eleven), and I’ve always had a particular fondness for him. He passed away from cancer three years ago, but we’ve stayed in touch with Valerie. I’m not sure exactly what to call her, though. Aunt doesn’t quite fit. We may need a ruling from the relative-naming officials, but I think maybe she’s my Aunt Emeritus. Anyway, Joel retired from his job running one of the two banks on the island at a very young 60. He traveled with his new wife, spent time working on his very cool house, and lived his life. It was cut short, but I can’t imagine that he regretted his choices for a moment. I really don’t want to become maudlin, but it’s in that spirit that we are taking this journey. You only live once, as the kids today are fond of saying, although for them that’s more or less an excuse to hook up and sniff glue.

Back to Nantucket. Apart from being the inspiration for limerick writers the world over, it is a rather fancy place where people like Jack Welsh and John Kerry and Steve Forbes all stumble over each other at the private jet terminal at Nantucket Memorial Airport, known by its call letters, ACK, which is the sound my cat makes when she’s horking up a hairball, but whatever.

It is also a place where grown men wear shorts in the inexplicably popular island color, a red that approximates a Brandywine tomato or pasta alla vodka. If you wear socks with your topsiders you will be hauled in for questioning.

The Famous Tomato Pants of Nantucket

The Famous Tomato Pants of Nantucket

Okay, enough joshing on the gentry. Just as there is a lockjawed landed upper crust that yacht-hops in the harbor, there is a year-round community for whom this neat little piece of real estate is actually home. My uncle (and my father) came from very rugged stock – Uncle Joel was the only one in his family to graduate from college. His father was a plumber. Aunt Emeritus Valerie is a social worker and clinical therapist. So there are real people out there, and we had the chance to meet a few this weekend.

For example, if you are in the neighborhood in Siasconset (called ‘Sconset by the locals) on the eastern edge of the island, you will likely see Tom Mulholland sitting in front of his house with a falcon named Houdini and a red-tailed Hawk named Shaka Zulu. With his long, white beard, Tom might stand out at the Angler’s Club.

Tom Mulholland and his red-tailed hawk.

Tom Mulholland and Shaka Zulu.

But just go up to him and ask him about his birds and you will be invited to sit down and talk about hawking and falconry, and you may just learn a bit about Tom’s views on the government (intrusive, mostly) the release of feral cats on the island (very bad – they’re wiping out the native pheasant and grouse population) and ISIS (very, very bad). If it’s hunting season (it isn’t, which is bumming Tom and his birds out at the moment) you will have the rare opportunity to see nature at its most basic. But go – Tom is generous with his time, giving lectures to schoolchildren on falconry (but not politics, which he reserves for the adults), and he’ll stop whatever he’s doing to talk to you about his birds if you are curious enough to ask. The sight of them just sitting on their perches is impressive. They are simply spectacular creatures.


Shaka Zulu

We experienced another uncommon pleasure of Nantucket – free clams. Valerie has a small motorboat that she uses to tool around the harbor, and she took us to one of her favorite clam spots, which coughed up an astonishing bounty.

Our clammy beach

Our clammy beach

And this was not hard work. There was a little raking involved, but we also found tons of clams that were just lying around and we more or less picked them off the beach.

Not hard work

Janine and Aunt Emeritus Valerie Clamming

We hauled in about twenty five pounds of clams the first day and nearly forty pounds two days later. The Fresh Lobster Company of Gloucester, Massachusetts will happily ship you a pound of clams for $10.25. At that price, we raked in (har!) over $600 worth of clams. Subtract the price of the clam permit and you are still way ahead of the game. We ate clams for days and still had a bunch left over. And my good jesus they were delicious. Sweet and salty – the peanut butter and jelly of the sea.

Our Haul

Our haul of clams

We also took in a play at the local theater company, the White Heron Theatre. Whenever we travel, we try to see some local theater. Since there are always talented actors hanging about on the island, you’re likely to see something pretty good. We saw a new play called Small World, by Frederick Stroppel, which explored what the meeting between Walt Disney and Igor Stravinsky might have been like as they prepared to make Fantasia. It was a little Saving Mr. Banks-y, but it was well-acted and well-directed and we had an exceedingly good time. If Stroppel was first with the idea about a story about Walt Disney talking a cranky foreigner into working on a Disney picture, I bet he’s pissed. Oh well, at least he’s pissed in Nantucket.

The next time you visit Nantucket, go pay Tom Mulholland a visit. Here’s his website.

Or go clamming, or go to the theatre. Definitely go to the thrift store.

Or buy yourself a pair of tomato pants and just walk around without socks on. Nobody will notice.

The Lady Under the Stairs, Part II

How can I describe the wonders of our home away from home? When you walk in you get a hit of something – is it menthol, you wonder? No, you realize, remembering your early twenties. It’s roach spray! This place is a studio, with a bed on some kind of hand-constructed platform, and a small living area that has its own built-in fold-up wooden board that doubles as a dinner table. The couch slides out to make a second bed, which must be really terrific when you have friends stay over. And then there’s the stuff – there are books, clothes, and cupboards stuffed full of plastic bags and defunct cleaning supplies and heaven knows what else. The bathtub backed up on the second day, right before the smoke alarm started chirping. It is, in a word I learned from my daughter, janky.

And if you walk too much or with too heavy a foot, our friend downstairs starts banging on her ceiling with a broom handle, or the butt of an AK-57, or her head, or something. We’ve started mincing around in fear. I’ve now created a map in my head of the creakiest floorboards. It’s like a scene out of the Diary of Anne Frank.

That bizarre bit about Norway started to come into focus when I reviewed the house rules on the website, (copied verbatim):

1. Please NO SMOKING!
2. Please Do not wear shoes in the apartment.
3. Please Do not put luggage on the bed or couch.
4. You can place your luggage on the counter tops or padded benches
5. Please Do not put shoes on the bed, couch or in the draws.
6. Please Do not run air conditioner all day (summer time)
7. You can put your clothes in the empty draw (if you want).
8. Sometimes when you flush the toilet, you might have to hold the handle down.
9. Please turn off the lights when you leave the apartment.
10. Please lock the door when you leave the apartment.
– If anyone in the building asks who you are, please tell them that you are friends from Norway.

Wait, what? Norway? I have to walk around with a cover story that I’m from Norway??

Am I supposed to attempt a Norwegian accent?

It might have also help if they offered up some basic facts about Norway. I mean if a neighbor asks who you are and you say you’re Anna’s friend from Norway, what if they say, “Quick! What’s the second biggest city in Norway?” Or “Who’s the Prime Minister?” Or what if they pull out a map and ask you to point to Norway? You’d be made. I had not realized that role play was a requirement of apartment sharing, but all of a sudden I am feeling woefully underprepared.

This gets to the deeper issue of that famous social media short term rental booking service. Is it a good thing? Would you like your apartment building turned into a hotel? In New York, it’s not exactly legal to rent out your apartment for short term renters. But hey, if you’re a traveler, it can be a great deal, and if you’re an apartment dweller, it’s a way to recoup the crazy high rents in places like New York. Of course there’s the matter of opening up your home to strangers, who will paw through your undies and otherwise invade your sacred space. I’m not sure I’d do that.

Most of the time it seems to work just great. The visitors are nice and respectful and the apartments are clean and convenient (although I did once stay in a place that had a brand spanking new kitchen but not a single utensil), and you almost always get value for your money.

Unless you live in fear like we do.

Yesterday, we opened the door to leave the apartment and our downstairs friend darted out of her apartment, as if to note our egress. It happened again the next day. Now, we creep softly out our door so as not to be detected, and to elude her malevolent gaze, but maybe to relieve her of her burden slightly.

I will say that she did throw me for a loop the other day. We were sitting around and the doorbell rang and there she was again, and I’m preparing to be quizzed about my recipe for ludefisk, only this time she came bearing positive feedback. “You’ve been much better about the noise.” I thanked her and told her that we were doing our best.

I am sympathetic. This woman is certainly not enjoying what may well be a regular stream of interlopers who dance around on her ceiling. But she lives in an old building with crazily creaky floors. Is she really expecting a family of levitators or trapeze artists to move in?

I’m kind of cheezed at the obvious liars who left positive comments on the apartment’s website, though, although I should have read between the lines. Everyone noted the good location, but almost nobody said anything about the apartment itself. This should have been a dead giveaway.

Here’s how I’d describe it: “It’s a really great place if you don’t mind the roach spray, the overflowing bathtub, the chirping smoke alarm, the junk everywhere, having to make toast with a broiler, the wheezing air conditioner…oh, and the lady downstairs.” On the other hand, the place would be a problem if Gandhi lived downstairs.

Oh, and the wifi is terrible. The final cut.

The other day a group moved in upstairs in the middle of the night. It was like the Rockettes were performing a special dance with rollerboards. Janine and I looked at each other, a bit sheepishly. If we stayed in this place for long, we’d become the Lady Under the Stairs. I put in my earplugs and made a note of that.

Nevertheless, believe it or not, I suspect we’ll continue to roll the dice on these joints. We will try to do a better job of deriving the hidden meaning from the glowing reviews, and using our mind’s eyes to see beyond the edges of the photos. Sometimes we’ll opt to spend more, or to sacrifice location. There will certainly be some duds, but I expect there will be some pleasant surprises as well. I just hope that each one will yield such a memorable story.