Poultry in Motion
Where: 86th Street , 10028 New York (United States). When: on 01-11-1969.
Written at 02-08-2011 by Thomas Pryor
Labels - Poultry in Motion Yorkville Chicken Poultry
My job was simple: get there early, rotate the stock, deliver groceries, but mostly work in the meat freezer. Pete and Harry were poultry pioneers. They were the first butchers in Yorkville to take the hearts and livers out of the chicken and package them in a separate sale. One of my assignments was to dig into the fowl and pull the innards out. While my hand was inside a bird, I thought about the first person to decide he was going to eat the next thing that came out of a chicken’s bottom. What a brave soul.
“Here’s to the first egg eater,” I said to a side of beef hanging in the freezer.
My primary task was spearing the birds. The store’s front window was one giant rotisserie. I loved watching the folks in the street lick their lips as they stared at the rotating meat. People eyeballed the chickens the same way 15-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. When chickens were sold, I was expected to consolidate, take the dirty rods into the freezer, wash them down, and return the rod with five new chickens ready to spin. My adventure started there.
Pete and Harry demanded five chickens on a rod meant for four. These were plump Perdue birds. There was no way five of these tubbies could fit comfortably on the standard four-bird rod.
On my first day of work, I walked toward the front of the store with four birds on the rod. 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.
“Tut, tut, tut,” Harry said, and 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.
“Tom, I can’t begin to tell you the pride Pete and I have in our 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 ask how.
“Let me tell you. Dad started a small “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 saw an Italian guy on 86th Street wheeling a barbecue around. When he saw people eating meat off a stick, he smacked himself in the head. He built the rotisserie, the people came, and they never stopped coming. 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; 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… nice and easy. The first three are a charm. See?”
I shook my head up and down like a trick horse in a circus.
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.”
I looked around the freezer for Allan Funt, certain, I was on Candid Camera.
Unfortunately, we were alone.
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 chanting, “Five to a rod, five to a rod.” I never left the back of the store other than to retrieve an empty rod and 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. 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 an evil 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 skyward. The chicken rose up over the aisle, floated for a second then fell. Slapping the back of a customer’s crème colored coat.
She let out a blast of air, turned toward me, then looked down at the lifeless perp on the floor.
“Aaaah! He threw a chicken at me.”
Finished, with all of it, I replied, “No, that’s not true lady. The sideshow lunatic 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 my stomach began to bleed. I spent nine days in Polyclinic Hospital on West 49th Street settling down my new ulcer. 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.
(Previously published in Underground Voices Magazine)