The time has come for me to speak frankly and openly about a deep passion I have. There are those out there, I warn you, who would not call it a passion but a perversion.
Some of you may be disgusted. Others, more experienced in the ways of the world, will be merely bemused at this folly -- and its attendant ills. But, whatever the cost, I have vowed to cut deeply into my psyche, to reveal the roots of my desire. I hope that my revelations will be met with toleration, and no little sympathy.
It has to do with love. A very strange love it is indeed. It's a love I've had for years -- one that only my best friends know about. In all our lives, I feel, there has to be a time of confession (St. Augustine, Jacques Casanova, Frank Harris). Now that I am nearing the end of my days, this is the time and the place, I believe, to lay the cards on the table.
Perhaps you will consider this as the newest in a long series of loves "that dare not speak its name." Whatever you call it, I ask only for the opportunity of a fair hearing.
I refer, of course, to the love I have for chickens.
I can hear you now. "Did he say 'chickens?'"
Yes -- alas, dear friends: Chickens. And, to make matters worse, there is an additional perversion within my perversion. That is, that my chickens must be, well, weird. If you have ever seen a Silkie, a Polish or a Cochin -- you'll know what I mean.
They are all listed in the bible of the industry, "The American Standard of Perfection" where, if you so choose, you can peruse them at your leisure. There you will find these three, along with such strange birds as White Faced Spanish, Jersey Giants, Buttercups, Silver Gray Dorkings, Red Caps and Belgian Bearded d'Anvers.
A Silkie doesn't have feathers -- it has hair. Get it? A chicken with silky hair. Underneath that hair, the skin is a ghastly grayish-black. And in the midst of its forehead, if a chicken can be said to have a forehead, there is a single red button -- a stand-in for the familiar comb of other, less interesting chickens.
A Polish has huge nostrils, and a mountain of feathers bunched up on the top of its little pointy-head. In the case of the so-called W.C. Black Polish, it's a startling eruption of white feathers in dramatic comparison to the black feathers down below, with -- as the "Standard" denotes them -- their "beetle sheen."
The Cochin, as befits its oriental heritage, is modesty itself. It wears its feathers all over its body, down its little chicken legs, all the way to its tootsies. A full-grown Cochin will appear like nothing more than a comb, a beak and glittering chicken eyes riding atop a mound of feathers. My favorite coloring of this breed is known as the "Barred Cochin" -- and it looks not unlike a huge ball of cut-up mattress ticking.
Thus friends -- my habit, and my love. I hope you will forgive me.
Since transporting chickens is not at all like transporting dogs, or cats or even mountain lions -- I have had to leave my pals behind in the United States during the winters I come down here to Puerto Perdido, 2,200 miles south of the border.
Various hard-hearted customs officials have told me that the transporting of chickens across international lines is illegal, akin to shipping guns or drugs. They say it is to protect local stocks against outbreaks of various diseases like chicken pox, egg-zema and ululating fever. I know what they tell me is a lie -- that the rules are set up to keep us chicken-nuts separated from whatever it is that gives us so much pleasure.
However, as the philosophers have pointed out over the centuries, a chicken is an egg's way to make another egg. So, two years ago, in complete secrecy, and please don't tell anyone -- I bought several dozen eggs from Murray McMurray Hatchery, the funny chicken merchants to the world. I wrapped them in sheets and towels, and shipped them south, along with a couple of incubators.
I didn't know until after the eggs hatched that -- in the pursuit of guns and drugs and other illegals -- all packages are X-rayed at the border, so those of my friends that finally wobbled out of their shells sported two heads and a few too many legs, among other oddities.
Pretty, and interesting -- a two headed white-crested Polish is doubly astonishing -- but, unfortunately, they didn't survive long enough to wow the world.
Last year, I had the egg cartons wrapped in lead, which cost a pretty penny. (Proving that we chicken-heads will do everything for our habit.) The eggs survived the trip, and the chicks that erupted from their shells grew to perfection in six months. They've caused a sensation here in Puerto Perdido
The two types are referred to locally as "capetones y pantelones" -- chickens with caps and chickens with pants. The Cochins especially have caught the fancy of the local young. They refer to them as "pollos cholos," cholos being those young Latino non-chickens you see running around the malls with their pants bunched down around the knee-level -- what we used to call "droopy-drawers."
Everybody and his brother wants a pair of pantelones or capetones. Since my task is to populate the world with my favorite brand of chicks -- I am giving them away willy-nilly, planning for an even-larger hatch for next winter.
And not being satisfied with Cochins and Polish, I am in the process of ordering from the Murray McMurray catalog, for next year, a set of Bearded Belgian d'Anvers -- chickens with side-whiskers and little wooden clogs on their feet -- and several White Faced Spanish, an Iberian breed that stays indoors all summer long.
There are, too, the Red Caps -- birds that carry your bags for you, and (best of all) Jersey Giants. These last are bred on the East Coast to grow more than 5 feet tall, weigh in at 300 pounds, and crow with a deep, raucous "Youse-guys!"
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Since I hang out mostly with Mexicans in Puerto Perdido, I have the advantage of having a half-dozen teachers of the Spanish language who cost me far less than what I would be paying Berlitz. Even so, when they start in on fast gossip about their loves, we might as well be talking gibberish. I've flunked Spanish in some of the best schools in the United States.
My teachers are persistent, though, and the fact that I might go hungry, or might not have a place to lay my head at night if I don't do my lessons, means that I have a powerful incentive to study. And, unlike those who study at Berlitz, the first words I've had to learn are the scandalous ones, since they're everywhere -- as ubiquitous as the noisy boat-tailed grackles that dominate the fields and trees around us.
As anyone who has seen "El Norte" knows, the daily speech-pattern of your typical Mexican male is top-heavy with what they call "grosermas" -- some of which I understand, many of which I can't make head nor tail of.
For instance, "la verga" seems to put in an appearance at least once in every sentence of your average field worker, taxi driver or fisherman. Most Spanish-English dictionaries define this as "the top mast of a sailing vessel," which is not, I believe, what Juan is speaking about when he bangs his finger with the hammer. One dictionary, trying to be more daring, defines it as "the male organ of reproduction" which is, I suppose, somewhere in the ballpark, but still misses the rich directness of the word.
In the honest and refreshing "Cassell's Colloquial Spanish" we find the following: "I include it with diffidence," writes author Bryson Gerrard. "If you go to Mexico you are almost sure to hear it, especially the phrase 'Me vale verga,' ('I don't give a damn'), and should perhaps be warned that it is the vulgar word for the male organ. For once it is not a euphemism; it has borne this meaning for several millennia (the latin was 'virga.')"
"Chinga" is another of those catch-all words with endless variations as noun, adjective, adverb, modifier, exclamation and transitive and intransitive verb. It's often linked with "tz madre" -- your mother -- though for most of us the thought of our mothers doing that stretches the imagination somewhat. Indeed, one's mothers and sisters are regularly brought into conversation during byplay between buddies. An example: "tz hermana mi cama" is an old, if tired, friend. It means, "your sister my bed."
"Pendejo" is a much-loved noun, which can also become adjectival, adverbial and exclamatory. It literally means "pubic hair" -- but the meaning is more on the order of "a trouble maker," "a boor" or "a grouch." I have heard it used in relatively polite company, and it has the added advantage of being available in the feminine ("pendeja") or masculine ("pendejo") forms. "Cassell's" says the best definition is "a bloody nuisance."
Much of the banter around here has to do with animals. Being carnally connected to a donkey or a "cuche" -- a pig -- is a guaranteed knee-slapper. And there are the usual variations where other animals are invoked: cows, sheep, goats, occasionally turkeys, chickens and ducks. In fact, one of the more bizarre exchanges came about when our sole female duck started laying eggs.
My workers may be from the country, but they are surprisingly dumb about the facts of life. They think, for example, that a hen or duck has to be mounted to produce eggs. Since our duck (named, of course, Donald) recently started laying eggs, it was decided that someone was feathering her nest.
The blame naturally fell to Poldo, our youngest and horniest worker. To much merriment, one of the others said he was going right down to the local police station to make "una demanda de violar contra Poldo" (an official protest of rape against Poldo) for the violation of Donald.
One of the most confusing words in Spanish is "coger." In most of Latin America it is commonly used meaning "to get." In Mexico, it has a heavier meaning, what -- in his early days of writing -- Norman Mailer used to refer to as "fugging."
"Cassell's" says, "It seems remarkable that so common and useful a verb should have fallen into disgrace ... but it nevertheless remains a fact that visitors are earnestly entreated not to use it ..."
One historian has surmised that "coger" took on sexual overtones some 500 years ago when the Spanish landed in Mexico -- and immediately began to "get" the Indian women. Even now, people from Spain or another Latino country may innocently ask a Mexican waiter to get them a cup of coffee, or ask a maid in a hotel to get another pillow. These requests might well be met with a smirk or a blush.
Like most slang, these scatological words don't make logical sense. "Echar pito" is, literally, "to throw a whistle" (or a cigarette) -- but a "pito" is the male member. A "pucha" is the feminine equivalent, but my dictionary only mentions "pucho" -- "something of little value."
By the way, shortly after the publication of Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead," one of the members of the Algonquin set came up to Mailer at a party and said, "I understand that you're the writer who never learned how to spell 'fuck.'"
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AND THE WINNER IS ... CONSUELA!
They once said that pneumonia was "the old person's friend." The dummy who thought that up should be consigned to the same dungeon as the one who invented the happy face, or the boor who came up with the name "yuppies" or "baby boomers."
In truth, living with pneumonia is no different than dying slowly -- very slowly -- by drowning.
A couple of years ago, in the middle of my winter in paradise, I came down with what I thought was a terrible cold. I could neither eat nor sleep, but those of us born in the depths of the depression were taught to be stoics. We knew that we could weather any sickness.
Finally, after a week, I went to one of the seven doctors in Puerto Perdido. He said I had a touch of bronchitis.
A week later -- I went back to him, and he said it was still bronchitis, but he said it also might be something in my head, like hypochondria. Did I mention that he is also the town mortician?
For those of you who have never had it, pneumonia has several advantages over other diseases. It's an instant cure for those who sleep too much. Towards the end there, I was averaging 15 or 20 minutes a night.
It also constitutes a good weight-loss program. Weight Watchers might even consider it an alternative to their current exercise/diet schedule. After three weeks, I had shed 25 pounds.
Finally, at the insistence of my friend Raul, I put myself on an airplane to the U.S. Friends there took me straight from the airport to the hospital I do believe it was the most expensive hotel room I've had in my life ($1,500 a night, including all the oxygen you could eat).
I stayed there a week, and can barely remember a resident medico telling me that I was "very, very sick." If a doctor says that, you know it is time to get your house in order, but when the chaplain came to my room and asked how I felt, I resorted to that old vaudeville wheeze, "If I felt any better, they'd have to lay me in the grave."
The reason I bring this all up is that the night before I fled to the north, I went for dinner with Raul's family. It was during that meal that he convinced me that I should do something, because he noticed in contrast to other times, I wasn't eating everything not nailed down. I do have a thing about chilis relleqos --except when I'm dying.
Raul took some photographs of us at that dinner. I now suspect he wanted a visual memory of me before I finally passed over.
This is one he took of his mother, Consuela and me. That's me over there to the left -- ghost-like and specter-thin, eyes glittering like a snake with undulant fever. But what strikes me as we look at it now isn't the near-dead me -- but, rather, Consuela, next to me. She's standing, I'm sitting, and we are about the same height.
If you were to see her in person, you'd see a typical product of one who grew up in a poverty that you and I can only have nightmares about. She was born in the midst of the depression in the poorest state in Mexico. Father disappeared when she was 9. There were seven brothers and sisters, all younger.
The meals, she tells me, were mostly tortillas and salt, but on a good day, there would be some beans, too. Her mother sold tamales door-to-door to eke out a living. In those days -- even though San Sebastian is a seaside village -- women and girls were not allowed to fish. No one knew why; it was just a given of the life here, part of the same tradition as when you met the cacique -- the chief of the village -- you crossed your arms over your chest and bowed.
You can guess her life story: she grew up quickly. At 15, went from being a girl to being a mother. Her husband had -- still has -- a deadly affection for pulque. Nights in the Cantina Gloria used up most of his earnings from working in the peanut fields, so -- like her mother before her -- Consuela sold tamales door-to-door.
Now that her kids have grown up, it's easier --- but she still remembers when they would take the leavings from the maize fields and make dough with it and fry it in lard and eat it. And even though life is more comfortable now, she still goes out and sells tamales. Just in case.
Cameras are funny things. You've certainly seen pictures that you wished they hadn't taken of you. "Who is that goon?" you think. "That's not me," you think.
In the photograph of me and Consuela, I look like Timothy Leary just before he went on his last trip. Consuela, on the other hand, looks like -- how shall I say it? -- as if she was lit by an inner fire. It's not just the contrast between the two of us. Consuela is glowing, filled with a light from nowhere and everywhere.
Her face is limned by more wrinkles than we could count. Her body is ravaged by 60 years of non-stop childbearing and a wretched diet. Her eyes have the smudged look of the moon when there's a heavy mist. They reflect what she has seen over the years -- no father, no money, abusive husband, four children now resting in the graveyard. Yet there is a fire there that I have seen in so few other people, old and young. We might call it the fire of sainthood.
The guy who invented the lobotomy, Egas Moniz, got a Nobel Prize in 1949. Regularly, in Hollywood, they hand out Oscars to those who make movies that turn the human spirit to a joke, that make hitting someone upside the head a virtue.
The Pulitzer Prize goes to America's worst hack writers. Not too long ago -- according to Paul Krassner -- the National Association of Radio Talk Show hosts even presented a Freedom of Speech Award to G. Gordon Liddy. And you know all about those local awards that go to the builders and architects who manage to rape the land most viciously.
I'd like to see a "Survival Prize." It would be awarded annually to someone who, like Consuela, made it against all odds -- without hatred, bitterness, scorn for others. A prize for someone who survived without resorting to drugs or booze, who survived without hurting others, who survived without -- most important of them all -- a heavy dose of self-pity.
I'd like to see Consuela get the first award. I'd like to see it given to her for having survived so nicely -- and in the process, turned saintly. When they hand it to her, I want to be there. To watch her receive the First International Survival Prize. To watch her beatific smile, to hear her gentle thanks.