Seattle

I live in Seattle now, on the top-left corner of the contiguous United States. It’s 4,159 miles from Limerick, says Google, which is a long way from home to end up living under the same shifting grey skies. When I first moved here three years ago, people offered advice on how to get through the dark, wet winters. Rub Vitamin D cream on the backs of your knees. Get Alaska Airlines deals on February flights to Hawaii. Buy a happy lamp. Go skiing at the weekend. Tanning booths—no, really.

I smiled and ignored them. Hadn’t I lived on dark, wet little islands until I was 25? Like most new arrivals, I was busy trying to learn a new job and make a home. That first year I barely left the city, and every day, or so it seemed, Seattle piddled rain like a small, anxious grey dog.

I had to give up my motorbike and learn to drive a car, badly, and I developed a terror of hydroplaning when I changed freeway lanes. As we headed for our 90th consecutive day of rain, my colleagues would insist that New York’s total average annual rainfall was actually higher. I’d bite back bitter answers about preferring to dance under few traffic-stopping New York rainstorms rather than slop through six months of Seattle drizzle sucking the latent heat out of my soul and bones.

By March, I was catatonic with seasonal depression, crying in the bathroom and blaming Seattle for all my failures ever. I felt like a Safeway carrot, buried for months and then misted every 15 minutes.

I was resurrected by a sunny summer—second time lucky. Seasoned now, I took myself to the mountains to learn to ski, badly. I swallowed the odd dose of Vitamin D, but abandoned the happy lamp. I’ve still never been to Hawaii, but these days I’m the one occasionally helping newer arrivals to learn to love Seattle. I know enough to avoid citing comparative average annual rainfall statistics.

Seattle is smart and introverted city, settled by Norwegian loggers, aerospace engineers, and computer scientists. (This population has lovely aspects, but pandas could teach us how to mate.) Dark, wet winters turn Seattleites toward reading and music, coffee and pot. Our bars and bookstores are good. In the summer we lay down stores of cheerfulness, when there’s dancing and bike polo in the streets.

The city is draped between mountains, lakes, and seas that draw many out of doors (though rarely me), zipped in fleece and Gore-Tex. Outdoors is a parallel world—you go “into nature,” properly outfitted for your boating, kayaking, hiking, camping, and skiing. REI started here.

In fact, Seattle has always been a town of canny outfitters, moving here to profit from booms elsewhere. John Nordstrom made Klondike money without ever working his own gold claim, and his store still ships fancy boots to gold diggers around the country. Jeff Bezos has taken 15 years of friendly Wall Street money and spent it dispatching enough Amazon boxes to fill all our new houses. Microsoft made the world organize our computer files in imaginary folders on imaginary desktops, and Starbucks convinced us to put real paper cups of coffee next to them.

How does Seattle spend this money? For all its drive and frontier history, this is a city of Un-American Activities. We hired Rem Koolhaas to design the Seattle Public Library. We just bought a Spurs player to give the passionate Sounders fans some [football][soccer] moves worth cheering. We worship local food and wine. Rich people gave money to campaigns to legalize marijuana and equalize marriage. We have brilliant medical researchers, a good state university, and not-bad buses. This may be why Seattle is a comfortable berth for this middle-aged white lady from northern Europe, despite—or because of—the social reserve that dejected newcomers from other parts of the US call Seattle Freeze.

Seattle knows we’re stiff compared to Portlandia down the road, and staid compared to the Pacific Rim glamour of Vancouver three hours north. We fret, in an almost Canadian way, about whether we’re recognized as world-class at this or that. (“America’s Second-Most Literate City!” the local magazines will blurt.) We know it’s 20 years since Seattle last was cool, and keep checking whether it’s time for a grunge revival yet. (When 71-year-old Paul McCartney played Seattle in July, I sat behind Nirvana. Dave Grohl dandled sweet daughters, looking like any Caspar Babypants daddy.) These days, Macklemore is our great white hope.

But here’s something I’ve come to love about Seattle. All kinds of extraordinary people still show up here, long after the gold rush. They visit, because, rare among cities, we actually read their books, pay to hear their music, or want to hear how they’re changing the world. They move here altogether, because they think it’s sane and civilized, they want fresh air, or their sweetheart got a job that makes them hopeful. And these autotelic, funny, stylish, book-reading, science-loving, art-making humans sit up at the bars of our restaurants to eat their dinners and chat with the stranger next to them.

In San Francisco or New York, those same people might have to look busy, sought-after and fabulous, just like everyone else. They might scan the room for better options, check in for the next party, promise coffee four weeks out. Here, the options aren’t endless and it’s okay to be eager. A stranger might actually chat, glad to find a kindred spirit. As transplants, you can roll your eyes about Seattle: the earnestness, the awkward glass art, the rain, the romance-famine. You can compare it to the last city that still holds your heart. You can band together, thawing out from the polite Seattle Freeze. The streets yield more fun with a playmate or a partner in crime.

And then you make another friend. And another. And another. And one day, maybe a bright evening in July or August, when the sun is still high at half past eight and the park is full of people eating street food picnics, you realize your little tribe has formed, and Seattle—endearing, dorky, emerald city—broke all that ice for you.

Peckerhead

Like the devil, our rooster had many names.

Tim called him Peckerhead, which I found disrespectful. Once or twice I called him Bill O’Reilly, for his bombast, but that was trying too hard. We called him Tinpot, for his dictatorial strut. Ong Bok-bok-bok, for his Thai kickboxing skills. El Gallo, for his machismo. Foghorn, for tradition. Mostly, though, we just called him “the rooster.”

He was a foundling, probably an Easter chick bought on impulse and pushed from a car when it turned into a he. Tim’s neighbor, Bridget, noticed him in the woods at the entrance to their canyon, and for a week or more she lured him with scraps until starvation tamed his fears. She installed him in the chicken house that had lain empty on Sal’s ranch, and there he lived for a year in lonely bachelor comfort. Cooped up, with food and water provided, he had nothing to do but crow until Tim took pity on him and bought a bathful of chicks who eventually grew into thirteen bodacious hens.

From: Tim
Date: 7/15/07
Subject: first poultry copulation witnessed.

with the rhode island red. violent but quick, done in all of two seconds. he didn’t seem interested in any of the other hens, guess everyone is attracted to individuals who resemble themselves.

Peckerhead was not a considerate lover, but his passion was urgent. At first light, when the hens hopped down from their perches looking for breakfast, he would chase each of them in turn. The submissive birds would lower their haunches as soon as he got near, but others would squawk and run. It didn’t matter: he kept meticulous track of his progress and wouldn’t rest until they’d all been laid.

“I never see him eat,” said Tim. “He spends all his time fucking or fighting.”

He fought with Tim, his sole male rival. The rooster had nothing to offer the chickens but rape, oratory, and a flashy uniform. Tim had luxury treats—tinned sweetcorn, bits of cooked porridge, the occasional peach or red wine dregs—and the hens flocked to him like Saigon bar girls. Like the GIs, he had superior weapons, too. We’d gone to town one afternoon to add a Super Soaker and a shrimp net to our anti-rooster arsenal of brooms. No wonder Tinpot seethed.

If Tim were naked, they would have been fairly matched. The rooster had cruel yellow spurs and a glorious Elizabethan ruff, and though he couldn’t have been more than ten pounds, he would launch himself through the air with a force many times his weight. Tim learned to parry him with motorcycle boots, and over time they developed a striking Hong Kong combat style, where the whoosh of boots and feathers masked the lack of contact. Eventually Tim would catch him and snuggle him like a baby, while the rooster’s eyes boiled red with fury. Then he would fling him to the ground and douse him with the Super Soaker. Drenched and humiliated, the rooster would shake his feathers and peck the ground as if he’d intended this outcome all along.

“I have to show him who’s boss,” Tim said.

“Why?” I asked. I couldn’t reconcile to looking after a ball of testosterone held together with feathers, and kept wondering if all he really needed were more love and understanding.

“In the wild it would make sense for him to keep attacking—the dominant rooster will eventually get old and feeble. But for now he needs to have some fear of me, or we’ll never be able to feed the chickens.”

It was true. Entering the hen house was a daily battle that required the yellow broom—the rooster would fill the dark with spurs and beak and feathers. Whenever the hens pottered outside Tim’s cabin, dust-bathing and finding treats, the rooster prowled sullenly, looking for revenge. All summer, I had scabby welts on my shins, where he slashed me with his spurs when Tim’s back was turned.

We were surprised to discover that Pablita, the dark Americauna, started to sleep next to the rooster. Then Cleo and Helen joined them. Their relationship seemed to deepen, and we saw that he was learning to protect his henfolk. They certainly needed protection. Up there in the Santa Cruz mountains, there are many critters who dream of a chicken in every pot. We had lost three baby chicks to a raccoon, and Cleo was scalped by a skunk. Tim’s favorite White Brahma was disemboweled by a fox. Poor Susan had almost lost a wing in the same attack, and was patched up only to be murdered by a coyote some months later. A few yards below the coop, the neighbor’s cats had been killed by a cougar. Then there were the snakes, who slid down from the summit to find water in the canyon as the summer grew hotter and drier.

From: Tim
Date: 6/15/07
Subject: farm life
just after i got off the phone with you tonight i go to let the chickens out. as usual i sit in the coop doorway and ponder the meaning of everything while they scratch for bugs in the leaf litter. i notice the birds all gathered in a semicircle by the cage wire on the rooster’s side, still as statues but craning their necks and making a clucking sound i haven’t heard before. the rooster blithely strutting inside as usual. then i see they’re looking at a big rattlesnake coiled under the rooster’s perch box.

i’ve seen this snake before but she’s always slithered under the coop floor before i could do much. i mean, i could have chopped her in half with a shovel but i haven’t had the heart even though a snakebite would kill any of the birds in about five minutes.

so despite being addled i have the presence of mind to grab the broom, go into the rooster’s side, sweep him (pissed off) into the hens’ side, and close the door so he can’t bite my ass while i deal with the snake

i tip over the perch box and the snake rattles and coils then makes a dash for the wire. she’s a three-footer fat with woodrats that are themselves probably nicely marbled from chicken feed. she gets a third of the way out but i’ve grabbed her hind section and tugged and suddenly have a very ornery snake in the little coop rattling & striking into the air between us .

at this point i manage to pin her head with the broomstraw and get my thumb and forefinger tight behind her jaw. i pick her up and the rest of her coils around my forearm. i’m convinced i can do this because i handled museum cornsnakes and water snakes back in the day. they weren’t poisonous, so a little less at stake

and i’m thinking, if this snake gets loose and bites me how will i explain the unscheduled day off?

i find i need both hands to control the writhing snake but this presents the problem of forcing me to get past the rooster unarmed with the customary broom

he is all over me clawing and pecking but i parry him with my feet until he bounces up onto the hen roost and comes at my face. i dodge and forget that i have a live rattlesnake in my hands long enough for the snake to work loose and i have to recover by throwing her at the coop wall

i get just enough time to grab the shovel and give the rooster a whack not soon to be forgotten then switch to broom and repeat snake pinning operation, rooster pacing menace behind me

i walk past the rooster with the snake, open the main door with my foot, stride past the bewildered hens and out to the back forty where i toss snake into the brush. she hisses at me in total ingratitude

back at the coop i realize i am happier than i have been for a month. have i not been cursed to be haunting cubicle land with this goddamn farmer’s heart?

When he isn’t wrangling wildlife in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Tim helps make phone screens vibrate with sophisticated touch feedback, so that, say, the buttons feel like real buttons, or your girlfriend can send you a little “hug” when she calls. Thanks to the iPhone, people are excited about touchy-feely mobile devices these days, but to me they are Wire Mommies. What he really wants to do is to start a school of full-lifecycle chicken therapy for people driven mad, sad, or bad by lives spent behind screens trying to make other people buy things. He practices on me.

Unfortunately, the anti-consumerist farm therapy didn’t work in time to save Peckerhead’s life. Before our trip to Ireland for my sister’s wedding, I persuaded Tim to leave the sunlit ranch and spend an afternoon in a San Jose mall, choosing a wardrobe of meet-the-family clothes. Like egg factories, malls use Muzak and lighting and windowless walls to blot out the natural world, and we forgot about sundown. That’s when the hens troop back their perches—unbidden—and wait for the door to be closed against the creatures of the night. Busy in The Gap, we left our chickens exposed, and a mountain lion came for dinner. She left no signs of struggle. When we got back, the hens were trembling but unhurt, and all that was left of the rooster was a few bright feathers.

Peckerhead, the butt of our jokes, our unwanted foundling, our incorrigible bird, had died a hero’s death.

America Offline

Tim’s girls had spent a near-perfect chicken morning rolling in the dust, clucking over worms, and swerving from the randy rooster, and they objected to being shooed back into the coop so early. He was cool and heartless about it, like Tony Soprano ditching Carmela for an afternoon at the Bada Bing. We were going to the Santa Cruz County Fair in Watsonville to gawk at far more glamorous show poultry.

(I’d never imagined that one day I’d drive two hours on a motorbike to look at prize chickens. It makes me wonder what more excitement waits for me.)

It cost five dollars to park at the fair, and nine dollars each to get in. While we waited to be searched for weapons—poor America—sticky, cranky children trailed out with their prize goldfish. I’m glad that goldfish have short memories.

Tim bought a corndog right away. I wanted to go to the 4-H tent. At work I study what “youth” do, online and at the mall, and for moral peace I needed to see that some of them still grow radishes and make hand-drawn exhibits on The Life Cycle of the Mosquito. I’m descended from farmers, and grew up across the road from a dairy farm, and so of course, the teen me wouldn’t touch muck or muck-related things. Now that I’m old, I think farming is a wholesome pursuit for young people—especially in a country that calls soil “dirt.”

Small baskets of produce were arranged as carefully as a Yangon market stand. The best had purple ribbons. “Third Prize, Patty Pan Squash, Olivia Kohler, Age 7, Santa Cruz.” Three days into the fair, some of the carved vegetable creatures buzzed with fruitflies; soggier versions of the masterpieces in the photos propped beside them.

At the entrance to The Wonderful World of Reptiles, a crowd gathered around a man wearing an albino boa constrictor. Next door, in the Farmyard Tent, a red-haired teen sat in a pen supervising a miniature horse and goat. He stared a thousand yards past the punters who lined up to ooh and ahh as if we were in the Costco meat department come to life. The boy wore his disdain like the martyred llama that slouched opposite, under a sign that explained how donkeys and llamas differ. (“Different: Llamas dislike being looked at or touched.” “Similar: Donkeys and llamas leave their droppings in the same spot every day.”)

A hefty eleven-year-old—clearly the red-head’s sister—took more pride in being the expert on the bonsai Brahma bull in her pen. “He’s three years old. He’s not going to grow any more. I’m totally used to taking care of him,” she said with authority.

But the real draw was in the next stall, where a miniature ram called Napoleon lounged with his two short girlfriends. His shorn fleece had grown into a light, elegant sweater, revealing a huge, shaggy appendage that swung like a termites’ nest between his back legs.

“?Son los cojones?” said a man in awed disbelief.

“Dude, are those his NUTS?” said another.

“Daddy, what is it? What is it?” said a small girl, pointing.

You can learn a lot at the County Fair.

Outside, Tim ate a barbecued steak sandwich served by a Brooklyn Italian. I sweated in too-tight jeans. We still hadn’t found the prize chickens. The pig races were over, so instead we went to see Extreme Canines—dog athletes who did backflips and somersaults and caught dozens of frisbees in a minute.

The crowd was so thick I needed a piggyback to see the action, and when Tim got tired we wandered the Hobbies and Collections hall, peering at glassed-in life capsules. Model sportscars. “Sand From the Beaches of the World.” Motley Victorian teapots. “My SpongeBob SquarePants Stuff.” The handwritten cards explained each collector’s vision.

“When I was about 5 I really liked SpongeBob Squarepants and I started getting his stuff.
Now I have 23 things.
My favorite is the Krusty Krab model.
—Luis Sandoval, Age 7, Watsonville”

There was a line at the Bud Lite tent. There was no line at the Obama 2008 stand.

At last we found the poultry barn. The contestants—hens, roosters, bantams, game hens, ducks—sat in their cages, pecking at their corn and putting up with our stares. The plain-Jane layers and meat birds were grouped in one area, and the fabulous drag queens preened in another. At least the Polish chickens could hide behind their bangs.

After an afternoon strolling through an agricultural fair, I had an urge to show off in the poultry barn. Unlike these blow-ins fussing over the freak birds, I knew chickens. I’d spent at least six Saturdays watching them scratch while I drank wine. I’d read E.B. White. I’d cuddled chicks and collected eggs. I’d rented The Natural History of the Chicken from Netflix. I could recognize at least four breeds (with shaky accuracy). I was a chicken geek, in some senses at least, and I wanted recognition.

I stopped in front of a Rhode Island Red who was getting her cage cleaned out by an official.

“Oh, she looks just like Susan!” I said in a fake voice to Tim, and then turned to the straw lady. “One of our birds was killed two nights ago,” I told her. She clucked in sympathy. I accepted her condolences, even though Susan wasn’t really my chicken. “She’d taken to roosting in a tree after a raccoon attack in the coop. Probably a coyote got her. Lot of them up there in the mountains.”

I felt I’d established my credentials, but it was less satisfying than I’d hoped. “Reds are lovely birds. Good temperament,” I added knowledgably, wondering if Red or Rhodie was the cool-kid term.

The exchange reminded me what had made me an uneasy traveler in my year of back-packing. Being a tourist embarrasses me. I can’t stare in peace at what is supposed to be stared at—I looked at Angkor Wat sideways, the way New Yorkers look at Nicole Kidman on the street. I always want to pretend that I’m a local, an insider, an expert, even when it’s clear I’m no such thing. You can’t blend in without felt experiences, no matter how often you Google the customs.

As we left the Santa Cruz County Fair—a happy day—I wondered what it would be like to gawk at a 660 lb squash without a 21st-century commentary running like a velvet rope between me and the moment. To be amazed; to admire the labor honestly; to tot the sum of pies, pickles, and preserves a giant squash would yield; to talk about it with the neighbors while we waited for a bolt of calico or a bushel of chicory.

It might feel like faith.

pch-chickens.jpg

Chicks on the Pacific Coast Highway
Photo by Tim Vetter

Chicken notes

Helen demands treats

At 45, a man’s mind turns to fast engines and young chicks, and Ranger Tim is no exception. In a short time he’s acquired five motorbikes—all beaters—and seventeen hens. They’re his path out of the (Silicon) valley of darkness.

Four sisters survive from his first Easter clutch of bathtub chicks. For every murdered bird—lost to coyotes, rattlesnakes, racoons, or suffocating love—he consoles himelf with three tiny replacements from the hatchery in Watsonville. The nursery coop has been busy all summer, and the original four are now poised young hens.

Helen is still the favorite, a brash Americauna who will put up with cuddles in return for exclusive access to a soggy tomato. She lays Tiffany-blue eggs with orange yolks, which I coddle with cream. In fluorescent conference rooms, I look forward to Tim’s bulletins on her adventures:

“Helen is a lush,” runs one subject line. “Last night I opened a cabernet and sat watching the chickens scratch around by the house. She feels considerable entitlement to hand feeding of treats like pinhead oatmeal so often jumps up on the table and glares at me until I put out. This time though she was distracted, picking at the wine bottle, and so on a lark I tipped my glass toward her and with only brief hesitation she put her beak in there. Emerged shaking her head, then straight back in, lapping it up.

After a minute I took the glass away but I’m sure she would have licked it dry. As it was her beard and cheeks were soaked with wine and she looked lit and dishevelled like any young Englishwoman at the pub.”

When chicks are moved from the bathtub to the coop, at about two weeks old, they are confused by strange surroundings. Doors are a new concept. They blunder past the open door looking for the way out, or else they get out but can’t understand why their indoor sisters are right in front of them and yet out of reach.

At first we joked about their limitations. But they figured out the coop exit long before we realized that a chicken could visit our offices any day and marvel that even though the door was right there, these full-grown humans couldn’t seem to find the way out of our cubicles.

Chickens are wise. Every morning they deposit their rent in shared nest boxes. They spend the rest of the day gossiping while they scratch for food, exploring the ranch, and taking ecstatic dust baths. Because every bird looks out for the flock’s safety, together they have more time to feed and play. At dusk they troop back to their roosts and cuddle with a kindred spirit, until they wake with the sunrise. They have never taken a Work-Life Balance Seminar.

Lola’s Secret Nest

Chickens

three chickens in a shirt pocket

“They’re so busy,” I say. It’s Friday night at the end of winter, and the action on Tim’s kitchen floor is better than the movies. We sit on the sofa, chins on knuckles, and we stare at the chicks. They patter around the bare floor, and from time to time they hoist themselves up on a log of firewood to peck for insects.
“Yeah, but it’s the busy of a badly-run restaurant kitchen,” he says. “Lot of activity, lot of bumping into each other, but not much is getting done.” He’s the naturalist, always more precise in his observations. Able to tell a hungry cheep from a happy cheep within a few hours of owning chicks. And they love him for it, in their way. When he teases them by lifting his feet so that he’s no longer in their plane of vision, their peeps get shrill until his boot returns. The Boot of Worms. The Boot of Warmth. The Boot of Life.

“Birds, birds, birds, birds, bi-irds,” he says when he enters the cabin, and from their bathtub home they twitter with excitement. The Boot! The Boot is back! To Tim they are animals first, but to me they are females. I call them “Girls.”

Tim started with three chicks, bought from the Rural Supply Store as concubines for the ranch rooster. They are a self-assured eight days old when I meet them, clattering up and down the cardboard that lines his bathtub, scrabbling at their feed. A wall heater keeps the room at blood heat. A steady drip tops up their water bowl, and an Ikea desk lamp warms the small cardboard hutch at one end of the bathtub, where they cuddle at night. When they hear Tim, they stop pecking and start peeping. He greets them, and they let themselves be picked up—two in one fist, one in another—and carried out to the garden.

This grass place, it’s a wonderland. There is dirt; there are stones; there are things that crawl and things that buzz and things that scurry. Everything has to be investigated immediately. They are immensely busy, heads down, but they come when Tim calls them by tapping a fingernail on the flagstones to draw attention to a slow-witted worm. That’s how their mother would teach them where to peck.

At first they stay close to the cabin, and even when they explore, they stick together, peeping a constant call and response. When one loses sight of the others, her trills get higher in pitch and volume. She doesn’t peck again until her calls have been answered and she is reunited. But when she finds something good—or something that might be good—she tries to get away from the others to investigate in peace. The others give chase, flailing after her, and she as she heads them off the worm, or twig, hangs from her beak. It looks like chick soccer.

It’s when they are sleepy that I love them best. They want, more than anything, to be taken under a wing, but there are no mother wings in their hatchery world. Tim’s shirt pockets are a warm and crowded substitute, and after some formal complaints they enjoy being stuffed in there to doze while he fixes motorcycles or visits Sal. I peer into the pocket and think of being under the duvet with my two small sisters, at an age when they were all bird bones and soft, sweaty hair. How annoying they were, and how comforting, with their doggy toddler smell. The chicks seem to have the same regard for one another.

When it’s too late at night for pockets, he sets them down on the kitchen floor to run around before bedtime. When they get tired they huddle in a fluffy scrum and try desperately to get under another chick. Is that so much to ask? They stagger, slit-eyed, up against another’s belly, and butt until they’re underneath. But the comfort never lasts. Their bodies are too light. The top chick topples off, and the bleary one is exposed again. These negotiations go on and on, a shifting dune of exhausted fluff.

The following day, Tim goes to town to buy three more chicks. He brings them home in a bucket with a window screen for a lid. Next to them, the older babies look like hulks, and I begin to feel sorry for all the toddlers who get stuck with younger siblings.

It takes a few days for the chicks to learn to drink. At dawn, the small ones reach up to pluck at the tips of the blades of grass. I don’t understand why, until Tim points out that they’re sipping dew-drops. Most birds can’t swallow as we do; they don’t have a peristalsis mechanism. They rely on gravity to drink, tipping their heads back and glugging like a Spanish farmer with a wineskin. When they’re just a few days old, a dish of water is beyond them, and so they reach for dewdrops. Later, when they see their older sisters drink from a bowl, they understand, though they can’t yet work out the physics of reaching in. They step into the dish and together they arch their necks to glug, beaks open, like the four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.

Now that they can drink, their digestive systems kick in. They leave little pesto droppings on the kitchen floor.

I don’t want them to grow another inch.

“Bonsai chicks?” I say to Tim, hopefully.

I have a narcissistic prejudice in favor of one of the small ones, a dappled brown Americauna. Because she has mouse-colored fluff, I believe that she is smarter, more resourceful, and finer of feeling, than, say, the butterball blonde Rhode Island Red who always has dried shit stuck to her behind, no matter how often Tim goes after her with the nail scissors. I name my favorite Helen, after Helen Mirren, another cool and brave brunette. None of the others has a name. Tim says that since he hasn’t felt inclined to name the rooster, he doesn’t see why the birds need names. Then again, he can keep the six different breeds straight, and I can’t.

They practice flying, vaulting over a few feet of grass or up the kitchen steps. When an airplane flies overhead, they freeze and fall silent. A born fear of aerial predators, maybe, but it’s also their response to any loud, new sound. When the rooster crows from his henhouse thirty yards away, they freeze again.

1-threechicks.jpg

I sit on a tree stump and watch them for hours, chewing my bottom lip to hold in tender sadism. I want them to suffer, in tiny doses, just so that I can rescue them. After an hour or two in the weak March sunshine they start to shiver, and let themselves get caught. Their bodies are warm but their legs are chilled. Even the Leghorn, who wears ridiculous chaps of dirty white fluff, has cold feet. I feel Helen’s heart banging against matchstick ribs, and I want to squeeze her little body like an ortolan.

The rooster, for his part, is perturbed by their arrival. He was barely grown when Tim’s neighbor rescued him from the side of Highway 17, and he’s been alone for more than a year. These strange but familiar creatures have stirred something in his rooster heart. He seems to have a rusty memory that he is a patriarch by rights, born to lead and breed. But he doesn’t yet recognize the chicks for the sexy pullets they could turn into, and they are too small to be left alone with him. Since they were taken away, he has fallen into a rooster funk. He still crows, but then he puts his head down and stalks around his house, clucking in a low voice as if questioning himself.

Tim notes that when the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons first came out, in 1946, most of the audience would have known a rooster personally, and would recognize his pompous, ridiculous magnificence from life. These days, the references go the other way. Most chickens are industrial workers, as are we, and they’re usually in a KFC bucket by the time we meet. As I watch the chicks, I compare them to Furbies, or anime characters, or the clay birds of Chicken Run. All of them are objects designed with the cues that make us love infant creatures—big head, big eyes—but they will never grow. We call them animated, but they have no spark of life.

These chicks are beautiful because they are alive. They have their own drives, their own chicken hopes, and they are fully engaged in every moment. They’re learning, changing, moving, and even as they startle at every rustling leaf, they’re not afraid to depend on one another. I’m glad I met them.

The Real World

Chicks at the store

Rural Supply Store, Los Gatos (all photos by Tim Vetter)

Drearier than the prospect of fourteen hours at the mercy of America’s worst airline is knowing that Atlanta, and not home, is at the end of it.

Atlanta has given the world Delta Airlines, soda-pop, and 24-hour televised war, and perhaps this business vigor is why it has the busiest airport in the country. That means 45 minutes of kick-shuffling a laptop bag through the lines at Immigration, then sighing through more queues at baggage claim and Customs. And that doesn’t mean you’re free to go. Atlanta takes its Homeland Security hospitality seriously. If you arrive on an international flight, you and your bags must be rescreened after Customs, even if you’re connecting only to the taxi rank. They take your luggage, brusquely, and wave you to another Tensabarrier maze.

We passengers have just arrived from Tokyo, Delhi, or Madrid, and we don’t understand who has our bags now and where we are going. The minimum-wage security staff at the end of the maze can’t fathom why we are so stupid.

“Four more lines. Four more lines! Keep moving. Keep moving down. Keep MOVING,” shouts a guard, dragging people out of the main queue to the empty security lines nearby. We are bleary, our bodies still belong to tomorrow, or this morning, and strangers have taken our stuff. We look bewildered and pissed off. We have the money to go to Tokyo. No wonder she hates us.

The suitcases have been sent to another carousel, a jolting train ride away. One-footed, we strip off shoes, belts, and jackets, scrabble to get laptops into gray trays, and watch as our little bottles of airline Evian or mouthwash get confiscated. In the strip-lighting, after hours breathing recycled air, we’re as gray as the trays. There’s nowhere to get dressed and repack. We hop in half-laced shoes and clutch our bits and pieces, as the trays back up because we’re in the way.

“The current homeland security alert level is Orange,” blare the announcements, demanding that we keep an eye on Unattended Packages. Baby soldiers sit against the wall, tethered by the too-short cords of the public phones. There are always soldiers milling around this airport. They stick together and don’t say much, a class apart from this air-conditioned bubble world as they wait for their flights to German bases. Most, of course, look far too young and small. Everyone says that. But many more look too old; bone-tired and wobble-bellied. A gray-haired soldier leans against a camouflage backpack embroidered with his last name, and reads Fiasco. I am too ashamed to smile at them and wish them safe return and recovery, though I do it silently.

Beside the second baggage carousel, a tiny girl skips and sings.

“Too-morra, too-morra,
I love ya, too-morra,
Betcha bodda dodda
You’re ownee a day a-way…Mommy, what’s next?”

I hope she’s right.

It takes another hour for my bag to arrive, on the wrong carousel. Hours later, I call Ranger Tim from The Four Seasons, greasy-haired from massage oil, with room service on its way and a laptop downloading a week’s worth of emails cheeping for attention. It’s been ten days since we talked, and I miss him. He was out at the chicken coop.

A year ago, Tim rescued a young rooster wandering at the side of the highway near Los Gatos. Now the rooster lives in a fine house at the ranch, safe from the coyotes and the mountain lions. He’s sleek, and he crows proudly, but we’ve worried about his enforced celibacy. (Maybe it’s easier to feel sympathy for a rooster than a road warrior.) We enquired into girlfriends for him. You can order chickens over the internet, and once in a while people put them up for sale or adoption on Craigslist And the Santa Cruz mountains are home to little farms that supply some of the best restaurants in the world, so surely someone would sell us chickens. You can even rescue worn-out battery hens, so that they don’t end a miserable life as dinner on Delta.

Still, we never got around to it. The rooster got no honey, and we got no eggs. Today, tooling around Los Gatos on my green motorbike, Tim noticed a box of chicks set outside the Rural Supply Store. Easter chicks, set out for children to pet. They were three dollars apiece, and he bought three.

“I brought them home strapped to the Puddingmobile, like a Vietnamese farmer,” says Tim. That’s what he calls my old green Yamaha Seca motorbike, which he spends hours fixing up. “They were terrified, but it was good preparation for their next challenge—surviving life with the rooster.”

At first the rooster paid no attention to the three chicks. He stuttered around his cage, indignant at Tim’s invasion. The chicks huddled in a corner, cheeping in terror.

“Then eventually one of them just said ‘Fuck it, I’m getting on with life.’ And she started to explore a little, peck around her. The other two stayed huddled. It’s amazing, these animals don’t know anything, and yet their personalities are distinct.”

The rooster got over his annoyance. He noticed the chicks. He watched them. Then began to show what might pass for paternal behavior.

“He started to peck in small circles, like he was showing them what to do. And eventually they got it, though they’d never seen an adult before. They relaxed. They even started pecking his beak in some kind of feeding behavior, and he let them. He was looking out for them.”

Until his mood turned and he grabbed a chick in his beak and shook it.

“I thought, here we go, the blood bath has begun. The chick was screaming, and the other two were freaked. But then he let her go, and she wasn’t hurt. It looked something like a cat shaking her kittens.” Still, the chicks were chastened, and retreated to their corner. Life beyond the shell is violent and unpredictable, no matter how cute your yellow fluff.

I ask if the rooster realized that these useless, invading bundles represented his shot at passing on his genes. “Depends,” says Tim. “In a couple of months, they’ll be mature. But who knows if he has the foresight to see them for the bodacious pullets they could turn into if he leaves them alone?”

He watched as social equilibrium was slowly restored, at least for now. “It’s like some kind of reality show,” he says, “where three babies get dumped on some single guy, and he’s clueless, and he grumbles, but in his own way he looks after them.”

I haven’t been to the ranch in months. My life is air-conditioned now. The weekends I used to spend there, I now spend working on PowerPoint in Atlanta or Tokyo, or the airports in between. I didn’t miss the mountains in the rainy season, but now that spring is here I crave news from the real world, where the coyotes don’t wait for room service, and the morning is beautiful if you survive the night.

UPDATE: The chicks survived the night. From Tim:

The rooster didn’t harm them, but he didn’t brood them either (I thought, very wishfully he might have a bit of gay motherliness in him). It was turning cold when we got back from dinner at Lupin, and checking in on the birds, I found the rooster up on his roost, nonplussed at the flashlight beam, and chicks huddled in the corner of the coop shivering. Didn’t take me long to decide they weren’t going to survive the night under those conditions. They’re living now in a cardboard box next to the woodstove cheerfully pecking at a random selection of grains from my larder, run through the coffee grinder. They seem to like white grits and rolled barley best; turn their noses up at all forms of daal. I’ll let them try Irish pinhead oats tonight.My plan is to keep them inside for the rest of this week then starting the weekend have them spend days in the chicken house with rooster. In two weeks supposedly they’ll be able to stand the cold on their own.

Chicks at the store

The Yamaha Seca

Chicks at the store

Chicks getting ready for new adventures

Chicks at the store

Chicks get introduced to the rooster

Chicks at the store

Chicks rescued from the rooster and the cold

Thanksgiving at the Ranch

Sal's Canyon

Two strangers arrive at Tim’s cabin the morning after Thanksgiving. Bill has a fox-colored pageboy and bright blue eyes. He’s strong, and his face just misses handsome before it veers off into unsettling. Jerri has long, tired blonde hair, and wears high-heeled sandals that wouldn’t do well in the February mud up there.

Bill wanted to show her the spot where he lived 25 years ago. There were just three houses in Sal’s Canyon then: Sal’s own homestead; a nearby place with a sign that says “General Store” above the front porch (it’s not a store); and the little shack that Bill rented above the golf course. It burned down long ago, so he’s finding out who lives here now, in these newer cabins.

Sal was a character, he says. Must have been in his fifties at the time. He was still teaching shop in East Palo Alto. “I remember him coming home, complaining about the students —‘Jesus Christ, kid, did ya learn nothing here? You wrote ‘Fuck’ five times on the wall of the boys’ bathroom, and you spelled it wrong every time.’” A ladies man, Tim offers, and Bill shrugs that well, he thought he was. As to whether he was successful, Bill couldn’t say.

Bill grew up on a dairy farm in Oregon. Fourteen cows in an open barn system. At dawn he and his brother would milk, and after school there’d be hours of chores: more milking, cleaning out the barn, and foddering the herd. In the winter they’d be up in the night, calving. In summer, they’d cut and pitch hay. The milk ran through a Rube-Goldberg system of funnels and filters and cooling channels in the barn, and when the churns were filled they’d haul them into the truck and take them to the dairy.

“The churns would run down on rollers, and when the last churn had gone through, we’d be allowed to balance on the rollers in our sneakers”—he mimed a skier’s crouch—“and ride them all the way to the end. Then they’d give us a pail of fresh cheese curds, for free. Squeak, squeak.”

“Sounds like an industrial accident waiting to happen,” says Jerri. “Sounds like OSHA wouldn’t have much to like about that whole set up.”
Continue reading “Thanksgiving at the Ranch”

Reitwagen

“If you don’t speed up, cars will run you over. Hell, cats will run you over.”

That’s what Bob, the Bay Area Motorcycle Trainer told me. He’s probably right. Especially as I’m learning to ride in mountain lion territory.

yamaha_seca.JPGI have a 1982 green Yamaha Seca, bought from Craigslist and patched up with eBay parts. It cost $650, which is less than the price of the new glasses I just bought. The mirrors are from Brooklyn. The new tachometer is from Florida. The rear brake light is from the Kragen in Sunnyvale. The replacement clutch lever, broken when I dropped the bike doing a “low-speed manoeuvre” (a 5-mile an hour U-turn in a redwood cathedral), comes from—well, I don’t know where Tim got it, to be honest. Motorbikes are his department, as books and chocolate bars are mine. Shortly after he bought the green one for me, he picked up a red Seca II from my Bernal Heights neighbor, and then, a few weeks ago, added a blue Kawasaki KLX650 Dual-Sport when we realized the winter rains would soon muck up Sal’s dirt road.

Tim pores over the Motorcycle Owner’s Manuals (“Got a question? Ask MOM.”)He sits up late on a cellphone dial-up connection to eBay, and spends Saturdays afternoons cleaning the carburetor so that the green bike no longer hiccups like a drunk. He rarely falls into the gumption trap. He guides me, at 30 miles an hour, to the DMV parking lot in Los Gatos, where I practise unsteady figure-eights on the driving test course. In return for his patience, I try to be a good sport about riding motorcycles.

The first time Tim drove his red bike from my neighbor’s house to his shack, an hour and a half south of San Francisco, he sent me a delighted email. After two years of Silicon Valley commuting—did you know that rich people can lead such depressing lives that for two hours a day, reading vanity license plates counts as distraction?—he’d regained some of his old spirit.

“I felt like I was describing a line on the curved surface of the earth. Like I had reconnected to the sights and smells of my surroundings,” he said. It helps that Route 280 is carved through beauty, and that the Skyline Boulevard, which coils above it to his home in the mountains, is a famously spectacular motorcycle ride. Woz lives up there.

I don’t share Tim’s passion yet, though we took the same weekend training course. I lack his physical confidence, and I don’t have an understanding with these mechanical beasts. But still I like my bike—a bit—though it often scares me to shaking.
Sal, Tim, and bikesMy first outing was on a rutted, hilly dirt road: the mile-long driveway to Tim’s cabin. I revved for ages in the workshop, pretending I was getting started. Tim’s landlord, Sal, scratched his head, and inspected the bikes. We like to hang out together, Sal and I. He has a mechanic’s curiosity, but he was dubious about this project. “My youngest boy was killed on a motorbike when he was 18,” he said, off-handedly. “Thirty years ago. Little 125cc thing. On his way home, this woman just cuts him right off. A stupid thing.” He went back to turning wood for the cabin of his new-battered cruiser boat, the one he’s going to take up to the Seattle Lakes for a joyride. Without looking up, he added, “He was supposed to have had my truck that day.”

Then he wiped off his hands and asked questions about the engine, which I couldn’t answer. Told me to be careful. But there’s no telling people to be careful, is there? The truth is, I’m so cautious that I’ll loop right around and meet danger coming backwards. The truth is, it won’t be lack of care, but lack of competence, that will test the stiff padding on my rider gear. And as a long-time acoustic bicyclist, I can hardly believe how little motorcyclists can hear from inside those cheek-squashing helmets. How much can care make up for deafness?

(Sal complains about deafness all the time, too. But he’s eighty years old, and his favorite hobby is making huge termite piles with his earth-moving equipment.)

The most terrifying part of motorbiking, I find, is the loneliness. It’s easier to face danger when someone else might be in charge. The only way I made it down Sal’s Canyon was to shout at myself as loudly as I could, coaching like a dad who just took the training wheels off a daughter’s bike.

“Okay. Okay! Okay! You can do it. That’s the girl. Brave girl. Take your hand off the fucking brake. Let it GO. (Screw you, pothole.) Clutch! Clutch! Don’t look at that rock. Don’t look at the creek. Look where you want to GO. You’re going to make it. That’s the girl. Good…”

I heard my coach’s instructions, and my own dad’s voice, raising in spite of himself, as he tried to teach me to drive in the Raheen Industrial Estate on wet Sunday afternoons. I sputtered down the dirt track, past the nudist camp, and out onto Alma Bridge Road.

Crawling around the Lexington Reservoir in first gear, a spandex man passed me on a racing bike—going uphill.

It’s motorcycle territory, those beautiful swooping backroads in the Santa Cruz mountains, and the biker tribes are friendly. Dirt-bikers, dual-sportsers, cruisers, choppers, and hogs all offer the same low, one-handed greeting, even to me, even though I can’t return the wave for fear I’ll fall off. The dirt-bike kids wear the outfits I should have: bright, armor-padded Kevlar, and Flash Gordon boots. The old lads on Harleys wear leather vests in the summer, and soup-plate helmets. The sports bike guys look good, padded up for brawn. Me, I was sweaty in heavy gloves, jacket, helmet, and boots in beach weather, and by summer’s end, my gloves stank.

It’s unsettling to realize how much I’m de-gendered on a motorbike. Putt-putting up a hill, I look like some skinny, nervous guy on an old rice rocket. I can’t cute my way out of a damn thing, and though that’s never been a mainstay of my survival skills, I confess that I’d like to be able to fall back on it when my incompetence is so marked. Once I lost my nerve on a steep hairpin bend, and abandoned the bike to cry on the shoulder. Once I fell off. Once (last weekend), I went 35 miles an hour on the highway.

Since those first forays, though, I’ve got a little better. Leaning into a turn, when I already feel unbalanced, still doesn’t feel good or sensible to me yet, but my brain can make me do it. Instead of sitting meditation, I take big, slow breaths on the green Yamaha Seca, feeling the flow of pushing my mind to its limit and keeping my body as quiet as the redwood cathedrals I pass through.

While Tim hunted tachometers, I found unworn Emma Peel leathers on eBay, offered by a guy who was bitterly selling a gift bought for his “now EXXXX-girlfriend. Tags attached.” Toe tags? No matter. Nothing like playing dress up to bring me around to a new hobby.

Tim says that in the parking lot at the Los Gatos Safeway, the yummy mummies check out guys in motorcycle gear—the pads are placed, after all, to flatter that silhouette we cavewomen are primed to respond to. More affectingly, he says, middle-aged guys in expensive SUVs give him an unmistakable look: wistfulness, envy, maybe even regret.
“If it weren’t for these little shitheads…” he imagines them saying about the kings of the carseats, whom they serve faithfully.

Today, at the gas station, a middle-aged Russian guy approached Tim as he filled up my bike. Maybe he thought he’d found a fellow Russian—that used to happen all the time in Brighton Beach. He used to ride, he said, and he missed it. In the Urals. They traded stories for a while. His $60,000 car shone nearby. “How much was it?” he wanted to know, nodding at the tinny little bike. Tim told him—about the price of dinner for two in Manresa, down the road. Freedom was that cheap? He backed away, amazed.

Hoopty Days

A day out with Tim usually involves some combination of getting dirty, eating soul food, trespassing, scrambling, decayed waterfront, poison oak, housing projects, bushwhacking, and a canoe. This life has taken a toll on his car, a 1991 Honda Accord station wagon, which was once admired by the Puerto Rican kids as a potential lowrider, but is now beneath their attention. The windshield is cracked. The rear-end has been replaced with a slightly different shade of charcoal, after a disagreement with a garbage trailer up at Lake Superior. The color doesn’t quite camouflage the caked mud and dust from its daily commute up a dirt road. Strewn inside are all the necessaries—canoe and kayak paddles, firewood, mosquito netting, tools for fixing the car’s many problems, bags of laundry, dozens of magazines, pads and ropes and bungee cords, oil, coffee mugs, and several changes of clothing. There is often a canoe strapped to the roof, in case the Ontario plates don’t explain enough. It is unstealable.
Continue reading “Hoopty Days”

Does This Bike Make My Arse Look Big?

Lady

“The kind of person who routinely prefixes ‘cyclist’ with ‘kamikaze’ is exactly the kind of person who prefixes ‘asylum seeker’ with ‘bogus’”.

Claire T in London writes (I love that; makes me feel like a Radio Two Disc Jockey) with a link to Zoe Williams’s rules of the road. This superb guide to life as a lady bike commuter includes fishnets, sopping bras, the pros and cons of running the lights, and social commentary.

Understand your triggers

When I was younger, a neighbour of my mum’s with colourful views gave me a lift to school. On the way, we passed a flame-headed lady cyclist who nearly went into us, and he said, “This is why women kill themselves on bikes – because they’re always looking in the shops.” This is very sexist, but it is true that she was looking at a shop.

You need to be honest with yourself about what will make you neck-crane something that isn’t the road. Don’t pretend it’s a lovely arse if actually it’s a window of cakes*. For myself, the only two occasions I’ve nearly crashed with no outside agency of poor driving, it was because I saw a puppy.

  • If your head is turned by arses and patisseries, maybe you should take public transport.

Read the rest

My own trigger is shiny surfaces, especially reflective shop windows. I’m always curious about what I look like on a bike, for no good reason. I’ve worked out a Shakespearean theory that we each die of our most pronounced flaw. In my case, low-grade narcissism will put me under the wheels of a bus eventually.