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.

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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