By Elizabeth Giddens
THE chickens of New York City, for the most part, live fairly sheltered lives, securely tucked into private backyards and padlocked community gardens. Our chickens, by contrast, are public figures — their yard faces 20 feet of busy Bedford-Stuyvesant sidewalk. The chickens themselves chose this bustling thoroughfare, decamping there even when they could have settled in our spacious, semiprivate back garden. They wanted to see and be seen — like so many New York transplants, they seemed to feed on the energy of the street.
The admirers came in droves. The neighborhood immortalized by Biggie Smalls and Billy Joel has undergone widespread gentrification, and between the trend-conscious newcomers from suburbia and the nostalgic migrants from the Caribbean and rural South, there’s an awful lot of chicken love in Bed-Stuy these days.
And what’s not to love? There’s something intrinsically happy about a chicken. The name: a little hiccup in the mouth. The shape: a jaunty upswing of feathers, a grin. The ceaseless bobbing, scratching, pecking. It’s nearly impossible to feel melancholy in the company of chickens. They are a balm for the weary urban soul.
The spirit of the chicken regularly infects the sidewalk parade down Franklin Avenue. People break out in chicken dances. They cluck. They coo. They cock-a-doodle-doo. (One toddler ventured a tentative “oink, oink” before her mother gently corrected her.) Chickens make people loose, and they make them gregarious. In fair weather, scarcely an hour passes without a motley assortment of gawkers at our gate — dog-walkers, corner guys, stroller pushers — eager to inform, or misinform, one another on the finer points of chickendom. We’ve considered posting an F.A.Q. sheet — yes, they’re hens; no, they don’t need a rooster to make eggs — but that would spoil the fun. People like working it out among themselves.
In a neighborhood fraught with the tensions of gentrification, making people talk to one another, and talk about something other than themselves, is not an insignificant accomplishment. What I’m saying is that these chickens are important in a way that chickens aren’t usually important. They are Bed-Stuy’s very own peace doves.
Imagine our dismay last June, then, when Gertrude, a Rhode Island Red and our prize layer, was stolen.
The chicken yard was a classic crime scene: Coop open. Hatch lying on the ground. T-Rex, Gertrude’s long-suffering subordinate, standing dumbfounded.
After much deliberation, we called the police, so we’d at least be alerted if her corpse turned up within their purview. They came, laughed, snapped pictures of T-Rex with their cellphones, and texted them to friends.
We decided to appeal to Gertrude’s public. We posted a big sign on the gate, letting people know what had happened, and pleading for her return, no questions asked.
As with any theft, the worst part is the blow it deals to one’s faith in humanity. The chickens were in danger of being demoted from goodwill ambassadors to harbingers of doom, canaries in the neighborhood coal mine.
The sidewalk confabs reached a fever pitch. People were devastated.
A man with a neck tattoo shook his head and tut-tutted, “What kind of person would do something like this?” A woman in a church hat encouraged us to turn to God. Neighbors posted another sign: “439 Franklin misses Gertrude!” People scribbled commiseration. (“My son is sad! Find Gertrude!”) The crime was taken as proof of the decline and fall of civilization, and we found ourselves assuming the role of the comforter far more than the comforted.
Again, this is Bed-Stuy. Not Mayberry. Yet the response was more suited to a town with less in the way of a police blotter. Such dramatic emotional outpourings for a lost chicken seemed frankly disproportionate, since you can hardly walk a block in this town without being offered some tantalizing version of dead chicken. And since your average American consumes more than 80 pounds of poultry a year, the odds were good that most of the mourners had eaten a chicken in the last few days, if not hours.
But I digress. Back to the crime scene.
Everyone had a theory. Gertrude’s theft became a blank slate onto which people projected their assumptions about the neighborhood, the city and humankind. Not all the theories reflected well on their proponents — there was a raft of confused ideas about the cultural practices of Caribbeans, and the dietary predilections of crack addicts.
Sidewalk symposiums are one of the great pleasures of urban living, and New Yorkers are masters of the art, ready to hold forth on the most abstract or esoteric musings without so much as a how-de-do. Where I come from, you’d be obliged to at least mention the weather, if not disclose your actual name and provenance, before delving into something so intimate.
Was it hunger? Religion? Envy?
No information was forthcoming. Either no one knew or no one was talking. But one of the corner guys promised to “put the word out” and, if he found out who did it, to “put the hurt on him.” Which was comforting. Kind of.
About a week after Gertrude’s disappearance, after we’d all but given up hope, a young man stood at the gate and shouted that he had “information about the chicken.” We went downstairs, opened the front door, and whom should we find but our beloved Gertrude, very much alive and full of her signature élan, tucked under the young man’s arm.
He was in his late 20s, remarkably handsome and stylishly dressed. He sheepishly related a story of a drunken dare that led a friend of his to steal the chicken, for the promise of $100.
Maybe there was a friend. Or maybe there wasn’t. Either way, the young man said he felt compelled to return Gertrude when he saw how much the neighborhood missed her. He apologized at least 15 times. And we forgave him — we were so surprised and delighted by Gertrude’s improbable return that we hugged him warmly and thanked him profusely. Then he went on his way, apologizing again and again over his shoulder, and we never saw him again.
We put up a new sign to explain Gertrude’s sudden reappearance, and, in our jubilation, we allowed ourselves some license with the truth: “We’re not sure where she’s been, but now she speaks Russian, has a few tattoos, and insists that we call her Kiki.”
Her return rocked the neighborhood. Crowds gathered outside the gate to marvel at her resurrection. More than two dozen people wrote their congratulations on the new sign — surely one of the only comment boards in the city that didn’t garner a single negative remark, or even a vulgar one. They wrote in Spanish, in Twi (a Ghanaian language) and, of course, in Russian, in honor of Kiki. They signed “D’s Daycare,” “the Italian guys from Monroe,” “Puerto Rican from Monroe,” “Ladies of 439 Franklin,” “House of Channy” and “Snake.” Among a profusion of exclamation points, smiley faces and hearts, the good citizens of Bedford-Stuyvesant saluted the Lazarus chicken: Holla! 2 good 2 be 4 gotten. Awesome! Peace. Akwaba. Welcome Home.