At the Civic Center farmers’ market today I ran across something I hadn’t noticed before. Outside the row of stalls selling everything from cheese, fish, and flowers to choi sum, kari leaves, and blood oranges, was a truck covered in tarps.
It was partially covered, actually, with a tarp draped across one side and extending over the top of the bed, and a small, portable pavilion had been set up in front to give the vendors and customers a place to stand and conduct business out of the drizzle that had been falling all morning. The vendor, a beefy Latino guy with a thin mustache and deep brown skin, was selling live chickens.
Held in crates too low for them to stand up, the Rhode Island reds sat three or four to a cage, stacked at least six or seven crates high, nervously watching as a woman pulled them from their confines. She reached into one cage and pulled out an obviously nervous bird. I assumed at that point it was headed to the chopping block – that’s not true, I was actually waiting for her wring its neck – but, instead, she tucked the clucking hen gently into a paper grocery bag, folded over the top to close it, and then handed it to the man who then passed it over to a customer.
His customers were almost all Chinese: small women with short, sensible, no-nonsense haircuts and the standard-issue fleece jacket sold to tourists who never expected San Francisco to be as cold as it often is, with a stylized “SF” embroidered on the breast. As I watched, one woman was crouched down, tucking a full paper bag into a plastic bag with handles which would be easier to carry. She would, later that day probably, kill the bird at home for dinner that evening. You don’t get much fresher than that.
Five years ago, I managed an apartment building in Nob Hill, just a couple blocks outside Chinatown. Many of my tenants, as well as my neighbors in other buildings, were Chinese. I had only lived in San Francisco less than two years at that point and was even newer to the neighborhood.
Working in an empty apartment one afternoon, repairing a window, I was surprised by the sudden sound of a chicken clucking. I opened the window on which I had been working a little farther and leaned my head out into the light well. Several long moments later, I heard it again. The chicken sounds were coming from an apartment on the fourth floor, where Mrs. Fang lived.
I knew that many Chinese – and Latinos – often bought live chickens to slaughter at home. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that the tenants who lived in the small but comfortable studios in my building were doing it, too. As a kid, my family had raised chickens on our small farm and I tended to think of slaughtering chickens as a fairly messy business best done outdoors. But, no, when one’s total acreage consisted of about 450 to 500 square feet on the fourth floor of a 99-year old apartment building, one made do with what one had.
I heard nothing else after several moments and returned to my work. The doomed bird would end up, no doubt, as the centerpiece of dinner that evening, perhaps as salt-baked chicken, or in a rich soup. The next morning, hauling out the trash to be picked up by the city, I saw no feathers, nor any other signs of the poultricide that had taken place the day before. In fact, over the next couple of years, I never found any hints of other animals being dispatched in the building. The home-butchering was quiet, tidy, and discreet. It was just as well: we didn’t allow pets, anyway.