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CALIFORIA IN THE YEAR OF THE ROOSTER

1993 Mick Cusimano

Kerouac Lane, a narrow alleyway, leads from City Lights Bookstore to Stockton Street. Where East meets West: Chinatown. Standing in front of a ginseng store, I listened carefully to the strange sound of an ancient and mysterious culture. At first the sound was faint. Was it the sound of Buddhist monks chanting? Was it the sound of young kids practicing kung-fu from a second story window? I strained my ears to make out the sound and followed it closer. Indeed, it was the sound of many chickens squawking together. At first I thought it might be a dream, yet I followed the sound to a storefront. Sure enough, I saw hundreds of birds in cages. Hens, roosters, and large Chinese chickens.

I stood transfixed. "Am I in Heaven? I certainly hope not. Not if it smells like this." I studied the chickens up closely for several minutes. This made the cashier very uncomfortable. She asked me why I was so fascinated with live poultry. I told her that I was a cartoonist and published a comic strip called Chicken Little. When I gave her a copy she smiled and exclaimed, "Oh yes, Year of the Rooster! Year of the Rooster!" She was very pleased.

Although I have been drawing this chicken character for several years I had never seen a live chicken up close. Within minutes a Chinese lady came in, ordered a live rooster, and gave the cashier $4.00. The cashier took a reluctant red-combed fowl from the cage and stuck him head first into a shopping bag and stapled the top. The customer then walked out onto the street with the tonight's dinner flapping noisily inside. The owner of this fowl- feathered emporium looked at me with great disapproval and asked me to leave.

Remembering that Leonardo Da Vinci practiced drawing from live models and cadavers, I had a great idea: I could be the Leonardo Da Vinci of chickens. I considered buying a live rooster and taking him to the park to practice drawing from. But how would I get him to sit still? It would be cruel to tie him to a tree and besides, I don't think chickens take commands as well as dogs. What if he ran away only to cause a traffic jam? Would I look foolish explaining why I was chasing a bird down the street? "Well, you see officer, my rooster wouldn't stand still while I was doing his portrait!"

I decided that the feasibility of hiring a live rooster for the sake of art had its pitfalls. So I walked further down the street figuring out another plan. There I found a Chinese produce store where they sold fresh fish, geese, pig heads, chicken wings and feet. I decided to buy a single chicken foot for study. An elderly man asked if he could help me. I asked him for a chicken foot. He filled up a bag and said, "Here it is. One pound chicken foot."I told him, "I'm sorry, I don't want a pound of chicken feet. I just want one chicken foot." The poor guy was astounded. "One pound chicken foot! One pound chicken foot!" he repeated. I told him, "No. I just want to purchase a single chicken foot." "One pound chicken foot!" he anxiously repeated again. He was really freaked out now. Hearing the commotion, his son came running out from the back room waving a meat cleaver in his hand and asked what was wrong. His father held up the bag of poultry appendages. "This is one pound of chicken foot." he insisted. I explained that I only wanted a single chicken foot. At first his son too was incredulous. "Just one chicken foot? Only one chicken foot? Ohhhhhh, just for fun! Just for fun! Ten cents." I had thrown half the store owners on Stockton Street into a panic in my quest to more closely study the mighty rooster. Finally I took the poultry appendage out to the park and practiced drawing it from all angles. The Chinese discovered the rooster in 1400 B.C. Those born under the sign of the rooster are supposed to be thoughtful, industrious, but a bit eccentric.