November 20, 2009

Free-range chickens, Hollywood style.

When I drove into Hollywood yesterday I encountered an amazing sight in the parking lot…

…there he stood, bold as brass, looking at me.

And here is his story:
A band of "freeway chickens" in Hollywood? It’s true, although how they came to be part of the roadside ambiance of the Hollywood Freeway is still disputed. According to widely¬ believed lore, a poultry truck overturned near the Vineland Avenue exit in 1969, sending hundreds of suddenly freed chickens scurrying for safety. Some of the birds went to the Great Chicken Bucket in the Sky when their run for freedom abruptly ended under the wheels of passing automobiles, but enough survived the perilous dash to form a permanent colony of chickens living on the edge of one of the busiest freeways in America.

Or so says the legend. In true folkloric fashion, various folks have claimed to have been the ones responsible for those chickens coming to roost there, and each has offered a different explanation.

In 1990, Jeff Stein of Granada Hills claimed the following:

My wife and her twin sister kept the secret to themselves for years. Then, one day, someone mentioned the poultry truck story at her sister's house and my wife said, "That's not how the chickens got there. We put them there."

Janet Stein related how in 1968, when the girls were 12, they learned that a nearby school that raised animals was closing and that its resident chickens would be killed.

The twins scooped them up and succeeded in hiding them at home until a rooster awoke everyone at 5 a.m. The chickens couldn't stay.

"So there were these two little girls," said Jeff Stein, "hiking through a field to an open area near the freeway."

How many chickens did they dump?

"How many can you fit into two pillowcases?" he asked.

In 2000, Joe Silbert of Laguna Hills stepped forward to claim he drove the legendary poultry truck:

I tried to avoid a driver who cut in front of me and I turned over. I was taking anywhere from 500 to 1,000 chickens back from the Valley to a slaughterhouse in L.A. They were all hens. We never picked up roosters. These hens had stopped laying. They would eat but not produce, so they were costing farmer’s money. Anyway, I had a crate of eggs on the seat beside me, and when I turned over; my head fell into the crate. But I wasn't hurt. I started chasing one chicken and it was on the TV news that night.

One is left wondering if all the birds were hens that had stopped laying how this colony of chickens has managed to renew itself all these years.

So how the chickens came to roost where they do is in dispute. That they're there, however is not - the Freeway Chickens are still part of the Hollywood scene despite attempts at various times to head them up and move them out. In the late 1970s, the Department of Animal Regulation was prevailed upon to round up the fowls near the Vineland Avenue off-ramp. Nearly one hundred of the critters were shipped to a ranch in Simi Valley, where they pecked out the rest of their existence. However, at least a few members of the colony eluded capture and have continued to do what comes natural to hens and roosters.

Besides the original Freeway Chickens, a second colony known as the “New Freeway Chicken” makes their home alongside another portion of the Southland's freeway system. They reside at the Burbank on-ramp of the Hollywood Freeway, a location about two miles from their more famous poultry neighbors. In 1990, yet another resident of North Hollywood stepped forward to tell the tale of their origin. According to Carol Garnjost, the chickens came to be where they are after a pit bull chased off its owner's chickens and rabbits in 1985, the rabbit ending up in a neighbor's yard and the chickens coming to roost on a median strip of this on-ramp.

As for the original group and its fabled "poultry-truck accident" origin, though at first blush such an event might sound far-fetched, any number of odd items have found their way onto Los Angeles freeways over the years. A 1997 Los Angeles Times article reported:

Just about everything has fallen on L.A. roadways over the years. Some unusual, unscheduled deposits:
• About $7,000 worth of quarters on Hollywood Freeway; motorists jumping from cars reportedly get away with about 10% of the loot. (Sept. 13, 1982)

• Thousands of pounds of M&M candies on Orange Freeway in Fullerton; surprisingly, no motorists attempt to scoop up any. (March 26, 1986)

• One body on Hollywood Freeway from back of coroner's van. (Nov. 28, 1989)

• Hundreds of gallons of laughing gas on Foothill Freeway; happiest rush hour ever. (July 17, 1991)

• One 26-ton boat on Culver Boulevard; city crews move into action and remove it –36 hours later. (Nov. 6, 1989)

• Some 14,000 pounds of salsa on Interstate 5 in San Clemente; only chips in vicinity are CHP officers. (June 16, 1987)

• Forty-thousand bees on Foothill Freeway; it's so chilly they don't attack anyone. (March 14, 1985)

• More than 1,000 jugs of wine on Golden State Freeway; crews keep motorists away. (Oct. 9, 1974)

• One actress' resume ("Hair: honey blond; Eyes: hazel blue") on Foothill Freeway. (July 19, 1990)

Another article contains an equally impressive recitation of Los Angeles freeway finds: peevish bees, stampeding cattle, boats, pianos, mayonnaise, fish, broken watermelons, bananas, hot asphalt, soft drinks, margarita mix, tomatoes, beer, 150 tons of honey, a wild boar's head, a 5-foot-tall papier-mache rhinoceros, a U.S. Navy depth charge, sides of beef, mannequins, and a dead 15-foot 2,OOO-pound great white shark.

Those who lack the opportunity to see the Hollywood poultry in motion firsthand might want to dig up a copy of a favorite video game: Activision's Freeway, a 1982 amusement in which players were challenged to guide their chickens safely across ten lanes of busy freeway traffic.

boundin' and reboundin' weekend...
...thank goodness for Jackalopes

November 06, 2009

A Perfect Travelling Pleasure

The human race was designed, in my opinion, not to run for its physical recreation, but to walk. Most people look silly running, but one can walk with swank, one can walk with style, one can walk and feel wonderful parading down the Champs-Elysees. One can observe with dignity the passing scene, one can converse without panting, smile without strain, and take one’s exercise with the composure evolution evidently intended, when it stood us on two legs and made us lords of nature.

Once, on a French national holiday, I really did walk down the middle of the Champs-Elysees, feeling terrifically Gaullist, and I have felt distinctly exalted walking over the Brooklyn Bridge on a fine Sunday evening.

Few pleasures I know are more perfectly proportioned than a single night upon the Venetian island of Torcello, the one whose stalwart campanile you see, beyond the leaning tower of Burano, farthest away of all in the northern reaches of the lagoon. It is one of life’s rules that most pleasures are too much of a good thing. Only the very best of them come and go lightly, leaving you satisfied but not sated, with the sweet aftertaste in the mind that follows your awakening from a happy dream.

For me, such a pleasure is the pleasure of a night in Torcello, even in these times of touristic overkill. By definition it cannot last too long and by geography it cannot be too overwhelming, for the island is only about a mile around, has a permanent population of less than a hundred, and contains at the most a couple of dozen buildings. There are no cars on it, and no paved roads. That campanile greets its visitors with an easygoing tolerance still, knowing that though they may be here today, they will almost certainly be gone before tomorrow.

What I like to do is board the slinky excursion launch that takes the tourists out from Venice for lunch at the Locanda Cipriani, the islands long celebrated hotel. This gives me a flashy reentry to Torcello.

The experience offers a piquant mixture of sensations. The launch sails cautiously up the long narrow creek which is the main street of Torcello, beneath a bridge without parapet (alleged to have been designed by the devil) until it reaches the fulcrum of relative bustle-a moored boat or two, a few spectators hanging around-which marks the presence of the locanda.

It looks like a modest country tavern from the outside, but inside you will overhear confident accents in Parisian, Japanese, or New Yorker, gin fizzes and scampi and laughter between tables. When I watch the great pleasure launch sail away again, all sunglasses, designer pants and now vinous badinage, it is as though the great hard world itself is departing the island, leaving me naïve upon its shore.

On the green piazza beyond the restaurant women in straw hats, sell lace from a parade of canopied stalls. There is the rough-hewn stone seat once popularly supposed to have been the throne of Attila the Hun. Now occupied by a sprawling, lazy, spoilt feline, sic transit…

Tourists come and go in waves all afternoon. By the early evening, everybody is gone. Attila’s throne is empty too. A hush descends upon the island and the few score souls that remain upon it. It is time to go for an evening walk.

A man told me once that he found Torcello “dead as old bones.” He was speaking, though, as a Los Angelinos, to whom such a half-abandoned place, once a thriving municipality with heaps of money, may well offer funereal vibrations. Actually, by the standard of these generally sterile waters Torcello is like an animated oasis.

Dusty lanes take me through its fields, past brackish back canals, through plantations of sunflowers sagging with the weight of their blossoms, besides meadows of indeterminable vegetables and indefinable salad plants, where solitary men are still laboring away. Up a reedy creek, a fisherman rows his boat from the lagoon, standing cross-oared in the old Venetian way.

Dead as bones indeed! Tadpoles squirm in the little rivulets, beetles stalk the grasses, seabirds squawk, hens and pigeons scrabble in yards, cats eye and dogs gaze at me, lizards flick on fencing posts, tall asphodels stir in the breeze from the Adriatic. A distant bell rings across the lagoon, perhaps from the cypress-shrouded monastery of San Francesco del Deserto, and with a laborious gasp, the great bell of Torcello itself awakens to boom mellow and melancholy through the twilight.

So night falls, and I feel myself enfolded in velvet privacy among the waters. All alone I wander after dinner through the quiet shadowy monuments of Torcello’s lost consequence, its domes and its arcades, its crumbled pillars and indecipherable plaques, its campanile half-hidden in the darkness above. There is nobody about but me, unless some of the backpackers have unrolled their sleeping bags beneath the cathedral cloister; only me, the mosquitoes, the frogs, which leap around my feet and the little bats that forage in and out of the lamplight.

In the morning, the swallows have taken over, whirling dizzily around the bell tower and the chimney pots. Now, after breakfast, I look once more at the buildings. I have known this island for over 40 years, but I feel it my duty. Besides, they are not only few, but also marvelous. It was to this sedgy island, fifteen centuries ago, that the first off all the Venetians came as fugitives; the little cluster of buildings that is Torcello now represents the true beginning of all that we mean, all the dazzle and the beauty, all the power and the fizz and the sadness, when we speak the name of Venice.

What a claim! And what monuments, concentrated as they are within the space of a couple of hundred yards! Cool and calm in the simple domed form of the church of Santa Fosca, a though a princely stable has been converted for holy use. Infinitely touching is the lonely figure of the Madonna, high in her mosaic apse, which greets you in the bleached stoniness of the cathedral. Peculiar stone objects of unimaginable age litter the sacred purlieus, and it is a fine thing to sit on Attila’s throne, before the cat arrives, looking across the tiled domes to the mighty tower above. From time to time the bell assembles its energies again to announce that another Torcello hour has passed.

Noon, time for another meal. I ate my way into Torcello with the jet set; I eat my way out with the Italians, for the people who order their seafood or spaghetti at the Osteria al Ponte del Diavolo come mostly from Padua, Vicenza, Treviso, or Venice. This gives the restaurant an organic, family feel, very pleasant to take with a glass of wine and one of the rough rolls that, distributed from table to table out of big wicker baskets, constitutes Torcello’s very bread of life. The conversation and wine flow. Imperceptibly turns the cycle of the island’s life. I am hardly through the cheese when looking up across the patio, I catch sight of today’s boatload of cosmopolitans, looking just like yesterday’s, sailing well-fed back to Venice from the locanda up the way.

Heavens, my own vaporetto leaves at any moment. I pay my bill, grab my bag, and sprint to the landing stage just in time to see the humped shape of the Number 12 foaming up from Burano. And if I’m not in time? Well, I can always catch the next one; or I can start all over again, stay another night, with the frogs, the swallows, the mosquitoes and the great bell of the cathedral, and see how far a rule of life can be stretched.

itchy feet caravan weekend

November 04, 2009

One man’s joy

The perfect rebuttal to Mies van der Rohe’s dictum was embodied in the hilltop estate of the Los Angeles designer Tony Duquette. Where he had created a visual fantasyland firmly founded on the belief that more is more.

“Dreams caught in the net of reality,” he reflected, quoting the French poet Louise de Vilmorin, while he gazed fondly at the profusion of objects that he and his wife, Elizabeth, had fabricated and collected over forty years.

From the house, inspired by the Italian Renaissance, to the garden-a living Chinese coromandel screen, Duquette had managed such juxtapositions of antiques and exotica that anything as humdrum as a telephone was startling.

During his long career, Duquette had confected artful interiors for such clients as J. Paul Getty, Norton Simon, Doris Duke, and Elizabeth Arden. His last commission was the refurbishment of the Palazzo Brandolini in Venice for Dodi Rosenkranz. He was the first American to have a one-man show at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, in Paris.

When we met, he was a young seventy-year-old pinning me with bright eyes and a mischievous smile. As we meandered through the rooms and terraces, reminiscing, he seemed like a careful curator in a museum whose contents are old friends.

The house recalled memories of a trip to Venice. “All cities on the sea have a tremendous influence on me,” he said. “It’s the thing of the ship returning with its treasures, the galleon with the gold of Peru.”

The unexpected mélange gave the place its magic. It would startle and surprise the eye. He pointed out, “when someone says, ‘Oh, you must have had so much fun doing this,’ it’s insulting. It’s a struggle to give it that sense of lightness and pleasure.”

He was never offended by the comment people made that they loved it, but could not live in it. “Precisely”, he said, “I did not make it for them, but for myself.”

p.s.: some of the items from the Duquette estate went on auction and a friend acquired a set of frogs. When she set them up in her house, she was disappointed. “They look so déplacé.” Exactly.

November 01, 2009

Wie leicht wird Erde sein

nur eine Wolke Abendliebe
wenn als Musik erlöst
der Stein in Landsflucht zieht...
Nelly Sachs (1891-1970)

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