"You want a live chicken?" asked the short Oriental woman, gesturing to two curious young men on Chicago Avenue. "C'mon in here, I get you live chicken."
She opened the screen door of the small, windowless shop, revealing a stream of water, hay, and chicken feed running across the cement floor. "You look inside the cage and tell me which one you want," she said, pointing to a row of cages. "But it is best to get small ones--they most tasty."
She then walked behind a large scale. A hundred chickens, mourning doves, and quails filled their very temporary home--Williams Live Chickens, 1512 W. Chicago--with the sound of squawking.
"You never seen place like this before," she stated, smiling at the two stocky young men. "You afraid of little chicken. Don't worry, just point to chicken you want and I get for you."
One of the two pointed meekly to a fluffy young hen, and the woman grabbed it by the neck and threw it on the scale. From there she dispatched it to a large bin, which contained it while the woman tore a piece of paper off a brown bag and wrote down a price. Then she handed the bird to another woman who could have been her sister. She took the chicken into the back of the shop, where it was quickly and (evidently) painlessly killed, then hung it upside down to drain its blood.
"This is the oldest live poultry shop in the city," the first woman stated, "42 years old. I only work here six years, but before I work in live market in Hong Kong. There you have market on the street all over, not have supermarket like you have here. Here not many places left with live chicken."
She walked into a small, tin-walled office area that was decorated with a calendar, a clock, and a painting inscribed with Chinese letters and numbers. A pair of Hispanic men had entered the shop, and the taller of the two, wearing a straw cowboy hat with a large red feather in front, stuck his arm in one of the cages and began prodding the birds. Eventually he pulled out a squawking, flapping specimen, which his friend held by the feet until the woman emerged from the back.
"You want chicken plucked and dressed?" she said, throwing it onto the scale. The men nodded as she again wrote the price on a scrap of paper. (It was slightly higher than what you'd pay in a supermarket.)
By now the first bird was in a large steel drum that vibrated like a washing machine on spin cycle. It emerged featherless, stripped naked but still warm. The woman presented it to the two young men, who slowly reached out to accept it.
"Chicken very dead now, won't hurt you for sure," she said, laughing. "But I forget, you used to frozen one, so I put in bag."
She put the bird into a black plastic bag and bid the two farewell. "You go home and cook right away, while still fresh, then you come back," she said behind a large smile that lit up her face. "I know you come back, everybody does. Once you get chicken from here, you can't eat frozen one no more. Remember, always better to get live chicken, live chicken more tasty."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.