Today an essay written by Emporia native Louis Copt.
Trash Can Chickens by Louis Copt
Most of my early childhood was spent growing up in a dingy apartment above a hardware store sandwiched on either side by two taverns. A long dark hallway stretched from one end of the building to the other. The apartment was way in the back which overlooked an alley and the black tar roof of the “Town Royal Tavern.” A set of iron stairs led from a back room down and around and out into the brick-paved alley.
I seem to remember bricks everywhere. Just across the narrow alley was a lumberyard. Its brick wall contributed to the canyon-like feeling the alley had. Once, when I was two, my mother took a photograph of me standing against the brick wall. The sun was in my eyes and I looked like I was ready for the firing squad. This brick-lined world was my playground.
One of my favorite activities there was digging through the trash. A print shop in the basement of the apartment building supplied the raw material for endless afternoons of childhood bliss. Often, their trash cans would be full of misprinted flyers and church bulletins. There seemed to be no end to ribbons of brightly colored paper trimmings that I gleefully let fly up and down the alley decorating my drab, brown world. The best part was I always had plenty of free paper to draw on.
But, the trash can which held most of my attention, especially in the spring, was the one behind the hardware store. The name of the store was “Jones Hatchery". Besides the usual assortment of hammers, ladders and barrels of nails, the back room came alive every spring with baby chicks hatched in large incubators. Up in our apartment, the end of winter was always announced with the cheeping of hundreds of chicks, the sound echoing off the brick walls of the alley. Sometimes the cheeping was loud enough to drown out the juke box noise from the bars which often mixed with the drunken cussing and fighting by men just home from the war.
During hatching season, I would scour the trash cans behind the hardware store on a daily basis. I would listen for peeping in the cans and begin my annual rescue of the little chicks still alive among the heaps of broken shells and their dead brothers and sisters. These were the birds that were too weak, too small or had some flaw that would cause them to be passed over by those who could actually pay money for live chicks. Upstairs my mother would line the bathtub with newspaper, and I would start nursing my brood of refugees back to health. We would rig up an old lamp with a bare bulb to provide a bit of warmth and with a saucer full of water the chicks were safe. I could usually beg enough “scratch” from the hardware store clerks, who would fill a small sack out of a big bin. I loved to feed the dozen or so chicks that would limp around, sometimes walking backwards on the newsprint oblivious to the headlines that screamed of car crashes and furniture on sale.
Not all of the chicks would make it, but at least they had a better shot in the bathtub than slowly dying in a trash can. The ones that did make it were eventually transferred to my grandma’s farm in Osage City. There, they would join their brethren hatched in Osage and those that were still alive from the previous year having been rescued from the Jones Hatchery gulag.
What a weird assortment of poultry my grandma had. Everything from the convalescent, to exotic show birds to common hens and roosters. This was because we never knew what type of bird we would get when they were dug out of the trash. When I would visit the farm, my job was to feed the chickens the table scraps my grandma saved in a coffee can housed under the sink. The chickens would eat just about anything, but they especially liked coffee grounds. I imagine the caffeine kept them wound up, and my grandma always claimed it made them lay more eggs.
It never bothered me that the rescued chickens eventually found their way to the Sunday dinner table. In my mind, at least they had a chance to roam the farm, eat bugs and grasshoppers and peck all the Folger’s coffee they could handle. And, we were hungry.
Written by former Emporian Louis Copt. I hope you enjoyed this essay.