Viveros & Voodoo

January 13, 2013

Call this Part II in a series on New York City chickens. Now that you’ve seen the best place to be one, here’s something like the opposite. What decorates an urban chicken’s blackest nightmare? This:

It’s the plastic flaps separating the stacks of cages—chicken tenements—from a guy with a knife. And, as it turns out, a couple of very special processes: first, a turn in a cone to drain the blood, then a scalding bath, then a spin in a machine with dozens of rubber digits that rip out all the feathers while the poor bird judders around like a sneaker in a clothes dryer. You don’t have to watch all this, of course, but one thing that unites the people who get their chicken from viveros, or live poultry markets, is an unsentimental approach to dinner.

There are a dozen viveros in New York City, and a couple in Manhattan. The interest of these places goes well beyond poultry: they’re the working class immigrant experience in concentrate form. A Chinese guy between an El Salvadoran and a West African waiting to get a chicken slaughtered by an Arab? You will find it here. And not everybody who buys a chicken wants one for dinner: adherents of Santería—a Yoruba-Catholic mashup practiced by thousands of New Yorkers—use (momentarily) live chickens in sacrifice rituals. This sounds made up. It’s not. My favorite bit of Santería news? The principal who was fired for warding off her high school’s evil spirits by dousing the place with blood. This was in Manhattan.

I don’t know much about Santería, but I can’t help but like that this kind of kinky flapdoodle really goes on around here. It overshoots “medieval” by a mile and lands somewhere near the very source of superstitious mist. I first heard about the practice while researching the grave of naturalist John James Audubon for the book. The grave is in the uptown Trinity Cemetery (on what used to be Audubon’s land). A retired verger at the church there told me about finding strange offerings on the tombstones—what he thought were remnants of santerista rituals. I don’t know if he was right, but I know that any graveyard story featuring the phrase “a bag of cow tongues with women’s panties” earns my full attention. Listen for yourself:

New York City: somebody’s buying a forty-thousand-dollar ring on Fifth Avenue, somebody’s sipping a caramel latte under fluorescent light, somebody’s stepping out of a limousine in their gym clothes, somebody’s spraying chicken blood to impress a demon. But then, nobody ever said it was boring. My favorite vivero is Manhattan Live Poultry on East 117th. Charlie, a Puerto Rican fruit seller who keeps a stand out front, has seen the santeristas come and go. Here’s his version: