At the far edge of Johnston County, set down like a place setting at the junction of the Southern and Seaboard rail lines, downtown Selma is pretty little crosshatching of clean streets and small-town charm. The big mills are gone now, residential streets a bit tattered and faded, but the downtown street-front, the part of Selma that greets company, has kept up appearances in the dignified fashion of a failing elderly aunt. There are antique shops and a gen-u-ine soda- fountain drug store and a handsomely renovated train depot sitting proud in the town's historic district. It is therefore a bit of surprise to find the Selma town council conducting business in a narrow, windowless room, a grimly functionary space that doubles, during the workday, as district court.
I attend the council meeting in early January, myself and a couple dozen residents walking through the wide winter night to sit in this garishly lit room and tend to official town matters. The mayor, Harry Blackley, walks the center aisle, shaking hands and smiling at people. He is, with his eager smile and combed-back, spray-set hair, a marvel of municipal-officialdom casting, a man with one eye on the old-South cotton-mill history of his town, the other on the eagle-winged approach of Progress. We pray, pledge allegiance and get down to business.
The meeting is more or less routine. There is a speech praising the achievements of a local after-school program, and accolades for a trio of Selma power company employees who volunteered to help the town of Edenton restore electricity after Hurricane Isabel. The mayor recounts stories of their hard work and says the whole thing makes his chest swell up, he declares it does. Committee appointments are announced and one citizen stands up to complain about the people ("You know who I'm talking about") who leave trash all over their yards. Somewhere between after-school and yard trash, a public hearing is called to discuss a proposed ordinance banning chickens from the town limits. Silence ticks by and the ordinance passes, unanimously, without fanfare or even comment.
And that is the uneventful conclusion to the brouhaha raised early this winter, when some citified newspaper editor caught wind of the proposed ordinance and smacked himself on the forehead, remembering that there's life outside the asphalt apron of the Triangle--which is itself, wonder of wonders, only a generation or two removed from rural outposts like Selma, N.C. And before you knew it, presses were rolling and camera crews were patrolling the streets of Selma, pop. 6,300, looking for a passel of itinerant chickens, hoping for one of those stories that illustrate, with humor, pathos and nostalgia, the poignancy of change, the death throes of our past.
I bring up the media part of it not to take any sort of self-righteous stand--I am after all one of the reporters looking for the poignant story--but because it is clear the day I drive down to talk to Selma Town Manager Jeff White that whatever aggravation free-roaming chickens may have caused in his town--digging in people's gardens and waking them up at night and relieving themselves on the neighbors' front steps--these problems are nothing compared to all the journalists skinking around. Plus which, White cannot understand how it is that back when the town was renovating the train depot--a real story--nobody was interested. "How y'all do story selection is mystifying," he says.
I feel bad for him, not just because of his depot but because, in fact, he understands only too well the Mayberry appeal of the chicken story. It's a story he'd enjoy, too, if only it weren't unfolding in his town. The truth is, he's had to tread a pretty thin line. On the one hand, he's acting as Selma's spokesperson, and he wants to handle the thing with a professional demeanor, to articulate in reasonable terms that, in banning chickens, Selma is only doing what nearly every other state municipality has already done.
On the other hand, White is way into the hilarity of the whole thing. You can see it in the way he sinks into himself, in the little comic glitter behind his mask of weary forbearance. Sitting at his desk, in leprechaun-green shirt and Sponge Bob tie, Jeff White struggles to be the town official. He talks sanitation, noise, nuisance. He documents the number of complaints, acknowledges without incrimination that Hispanics are part of the problem, makes note of the proliferation of roosters in particular and evokes the dark specter of cockfights. When I ask him if the town will in the future confiscate renegade chickens he answers, straight-faced, but with that sunk-in glee, "Naw, we'll probably just eat 'em."
I ask Mr. White to point me toward the chickens and he sighs and sends me off toward a set of side streets that stretch lazily away from downtown. At the farthest reach, the houses, backed by a stand of thick woods, are run-down and sad in the thin winter sunlight. Have you noticed this about small Southern towns in the dead of winter? That, especially in the poorer sections of town, there is something desolate and abandoned about them that you don't see at all in summer? The empty mills, the forlorn strings of Christmas lights and abandoned plastic toys, all seem to announce the town's slow swan dive. I hear a noise and peer hopefully beneath a massive, bristling grape arbor, but it is only a cat with a clouded eye.
Down Center Street, at Mike and Diane Miller's furniture stripping business, Mike says the local rooster comes by every morning, but he's no trouble at all. "I'm what you call a big-hearted person," Mike says. "I throw him some corn whenever I see him."
"We think he's lost his hens," Diane puts in.
"So they don't bother you? Don't wake you up crowing?" I say.
"No-o-o! They're no problem at all, dear."
I thank the Millers and drive off, spotting the corn-fed rooster a block away. One street over, at the edge of a field, a quartet of hens doze quietly in the sun. The animals seem calm, hardly the marauding flocks of devastation and chicken shit suggested by the news stories. I'm starting to wonder whether this whole thing hasn't been blown out of proportion when I meet the Neals, Ron and C.J., and their four Chihuahuas. I pull up to their house and tell them I'm doing a story about the chickens, and Ron, in an Intimidator sweatshirt, says come over here, he wants to show me something.
He heads for the front-end of his Monte Carlo and I know that I am about to be reminded for the thousandth time that, for a certain sub-species of white Southern male, there is no outrage to beat an animal messing with the hood of your car. Nothing, not losing the War of Northern Aggression, not the theft of your good woman by that sumbitch who used to be your best friend, nothing compares with this. (I learned this for the first time in the tenth grade, when my boyfriend, a Southern male of a certain subspecies, was found pink-eared and apoplectic in the driveway. After some coaxing he pointed to the hood of his Mustang, where it was just possible to make out the faint clover-leaf print of a cat paws.)
I walk over to Ron's Monte Carlo, taking care not to step on Princess or Suzy or Little Bit or Sweetie, who dart back and forth, yipping with that tiny-dog hysteria and stopping periodically to shiver pitifully in the cold. Sure enough, Ron's Monte Carlo is covered with faint scratches. C.J. Neal points to a more impressive gouge near the side-view mirror. "See there!" she says. "That's where that rooster flew up here and laid his big dew claw right in the side of the car."
"They come up here all the time, waking us up, scratching everything," Ron says.
"That ole rooster comes through here looking for his little henny-bennies," C.J. adds. "They make the biggest mess you ever did see."
"We tried to trap 'em," Ron says, "but the only thing we got was a 31-pound cat."
I think briefly of the cat in the grape arbor, then ask, "But haven't there always been chickens here? What's the difference now?"
"It's the Mexicans," C.J. says. "They been movin' in here, bring their chickens with them right from Mexico."
"You take me," says Ron, standing in a cinnamon blur of Chihuahuas, "if it were me or my animals making such a mess the law would be all over me. But those Hispanics, they think they can do whatever they want."
I find one of those Hispanics, in the person of Xavier, watching TV in his brother-in-law's living room. Xavier is visiting, moving up I-95 toward New York, where he plans on making enough money to bring his wife and daughter up from Mexico. His dark hair is cut in a jagged punk style, but his face is round with baby fat and too young for a wife and daughters. He won't tell me his last name because his immigration status is, as he puts it, "borderline."
I ask him if his family keeps chickens and he walks me to the back of the house and gets on his hands and knees to look under the porch. "They go for a walk," he says cheerfully.
I wonder, briefly, if the missing chickens are the same ones I spotted earlier, gathered in a nervous huddle in a nearby yard. The house was empty, but a shepherd mix, chained to a pole in the yard, took one look at me, howled his fury and beat a furious circle around his pole. I tried to make friends, but the dog would have none of it, so I turned to chickens. There were perhaps a half dozen hens, soft, multi-colored, bobbly-headed. They watched me nervously for about half a minute, making soft alarmed noises like the sound of water boiling. Then they scattered, feathers flying, running hell-for-leather into the woods.
The rooster, by contrast, held his ground. He was large, handsome, with a black tail and a coppery chest that rippled like foil in the sunlight. He looked at me with the dumb defiance of his species, wattle quivering, oblivious to the rancor he had caused, the wheels of bureaucracy turning on his account, the clash of culture and class he evoked with his shrill roulades. He puffed his chest, and for a brief moment it looked as though he might actually approach me. But in the end, he turned toward the woods with his slow strut, beating a dignified retreat.
Turning now to Xavier, I ask, "Does your brother keep them for eggs?"
"Eggs, yes. And to eat sometimes." Xavier puts his pudgy fists together and, smiling, makes a neat snapping gesture. When I ask him if he knows about the ordinance to outlaw chickens, his eyes darken.
"So then you can't have the chickens?"
"Not after the ones you have now are gone. And you have to keep them penned up or they'll be confiscated."
"Why such a law?" says Xavier, though without surprise. His life in the states has no doubt been a riddle of inexplicable regulations.
I tell him about the complaints, about how Selma sits on the lip of a metropolis, and how it's getting harder and harder to hold to the old ways. "Chickens running around town is not--" I cast about for the right word and wind up, lamely, with "modern." Xavier looks puzzled. "They say they're loud and dirty," I tell him, shrugging.
Xavier looks out over the neighborhood, as if trying to fathom this strange place where he and his family hope to make their future. "Loud and dirty," he repeats, and it strikes me that he has misunderstood.
"The birds, I mean," I say quickly. But Xavier just looks at me, for he knows, and I know, that he understands perfectly.