Chicken Thief – Matt Barnett

A few Labor Days ago, some of my union friends insisted that I attend the Cleveland County Democrats Labor Day Picnic held in Andrews Park in Norman, Oklahoma. It cost twenty bucks a plate, and all the money was going toward beating the Republicans in the 2010 election.

“Be sure and be there,” they said.

“We’re going to have a big chicken dinner, with all the fixins, and Jari Askins is going to be there. It’s going to be really great. Don’t miss it,” they said.

They figured Jari Askins stood a good chance to become the first female Governor of Oklahoma. Well, that sounded good to me. Somebody’s got to turn this thing around. So my girlfriend and I piled into the car and headed to the park.

Before 9/11, I worked at this fried chicken place in Seminole County. We all had to wear these pleated blue pants, a Boy Scout belt, a red polo shirt, and a blue snap hat bearing the company’s idiotic cartoon chicken logo. It was humiliating.

From “A Chicken in Every Pot” political ad and rebuttal article in the New York Times, 10/30/1928

“The Republican Party isn’t a “Poor Man’s Party.” Republican prosperity has erased that degrading phrase from our political vocabulary. The Republican Party is equality’s party—opportunity’s party—democracy’s party—the party of national development, not sectional interests—the impartial servant of every State and condition of the Union. Under higher tariff and lower taxation, America has a stabilized output, employment and dividend rates . . . ”

At Andrews Park, high cirrus clouds hovered over a sinking late afternoon sun. Cicadas ratcheted out an end of summer song. Kids chased and screeched around the playground equipment. I saw a few democrats forming a line outside the old pavilion.

The chicken place had an all you can eat buffet, much to the chagrin of Seminole county’s health professionals. For ten bucks you could eat all the chicken you could stand, and have a heaping helping of macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, and rolls.

“ . . . Republican efficiency has filled the workingman’s dinner pale—and his gasoline tank besides—made telephone, radio, and sanitary plumbing standard household equipment and placed the whole nation in the silk stocking class . . . ”

Pat Flaherty was making the rounds, shaking hands, kissing babies. He’s one of these old union guys. Always wearing sleeveless tee shirts with pictures of motorcycles with words that say things like American Made!, little flat caps with the Fender guitar logos, and dark round sun glasses like he was on his way to play the blues with B.B. King.

At the chicken place, men with dirty oily clothes would come in with their hard hats on and order a three-piece meal for lunch. Tired women in flannel coats who’d just got off work at the Wrangler factory would come in and order up a twenty-piece meal to take home for the family. The garbage man with his crooked eye would come in for a three-piece. I’d always give him four or five pieces and an extra side.

“ . . . During eight years of Republican management, we have built more and better homes, erected more sky-scrapers, passed more benefactor laws, and more laws to regulate and purify immigration, inaugurated more conservation measures, more measures to standardize and increase production, expand export markets, and reduce industrial and human junk piles than in any previous quarter century . . . ”

Flaherty was just frantic because of how big this thing was going to be, and Jari Askins was on her way! There were rumors that Governor Brad Henry might even make an appearance. We shook hands with Pat and then he was off politicking again. I was starving and ready to see what feast the democrats had laid out for us. We got in the line forming out the door of the old pavilion. Flies buzzed in and out. People fanned themselves with their shirts.

“It sure warmed up,” someone kept saying.

A smiley woman with a round, tan face beamed up at us.

“How many?” she squeaked.

“Just the two of us,” I said.

She had all her kids there with her, guarding the donations like a PTA mom working the ticket sales at a third grade basketball game. They fidgeted and jumped around and tugged on their mother’s shirt, whined for more cookies or another drink.

Sometimes, folks who were really poor would come into the chicken place, and they would order only what they could afford. Old Dad would pull around the corner in his beat-up baby-shit brown astro-van with all three of his precious little surprises. All they had in the whole world was twenty bucks, and I’d give them fifteen back and feed them for three days. I would lie to them and tell them that the chicken was on sale and give them a thirty-piece meal for five bucks. I’d go get a tray, pretend to fill the buffet, and write the chicken off on the clipboard. There were sure a lot of heavy eaters on nights when I worked.

“ . . . Republican Prosperity is written on fuller wage envelopes, in factory chimney smoke, written on the walls of new construction, written in savings bank books, written in mercantile balances, and written in the peak value of stocks and bonds . . . ”

The air was thick in the park pavilion. I was looking everywhere for this so called “chicken dinner.” People were shuffling around and it was hard to tell exactly what it was at first. We were handed a pair of paper plates, a plastic fork, and a napkin by another smiling woman.

“What kind of chips would you like?” she said.

“Uh, I guess, Doritos.” I said, disappointed.

She handed me a vending machine bag of Doritos. Another woman used tongs to grab a bun from a metal warming pan.

“Maybe it’s brisket or something,” my girlfriend said.

The next station was self-serve. I opened the lid on the giant metal pan to find the world’s largest serving of sloppy Joes. I stirred the mess around with the ladle.

“It looks like dog food.” I said.

At the end of each night at the restaurant, we had to debone the leftover chicken so it could be used in potpies the next day. Squishing meat and skin, cracking cartilage and tearing tendons, it was gross. I always tried to make sure I didn’t have to do it much.

“ . . . Republican prosperity has reduced hours and increased earning capacity, silenced discontent, put the proverbial “chicken in every pot.” And a car in every backyard, to boot . . . ”

Sloppy Joes don’t exactly inspire, well, anything other than gas. I felt a little bamboozled, but hey, let’s go see what these democrats have to say, anyway. We took our sloppy Joes, bags of chips, and cans of Pepsi, down to the picnic tables to hear these wizards pontificate.

The chicken company was experiencing some unexplained losses. So, they canned all of the management. They brought in this guy that had lost his driver’s license twice. He always wore George Straight shirts, but he looked more like George W. Bush. He hired this girl to be his assistant. She was eighties music video hot. She teased up her bleach blonde hair into a tsunami of big golden bangs arching over a pancake foundation beach that was her forehead. She wore acid washed taper leg pants, and Peg Bundy makeup. I thought she might have been a dancer.

“ . . . It has raised living standards and lowered living costs. It has restored financial confidence and enthusiasm. Changed credit from a rich man’s privilege to a common utility, generalized the use of time saving devices and released women from the thrall of domestic drudgery . . . ”

There was Jari Askins, wearing a purple pant suit, standing next to Pat Flaherty. She looked like the next Governor of Oklahoma. They were listening to a democrat from Idabel swearing an oath to us that he would fight back against the liberals in Washington who want to take away our guns.

The chicken place hired a new cook. He was a man in his mid-fifties. He had seven kids from the ages of two to twenty-five. They all lived in this little two-bedroom house over on Hoover Street. Once, he asked me what we did with the left over chicken at the end of the night. I told him he could have it. I packed up three buckets tight with chicken, and set them outside the back door. I told him to wait until we walked out and then just grab them on his way home.

“ . . . Thanks to Republican administration, farmer, dairy-man and merchant can make deliveries in less time and at less expense, can borrow cheap money to refund exorbitant mortgages and stock their pastures ranges and shelves . . . ”

Democrat after democrat preached to the choir. There were a few hearty cheers and whistles after each person just to let them know we were still alive out there. Jari went up and spoke. It was a humdinger, all right. Something about how one in every so many kids goes to bed hungry, and how we really need to invest in education, pay teachers, et cetera.

The old cook grinned thinking about the veritable feast waiting outside. We cleaned up the workstations. Bleach smelled refreshing after spending all day soaking up hot grease. Peg Bundy went to lock the back door. She poked her blonde bangs outside and scanned the area. She looked down and saw the swollen buckets of chicken. She picked them up and carried them into the little side office and set them on the table behind the two-way mirror.

“ . . . The Republican Party sees its case on a record of stewardship and performance . . . ”

It was then that I felt the sloppy Joe turn on me. An acidic burn gurgled up and down my esophagus. I took a shot of Pepsi to sooth it. Pepsi’s original purpose was to sooth the stomach. The times have changed.

I looked at my girlfriend in the middle of Jari’s speech.

“You wanna get outta here?” I asked her.

“Is everything alright?” she replied.

“I think that sloppy Joe is giving me serious indigestion,” I said.

We looked around to see if there was anyone to say goodbye to. There wasn’t. So we silently slouched back to our car and headed for the house.

They fired me from the chicken place. Someone said they saw me put that bag of chicken outside. If I ever wanted to see my last paycheck, then I would have to turn over my name badge, the pleated blue pants, the red polo shirt, the cartoon chicken hat, and the Boy Scout belt. I got my check, but I kept a name badge, and a hat. That old cook still works there.

“Vote for Hoover”


Image via AARP

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