Yesterday, as I ran along the path in upper Manhattan’s Ft. Tryon Park, a pink sky hung over the Hudson River and the sun cast its gentle light over the George Washington Bridge.
I’m not a runner, not someone who wants to run, but nonetheless, I have to do it, and I had found a comfortable pace when I spotted something in the distance.
Perched on top of the stone wall that lines the path was an enormous and beautiful chicken, a rooster, standing proudly in all his glory. I stopped.
The first thing that came to my mind was the obvious—what is a chicken doing in New York City? But the next thought was one I’ve had countless times in my life: Why do animals who lose their way—the unweaned puppy separated from its mother, the cat in the tree, the stranded mouse, the legless frog—always seem to find me?
As I stared into the chicken’s face, he began to talk. I tried my best to offer him comfort, telling him it would be okay, but the truth was, I didn’t have a clue as to how to help.
Soon, he decided to walk up the path toward the street and toward the oncoming traffic. Yes, the chicken was intent on crossing the road.
I walked beside him, discouraging him from making what might have been the biggest mistake of his life, but he tried in vain to get past me. Soon he gave up, took to a safer part of the path, and proceeded to look for food.
I picked up my cell phone and dialed 311 for city complaints. A female operator answered.
“Three-one-one,” she said, “What is your complaint?”
“It’s not really a complaint,” I said. “It’s just that, well, I’m standing west of the Cloisters building and there’s a chicken in need of some assistance.”
“A chicken?” The operator said.
“Yeah, a chicken,” I replied. “You know, like the kind you find on a farm?”
“A farm chicken?” the woman asked.
“I suppose,” I answered.
For a moment, the operator and I were silent, and then I offered, “Is there some sort of animal rescue you could connect me to?”
“Let me see,” said the operator, and now I could hear the smile in her voice.
“I bet you hear a lot of crazy stuff, don’t you?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” she replied.
“I bet you could write a book,” I said.
“Oh yes,” she replied.
Then I whispered, “I bet the chicken would make it into the book, wouldn’t it?”
The operator couldn’t control herself any longer. She laughed. “Oh definitely!”
I stayed on the line as the operator connected me to Animal Rescue, and soon another woman picked up.
“What is your concern?” she asked.
“My concern is that there’s a chicken in the park,” I said. “And it needs to be picked up.”
“A chicken?” asked the woman.
“Yes, a chicken. Well, actually, a male chicken. You know, a rooster.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “We don’t pick up chickens.”
“You don’t pick up CHICKENS?” I said. “A chicken is an animal and aren’t you there to protect animals? I don’t know, that seems like discrimination.”
“I’m sorry,” said the woman. “We only pick up domestic animals.”
“But a chicken IS a domestic animal,” I argued. “Because honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term, Wild chicken, have you?”
“No, no, I haven’t,” said the woman, “but regardless, we just don’t pick up chickens!”
I could see I was getting nowhere with her.
“Is there anyone else you can suggest I call?” I asked, and she said I might try the Department of Environmental Protection.
“I don’t think they’ll be there on a Saturday,” she said curtly. “But if they are, they won’t pick up the chicken unless you detain it first.”
“I’m not going to detain a chicken!” I said. “I just want to finish my run, go home, shower and go out tonight.”
Unmoved, the operator replied, “Please hold.”
Soon a machine picked up and announced that the Environmental Protection Agency was not open on Sundays, and would I be so kind as to leave a message.
So I did: “There’s a chicken in Ft, Tryon Park. Whatever.” I hung up.
Then I dialed 411 and asked for the number for NYPD’s 34th Precinct.
“NYPD on 34th Street?” The operator repeated my request.
“No,” I said, “the 34th Precinct on Broadway. Upper Manhattan.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said!” argued the operator.
“Actually, that’s not what you said,” I replied, “May I just have the number, please?”
After a few rings, the line was picked up.
“Thirty-forth Precinct” said Officer Italian-Last-Name-Thick-Bronx Accent (we’ll call him Pulcino for the story), “how can I help you?”
“Well, for starters, this is not an emergency,” I said.
“Okay,” said Officer Pulcino.
“I was running along the path, just west of the Cloisters building, and I ran into a chicken.”
“A chicken?” said the officer.
“Yes, a chicken. A big beautiful chicken who must have once lived on a farm and who somehow found himself in New York City, and I think he’s in need of some assistance.”
“I know two people who can come get him right away,” replied the officer.
“You DO?” I asked.
“Yeah, just stay where you are and I’ll have a patrol car there in a few minutes.”
Before we got off the line he asked my exact location. At that point I was walking with the chicken, heading north, still trying to keep him away from the road.
After I hung up the phone, the bird decided to go on an excursion. Up the path, down the path, every place except where I told Officer Pulcino I would be.
I was growing increasingly exasperated with Mr. Rooster, but the cops were coming and I couldn’t leave. As a woman and her dog came toward me up the path, I decided to have a little fun.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Would you mind holding your dog a bit tighter? I’m walking my chicken.”
For a split second the woman looked perplexed, then she spotted the chicken and gasped. She walked away laughing, but I didn’t crack a smile. “Come on sweetie,” I called to my pet, “It’s getting late, we need to get home.”
(I’ve always gotten pleasure out of having strangers think I’m insane, not sure why.)
Just then my cell phone rang. It was David. He and Annie had just returned home after an afternoon at the movies.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“I’m in the park with a chicken,” I replied.
“A chicken?” he said, and I proceeded to provide him all the details. He laughed.
After we hung up, I decided to check in with my police officer.
“Hi,” I said, “It’s me, from the park…with the chicken?”
“Did my guys get there yet?” asked Officer Pulcino.
“No,” I said, “Not yet.”
“Oh, okay,” he said.
“Tell me,” I said, “who do you know that would be so quick to come pick up a lost chicken?”
He explained that a year ago there had been a call to pick up a chicken, and these two officers successfully retrieved it and brought it back to the station.
I immediately thought that my feathered friend might be fated to join the illegal and cruel world of cock fighting, but the truth was, my intuition told me that this was more about a couple of animal-loving officers, or at least two benevolent cops who liked to rack up interesting stories to tell their buddies over coffee and donuts.
I hung up with Pulcino and continued to follow the bird as it made its way along the path, clucking and pecking.
Pretty soon there were several people gathered around, marveling at the sight of a chicken in the city. They smiled, took photos, laughed. But I wasn’t laughing and I wasn’t smiling. I was obligated to make sure this thing wouldn’t end up as road-kill.
Just then my cell phone rang. David.
“Guess what! That chicken you’re with? It isn’t lost at all!”
“What do you mean?”
Dave went on to tell me that Stefanos, the night doorman, informed him that the chicken has been living in the park near the New Leaf Café for the past five years, and that it was often seen frolicking along the paths and yes, even crossing the road.
Suddenly the dream of my hot shower seemed within reach, and I happily declared my job as poultry protector over.
I bid farewell to my friend, and started down the path toward home. But there was one more call I had to make.
“Hey, officer, it’s me.”
“Are my guys there yet?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “but the mystery of the chicken has been solved!”
I explained the story of the bird, the café, the frolicking.
Officer Pulcino had one more question for me.
“What does that chicken look like?” he asked.
“What does it LOOK like? It looks like a chicken, a male chicken, a rooster, big and beautiful, brown, gold and red, you know, the kind in a children’s picture book, the kind that lives on a farm, the kind that makes a lot of noise and wakes you up in the morning!”
“I only ask,” said the officer, “because, as I mentioned earlier, last year at the very same spot, we got a call for a chicken needing to be picked up, but it was all white. The guys brought him in, found him a good home, and the chicken lived happily ever after.”
“That’s a beautiful story, officer,” I said. “Thank you for being so sensitive and trying to help.”
“Oh no,” said Pulcino. “Thank YOU.”
“I’m glad you’re out there working for the city,” I told him, continuing our mutual admiration.
“And I’m glad you’re out there…protecting chickens,” he said to me.
I was sure that the story of my chicken run had ended there…but today…as I warmed up for another run, a lady holding a dog on a leash called to me from the street.
“Aren’t you the woman with the chicken?” she asked.
She went on to tell me that she’d seen me the day before, that she felt badly for not coming over and helping out, but that her dog, a rescue, was a hunting dog and would have devoured the poor chicken. I told her the whole story to put her mind at ease.
“It’s not true,” she replied.
“Excuse me?” I said, taken aback.
“It’s not true,” she continued. “Someone keeps dumping chickens over there, something to do with a ritual.”
“You mean like voodoo?” I asked.
“Exactly!” said the woman, her eyes widening.
“They leave them in the area where they know all the wild cats are so they’ll come and kill the chickens! she said. “There was another about a year ago, an all white one.”
“Well, that’s just great,” I replied. “I thought the thing was fine, and now I’ll have to go check on it again, call the precinct again…”
The woman apologized for being the bearer of bad news, and when I realized she intended to walk with me into the park and continue the conversation, I let her know I had to start running.
I sprinted off, and when the woman was out of sight, I stopped and phoned Dave.
“I’m obsessed with the welfare of the chicken again!” I said,” and I told him about the lady, the voodoo, the cats.
“You can’t just take the word of some woman on the street!" he said. "How does she know this was a chicken sacrifice? That just sounds like a paranoid view of life and you can’t just decide that’s the truth!"
I hung up with Dave, thought he was right, and I felt better.
I picked up my pace and ran on, and as I approached the stone wall where I first found the rooster, I noticed something.
Placed carefully on the wall was a pile of dried cat food.
I didn’t stop, I didn’t look back. There was nothing I could do but run.