There is such a change down there now. Now it is a place of upscale condos, and refurbished homes with price tags in the hundreds of thousands.
People come and park their cars there to walk down to the restaurants on Water Street. Now it is the place to be seen. Now it is the place to live.
Back then it was maybe not so. Not such a place to be seen. Not the place to live. Maybe some yearned to get out and up a bit. But then, everybody yearns.
Back in the day it was a different place. A quieter place. A place of memories.The memories are good. Back then the area below Main Street, between Division and London Streets and, more specifically, the area between King Street and Queen, was called “Chicken Hollow.”
Now, they didn’t just pick that name out of a hat. There was a good reason it was called that. Many of the families in that area kept chickens. First of all for the eggs and, second of all, for the meat it provided on holidays and special occasions that called for celebration. Most of the families there were Italian, and Italians don’t need much of an excuse to have a celebration. Especially when there is eating involved.
My Grandma Ucci’s house was there. It is still there. A huge, white, triple decker. It had an ample yard. A grape arbor. And across the yard more apartments and a store. On the north side they had a chicken coop and fenced-in chicken yard. When my sisters and I were there for visits, which was practically every day, it was our job to go to the chicken coop and collect the eggs the hens had laid.
Now that might seem like an easy task. But, it wasn’t. My grandma’s flock of 30 chickens was watched over by a chicken stallion. A rooster. We called him “Old Meanie.” Old Meanie didn’t want anyone around his hens, and the minute anybody opened the gate to the chicken yard, he would charge at them, be all over them, pecking and scratching and screeching.
About the only person who was not scared of Old Meanie was my grandmother. She would go out there, stare down that magnificent beast, and collect the eggs as if nothing was the matter. Then she would bring the eggs in and sort them. Some were sold. Some were put in the ice box to be used for breakfast, or lunch, or a meal of some sort. She always saved one for me.
I know this probably sounds gross but she would poke a hole in one end of the egg, after
washing it, of course. I would then suck out the contents of albumen and yolk. To me it was better than candy. It was no different than eating a raw quahaug or a garden tomato, cut open and filled with salt, or any raw fruit or vegetable. At least, to me, it wasn’t. It was a treat she delighted in giving me, and I delighted in having. Though I don’t do it today, I don’t suppose it would present any problem in still doing so.
Anyway, when my sisters and I visited, Grandma would always ask us to go out and get eggs from the hen house. We would oblige, but once we got to the gate we were always confronted by Old Meanie. We tried a lot of tactics to get around him, confuse him, divert him. Anything to keep him occupied so that one of us could run into the hen house and collect the eggs.
In the end though, the best idea was the broom. I would get a broom, and swinging it like a baseball bat, I would swat Old Meanie into a corner of the chicken yard and pin him there while my sisters would dash in and collect the eggs. Once we discovered that course of action it was the one we kept using until the day Old Meanie died.
Of course, Old Meanie didn’t die a natural death.
One day my grandfather decided it was Old Meanie’s time. Who knows what the reason was. I always thought Old Meanie was too tough a bird to eat. But maybe my Grandfather wanted the feathers for some reason. A pillow, perhaps. Maybe they would use him in a pot to make broth.
Maybe they wanted the feet. I was too young to know why. I just knew that one day I showed up and my grandfather and his sidekick, Brizzi the Barber, were setting up the Executioner’s Table.
Now, there is more than one way to skin a cat. There is also more than one way to kill a chicken. Or a rabbit. Because my grandfather and Brizzi also kept rabbits for the reasons mentioned at the beginning of this story. They make good eating. Did I mention pigeons? Them too! Anyway, I witnessed them all….
The most unusual method I ever saw my grandpa use to kill a chicken was to force a pair of scissors down its throat and snip what I never knew then. I always thought it was the tongue, but it was the carotid artery.
The second way was to snap its neck (this one was most used on rabbits). The third way was the chopping block. I suppose they could have shot them with the old pistola too, but I never saw that one.
When they snapped the neck, I have vivid memories of Brizzi stroking the chicken’s (or rabbit’s) neck and talking to it in a soft, soothing tone.
“Nice chickown,” or “nice rabboot,” he would say as he stroked the neck. Then, quickly, with a sharp, violent twist, he would snap the neck, and the little creature was gone.
“Poor little chickown, poor little rabboot,” he would say. We would say, “See you later, alligator.”
The most spectacular method was the chopping block. For after the men delivered the coup de grace, you would see the chicken’s head and neck lying there on the block, eyes staring at the next life, and most likely, the headless chicken would be running around the yard. Like a chicken with its head cut off. It was a sight to see, and quite amazing for a young boy to witness in those days, though I suppose the Frenchtown farm boys saw scenes like that all the time. There was the headless chicken running in circles and figure eights, on a mad dash to nowhere, with us watching until the motor ran down and we could pick him up and begin the plucking.
Who would have suspected that you could tell that kind of story about little old East Greenwich? If you drive by that house today, down on Exchange Street, and look at the yard at #38, could you imagine that the family that lived there could do so, almost completely self-sustaining?
For besides chickens, rabbits and pigeons, my grandmother had a garden with tomatoes, corn, peppers, eggplant and the like. The grape arbor supplied grapes for eating and making wine.
The milkman delivered fresh milk and cream in bottles, and with the rest of the goods from their own grocery store, my grandma could whip up delectable delights that I can still taste today: spaghetti, pasta, soups, pizza, pizza frite (doughboys to medegones), wandies, bracciole, eggplant and a whole host of other foods to die for.
Ah, Life was Good in Chicken Hollow back in the day!
And you want to know something? Old Meanie didn’t taste that bad either!
SOOO, there you have it. Another story from the smallest town, in the smallest state, in the greatest country on God’s Green Earth!
With Much Love AND In the Spirit of …….
Photo courtesy of Sarah Halliday on Unsplash