By Marty Liboff
As a small child, my mom used to scare me with gory stories and ghastly books that had horrible photos of dead Jews in concentration camps. She would cry, “See what the Nazis did to our family!”
I remember around 1953 when I was about five there was a shop on Main St. between Venice and Ocean Park that sold live chickens. My mom took me there a couple times to buy a chicken for dinner. Sometimes she would get some unformed eggs that I loved. The shells hadn’t formed yet and they were just yolks with a deep gold color. Sometimes there were tiny eggs all attached. They were sweeter than regular eggs and my mom used to fry them up with some chicken fat and salt and garlic. The butcher would sell them in a plastic bag or sometimes we got lucky and the hen my mom selected for execution would have eggs inside and the butcher would ask my mom if she wanted them. She would always say yes and also take the neck, gizzard, feet and liver. We were very poor although at the time I didn’t realize it, so every scrap of food was important.
Usually we bought food down the block at the Wonder market that was in the ornate old Parkhurst building which is still there at the NW corner of Main St. and Pier Ave. The Wonder market had already murdered and packaged chicken and meat that was cheaper than the fresh kill chicken store. Back then there were several markets by the beach in Venice and Ocean Park. People in our neighborhood didn’t have to drive anywhere since everything you needed was right here. We weren’t sold out to the tourist dollar yet like we are now with fancy restaurants, yuppie bars, expensive clothing shops, “tsayske” junk stores and Asian nail and foot massage shops on Main St. There was a Safeway market at Main and Hill St. where American Apparel is today and other markets on Pier Ave. and on Windward Ave. Barr’s market was north of Ocean Park Blvd. There were small markets on the Ocean Front Walk like Ada’s on Raymond Ave. Back then the Ocean Front Walk continued from Venice to beyond the Santa Monica Pier! The great L&A market & deli was just south of Rose Ave. next to where the Venice Ale House is now. The L & A market had everything from beer & wine to corned beef, pastrami and pickles in a wood barrel. It had a big, red Coca Cola ice box with cold sodas out in front like many little grocery stores of the time. You would fish around to the bottom to get the coldest soda. Now it is a T-shirt shop. Of course the local’s favorite, Henry’s market on Dudley Ave. was unfortunately kicked out a couple years ago.
I remember the live chicken butcher shop well since as a young boy I was both fascinated and appalled by the goings on there. My mom took me there on my first visit when I was especially young and innocent. When you walked in the shop there were about 30 to 100 chickens piled high in small coops or cages. Sometimes there were a couple ducks. On the other side was a regular glass deli case with chicken parts in metal pans. In the back was a door to the inner chamber of doom. The back room was dimly lit with a light bulb hanging on a wire above a wood torture table that you could easily see.
The old but brawny butcher asked my mom what she’d like. My mom told him the sex and size and age of the victim. My mom asked for, “A hen, not too young, not too old and not too expensive.” The butcher showed my mom a few cages to pick from at her cheaper price, then he went back to work as we selected.
The first time I went there my mom said to me, “So, which one shall we get?” I began checking them out. I looked and looked and talked to them in English and chickeneese and tried to pick out the prettiest colors and cutest tops. One hen had nice bright eyes and seemed to give me a happy wink and I chose her. What a nice pet this one will be! I couldn’t wait to get her home to show my brother so we can name her. I thought of names for her like Matilda, Chickeneta or Henrieta. I asked my mom if we needed a cage too? She said, “No, I don’t think we’ll need one.” My mom seemed curiously surprised by my question. Well, I figured that chickens don’t fly good, so she can just walk around our house and backyard without a cage. That was cool. I’d seen it on many cowboy movies where the chickens just roam free on the farm.
My mom yelled to the butcher, “This one!”
The big ugly Nazi guard came over and opened the cage. The little feathered Jew began to squawk and wiggle and squiggle but the Nazi with a giggle grabbed her by the neck and took her in the back. The door was open and I could see – he took a big wood mallet and smack, smack on the chicken’s noggin, and I almost shit & pee! He had a Bunsen burner that he turned up high and he stuck my pet chicken into to fry off its feathers, but she wouldn’t die!
As soon as the flames hit the Juden, she awoke with a terrible squawking and gagging and fluttering of wings. The butcher twisted her neck and she finally gave up its chicken ghost. He burned off the feathers and plucked out a few more. I kept hoping the chicken would awake and bite him on the nose and run away. He took out a giant cleaver and whack went the head into a box below. Whack, whack, whack – the neck, breast open, feet off. At that moment I realized my pretty chicken wasn’t going to be like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, always getting away from Elmer Fudd who was trying to kill them. Instead of Bugs and Daffy laughing at Elmer there was the cruel reality of blood and chicken guts.
The butcher came out to the counter and threw it on a scale and wrapped it in paper and a brown paper bag. My mom paid and out the door we went to go home and cook roast chicken for dinner. For some strange reason I didn’t want to eat any chicken that night? I also never seemed to want to go back to that little shop down the block, even when my mom asked if I’d like to go and select another chicken. And for some time after that when I even walked by that shop I was afraid that the butcher was going to run out and chop my head off with that giant meat cleaver and toss my head in that bloody box with chicken heads pecking at my eyes and looking like a Jew corpse in one of my mother’s holocaust books…