Adventures in Poultry Farming

by bicyclemark 4 Comments

“I was here til 4am this morning, one of the stove’s was acting up” Jorge points to the extremely long 2 story orange brick building in front of us.  As he slides back a massive rust colored door he tells us to step inside and immediately our lungs are filled with the cozy smell of burning saw dust.  It feels like a cross between a giant bakery and a disturbing dream, with the bright Portuguese sun filtering in through the diffused windows, the numerous stoves used for heating this huge space, and all over the floor like a moving ocean of yellow,  thousands of baby chicks are heading our way.  Actually they’re heading in every which way as if they have so much energy they need to move as often as possible. Elsewhere against the walls and nearer to the stove hundreds of chicks pack themselves into one giant mass as if they’re trying to stay as close together as possible. Some even seem to be forming some kind of chicken pyramid as a game.  Besides the smell that makes you oddly comfortable, the sounds are this constant, though not deafening, it’s a chirping combined with traditional Portuguese folklore coming from a radio. At first I thought the music was for the chicks, they seemed to move to and fro depending on the rhythm, but Jorge crushes my theory about chicks and music “oh that’s just for me, I like having music on.” I tell him I think the chicks like it. He shoots me a look of possibility -maybe they do.


Spending time with the chicks

“By tonight this entire floor will be covered, they will move around and take over even more” I look left and right and notice the long pipeline that connects food and water, then there are the pillar-stoves every few steps that seem to be almost all generating warmth.  Jorge watches me take pictures, he seems to understand how beautiful this workplace of his can be, he talks about how he usually starts out on the first day and how he gradually moves through the building making space for more chicks.  “So last night one of the stoves went out, I had to be here to make sure the temperature stayed right.. if anything goes wrong.. It will cost me dearly.”  Indeed I can only imagine as I stand there in a sea of yellow, that this is not a labor of love, but in fact his business.. and making sure these little guys live.. is tantamount to doing good business.

“Can you check the temperature remotely, like through a computer” I ask, trying to find some hope for a social life for someone in such a sensitive line of work. – Jorge seems to only hear the beginning of my question, “Oh I had a machine that would regulate the temperature.. a sort of thermostat that I could set to maintain the warmth that they need…. but it broke.. and the repairs and problems ended up costing me 2,000 euro so I gave up on it.” He takes us outside and in the open drunk of a rusting little toyota van is the small german engine, on top of a rusting pile of what looks like might have once been parts for a time saving innovation.

“Some months in the winter especially, when its too cold, I shut the place down.  This year I shut down in December and I just started again a few weeks ago… its just too expensive to keep this place heated when the weather doesn’t cooperate.” I ask him how the last years have been and he indicates he has shut down at least one month every year for the past 3+ years.  “I also shut down for 15 days in the summer last year.” he half smiles. I presumed he was talking about a vacation and didn’t press the issue to not look like I missed his joke.

When I met Jorge during Carnival the day before, he was wearing neat clothes and a smile, with his wife by his side greeting what seemed to be the entire town.  Hearing I was a visiting journalist, he immediately invited me to come see his work. It wasn’t an overconfident invitation, it had the tone of a man who knows not everyone out there knows or see’s what he does on a regular basis. “I had to sleep there last night… had to make sure the little one’s made it through the night.. otherwise we’d be in trouble.” He explained this story to every neighbor that walked up to him and asked how he has been doing.  It was like listening to a doctor who had to stay late at the hospital last night.  Everyone responded with a look of respect for the good doctor.

Said Utah, I did not die

by bicyclemark 0 Comments

Bangkok posting will be postponed today as the world lost a very special person just days ago.  My idol, inspiration, and historical guide in this life, Utah Phillips, has died.  Words cannot describe how this man and his music shaped and shape my thinking and my understanding of who I am and where I’m going.

Utah did so much that meant such a great deal to me. His recordings are things I go back to almost once a month, stories, songs, history lessons.  So the news may say that my friend Utah Phillips has died, but I know better… and to illustrate and pay the highest respect to him, Ill quote my most favorite labor poem and song, which Utah so often sang:

Joe Hill

words by Alfred Hayes
music by Earl Robinson

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you and me.
Says I “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died” said he,
“I never died” said he.

“In Salt Lake, Joe,” says I to him,
him standing by my bed,
“They framed you on a murder charge,”
Says Joe, “But I ain’t dead,”
Says Joe, “But I ain’t dead.”

“The Copper Bosses killed you Joe,
they shot you Joe” says I.
“Takes more than guns to kill a man”
Says Joe “I didn’t die”
Says Joe “I didn’t die”

And standing there as big as life
and smiling with his eyes.
Says Joe “What they can never kill
went on to organize,
went on to organize”

From San Diego up to Maine,
in every mine and mill,
where working-men defend their rights,
it’s there you find Joe Hill,
it’s there you find Joe Hill!

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
alive as you and me.
Says I “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died” said he,
“I never died” said he.

Yesterday’s Butchers Today

by bicyclemark 8 Comments

Part of coming to Portugal and visiting my grandparents means taking them to a supermarket. With my help they can pick up all the supplies they need to last them a month or more, that way they don’t have to ask help from friends or neighbors.

Living in a tiny town in what I like to call the middle of nowhere, we tend to go to the nearby bigger town to frequent their supermarkets. In the last decade the amount of supermarkets has mushroomed from 1 to as many as 4 or 5.

As I push the cart down the aisles, and my grandparents struggle to take a good look at the type of meats behind the meat counter, I  take a few minutes to watch the people behind the counter.

Sharpening his blade, I watch a gentleman who must be in his late 60’s, joking with one of the other employees behind the meat counter. His white coat full of blood stains, I noticed the ease and skill with which he does his work. It became clear that this man had been a butcher for most of his adult life. Yet the supermarket has only been there for 6 or 7 years, so where was he a butcher before?

My mind continued to wander, 7 years ago… hell.. 14 years ago.. he was probably a butcher in a local butcher shop, now long since closed down. As I glanced at the back of the store, I watched the fish lady tending to customers ordering fish. Here again was someone who knew her job well, and before the days of the supermarket, had surely done her job in a local fish market, many of which have been scaled down or simply closed.

Both the fish lady and the meat man seemed to be doing ok on the job, here at the big supermarket. I could speculate that their wage is probably pretty small and the amount of rules and regulations they’re subject to, would have to be greater. But the question that kept coming back to be is this: Are they better off? Are we better off as a community and a society, with this brave new world where our local shops and specialties are replaced. From the wages to the working conditions to the human connection of feeling like your job is valued and valuing your work, is this new way sustainable?

As we collected our things and made our way out of the shop, I took one more look at the butcher. He was explaining to a younger kid how to properly chop some kind of meat. I wondered about what his job used to be like… the changes he’s seen.. the life he leads.

A cycle? Or an explosion?

by bicyclemark 2 Comments

I often listen to my own podcast. Might sound strange, but one of my rituals, besides losing most of my nights sleep preparing a podcast, is to listen to it the next day as I ride my bike through town. I listen to try and hear what others might hear; an idea or an experience that teaches me something, gives me a new idea or leads to deeper questions.

Lately I’ve noticed a common thread; through all the podcasts about work, income, quality of life, and history. That common thread is the question of whether or not things are happening as part of a cycle or have we reached some kind of major confrontation.

I’m referring to the strikes but I’m also referring to the inequality in the world. I’ve read the reports, looked at the statistics, and listened to individuals tell their stories and their evaluations about this moment in history. The strikes around the world, pitting people struggling to make a living against companies or governments who also struggle to do what they think is necessary for the future. Pension cuts, job cuts, contract negotiations collapsing, governments against workers, corporations against workers, public opinion against strikers, the conflicts and alliances go on and on.

Of course I’m too young to make some bold statement that this is some unique moment in history. Whenever I ask more experienced people they give me a mix of reactions, that these things happen in cycles and this is just the return of old stuggles as old as time itself.

In a recent interview for a forthcoming podcast, I asked a very excellent journalist who covers labor, if he thinks we’ve reached some climax in the struggle to make ends-meat. He didn’t see it as a climax, yet he did talk about what a huge boom of interest there is for his work now more than ever before. More and more individuals want to know about their rights as working people, and have a clear idea of their wages and benefits and they’re using the internet to find out about these issues.

Still I’m left wondering… is this truly a unique moment in history? Is this more of the same or the return of some age-old cycle?