$1,500 to fight your bird, There’s measuring and weighing.
People know when they don’t want to be noticed the best thing to do is to not make eye contact. Whether you’re stalking or being stalked, don’t look at your mark, look away from your mark. Slowly but swiftly. Be aware of your surroundings and know where the others are standing. But if you don’t want to be seen, don’t search out faces or the eyes will turn to meet yours. Maybe it’s because ultimately, we are just animals. Something about our magical sixth sense lets us know when someone is looking at us, even from behind. So we turn and find them. I’m studying my coffee over these thoughts, sweaty, 6am, sketched out as sunrise comes through the dirt film on the bodega window. Holding tenderly to the magical instinct that just saved my life.
We are humans but we are just animals. And there are some things that keep us pretty close to our origins. War is not a theater of violence, it is a grand exhibition of man’s need for violence. I don’t know anyone who wants war. Almost every person in the world wants peace and yet, war is a constant. Because war is not about greed. Let’s face it, there are much cheaper ways to make money. War would not exist if there were not those who need to commit it. War is about something else. I am watching the news and thinking about the human appetite for violence that makes war and thrives in movies and in sports and even games. That’s how I got to cockfighting.
It’s 5am. The door to my personal spaceship is closed. The cabin temperature settles and we alight in a hazy, wild adventure. 36 hours to grand papa. 36 hours to the ugly mirror. 36 hours to uncover the bloodlust and come back in time for a catwalk down the runway to glamour and luxury and the beautiful top side of this job. We are going to ground zero of the cockfighting universe. The pit of the pit. It comes here, to Long Island, to Ohio, Kentucky, California and to squatting nefarious back-alley basements of New York, but it comes from everywhere else to us in our happy, civilized, psychiatrist controlled suburbtopias. Now I’m going to it. “The region.” The place where fat cats bloat themselves on sugary drinks while counting their wicked offshore dollars. Paradise. And the other side of the coin is the unpainted face. The underbelly, all scratches and ticks and weather of time worn in.
None of the motley crew comprising my caucasian invasion look like cops. Still, when we round the cement stump to take the dirt road, the pair of dreads in front of us stops dead and reverses into us until we can’t maneuver in any direction on this path. They get out. Two of my party start shifting in their seats. I’m in front. I hear the door of the car behind us open but I know that guy’s staying there. I play the boy and jerk my chin up at the dreads. The driver drops our host’s name. They lean their weight into their heels and suck their teeth. I stare. They stare. Everyone stares. The guys in my back seat stare at the void ahead. A shiver of wind and the dreads get back in their car. We resume.
This looks like nothing, it must be the place. I notice a makeshift turnoff. Cars, left, I say. We turn in. If I didn’t know better, I’d think the brightly painted shed was a community center. Except that I realize instantly the only other woman among these forty or so souls is the bartender. We find our host, his honor is holding court, sipping a beer. Everyone is laid back. He looks different than the night before when we met for the introduction, he’s less on now, but more intense. Probably because his little man bag is heaving with thousands of dollars and his birds are up in a few minutes. Everyone is relaxed. No one is looking at us, but they’re all watching. I can feel every one of my instincts breathing. It’s like everyone here was expecting us. We buy sodas, some one gets a beer. We look at no one.
“The Puerto Ricans are very competitive. And they have the strictest rules…it’s good, I’m all about transparency. It’s gotta be legit.” We’re over beers in a spot lit uncharacteristically bright for this sort of conversation. I just got the man’s whole romantic litany of how he met his wife and now he’s tracking me through the sensitivities of his business. “The cocks you see on the street, that’s a ordinary bird. That bird’s a coward. He’s not fighting for your money. He’s a Joe.” We talk about the nuance, the characteristics of a bird. Like people, like athletes. If you didn’t know what we were talking about, you would think it was any garden variety high school sport.
“The cock knows who feeds him and takes care of him and is there when he’s sick…the cock has a personality. He’s strong. He’s a killer. They have names—Rebel, Outlaw—but it’s also the training. Like any athlete. The diet—we give him tuna and apples and banana—and the vitamins, b12, and blankets and heated areas in the winter.” His honor loves his birds. “Of course!” He smiles. And he should, for the amount of money that’s on the line. The honorable one used to have horses too, racing those, until he got serious about the business that first caught his eye at age 14.
“Pai, pai! Some of these game chicks, they born killers. Three months old and they go after their brothers and sisters? Bomba! And they going pai, pai. Pai-pai-pai.” Why not dogs? I ask a little too clumsily. He’s offended. And suspicious. “Why are you here? Who are you? What kinda lady like you doing here?” I’m just a writer. “Who are you? Why are you interested in this?” I think people like violence. I think there is some thing in some people where they have the bloodlust, I want to know why. I manage to tell him this without sounding like he’s my after school special of the week. “You crazy,” he laughs. I tell him I think you can learn everything you need to know about people by watching animals. “This has been here for forever. I had an idyllic suburban childhood outside DC. I’ve traveled the world and seen a lot of the United States. I’m a college man. This is a sport that is part of a culture. These people, they are alive. They come here and they are free. You see it in their faces. It’s something you can’t understand from the outside.” It’s a therapy, I surmise. He points a knowing smile at me.
I’m thinking so many things now, besides how did I get here. I’m thinking why I’m not more offended. I’m wondering if this is really going to happen tomorrow. I’m wondering why he’s offering me DVDs and a place to stay. Most of all, I’m wondering what’s wrong with me that I’m not feeling more horror at this matter of fact conversation that is putting every paradigm of human curfews into the fun house mirror. Race, gender, age, class, it’s all boiling in this stew. And I’m casually talking about a death grip between two birds. Me, the animal lover. Me, the person who’s been known to save worms. Me, sitting here, rapt. Charmed, almost. “It’s the bird’s instinct. It’s natural.” I know. “If you did nothing, and the two birds see each other in the yard, it’d happen just the same.” I know. That’s what bothers me most, that I know. And that we all know it. And we rally against it even though we know that’s just the way it is. Because what we’re rallying against is not the fight but the part of our nature that makes the fight. The fight in all of us, animals. We think we should be beyond it, be able to control it, wield it—we can put a man on the moon—but some animals are born killers. It’s this that horrifies us.
“Spokes in the claws—however strong the bird is, is how deep it can go.” That’s the extent of demonic exercise fasted on the bird. “And we have a light to make sure there’s nothing on the birds and we wipe him down to make sure there’s no poisons on him.” We continue into the night about property taxes and jazz and Paris and kids and wallpaper. All the while we’re both thinking the same thing: we are the same but we are not the same. Circumstance has put us at this small plastic table over beers, but we’re a long way from sharing a Thanksgiving. And maybe he knows something that makes him aware of that just a little more than I am. “I live freely. I’m in control of my own destiny. I have it as I like it.” And I know as he’s telling me this, it’s as much a defense as a judgment against my false sense of constitutionally granted liberties. He’s patronizing. And as much as I hate it, I know he’s right.
“I’m a peace loving man, I don’t think I ever been in a fight. But if you get out of line, we taze you and we put you outside.” Well, I guess it’ll be ok then. I don’t plan on getting out of line. But I’m hoping he also has a gun in that man bag of his, because I see this crowd and I know I’m one of the few who don’t. It’s a collection of businessmen (dealers) and accountants (bookies) and political types (hustlers) and builders (hit men). “The dog thing is a whole other world—the cops is sittin’ there in the front row with $30,000.” Oh god, no dogs. Please, I don’t have the stomach for the dogs.
I’m not even sure I’m going to make it through the cocks.
We enter the pit. Front row. There are no smoking signs? “Yeah, for the ganja. It don’t make sense for this place to be filling up with that.” Right, can’t help the bird if he’s getting chilled out. He laughs, “you see!”
They gather. Contradiction: it’s not about the money…it’s all about the money. I hear both things being said at once. With little sound of movement, the crowd trickles in around the pit in concentric circles, stadium seating. There is chicken wire around the first row of seats encircling the ring, a specially made kiddie pool. But the mesh is not to keep the birds in, it’s to keep us out. No way. Please, no way it’s going to get that nuts. I’m trying to be cool, making small talk, one of our party reminiscing about mushrooms and fights and union guys with 20” necks chasing him through 1980s Manhattan. Yes, this is happening.
Two handlers bring in the fowl. Bianco and Il Doctoro. They’re showing the birds to the crowd, moving around each other in circles. They’re holding the birds out, arms straight, shoulders proud. Place your bets kids. They’re goading the fighters, letting them pluck at each other just briefly enough to whet their appetites. “Oooh, Bianco. That’s a straight bird. That’s my boy.” This display goes on for five minutes. Long enough for the bets to start and the odds to stack. People have flown here from everywhere to see Bianco. A wily albino. The owners of the birds pay the house to compete. Could be a grand, could be ten, depending on the event, the birds, the status of the house and so forth. There’s weighing and measuring and this fight, there’s $1,500 to get in. The house gets a cut of each buy-in, no matter what. The birds are competing against each other—whoever wins, keeps the pot. The crowd pays a ten buck entry ticket for the day and they get to bet against each other unwatched.
The noise is picking up. The judge takes his seat to the left of the videographer who’s got his camera on a tripod pointed decidedly down into the ring. There are two clocks. One will track the thirteen minute round. The other is a minute clock. If one of the birds becomes inactive, the minute clock is started. If the bird goes for a full minute without “coming back” with a flap of his wings, the other is declared the winner.
The birds are getting excited. They’re ready. A plexiglas box partitioned in two is lowered from the ceiling. The contestants are put into the separate sides. Everyone clears the ring. A buzzer goes and the box is retracted.
There is no hesitation. “There it is” screams his honor. My host is at my right elbow, a signal that I’m cool. At first, there is only mild excitement. Something casual and unengaged is hanging on the crowd. Is this a beat fight? But then it picks up. Il Doctoro is relentless, going after Bianco. The two of them, chests shaved and skin thickened, are prize fighters. Then it happens, the blood starts to show on Bianco’s neck. There is no stop motion here. There is no bell for the fighters to take some water in their corners. It just goes. I’m frozen. I start watching the crowd. They’re hungry. Eyes are bulging, everything is pulsating.
“Seven minutes on the bell” the judge calls through a garbled microphone. Seven minutes? I thought it’s been a day. The birds keep going. Il Doctoro doing his damage. I’m thinking this preened little white prince is going to die. He keeps going down, face to the floor, noticeably exhausted. He gets up, takes a few blows, goes back down. Sometimes, he’s lying there and Il Doctoro is stepping right over his head. No way is this creature going to make it. The salt collects in my throat, I could grab him, I could run… He flaps to life! He is not going to go down! My host is on his feet, jumping on the bench next to me. “Go now Bianco, to the body! To the body! Get his body! Yah boy!”
“15 to 1 on Bianco” the Samoan to my left screams. Roars leap up in response, the excitement thickening. “15 on Bianco, 15 to 1 on Bianco.” Bianco is back down, he’s slammed against the edge of the ring, supine, staring away from his mark.
Il Doctoro walks away, he thinks his job’s done. Bianco falls over, face plants into the floor. Oh my god, he’s going to die, but everyone is screaming, they’re leaping and waving and clapping. All I hear is silence, slow motion. “You can do it. (clap clap) Get up. Get up. (clap clap) Dooo-it,” his trainer is rhythmically clapping at him. Bianco looks at his opponent, Il Doctoro walks over for a few pecks. Bianco lamely pulls himself left, turning his face away, Il Doctoro leaves him again. Four minutes on the clock. Bianco is not moving. They start the minute clock. Twenty seconds go by with nothing but the black cloud of screaming. I could grab him and run… thirty seconds… I see heaving, he’s alive. He’s breathing himself back to life. He flaps his ego together and leaps up across the ring and plants a claw into Il Doctoro. Oh my god everyone screams at once in six different languages. I’m on my feet. Up Bianco. Go! It’s not about the money. It’s about the underdog. It’s about not giving up. It’s about the fight in all of us. It is about being the man. Winning. I’m dismayed at myself and proud of this creature’s earnest. Yes! GO! I catch myself and think and sit down, somewhat ashamed. I look at the crowd. Faces twisted in excitement and bets being exchanged and some, even in the first row, vacant. It’s those faces that scare me most. Their emotions in absentia. I want to cry. This bird is dying for the sake of empty gazes.
One minute to go and Bianco gives it his all. He goes in full force. His movements are frenetic and rogue. Il Doctoro is trying to stay away, his energy spent in the first twelve minutes. He won’t look in Bianco’s direction. Now, it’s all about surviving. “Last week, it happened like this and in the last fifteen seconds the under bird got up and struck the other in the neck and killed him on the spot,” the Samoan tells me. His honor is screaming “Yeah, yeah. Pai! Pai! Bianco, that’s my bird.” The clock rings, the judge calls a draw. “I spent five thousand dollars on that bird.” His honor tells me. “You see how he fight for me?”
It’s almost like it didn’t happen, it’s almost like some other nondescript thing. The course of the day and a half, so larger than life, is almost two dimensional, like I heard it happen to someone else. We got out of there after the first fight, what was I going to learn from another?
There were some for whom it was the money, some for whom it was the bloodlust, and others who were just exploiting their closeness to it trying to feel something. These men went to church on their way to the pit that morning, and they stopped and saw their mothers on their ways home. But in between, they acted out some thing that other people take pills for. They touched something, turned some inner wheel, hit some kind of reset button.
That swell of testosterone and posturing and machismo gives them something they can’t get anywhere else. They can’t buy it, and they can’t own it. That’s what brings them back. It seems like something primitive to our tidy American consciousness because it is, but primitive is not a dirty word. It’s some instinct. To kill? Not really, not all fights are to the death. To own? Yes. To thumb your nose at life, and death, and rules and systems, yes. To connect with the animal instinct to survive and fight and exert will. To not be a Joe.
If all that is primitive, than it was. And so was I, but so are you.
It was about the violence, too. The fight is the beginning, middle and end of the whole thing. And the crazy unbridled screaming and rocket adrenaline of gestures and frenzy are the same endorphins that get triggered in a war. Or in road rage. Or on the football field. And sometimes, even the schoolyard. These men, on this particular day, may have all their flavor for violence channeled to the fights, a cleansing, but it is just one kind of tether to this confused primal instinct. It can go awry, people shoot each other over this, yes, but there have also been incidents at soccer games and during gas shortages. It is just one spot on the palette of man’s panoply of emotions. And I realize, it’s not the access to violence that breeds violence, it’s the need for violence that breeds itself.
“Let’s get a drink.” His honor pumps the concessions and gambling and horse racing bets between fights. We’re hanging out. Awkward, pretty sure we don’t want to stay for the next round, but no one wants to say so. Guys are bustling in the yard around us. There’s a weird high familiar sound. A whir. What the hell is that? I try not to look, but I look. Some guy has actually got a shop vac out and is cleaning up the ring. “We do concerts here,” the ticket guy tells me. Oh, naturally. I make contact with a far off face that’s been staring my way a little too hard ever since the bell rang. He mouths something to me. This is not good. I keep my eyes towards my 3 o’clock but I see him get up. He’s coming over. I move us towards the bar. We stay long enough to be cool, just three minutes, and we leave, swiftly but slowly. There’s a problem getting our car out. The crooked face is conferring with others in my direction. No one notices, but I notice. Trying to keep the sweat from rising on my neck, knowing they’d smell it from 100 feet away.
There are things people do that confuse me. Like exerting abuse when you’re already in charge—dog fighting is inconceivable to me. Domestic violence, police brutality, it’s all the same. Even my threshold for boxing, where the two parties are willing, has shrunk over the years. Extreme fighting? I don’t think I ever need to see that. Road rage? No way. I have no bloodlust. There’s no sordid deviant hunger that brought me down back alleys looking for grizzly animal fights. The flying of feathers in the air and the bright colorful adrenaline and machismo is a peculiar and harrowingly compelling sight. But still, it took a few days for the nightmares to stop. For the images to be exorcised from the back of my mind while I sat at meetings and dinners, at fashion shows and traffic jams.
In the warmth of this sunrise coffee, the safety of this neighborhood convenience store, greasy and natural, I’m feeling what I touched. I know something. About me, and you, and the language of violence. It comes from the gut, no filter, no anesthetizing. It is just as love is. The pendulum swings both ways. Because that’s the way it is. For all our civilizing, we are still just animals.
ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Read the back story behind the Cockfight Chronicles and find out what led nadA down the mean streets of Long Island and Beyond.