Actor Robert Blake recounts an experience with a chicken in his grandma’s backyard in 1936
“I spent a lot of time in my grandmother’s backyard, which was filled with a vegetable garden, two goats, rabbits, chickens.”
By Robert Blake
Tales of a Rascal
Black Rainbow Publications (2011)
Excerpt from his autobiography Tales of a Rascal
You talk about crazy as a shithouse rat, I was a shithouse rat.
1936. Bloomfield Ave., Nutley, N.J. On one side of the street, a three-story wooden walkup tenement. We live on the third floor. Right across the street, in a very, very, very, old, wooden house, lives my grandmother. The house is so old that they had to add running water and electricity long after the house was built.
Bloomfield Ave. was a narrow street. Very little car traffic, almost non-existent. In those days there were only four cylinder cars with wooden spoke wheels. Mostly it was horse carts and pushcarts.
And me, little two-and-a-half-year-old Mickey, who nobody gave a shit about one way or the other, could wander back and forth at will. I spent a lot of time in my grandmother’s backyard, which was filled with a vegetable garden, two goats, rabbits, chickens. The entrance to the wine cellar and the ominous two-hole shithouse. Yes, there was some plumbing inside, but you had to pump for kitchen water, and there was no toilet, no bathtub. So rain or shine, hot or cold, wind or snow, you shlepped out to that two-holer and hoped for the best.
My grandmother, who was probably about 40, may have weighed 90 pounds. She was less than five feet tall. She was a derelict alcoholic who had a cellar full of wine that she made herself. A couple of years later, she died in an alcoholic sanitarium. In my heart, I think she killed herself, just the way my father did in his 40′s (don’t get too discouraged, I know it’s morbid now, but it’ll get funny).
I loved to spend time in that garden with the old German short-hair pointer named Bessie and all the animals. I picked the leaves from the tomato plants to feed to the goats because they loved them, the rabbits loved anything and I loved everything.
One day my grandma was out there, and she was using the hose to water the garden. My job was to stand on a chair and pump the well. Not an easy task, but when I got that handle over my head, I could pull it down and let it slide up again (my first body building experience with doing chins).
Because it was a hot day, the chickens were scurrying into the garden to get some relief from the heat with the spray from the hose. My grandma got mad at ‘em, threw the broom at ‘em and chased them with the hose. They flew in every direction. One of them jumped through the open outhouse door and landed between the holes. Grandma sprayed the chicken in the shithouse and everything got slippery. You guessed it. The chicken slipped through hole number one, down into two feet of shit.
Grandma yells for me to stop pumping, she grabs the broom and gets the flashlight from the cellar door and goes to get the chicken out.
The shithouse is wet, the broom is wet, the chicken is wet, grandma is wet and there ain’t nothing but a bunch of slipping going on. I hear the chicken flopping around down there in the shit and grandma screaming in Italian, “Curse your ancestors.”
Crazy grandma (but not nearly as crazy as my father) takes down the clothesline rope, she ties it around my chest, under my arms, grabs the flashlight, removes the toilet seat so there’s more room. Now mind you, up until now, I think this is the great adventure of all time. I was an extremely adventurous little kid–loved to wander off in the hills by myself, wander down the street by myself, and everything was great till I figured out what the fuck that rope was for.
Son of a bitch if she didn’t lower me down into the shithouse.
Now I’m about four or five feet down, she’s hanging on to me in mid air and trying to point the flashlight at the chicken, who’s just below me in the shit. I can see the chicken, but I can’t reach down and get it.
Grandma screaming in her drunken Italian, tells me to wait a minute while she reaches over and gets the broom. She’s going to push the chicken out of the shit up to where I can get it.