What’s a girl like me doing in a story like this?
Maybe because its bold. Maybe because its weird. And fierce. And fast…there’s something gluing the attention. Sure, you might say it’s like a car wreck. Or watching an argument in a store. So, yeah, cockfighting is something I’ve been curious about for a long time. There, I said it. But I’m not from South America, I don’t know anyone who runs in those circles and I’ve never dropped two grand on a chicken. No matter what kind of wine it came bathed in. But actually, stranger than the curiosity of seeing it, is trying to get in.
It’s not exactly an easy thing to find—no listings on craigslist. But I was determined. In the interest of journalism, yes, but also in the interest of finding out what makes men buckle together bidding the groceries over a fowl. This is a sport that’s everywhere. Spain, Dubai, Mumbai, Brazil…the search started near and far. Calling on the resources of some unexpected contacts. And I found it.
It’s a movie script. Following a one-legged man down an unlit street, through a derelict factory, past the crumbling building, over the train tracks… there was nothing but silence and dark sky, empty branches and, as I got closer, the hushed expectations of men and sweaty money crouched in a dim yellow light encircling two expedient, bloodthirsty chickens. It sounds funny, the silence of it, and it was a little, but it was also exciting.
I guess I should start with my guide. William. I first met him the way these things always go down: A friend of a friend of a friend of someone set up a meeting. You get introduced, hands are shaken, you get sized up, you hold your gaze and you make it through the hurdles. It was clear by this point they had checked out our website “why you want this story?” I’m not sure, I lied. “Your people, why should they care about what we do?” I’m not sure, this time I meant it. He made some reference to newspapers. That’s not my bag, I shrugged. “But you’re a journalist?” We’ll, that’s a two cocktail conversation I guess. He laughed, I was in.
Still, the hurdles got higher. And with each one came an appropriate, leveraged, measurably increased, shakedown. You jump over one, its a hundred bucks plus two forties. Next, we’re into the two-fifty zone and those forties are now some very fine cigars. By the third meeting, you’re in. You’re legit. You’re a target, they know they’ve got you marked as someone who’s probably going to be foolish enough to drop a grand to probably watch a bunch of chickens kill each other. And if you don’t, well, it’s not a bad day’s pay for an introduction. So there was William. William and his five-year-old sister. Standing in the unforgivable blast of afternoon winter. She with one pink shoe, one blue one. He with one blue shoe. I followed the three feet down the block trying not to look at anyone. And they all were not looking at me, too. We stopped at the first open door, still not saying anything. We sat down. I bought the pink and blue shoes some ice creams, had one too, and we waited. For an hour, in the silent licking of our ice creams on a frozen day. Eventually, William sent his sister away and I realized this was going to happen. Had I been a cop, I would have bolted once there was a kid involved. Or maybe he just promised someone a little babysitting. For my part, I was ok with it. Bad people don’t come out in the middle of the day to talk about money and cockfights in front of little girls. Night fell. Six o’clock, seven o’clock.
At eight o’clock, we walked down to a crossroads kind of place for truck drivers and badly made up women who gave up a long time ago. Everyone is so defeated, they drink their beer warm. Fashion does not exist here. Napkin rings have never been in here. Fox News, and the philosophies of those comfortable enough to have the time to think about it, don’t stand a chance in a place like this. Elections? Oh? Is it that time again? Super Bowl? Nah. It’s just the moment here. Because the last one wasn’t very memorable and the next one is likely to be just as nondescript. I am at the weigh station of ambivalence. This is where I jump through hurdle number two.
It comes in the form of Flora. Beautiful, wild, curly haired, hooped earringed, tank top and men’s jeans wearing Flora. She walks in, she smiles at William and makes no eye contact with me. So I stare at her directly. Finally, she looks at me and starts speaking in Spanish, calling me the Brazilian. Because I’m tall? I ask in English. Doesn’t matter, she says, you’re the Brazilian. I like the “the.” Flora laughs. I smile a little. William says something inaudible. She laughs again. They get up, I get up, we walk to the next place to meet Lucian, who gives me a big, open Haitian smile. Everyone’s talking about everything except the fight and I can’t be the one to ask. We’re all communicating in different languages and everyone knows what’s going on except me. We eat, we go shoot pool. I loose two, win one, win the next, we’re in a dead lock on the fifth and I get one ball ahead when some guy who’s been sitting at the bar gets up and leaves. Flora stands up, William leaves and Lucian grabs the cue, let’s go, he says. We start walking down the street, a silent funeral procession, past the only car that’s parked anywhere around. It’s on, Lucian says. I figure the car is the signal.
Past the friendly Dutch fellow, over the bridge, across the parking lot and through the derelict factory—wtf is a mural doing here?—right at the coconut—wtf is a coconut doing here?—along a stretch of woods until finally, a house. Right, wtf is a house doing here?
The old garage has been refashioned into a pit. Someone actually dragged some bleachers in here. The only good seat is towards the back but I know if I take it, I’ll look scared and I opt for something farther forward instead. There is a flag hanging from the rafters and next to it, the Stars and Stripes. There are a lot of soiled t-shirts but even more neatly pressed collared shirts. Most noticeable was the hush. Nobody roots for the athlete warming up, I guess.
It goes on for a few more minutes and then, like someone pulled a curtain, people start to file out. I look at my crew, “lets go,” William says. Flora is gone, I’m nervous but I have to go with them. What’s up? I finally ask. “It’s over,” William tells me. Over? That’s it? All that for not even five minutes? “You said you wanted to see it, well, you saw it.” I’ve been duped. Stupid me, I should have been more specific.
We walk along in silence. Finally Lucian tells me, half English, half French, “They got spooked. The owner saw you and they got spooked. That’s why.”
Deadline is in a week and this is all I have?
The rest of the night is all about the plan b. But, like anything, the more you reach out to grab something, the more you covet, the farther away it gets. Damned elusive (ok, illegal) activity. I fall asleep somewhere before morning. A few hours later, listening to the coffee percolate, it hits me: the captain.
This guys knows guys. He knows the crowned seat of the spots in the Caribbean where this would be going on. And he knows guys everywhere. It’s likely. I have one weekend left before I have to file. It’s 7am. I call a guy who knows a guy who calls the captain. Ten minutes later, I’m in…