On a Sunday afternoon a group of a hundred or more cloister in a small bar for an event unspoken of in normal society. It's dark inside and when you walk in, the first thing you notice, a small cage. It's a wooden frame with chicken wire completely surrounding it and people give it an excited look as they hurry by to go make their bets out back. Above the cage only inches above the top is a light, shaped as a popular NASCAR complete with decals. The light shines down into the small box giving an effect that I can only remember in finals wrestling matches from high school or interrogation rooms on TV, it pales all the other lights except for the sunlight which pours in through open doors at both ends of the bar. The doors have to stay open because the crowd would turn it into a sweltering heat even with air conditioning at full blast if they weren't.
At the far end of the bar in the corner there is a Rock-a-billy man setting up speakers and guitars. His hair is slicked back like a greaser of the 50's and his arms are covered in tattoos of American flags and music notes that encircled his elbows. Everyone knows him, he's a big name who plays for free every Sunday, but he's not why they're here mostly.
People crowd around the bar getting Lone Star Beer, the Texas equivalent of PBR. They're ordering from an older woman, Ginny, it's her bar. As one local puts it, "Ginny puts the charm into being un-charming." She's surly and reminds me of a smoking all-night diner waitress that I used to know and love around the casinos of Reno. There's excitement in the bar and people are getting twitchy and impatient, eyeing the back door and the cage alternately.
Eventually the event begins. It's hard to even find a place to see because it's so crowded. When you can see, the view is powerful. There in the cage stands a Rooster, people all around it shouting. He is backlit so that you see only a black shadow of an outline as he looks keenly at the crowd.
"Now! Do it now!" People shout.
They want it to defecate. They want it to defecate on their square. For 57 people lucky enough to have braved the line and gotten a ticket, there is a place in the cage where the chicken can shit that will win them $114 for their buy in of $2. It's called Chicken Shit Bingo and Ginny started it here at Ginny's Little Longhorn Bar decades ago because of the slow Sundays. Dale Watson, the Rock-a-Billy musician that has a big name, one patron estimates he runs $2k a night for gigs, he plays for free. Years back when he was a nobody he walked into Ginny's with a guitar and asked if they did live music.
"Well, we haven't before," said Ginny, "but I see you got a guitar. Let's see what you got."
He still plays for free, for fun, for Ginny. He's got songs for Lone Star Beer, for special tamales that come through, and for the event itself of course. There's also free chili dogs and hot dogs.
It all starts in the early afternoon and can go on into the night. Three rounds of CSB are played each starring Sissy, the chicken of note. In between rounds Sissy is taken out of the cage and taken back to her pen out back. People stop Ginny to get pictures with them both.
Thirty minutes in my scientific mind starts thinking: if Sissy likes attention, she would slowly be being trained to hold it in when in the cage over trial after trial, assuming a chicken is capable of such things, which it might not be. The thought of a starlet chicken holding it in for the attention of a bunch a drinking, laughing, shouting people seemed mildly hilarious. Whoever would have thought the behavior of so many could be determined by the bowel movements of a chicken?
When watching a chicken in a pen for as much as 45 minutes, people get a little nuts, people say things that you'd never hear anywhere else, they're funny, they're happy. It's a place you never thought you'd end up and yet even I found myself zooming in on Sissy's tail-end and leaving the camera running hoping to get the money shot when I could film between the people in the crowd.
"17!" Someone yells.
"Did it go? Was it 17?" Someone else asks. There's no need for the question and the person is revealed as a newcomer, when the shit hits one of the squares drawn on the ground, everyone knows. Screams rise up, people flip out, even if they lost. It is a communal event of patience and gregariousness that has come to fruition in a most unlikely form before us all. Outside, a line is already forming for the next round and people shuffle off to listen to Dale or chat in the back parking lot which is filled with drinking locals.
Is it the uniqueness of the event that brings us? The music, the tradition and institution of it after so many years. A strange redneck experience for city folk of Austin or a strange city experience for the rednecks of Austin? I couldn't say for them but for me, I just thought, "what a damn interesting thing, and what a great gathering it has wrought."
From where I stand, 'Chicken shit' no longer means 'coward,' it means 'good times.'
SXSW & CSB