A Life-and-Death Game of Chicken
by Jim Knipfel
Back in '87, my friend Lefty and I comprised one-third of the inaugural class of the University of Minnesota's graduate program in Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society. Nobody knew quite what the hell that name meant, except that I was allowed to write long, tedious seminar papers about the Eraserhead soundtrack, G.G. Allin and Elvis's godhead, and nobody batted an eye about it.
Lefty and I had both spent too many years growing up bitter and twisted in the dead wastes of central Wisconsin, so the cold sterility of Minneapolis seemed prime for the taking. We went dine 'n' dashing together, we went stealing together and, on more occasions than I can remember, we partook in unhealthy overdoses of semantic interference together.
Semantic interference simply involves presenting the Normals (and subnormals) with ridiculous and absurd sensory input--that is, confusing them--just to see what kind of reaction we'd get.
One spring day, Lefty's then-girlfriend of eight years discovered she was pregnant, so she and Lefty packed themselves together and drove off to the Planned Parenthood offices in St. Paul to get the little nasty scraped out. When they got there, they were forced to run through a gauntlet of anti-abortion zealots throwing dirt at them and calling Lefty's girlfriend a "slut" and a "whore."
That annoyance was enough to convince Lefty that he wanted to exact a little revenge on these fine, God-fearing idjits, so he called me for some ideas. Since we were obviously dealing with simple folk, semantic interference seemed the way to go. And since it wouldn't take much to confuse these people, we decided to pull out all the stops, to run at them full-bore, in the hopes that we might be able to watch them actually explode right there on the sidewalk in front of us.
Over the next week, I gathered some materials together, constructed a few props, and drove out to a heavy-machine rental place which, as it turns out, was the only spot in the Twin Cities area where a man could rent a chicken suit. It was one raggedy-ass chicken costume, with feathers sticking out this way and that, a limp beak waggling about, a lifeless crest, and a six-year accumulation of grime and dust. It would suit our needs just fine.
When the day finally came (the zealots, we found out, only picketed on Tuesdays), the sun was out, there wasn't a cool breeze to be felt, and we loaded up everything into Lefty's dying Dodge. We parked a few blocks away so they wouldn't see us until we were on top of them. Lefty donned the giant chicken suit, I put on a big blue disco belt, an English driver's cap, a pair of amber goggles, one combat boot and an ugly shirt several sizes too small.
We reached into the back seat and pulled out the sandwich boards. Lefty's featured a big picture of an egg. Above it I had written, "Kill it now, it's an omelette," and beneath it, "Kill it six months from now, it's a chicken dinner!" Mine featured a big picture of Monty Hall. No text, just Monty Hall. I grabbed a big handful of coupons clipped from the Sunday paper, and we were on our way.
When we turned the corner, there they were in front of us, about six of them, all carrying signs, all singing hymns. About ten yards before we hit them, Lefty and I started to sing a hymn of our own: "Saddle up for the last round-up/ Get ol' Shep from the barn..." (Unfortunately, those were the only lyrics we knew to that song, so we were forced to sing them over and over).
We crossed the dead-baby lines and kept on marching, as their hymn dropped off to silence and their eyes grew wide. We marched past the Planned Parenthood office up the block, past the Burger King to the corner, where we turned around and started back, this time singing "If I Were a Rich Man."
The God-folk kept trying to get on with their business, but every time we crossed their lines, they froze until we passed. Finally, after the fourth or fifth pass, they stopped us. A middle-aged woman, hair pulled into a tight, painful-looking bun, cat's-eye glasses, pinched, mean face, stood in front of me, blocking our path.
"What are you doing?"
"Just doin' our job, ma'am," I told her.
"And what might that be?"
"Well, we've been hired by the ASPCC--the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Chickens--to protest along this block. Every day, you see, millions of chickens are slaughtered senselessly so that Americans can feed their fat, ugly, greasy faces. The ASPCC is doing what they can to put an end to that. The first step is to drive Kentucky Fried Chicken out of business."
She looked up and down the block, as the other members of her group gathered around us. "But there's no Kentucky Fried Chicken on this block--not anywhere around here--just that Burger King up there."
"We realize that ma'am," Lefty jumped in, speaking through his limp beak, "but it's like this--if you take a map of the entire Twin Cities area and mark off all of the Kentucky Fried Chickens, you'll see that they form the shape of a giant egg. And though there aren't any around here, this block represents the very center of that egg--the yolk if you will--and the ASPCC feels that by striking at the yolk, we're striking at the very heart of the chicken-murdering industry in this area."
"Yeah," I added, "I mean, we have nothing against you--like I said, we're just doing our job. Two days from now, we have to do the same thing in Sioux City, Iowa. Two days after that, we're marching in Kansas City."
Her dim eyes glazed over a little bit, but she bought it.
"Do you know what they're doing in this building here?" She gestured at the Planned Parenthood offices.
"No, ma'am. Not part of our problem to know."
"They're killing baaabies! And we're trying to stop them."
"Uh-huh. Well, if you don't mind, we have to get back to work."
"Could you at least march on the other side of the street? People might confuse you with us, and then not listen to what we have to say." She cast an evil eye towards Lefty and his egg board.
"Sorry, ma'am. Can't do it. The measurements made by the ASPCC are very accurate, and if they catch us marching in the wrong place, we'd be out of a job. You gotta understand--this is where we need to be."
Before we continued marching and singing, this woman gave us a handful of dead baby pamphlets, and we gave her a bunch of coupons for Chex cereal and Snuggle fabric softener. Then we both went on with our business.
"Saddle up, for the last round-up..."
On our next round, the director of the Planned Parenthood office marched out and cornered us.
"Uh...excuse me, " she said, looking Lefty up and down, "but what are you guys doing?"
I gave her the same chicken spiel.
"Uh-huh." She paused a second. "Well, the women inside are confused and more than a little frightened by you two. All I want to know is," she jerked her thumb towards Lefty, "is he a pro-choice chicken or an anti-choice chicken?"
"Well, ma'am, if he were an anti-choice chicken, we probably wouldn't keep crossing the lines of these fine folks up here, singing show tunes. Singing show tunes badly."
"That's all I wanted to know. Thanks." I gave her some coupons before she turned around and went inside.
"If I were a rich man/Zabba-zeebee zabba zeebee...." (We didn't know all the words to that one, either).
Two passes later, and the God-people gathered into a quick huddle, making the occasional frantic gesture towards us as we methodically marched from one end of the block to the other. Before we crossed their lines for the third time, they packed up their signs and their flyers and drove away.
Just to make sure the coast was clear, we kept marching for awhile. They drove around the block four times before disappearing for good. Too bad--I was actually starting to believe in what we were doing.
Game of Chicken" copyright 1995 by Jim Knipfel. Published originally
in the NYPress.
Buy Jim Knipfel's books from Amazon.com with the links on the Slackjaw books page.