The chickens were being delivered to the Portagee chicken store, so Seraphin stopped to watch. The farmer stacked the crates on the sidewalk and then left in his junky old truck. The Portagee chicken man was yelling abuse at the plucker, giving him hell about something. He was always yelling at the plucker. I’d sure hate to have to work for that man, Seraphin thought.
The crates were filled with live chickens. This was because the Portuguese liked fresh chickens. They wouldn’t buy the dead ones hanging from hooks in the butcher market. “Who knows how long they’ve been hanging there?” they’d say. So they came to the chicken man, and picked out a live one, and the plucker would take it into the backroom, kill it, pluck the feathers, and bring it out front, show it to the customer, and then wrap it up. Of course, when they were very busy, like on Saturday night, you never saw the plucker. He stayed in the backroom, killing and plucking a mile a minute. Then he wore a rubber apron and big rubber boots, because he used lots of hot water. On Saturday nights this store would be incredibly busy, with all the Portuguese ladies getting a chicken for Sunday dinner. The chicken man’s wife and little kid worked here Saturday nights, helping out.
The plucker started taking the crates into the store, one at a time. Inside the store was a big pen made out of chicken wire. It took up about half the store. The plucker would take the crate and release the birds into the pen. That way the chickens would be visible and the customers could pick out the one they wanted.
The birds in the crates on the sidewalk were squawking like crazy. The plucker came out and as he took a crate, he glanced furtively over his shoulder to see if the owner was watching him. He wasn’t.
“You know what, kid?” the plucker said to Seraphin.
“These chickens shit more than you eat,” he said with a harsh laugh.
It was a joke. Seraphin smiled gamely.
The plucker was fourteen years old. His name was Johnny Machado. He didn’t know Seraphin, but Seraphin knew him. Ernest Machado, Johnny’s younger brother, was in Seraphin’s class at school, and that’s how he had learned about Johnny. Ernest and Seraphin would both be going into the sixth grade in the fall. Ernest told him that Johnny had been smart in school, but his father wanted him to go to work. So he had quit school and this was the only job he could get.
Even before all the crates were taken in, the owner came out with a broom and started sweeping the sidewalk.
A small, white-haired old man came up to him and asked him in Portuguese, “Do you have any eggs today?”
“I have,” the owner bellowed. He didn’t talk, he bellowed. It was like he thought the old man was across the street. “Fresh ones. Laid this morning.”
“How much are they?”
“Fifteen cents a dozen.”
“Too much, too much,” the old man complained.
“No, not too much. Not for these. These are big eggs. One of these is worth two of the store’s.”
He leaned on the broom and waited for the old man to decide.
“And how is your son, Senhor Tavares?” the chicken man asked. “Still sick?”
“Yes. Yes. He can’t eat. Can’t keep his food down.”
“The doctor helps?”
“No. The doctor doesn’t know what it is. My son knows what it is. It’s the chemicals they use to make the rayon. They make him sick.”
“The doctors are only good to say, ‘Give me the two dollars, and come back next week,’” the chicken man said.
“The doctor tells him to quit that job. But how is he going to quit that job? He has a wife and three children to feed. He can’t quit that job. How can he quit that job? Tell me--how can he quit that job?” Then the old man said a whole sentence in English--“Advices are easy to give.”
“The doctors kill as many as they cure,” the chicken man said. “In my land they tell this story. A farmer had three sons. The first son liked to beg. The second son liked to steal. And the third son liked to kill. ‘What shall I do with my sons?’ the farmer thought. Then he said, ‘I know what I’ll do. The one who likes to beg, I shall make him into a priest. The one who likes to steal, I shall make him into a lawyer. And the one who likes to kill, I shall make him into a doctor.’”
“Let me look at the eggs,” the old man said dolefully.
They went inside the store.
Just as Seraphin was about to go, a big mob of people started coming by. They were mostly girls and women, with just a few fellows. These were the workers from the shirt sweatshop, which was in the old Mayhew Mill, two blocks past Heap Square. It was early in the afternoon, just a little after one, but this was the summertime, and in the summertime the shirt shop let out early on Wednesday afternoons. But then the workers had to make that time up Saturday morning.
One of the workers at the shirt shop was a French youth, a boy they called Sing Sing. Everybody said he was a crook. Sing Sing was pale, slight of build. He came by walking with a pretty French girl about his own age. He was laughing and talking animatedly to her and she was laughing back. Next door to the Portagee chicken man was the Polish bar, and suddenly the screen door of the Polish bar flew open and a heavy, red-faced man came hurtling out. “You somnabitch!” he yelled at Sing Sing. He waved a clenched fist in the air. “Ahm gonna fix you!” He bobbed his head emphatically in promise.
Sing Sing and the girl had turned at the first shout. The girl was thunderstruck and Sing Sing flushed, but he turned his eyes from the man with a very careful, impassive expression. He and the girl kept walking, and the man went back into the bar.
That was the thing about Heap Square, Seraphin thought. You never knew what was going to happen. . . .
"Both comedic and comic, Da Gama, Cary Grant, and the Election of 1934 gives us a full and generous picture of a time and place that now exist because of words on a page, populated by individualized characters and characteristic incidents.
Frank X. Gaspar
"And Reis Felix, in his novel of vignettes, brings the Portuguese to life with wit and humor, and above all, with an eye for telling detail that any American writer—of any ethnicity—should envy. This book captures the nature of immigrant New Bedford in a way that will make it relevant and entertaining reading for decades to come!"
Llewellyn Howland III
"In his wonderful new novel, the octogenarian writer (and New Bedford native) Charles Reis Felix tells what it was like to be young and proud and poor and Portuguese in the city in 1934, while a quartet of ethnic Americans (including the Yankee incumbent) duke it out in a wild mayoral election. Generously observed, vividly drawn, and beautifully realized, the fictional city that the author evokes is a New Bedford to celebrate for all its faults—and to read about time and time again."
"Through a Portagee Gate is a plain-spoken, down-to-earth account of an American voyage, rich in fable, anecdote, and wit."
Frank X. Gaspar
"Through a Portagee Gate is a valuable document, a record, a history, an autobiography, a memoir, an elegy."
Llewellyn Howland III
"Through a Portagee Gate is the story of two men told with novelistic brilliance."
"Reading much like a novel, with its rich detail and emotive content, Through a Portagee Gate offers a profound look into the Portuguese immigrant psyche. . . ."
"Felix's is one of the most honest, unforgettable memoirs of the war I've read."
Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.
"This is absolutely the best volume I've ever read on the GI in World War II."
Edwin P. Hoyt
"Albeit the memoir tells largely of fear, death, mud, and other vicissitudes, it is laced with ribald soldier humor. . . ."
"For anyone wanting to know how it felt to participate in the events of World War II, this memoir is highly recommended."
"Extensive reconstructed conversations. . . lend authenticity and immediacy to Felix's account. . . ."
"His recollections of this paramount experience in his young life are vibrant, hilarious, descriptive. . . ."