The last thing author Elyssa East expected to find when she left her Washington Heights apartment on a procrastination jag was a chicken. But there it was, on the side of a road in Fort Tryon Park, in the late afternoon of February 17. "My heart literally skipped a beat," recalls East, author of the new book Dogtown, a nonfiction account of the eponymous Massachusetts ghost town. "It was just sitting there in the snow, kind of looking at me. I was like, poor chicken. I knew I had to get it out of there." After all, it was cold, and a car could've hit the chicken — and East, whose father owns a farm in Marietta, Georgia, has a history of rescuing "creatures," as she calls them. (One time she removed a butterfly from a cat's mouth.) So, naturally, East tweeted an SOS, and included a picture of the black-and-white bird. Then she tweeted again: "People I'm standing w/ the chicken. I have called 311. @SusanOrlean can you help rescue the Ft Tryon Park chicken? This isn't a joke."
Orlean, of course, is well-known for raising chickens at her place in the Hudson Valley, having written a lengthy New Yorker piece on the subject last September. (You can watch her interacting with her birds on a video on the site.) But though Orlean is "following" East on Twitter, she wasn't signed in at that moment and didn't see East's tweet. Fortunately, a Twitter intermediary sent Orlean a Facebook message about the chicken emergency, which Orlean happened to see while taking a break from work. Less than an hour had passed since East's first tweet; Orlean sent her a direct message and offered to take the bird in — as long as East could get it to her. "I've got plenty of space," Orlean says.
So East took the chicken home — in her tote bag — and tried to find a ride. Thanks to the 311 call, a park ranger named Gerry came by, who said there were reports for two weeks of a live chicken in the park with the same coloring. Gerry speculated the bird might've been acquired for a Santeria ritual and escaped — he'd recently rescued a duck from one — and he expressed amazement that the multitude of feral cats in the park hadn't gotten to her. That night East, who lives with her fiancé, made a nest out of newspapers for the chicken and went to sleep. In the morning, she awoke "to find chicken standing in her box!" she tweeted. "Very exciting development. She had eaten & spilled some of her rice & drank some of her h20." Later a red-tailed hawk flew at East's window, apparently expecting to snatch the chicken away ("City living is wild, I tell ya"). Then "Uptown Gerry," as she was now calling her, pooped. Soon enough, the entirety of her kitchen floor was a biohazard.
By the afternoon, East had secured transportation courtesy of another author on Twitter, Jessica DuLong, and on Friday (the 19th) the threesome set off on a road trip in DuLong's Honda. (But not before East fed the chicken scrambled eggs. She says online sources said it was okay.) Though East and Orlean were friendly on Twitter, the two had never met, and East felt apprehensive on the drive up. "I was definitely like, Oh my God, I'm taking Susan Orlean a chicken!" she says. "What if the chicken dies? Will Susan Orlean hate me? I was actually worried. There was a lot on the line." But Orlean was "really cool," she adds, and has "gorgeous chickens. Next to hers, my chicken definitely looked ghetto-tastic."
"To be honest, the minute I saw her I was pretty pessimistic, because she just wasn't normal," Orlean remembers. "She was very weak — she didn't walk around or eat. I kept her separate from my chickens because I didn't know if she had some sort of contagious disease." The bird seemed to perk up for awhile, but by the middle of last week, Orlean's au pair was force-feeding the chicken with a syringe. An appointment was made with a nearby avian vet. And then, last Thursday, Uptown Gerry died. "It was sad," Orlean says. "But the thing that made me feel better is that from the time Elyssa found her till she died she was very warm and comfortable and wasn't trying to cross a street in Manhattan. Nobody was pestering her."
East feels the same — "She got to be a chicken until the very end" — and uploaded a chicken pattern to the background of her Twitter page. "It's the funniest thing to say this little chicken changed my life, but she did," East says. "So many people wanted to help her and were so concerned about her. I'm just as cynical as the next person, but it did make me feel better about the human race."