Fred Coward wanted a turkey for Thanksgiving this year. But he didn't want to eat one he knew personally so after a face-to-beak conference with a cagefull of live gobblers inside the Arrow Live Poultry market yesterday, Coward turned and trotted to the street.
"I don't have the guts for that," said Coward, a District of Columbia baker, as he pulled his tweed sport coat over his eyes. "Those turkeys looked at me so sad, like they were saying 'go get help.' At least when you buy something in the supermarket, you don't relate to it."
At Arrow, the District of Columbia's last live poultry market, perched on Fifth Street NW for 51 years, a relationship between the customer and the merchandise is unavoidable. In order to place or pick up an order, it is necessary to navigate an aisle lined with a dozen varieties of live, caged fowl.
Few of the more than 60 customers who waited in line yesterday at lunchtime to buy a Thanksgiving feast, however, shared Coward's problem. $"You just can't beat the taste of a fresh bird and that's all there is to it," said L. Duckett, a retired D.C. truck driver who has been buying birds from markets longer than he can recall.
"You've got to realize that whatever you eat has been killed somewhere along the line, whether you were watching or not," said Jim Powell, 26, who walked to the market on his lunch break with coworker Sandy Shinn.
"These turkeys are supposedly not fed any homones and aren't full of all the preservatives and garbage," said Shinn.
Mike Huneycutt, Arrow's owner, said that all of his fowl are purchased from Amish farmers near Lancaster, Pa. They are "grown organically," said Huneycutt, explaining why his birds cost more than a supermarket's frozen flock.
Turkey's for instance, sell for $1 a pound at Arrow -- and that included the weight of the head and feathers. It doesn't include the giblets and other entrails, which are sold to a rendering plant for production of soap and fertilizer. By comparison, a frozen turkey at Safeway -- minus the head and the fluff -- costs 69 to 79 cents a pound.But the extra cost, said Honeycutt with a smile, hasn't hurt business a bit.
"We can't kill turkeys as fast as we can sell them," said Honeycutt, who estimated that by the time he closes today, he will have sold 6,000 Thanksgiving turkeys this year.
Huneycutt bought Arrow just last January. Before that, he was general manager for eight years of a kosher market on Georgia Avenue. "I like the fact that this is the last (live) poultry market around," he said.
Arrow has been the District of Columbia's only live poultry market since 1960. The other D.C. markets were done in by the Poultry Products Inspection Act passed by Congress in 1958, which brought all poultry markets under new U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations.
But Arrow's loyal customers keep coming.
Buggie James, a retired government worker, drives to the market once every two weeks from his home in Landover to buy fresh birds for him and his mother who lives in Fairfax County.
"My mother won't eat frozen chicken, no way," said James, who waited half an hour yesterday just to get from the sidewalk into the market, which resembles a two-truck garage.
Customers either picked out their own bird or indicated what weight they wanted. One of a dozen Arrow employes then pulled the squawking birds from cages, weighed them, and then delivered them to a slaughtering section in the back of the market.
Within minutes, the turkeys were gobble, gobble, gone.
"The killing doesn't bother me at all," said James, who unlike many of the customers, did not turn away when his turkey's neck was slit. "When I was a young fella, I cut my share of chicken heads off."
Hattie Edwards said she had seen her mother cut off a fair number of chicken heads when she was growing up in Southeast Washington.
But yesterday Edwards was waiting outside the market for a friend to buy a bird. Yes, said Edwards, she would have turkey this Thanksgiving, but not one whose last gobble she had heard.
"I'm going into the supermarket and get myself a butterball."