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PLAYBOY MAGAZINE, APRIL 1974
THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS
BY LARRY L. KING
When a true son of Texas discovers they've closed down “the chicken farm” he
takes his business to the free-lancers. man's got to do what a man's got to do
it was as nice a little whorehouse as you ever saw. It sat in a green
Texas glade, white-shuttered and tidy, surrounded by leafy oak trees and a few
slim renegade pines and the kind of pure clean air the menthol-cigarette people
If you had country values in you, and happened to stumble upon it, likely you
would nod approval and think, Yes, yes, these folks keep their barn painted
and their fences up and probably they'd do to ride the river with. There was
a small vegetable garden and a watermelon patch, neither lacking care. A good
stand of corn, mottled now by bruise-colored blotches and dried to parchment by
hot husky-whispering summer winds, had no one to hear its rustling secrets.
Way back yonder, during the Hoover Depression, they raised chickens out there.
Money was hard to come by; every jack rabbit had three families chasing it with
the stewpot in mind. Back then, in rural Texas, people said things like, “You
can hear everthang in these woods but meat afryin' and coins aclankin'.” No
matter where a boy itched and no matter how high his fevers, it wasn't easy to
come up with three dollars, even in exchange for a girl's sweetest gift. And so
the girls began accepting poultry in trade. That's how the place got its name,
and if you grew up most anywhere in Texas, you knew at an early age what the
Chicken Farm sold other than pullets. (Generations since mine have called it the
Ranch. I won't argue the point.)
You might have originally thought it a honeymoon cottage. Except that as you
came closer on the winding dirt road that skittered into the woods off the
Austin-to-Houston highway on the southeastern outskirts of
La Grange, near the bad curve sign,
you would have noticed that it was too sprawling and too jerry-built: running
off on odd tangents, owning more sides and nooks and crannies than the
Pentagon. It had been built piecemeal, a room added here and there as needed,
as with a sod farmer watching his family grow. Then there were all those
casement-window air conditioners—15 or 20 of 'em, Miss Edna wanting her girls to
work in comfort.
Since the 1890s, at least, the Chicken Farm had been one of the better pleasure
palaces in all Texas. You didn't have to worry about clap, as when free-lancing
on Postoffice Street in Galveston, or risk your hide in machismo-crazed
whore bars on Fort Worth's Jacksboro Highway, where mean-eyed, juiced-up,
brilliantined, honky-tonk cowboys presumed themselves a nightly quota of asses
to whip. Miss Edna, like Miss Jessie before her, didn't cotton to hard-drinking
rowdies. Should you come in bawling profanities or grabbing tits, Miss Edna
would employ the telephone. And before you could say double-dip-blankety-blank
obscenity, old Sheriff T. J. Flournoy would materialize to suggest a choice
between overnight lodgings in Fayette County's crossbar hotel and your rapid
cooperative leave-taking. The wise or the prudent didn't pause to inquire
whether the latter opportunity included a road map. You just did a quick Hank
Snow. Yes, neighbors, it was as cozy and comfortable as a family reunion,
though many times more profitable. Then, one sad day last summer, the
professional meddlers and candy-assed politicians closed 'er down.
God and Moses, what a shock to the 3,092 residents of La Grange, Texas, to say
nothing of Chicken Farm alumni around the world! Imagine corned beef without
cabbage, Newcastle without coal, Nixon without crises. The Chicken Farm was an
old and revered Texas institution, second only to the Alamo and maybe Darrell
Royal. History lurked there. Some claimed that La Grange had offered love for
sale since 1844, back when Texas was a republic; which would put the lie to
The Dallas Morning News's claim of being Texas' “oldest business
institution.” For sure, the Chicken Farm traced, by document, back about 60
years. In a more primitive time, when there were fewer squirming concerns with
goddamned imagery, the winning squad of the Texas-Texas A&M football game got
invited by joyous alumni to the Chicken Farm on Thanksgiving night. Businessmen
and state legislators were comforted during their carnal wanderings; the wise
telephoned ahead for reservations. Indigenous hill-country Teutonics, Slavics
and red-necks of many faiths brought their sons in celebration of maturities
that an older culture more gently signified by bar mitzvahs.
Man, listen: The Chicken Farm was gooder than grass and better than rain.
Registered with the county clerk as Edna's Ranch Boarding House, it paid double
its weight in taxes and led the community in charitable gifts. It plowed a
goodly percentage of its earnings back into local shops to the glee of
hairdressers, car dealers and notions-counter attendants. It was a good
citizen, protected and appreciated, its indiscretions winked at. They say that
some years ago a young district attorney, who had made his own sporting calls to
the Chicken Farm, sheepishly appeared at the front door as the head of a
reluctant raiding party mobilized by crusading churchwomen. On spotting the
young D.A., Miss Edna is supposed to have sung out, “Not now, George, the
law has me surrounded!” And during Prohibition, an old sheriff called on Miss
Jessie to sternly say, “I don't like to say nothin', but this drankin',
now, has just plain got to stop”; when Miss Jessie died, her obituary identified
her as “a local businesswoman.” Yeah, they had 'em a real bird's nest on the
ground out there. Then along came Marvin Zindler.
Marvin Zindler was a deputy sheriff in Houston, enforcing consumer-protection
laws, until they fired him. Not for inefficiency or malfeasance—Lord, no!
Marvin wore more guns, handcuffs, buckles and badges than a troop of Texas
Rangers; he brought more folks to court than did bankruptcy proceedings. Some
folks said Marvin would jug you for jaywalking; it's of record that he once
nabbed a drugstore merchant for failure to stock the kind and size of candy bar
at the price the merchant had advertised.
Marvin got fired for being “controversial”—which meant that he couldn't, or
wouldn't, make those fine distinctions required of successful politicians.
After all, Marvin's boss was dependent on public favor. Nosir, the law was
the law to Marvin. Soon Houston merchants were screaming of how they
received fewer considerations than did common pickpockets or footpads. They
howled when Marvin tipped off television stations where he would next put the
collar on a chamber-of-commerce member accused of selling fewer soap flakes in
a container than its label claimed, and they were outraged when—a time or
two—Marvin lurked around the magazine rack while television cameras were
established and then
made his collar. A lot of good people, long goosed and flummoxed by many
avid practitioners of free enterprise, dearly loved and cheered Marvin. But
fellow deputies judged him insufficiently bashful when it came to personal
publicity, and his superiors grew tired of bitching merchants. Perhaps, too,
the more sensitive wearied of daily contact with Marvin's ego, which may be
approximately two full sizes larger than Howard Cosell's. Marvin keeps
scrapbooks. He dresses like a certified dandy in his 200 tailored suits and has
bought himself two nose bobs; he does not permit his own family to view him
without one of his silver hairpieces and he has a house rule that kinsmen must
never enter the bathroom without knocking. Anyhow, they fired Marvin. Who landed
on his feet as as television newsman for Houston's channel 13.
Marvin approached news gathering with the same zeal he'd brought to badge
toting. Not for him Watergate values: The law was the lam. So Marvin
began telling folks out in TV land how a whorehouse was running wide open down
the road at La Grange, which was news to Yankee tourists and to all Texans
taking their suppers in high chairs. Even though people yawned, Marvin stayed on
the case; you might have thought murder was involved. Soon he repeatedly hinted
at “organized-crime” influences at the Chicken Farm.
One day in late July, Marvin Zindler drove to La Grange and accosted Sheriff
Flournoy with cameras, microphones and embarrassing questions. The old sheriff
made it perfectly clear he was not real proud to see Marvin. Later, the sheriff—
a very lean and mean 70-year-old, indeed—would say he hadn't realized the
microphone was live when he chewed on Marvin for meddling in Fayette County
affairs; perhaps that explains why the old man peppered his lecture with so many
hells and goddamns and shits. Marvin Zindler drove home and displayed the
cussing sheriff on television.
Then Marvin called on State Attorney General John Hill and Governor Dolph
Briscoe: “How come yawl have failed to close the La Grange sin shop down?” Those
good politicians harrumphed and declared their official astonishment that Texas
had a whorehouse in it. Marvin told them they'd have to do better than, that.
Governor Briscoe issued a solemn statement saying that organized crime was a
terrible thing, against the American grain, and since it might- possibly be
sprouting out at the Chicken Farm, he would call on local authorities to shutter
that sinful place. If they didn't comply, the governor said severely, then he
personally would employ the might and majesty of the state to close it. Me,
too, said Attorney General Hill. Veteran legislators, many of whom could
have driven to the Chicken Farm without headlights even in a midnight rainstorm,
expressed concern that Texans might be openly permitted loveless fucks outside
Old Sheriff Flournoy was incensed: “If the governor wants Miss Edna closed, all
he's gotta do is make one phone call and I'll do it.” The sheriff may be old and
country, but his shit detector tells him when grander men are pissing on his
feet and telling him it's rain. The governor didn't have to bother with the
telephone charade. Soon after the story hit the national news wires, Johnny
Carton was cracking simpering jokes about it and every idle journalist with a
pen was en route to La Grange. They found the Chicken Farm locked and shuttered,
a big closed sign advertising a new
purity. Miss Edna and her girls had fled to parts unknown, leaving behind a town
full of riled people.
Sheriff Flournoy was extracting his long legs from the patrol car, with maybe
nothing more on his mind than a plate of Cottonwood Inn barbecue, when this fat
bearded journalist shoved a hand in his face and began singing his credentials.
Startled, the old lawman recoiled as if he'd spotted a pink snake; for a moment
it seemed he might tuck his legs back in and drive away.
But after a slight hesitation he came out, unwinding in full coil to about six
feet, five inches. Given the tall-crowned cowboy hat, he appeared to register
nearer to seven feet, three and some-odd. Flournoy is a former Texas Ranger who
looks as if he might have posed for that bronze and granite Ranger statue
guarding the Dallas airport lobby. You sense that he knows how to use that big
thumb-busting revolver thumping against his right leg as expertly as legend
insists. The fat bearded journalist also sensed that the old sheriff may have
done plumb et his fill of outsiders asking picky questions; he suddenly
remembered that the third wave is the most dangerous one when beaches are
assaulted, the first two waves having stirred things up and put the locals on
notice. So he was real real polite and friendly, grinning until his jawbone
ached, and careful to let all the old native nasal notes ring, in saying he sure
would admire to talk a little bit about the Chicken Farm situation, and would
the sheriff give him a few minutes?
The old sheriff's face reddened alarmingly. He stared across the hot shimmery
Texas landscape, as if searching for menaces on the horizon, and he rapidly
puffed a cigarette; the hand holding it trembled as if palsied. Then he said,
I'm tard a talkin' to you sons a bitches.”
Well. Uh. Ah. Yes. Well, the journalist had come a fur piece; he had a job to
accomplish; he'd hoped the sheriff might—
“You hard a hearin', boy?”
The journalist cupped one ear and said, “Beg your pardon?” He didn't want to
leave any doubt.
'The old sheriff spat. He said, “My town's gettin' a black eye. All the TVs and
newspapers—hell, all the mediums— they've flat lied. Been misquotin' our
local people. Makin' 'em look bad.”
Had the sheriff himself been misquoted?
“You goddamned right.”
To what extent?
“About half of it was goddamn lies.”
Well, sheriff, which half?
The sheriff put a hard eye on the visitor. Puffing the trembling cigarette, he
offered a long look at his face. The sight was no comfort. You had time to
concentrate on his mountainous great beak, deciding: If he ever gets
in a wide-nose contest with Nixon, he'll fair threaten the blue ribbon. More
terribly, however, the visiting journalist recognized bedrock character and
righteous anger, knowing, instinctively, that T. J. Flournoy was the type of
man described years ago by his father: “Son, you got to learn that some folks
won't do to fart with.”
Then the sheriff said, “It's pure horseshit what they say about that being a
multimillion-dollar operation out yonder. Hell. Goddamn. Shit! Them
people was just scratchin' out a living like everybody else. The mediums, now,
you goddamn people reported Edna running sixteen girls. And in all my years, I
never knew more than nine. And it was all lies about organized crime.”
Had the sheriff . . . uh, you know . . . received any er—ah—gratuities
for services to Miss Edna?
The sheriff put a hand on his gun butt—Oh, Jesus!—and fired twin bursts
of pure ole mad out of his cold blue eyes. “Listen, boy, that place has been
open since before I was borned and never hurt a soul. Them girls are clean, they
got regular inspections, and we didn't allow rough stuff. Now, after all this
notoriety, this little town's gettin' a bad name it don't deserve. The mediums,
the shitasses, they been printin' all kinds of crap.”
Had the sheriff talked to Governor Briscoe or to the attorney general?
“Naw. No reason to. The place is closed.”
Would it stay closed?
“It's closed now, ain't it?”
Yes. Right. And, uh, what was the prevailing community sentiment about the
Chicken Farm's future?
“I ain't answering no more questions,” the old sheriff said, stomping his
cigarette butt with a booted heel. Two or three hot August Texas centuries
limped by, while the visiting journalist vainly sought an exit line.
The sheriff said, “Just you remember we got other things than Miss Edna's place.
This is as clean a little ole town as you'll find. Hard-workin' people. Good
people. That fuckin' Marvin Zindler, if he'd start cleaning up Houston today,
why, in about two hunnert years he might have him a town half as clean as La
Grange. I'm a-gonna go eat my supper now.” The old man wheeled, lunging away,
stiff-gaited and jerky. At the door to the restaurant, he turned and paused to
stare his tormentor out of sight.
• • •
The fat bearded journalist opted to permit La Grange 24 hours of cooling time.
In truth, the salty old sheriff had unnerved him. For years the crazed back part
of the journalist's brain had whispered that he might one day be riddled by
rural lawmen, as had happened to Bonnie and Clyde: a penalty his mind paid,
perhaps, for growing up in rural Texas during the violent outlaw days of the
Thirties. There had been lynchings in his home county and backwoods feuds and
short tempers: His paternal grandfather, in 1900, had died of an old
indiscretion complicated by a shotgun blast.
They tell a story in La Grange of how, years ago, a bad nigger rejected a deputy
who came to arrest him by throwing down on the deputy with a shotgun. When the
cowed deputy reported failure, old Sheriff Flournoy first fired him and second
drove out to face the same shotgun: Flipped up his pistol, by God, it still
in the holster, now, and drilled that mean nigger smack 'tween the eyes.
Well, who knows? There were no eyewitnesses; maybe it was just another case of
Texas brags. The journalist was in no position to judge the yarn's veracity; one
of his ambitions was never to be able to. Besides, the journalist had an
unfortunate habit of trick driving late in the day: Obviously, if even slightly
demented behind the wheel, it would profit him little to encounter an aroused
Sheriff Flournoy on the sheriff's back-roads domain.
So, safe in Austin's familiar comforting precincts, he rang up old associates to
enjoy what proved to be a 14-hour lunch. There was Brett Haggard, the
freewheeling lawyer, who has often visited jail for purposes other than
counseling of clients. And Egbert Shrum, successful novelist and playwright, who
semiheavily dopes. Willowy Kasha, who fucks good and often and has no visible
means of support, and who, for all of that, is a fine human. Babs, the visiting
schoolmarm from Atlanta, with the great bone structure and the $99 smile, who,
curse it, appeared content in the company of a scraggly bearded advertising man
named Bubba Pool. As events progressed, we would be joined by Egbert Shrum's
tasty young wife, Darling—Oh!—along with assorted actresses, musicians,
free-lance writers and dopers, a retired prostitute and other social marginals.
Originally, however, when they gave us a humorless ejection from the Driskill
Hotel bar, there were just six of us. We were at that stage where we felt
momentarily unconquerable, to say nothing of how much we knew: Is anything
better or more beguiling than the whiskey smarts?
We repaired, hooting, to a dark motel lounge on the banks of the Colorado River.
Egbert Shrum, crazed by oven temperatures, many young Scotches and periodic deep
sniffs of his Methedrine inhaler, flopped out his dingus in requesting that
Kasha give him head. As the cocktail waitress was then approaching, Egbert had
much help in storing his dingus. When it came his turn to order, Egbert said,
“Would you mind very much if I smoked a joint in here?” Well, Jesus,
you haven't heard such general shushings since John Dean told 'em at the
White House he had the truth in mind! The cool young cocktail maiden said, “It's
fine with me. But somebody else might come in.”
Egbert said, with unimpeachable logic, “They might not, too. You ever think of
that?” Then he fired three joints of the killer weed; everybody puffed mightily
in hopes of reducing them to harmless ashes before the crazy bastard got us
arrested. Texas courts take doping real seriously; better to steal a cow.
Somebody suggested an orgy. Believe me, it was inevitable: Austin's a great town
for flaky sex; if you ain't doing it in multiples, you ain't doing your best; La
Grange would not believe what variety is available in Austin. Sweet Babs and
Bubba offered their two-bed motel room upstairs. Lawyer Brett Haggard said
excuse him, please, but being more thirsty than horny, he preferred to drink:
He wouldn't mind watching, however, should we guarantee bartender service. The
fat bearded journalist moved toward fulfilling an old secret fantasy in
suggesting that Darling Shrum be invited. Kasha telephoned her. Darling said,
“I'll come drink and dope, but I won't fuck.” Many boos greeted her message.
Husband Egbert complained, “Never marry a narrow-minded woman. It'll cost you
too much strange.”
When Darling arrived, pushing her 36-Cs ahead of her, she asked, “How far
wrecked is everybody?” Her husband responded by asking whether she'd brought
any cocaine; he was despondent that she had not. As the cocktail waitress again
appeared, Bubba Pool clinically described what all he'd like to do to her with
his very own tongue. Intrigued, she explained how she wouldn't be free for two
nights because her boyfriend was flying in from Baton Rouge: Meanwhile, how
about one of them joints? Bubba traded one for her name and phone number and a
free pinch of ass. Lawyer Haggard laid his head on the tabletop and gently
snored; he failed to respond when Babs and Kasha attempted to revive him with
wet ear kisses. The fat bearded journalist suggested that Babs and Kasha
accompany him upstairs for a nap, volunteering to sleep in the middle. Kasha
said she preferred making it with Babs alone. Babs said well, she'd never done
that little ole thing—and perhaps this wasn't the day—but one day. . . .
Four innocent strangers entered. Egbert Shrum loudly inquired whether they
might be from La Grange. No, Ohio. Boardman, Ohio. Shrum revealed the closing
down of La Grange's public shame, asking the tourists to join a victory toast
to God, Nixon and clean living. He denounced sin in the aggregate. “Would
you tolerate an open whorehouse in Boardman?” he demanded. He launched a
lengthy speech asking who had promoted Peress and defending Watergate rascality
on the grounds of national security. Very shortly we again had the lounge to
Many hours past dark, the luncheon party moved to the Soap Creek Saloon, in
Austin's rural hills. A folk-rock band crashed and banged its damnedest,
turning conversations into face-to-face shouting matches; the average customer
appeared little older than prep schoolers: hairy young hippies and their braless
ladies. Egbert Shrum passed around his Methedrine sniffer. Under the
tablecloth's cover, Babs stroked Bubba's most private territory; she offered to
share with the fat bearded journalist, who, declining, got called a gutless
chauvinist sexist. Egbert, spotting a young mother breast-nursing her child, was
reminded of how one Christmastide he'd made hisself eggnog from a visiting
mother's milk. He claimed that her product shamed Carnation.
Around midnight a dozen hot, crazed children of lust, drugs and drink milled
about an unpaved parking lot. Egbert Shrum, having cornered a trio of edgy
youngsters, railed at them that he was Governor Dolph Briscoe, by God,
demanding they support his closing of godless whorehouses where red-blooded
daughters of Texas, some of whose great-granddaddies had martyred themselves at
the Alamo, were being held in white slavery by agents of the Kremlin and Marion
Brando. In the background, while Babs assisted his gadget, Bubba took a big
splashy piss into scrub-oak trees. Salli Ann, the ex-prostitute, professed how
much more fun it was to give it away than to sell it: The difference had driven
her into retirement.
The Byrds slammed out a high-decibel version of how they liked The Christian
while the luncheon party moved by stereophonic Ford camper to a private
home. A half-dozen revelers gasped and pawed at one another from a mattress laid
in the rear, nothing much satisfactory happening, though a fair amount of wine
got spilled. Arriving, the party found lawyer Brett Haggard slumbering under a
fine old tree and guarded by a mean-tempered, spitting and humping cat. “Brett
brought his own pussy,” somebody laughed in the moonlight.
Inside, the air soon knew Mexican boo-smoke pollution; pipes and home-rolled
objects passed around the circle along with Methedrine inhalers, amyl-nitrite
caps and doses the fat bearded journalist was not yet chemist enough to
identify. Prone on a soft furry white rug, he discovered himself experiencing
serious time lags. In the midst of Willie Nelson's singing from twin speakers
about Los Angeles smog, it would become apparent that Kinky Friedman and the
Texas Jewboys had somehow thrummed halfway through Sold American. Or his
brain would stubbornly fight to grasp that which Egbert Shrum was shouting into
his face, and then he would blink and open his eyes to find that he was alone or
talking to any number of other people about a like number of things. The room
reeled; his brain crackled and burned; he was aware, dimly, of distant desperate
At an unknown hour he was aroused from a nap he had not been aware of taking:
Shrum had popped an amyl-nitrite cap under his nose, causing him to greet
consciousness with his ear lobes on fire, his head expanding as if with a winter
cold and his throat full of senseless humorless drugged giggles; his heart
pounded fit to burst through skin. Candles had burned down. Three or four
indistinct inert figures lay like grain sacks in the gloom.
“They're having a small orgy in the back bedroom,” Egbert Shrum said; he was on
his hands and knees. Well, was it any good? “I don't remember if I joined in,”
the fractured novelist said. “I meant to, I assure you. But I think I
forgot. No, wait: I ran into Darling, yeah, that's it. And she spoke evil of my
participation.” He rolled over from all fours, snuggled into the furry rug and
quickly went night-night. Sleep on, faithful husband. . . .
Finding the kitchen, the fat bearded journalist gasped and wheezed in sousing
his head under the water spigot. Everything in him hurt, sizzled or jangled. He
wished much to throw at a Nixon dart board on the wall but knew the motions
would cost excessive pain. He thought about Hemingway's final solution,
wondering enough about whether ole Hem had had the right answer that he was
glad no firearms offered themselves.
Kasha, sleepy and moody and tousled, materialized to drive him to his motel. She
did ugly to him for a bit, he permitting her to do the main work, while he
drifted toward sleep, at once begging her pardon and muttering thanks....
La Grange, in the morning sun, appeared as pure as rain water; the aching
journalist closed out its splendors with dark glasses. At noon, Buddy Zapalac,
ordering another beer, recalled the Chicken Farm of his youth. He is a gleeful
50ish, of iron-gray hair, a stubby heavyweight's torso and a blue-ribbon grin.
You see him and you like him.
“In the Thirties,” Buddy said, “they had a big parlor with a jukebox, see, that
they used to break the ice. You could ask a girl to dance, or she'd ask you. And
pretty soon, why, you could git a little business on. Three dollars' worth.” He
laughed in memory of those good old days when Roosevelt pussy had been cheaper
than Nixon chicken.
“You couldn't get any exotic extras. Miss Jessie—she ran the farm back then— she
didn't believe in perversions. They had wall mirrors in the parlor, see, where'
the girls could sit in chairs and flash their wares. But if Miss Jessie caught 'em
flashing a little more than she thought was ladylike, she'd raise nine kinds of
“Miss Edna, who was thirty or forty years younger, was a little more modern.
I've heard you could get anything you'd pay for: ten bucks for straight, fifteen
for half-and-half, twenty-five, I believe, for pure French. The girls wore smart
sports clothes for day trade and cocktail dresses at night. They tell me each
customer was urged to buy a Coke for himself and one for the girl, see, at fifty
cents each. Miss Edna, counting the bottles, knew how much trade each girl had
done. I understand each girl kept half of her earnings and donated the rest to
the house. And the house paid room and board.”
Buddy Zapalac owns the biweekly La Grange Journal. When the Chicken Farm
got busted, he was widely quoted as saying he intended to lend editorial
support to the farm.
Over Cottonwood Inn beer he admits: “I didn't do it. Lost too many of my
supporters. Businessmen, even a couple of preachers, told me in private they'd
back me up. But people in a little town can't stand much heat. As the publicity
built up, see, people started calling up or slipping around to say they'd decided against going on
record. I didn't even run a news story.”
How about early reports of outraged La Grange housewives' taking to the streets
with petitions, howling how Governor Briscoe, must permit the Chicken Farm's
“Ain't we in a nutty business?” Zapalac chuckled. “Exaggerated. Nothing much to
it. Oh, yeah, some people circulated a petition. At one time, I heard, they had
over four hundred names. Then people had second thoughts and took their names
off. They ended with about a hundred and twenty-some names, tops, so they junked
the petition. Too much heat, see.”
From what sources?
The editor spread his hands, shrugged. “Everywhere. Nowhere. Anywhere. People
tend to believe, see, what they read or hear or see. Or, at least, to be
influenced. So they ran.
“Yeah, sure, I'm for the Chicken Farm. I grew up with it, and I never once felt
corrupted. When we were kids—big ole bunch of rough Czechs and Germans, natural
rockheads—we had a lot of fist-fights. But never at the Chicken Farm. It was
traditional to be on your good behavior out there. You honored unspoken rules.
See, if a local man got sweet on one of the girls, they'd ship that girl out in
a New York minute. They never hired a local girl. Most of 'em came from
Austin, Houston. Everybody always took care to keep the townsfolk and the girls
from mingling off the job.
“Those gals put a hundred thousand dollars or more into this little town's
economy. Every year. Outside money, mainly. And I read in a chamber-of-commerce
bulletin that each tourist dollar is really worth seven dollars, the way
it circulates locally. By that formula, Marvin Zindler ran off about seven
hundred thousand dollars' worth of business. Not many of us feel like thanking
“People treated those girls good. Went out of their way to be friendly. Let 'em
come to the beauty shop, or any store, and they got the red carpet. Having 'em
marry and mingle was one thing; being plain courteous was another.”
Deep in his craw, would Zapalac personally miss the Chicken Farm?
He laughed. “Hell, I haven't been out there in years. Except, you know, to take
some visitor who had his curiosity up. But, yeah, I guess so. I guess I'll miss
it. It's been there since my memory has; it's a landmark. Some people, you know,
they're talking about getting the Texas Historical Society to put up a marker
out there. And, yes, I'd be for that.”
• • •
It was unspeakably hot and stuffy in the La Grange telephone booth; all the
journalist accomplished was breaking into a rare honest sweat. No, said a testy minister,
he had absolutely nothing to say about the Chicken Farm and, if quoted, would
surely sue. Samey-same, more or less, when you reached businessmen, the
community's semiofficial historian and a suspicious old justice of the peace.
Well, screw research: Fall back on perceptions.
In the cool dark Longhorn Lounge, where Tom T. Hall warbled from the jukeb6x of
old dogs and children and watermelon wine, he discovered four beer-drinking
middle-aged men in sports jackets and business suits, and an older citizen in
“Hail,” one said. “La Grange has a lot to offer besides the Chicken Farm.
There's Monument Hill State Park, as purty a place as you'll see. You can see
the river from there. Go up there! Accentuate the positive!”
The old nester in khakis belched and said, “That shitass from the Houston TV, he
didn't say a goddamn thang about our boys' winnin' the state baseball
Winking, one of the locals said, “That place has been shut down before. Back in
the Sixties, when Will Wilson was attorney general and got it in his craw to be
governor, he closed 'er down.” Winks. Pauses. Sips beer. “Yeah, for about two
Over the laughter he said, “They put up a big ole 'Closed' sign out front.
Newspaper people came and snapped pictures. But if a regular customer went out
there, he knew what back road to park on and the girls slipped him in the back
Yeah? Anybody slipping in the back door now?
“Nawsir. No way. Been too much publicity. Edna and the girls, soon as the story
got reported on national TV, they shucked on out.”
Where were they?
“Well,” one grinned, “I doubt you'd locate 'em in a nunnery. Likely they went
on the regular red-light circuit. Big towns. Houston. Dallas. San Antone.”
The old nester said, “Galveston, too. Yeah, and Corpus. That Dallas, it's got
more thugs and prostatoots than New Orleans. You recollect Jack Ruby?”
What of Miss Edna?
“Rumor is she's got an old man over in East Texas. Owns a farm. Some say she's
hiding there till this blows over. Don't anybody know, for sure, unless maybe
our sheriff does. But ole T. J., that stubborn cuss, wouldn't tell if you held
his feet to the fahr.”
Well, come on, now, fellers: Whose official palm did Miss Edna grease for the
pleasure of operating?
Shouted disclaimers: The journalist had overplayed his hand. In some heat a
silver-haired man in a natty sports coat, who may have sold for Allstate, said,
“That wasn't necessary, understand? That place paid good taxes, friend. It was
clean. The girls had good manners. The prices didn't hold you up. Friend, they
never so much as gave a hot check out there! I had a buddy, he was
overseas during the Hitler war, and one of the girls out there, she mailed him
“Only people around here ever tried to close Edna down,” the old nester said, “I
guess you could call 'em religious fanatics, they quit after people
stopped talkin' to 'em and they woke up to find garbage and suchlike dumped on
Well, now, what about that? Didn't it show some long-range, perhaps less
than gentle influence of the Chicken Farm on the community and its standards?
“No comment,” the khaki-clad one snapped, as if he'd waited a lifetime for the
opportunity; his companions nodded agreement.
Lloyd Kolbe. Lean. Well barbered. On the rise. Mid-to-late 30s. Quick to smile
even when his eyes retain calculations in judging the moment's worth or risk.
The quintessential Young Businessman: no bullshit, now, what with children to
educate and two cars to feed and status to climb.
The owner of radio station KVLG in La Grange, Kolbe is large in civic clubs; he
rarely misses the weekly Lions Club fellowship luncheon, where, should you fail
to call a fellow member Lion Smith or Lion Jones in addressing him, the club
Tail Twister will fine you two bits while everyone whoops and heehaws. On
Kolbe's desk, yes, is a picture of about 30 men in drag: startling, until he
explains that it depicts local civic leaders in the Rotary Club's Womanless
Wedding, staged, like the annual Lions Club broom sale, purely for purposes of
“I'm a native,” Kolbe said, drumming fingers on a polished desktop. “I grew up
knowing the Chicken Farm was out there—no, I don't remember how early, it seems
I just always knew. As kids, we joked about it, though it didn't
preoccupy us; didn't mark us, didn't make any grand impression. You noticed as
you grew up that adults didn't joke about it. Outsiders, speakers at the
chamber-of-commerce banquet, and so on, they joked about it. Local
people, you actually didn't hear them mention it until the big bust.”
Like—and no offense, Lloyd—but like, maybe, those good burghers who didn't know
what went on at Auschwitz and Dachau? Knowing it was a grossly unfair comparison, though
nagged by the worry that somehow it might be relevant, the journalist
couldn't translate the thought to words.
Kolbe was saying, “Some people think the Chicken Farm discouraged industry from
moving here. I don't think it did. And if it did, was that truly bad?
We're progressive, and all that, but why should we ruin our pure air and clean
streams and pretty farms? Industrial rot and blight... do we want to trade for a
paycheck? People all over America are looking for La Granges to raise their
“My own children, I've watched and listened to see what effect the Chicken Farm
might have on them. And I can't see that it's had any. They accept it, as I
did—it's just there, it has nothing to do with them or their lives. We talked
about it one night right after the bust.
“On the other hand, I can't believe the town's lost significant revenue. I doubt
if those girls spent anything like a hundred thousand dollars a year. And, hell,
even if they did, that's no money. You take three or four little ole Mom and Pop
stores, they'll equal that. The economic factor has been greatly exaggerated.
Probably not over six or eight merchants benefited from the Chicken Farm.
“The thing I hate is that La Grange is now known nationwide as a whore town. And
we're better people than that.”
After the bust, Kolbe proposed that three each pro and anti Chicken Farmers
debate on his radio station: “But it fell flat. People who privately favored it
simply refused to go public. We settled for two programs where people called
in. They could identify themselves or not. Most didn't. And those who did, well,
yeah, I've erased their names from the tapes. I don't want to take advantage of
He flipped a switch. The tape brought the quavery voice of an old woman: “I was
borned and raised in La Grange, and I've always been proud. But when we traveled
to other states, people would say, 'Oh, that's where that Chicken Farm's at.'
And it was embarrassing. You didn't have any answer. Yes, I pray the thing is
shut and stays shut.”
A high school girl: “It's been here for about a hundred years! And I doubt the
Mafia's been in La Grange any hundred years, don't you? After Marvin Zindler
cleans up Houston....”
A housewife: “I'm definitely for the Chicken Farm. Those girls got regular
examinations. You knew, if your husband went out there, why, at least he'd
likely come home clean.”
A dissenting housewife: “Talk about regular inspections, it was no more than
weekly. How many times you think they might've been exposed to syphilis and
gonorrhea between inspections?”
Another housewife: “It's been a disgrace. Our kids, when they went off to
college, were ashamed to name
their home town.”
The Englishman: “I'm relatively new, from England, and I've observed the hazards
of street prostitution. It's bad. Young girls—sixteen, eighteen, twenty— live
the most sordid lives. I think the Chicken Farm was the best thing that ever
happened, a true community asset. You've had no rapes, no murders, no dope. . .
Old woman: “I'm from over here in Schulenburg. We don't have rapes and murders
over here, and we don't even have a Chicken Farm! So I don't think you need it.”
(Lloyd Kolbe, chuckling, broke in: “You mean, ma'am, that nobody drives the
whole fifteen miles from Schulenburg to visit the Chicken Farm?”)
Local businessman and civic honcho: “I think Edna ran a real nice clean place. .
. . I've traveled more than anybody in La Grange. In places like Chattanooga or
Georgia or Illinois, I was proud when people knew about the Chicken Farm; they
spoke well of it. In my business place here, a fine-looking lady walked in one
day with her son to ask directions out there. Her son had been sent by a
specialist doctor to the Chicken Farm for his health—'cause that's what he
needed! I say bless the place. It should receive a medallion as one of the
best-known historical spots and recreational facilities in the United States.”
Old nester with prime Texas twang: “I'm from a neighborning town, and I never
heard nobody was hurt by the Chicken Farm. If I didn't have no more faith in my
sheriff's department than some of you people, why, I'd just move on down to
Houston with the gay fellers....”
Many invoked the Bible. Others awarded brimstone to Marvin Zindler and Governor
Briscoe. The majority cited the town's prosperity and cleanliness in objecting
to publicity “recognizing us for just one thing.” The topper was a
salty-sounding young woman: “I'm one hundred percent for the Chicken Farm. And I
think we ought to have a studhouse for the women.”
Lloyd Kolbe shut off the tape, laughing: “Boy, we sure 'nuff had some phone
calls requesting that lady's name.”
Journalists are predators and vultures; they will rut around in anything,
including trash and garbage, seeking firmer understandings or, perhaps,
nothing more than cheap titillations or a lucky spin of the wheel.
When the Chicken Farm closed, to judge by its trash bin, Miss Edna and her
functionaries shredded their personal papers in the manner of diplomats under
siege in a disadvantaged embassy. One surviving letter, addressed to April and
signed by Gene, spoke first of the weather, laundry chores, onion planting and
other mundane matters before addressing the human condition:
“I had been toying with the idea of skipping our August get-together and
planning a longer one for September. But, when I heard from you, I couldn't see
not coming to see you next weekend. April, please let me know if there is any
chance of your coming to New York with me for a weekend on my vacation. If it is
just wishful thinking on my part, please let me know so that I can make plans.
Please don't leave it hanging in the air, like seeing you at the beach, until
the time is past. . . . I don't expect you to write every day. I realize you
have problems in that respect. You asked me to be patient with you, and I sure
will try. But I hope that you can be patient with me also: After all, remember
when I gave up a weekend of girl watching in Wichita Falls to be with you? I
will be happy to wait for you, but you have to let me know from time to time
that you want me to wait. There has always been the possibility that your
interest in me was purely professional. I haven't really felt that was the case,
and if I ever do, I will probably become conspicuous by my absence. . . . You
are a very wonderful person, and I am glad that I met you, April, and I hope to
keep that feeling for a long, long time....''
There was a little row of purple Xs representing
kisses, in the traditional code of lovers, directly below a carefully
drawn solitary heart and a single flower.
I got drunk that night in Austin, thinking of the wretched seeking bastard who,
if he went to La Grange as planned, found April gone and his surrogate home
shuttered. An old friend—a lawyer who daily sees the seamy side in trade—shook
his head at the Chicken Farm's fate. “I went over there back in my law school
days,” he said, “and it was so goddamned proper I felt out of place. It was just
too damned wholesome for somebody with a hard pecker hunting raunchy sin
and eager to whip up his old Baptist guilts! And right over here”—he jerked a
thumb— “just a few blocks from the capitol building, there's a place where fags
in drag—transvestites, wearing cosmetics and false titties—will take you
upstairs and do anything for money that you can get done in Tangier. And down
around East Sixth and East Seventh, there are bars where you can make the same
sick deal. And even with all the fine amateur stuff floating around—on capitol
hill, at the university, all the hippie girls, divorcees and horny wives—you
can buy a woman, if you insist on paying, of any color or creed. You've just got
to know the right little ole crummy hotels or motels.
“Probably the girls who tour the regular Texas circuit are owned by some
syndicate. Anybody capable of reading knows that organized crime profits down
here, but I'll be goddamned if I can see any Godfather tracks around La Grange.
A guy who knows Marvin Zindler tells me that Marvin really believes that
organized-crime horseshit with respect to the Chicken Farm—but, he says,
Marvin's idea of organized crime is two nigger pimps hauling four or five gals
from town to town between beating on them with coat hangers. And it looks as if
our fearless governor has the same notion of it.” (Well, if he does, the
governor may pick up a recent issue of The Texas Observer, a liberal
crusading biweekly, and learn that Carlos Marcello's gang is moving into
Houston, that old buddies of Meyer Lansky are disputing the Dallas spoils with a
senior gang having Chicago roots, that the Syndicate is prospering in Galveston
and Corpus Christi and that in Dallas, one newspaperman—writing on local heroin
traffic—was shot and a second newsman there has received death threats for his
probes into organized crime.) Get 'em, Dolph, you fearless bastard. . . .
I woke in my Austin motel room to Second Coming headlines: In Houston, an
hour's swift drive down the road from the Chicken Farm, had been discovered
three monsters who routinely forced young boys into homosexual acts, tortured
and abused them until the mind refuses to think anymore of their probable final
horrors, and then shot or strangled them to death. Twenty-seven bodies would be
discovered; with each new find, people argued in bars over whether the total
represented a new national mass-murder record.
The remainder of the newspaper told of Watergate figures who resent
investigations, of illegal Cambodian bombings, of five Austin kids busted for
pot, of shortages and inflation and many balloons gone pop. I gazed out the
motel window, toward the capitol dome taking the morning's sun, and thought of
Charles Whitman, Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby; soon, softly, I began semisinging
the song they taught me in first grade, back in Putnam, all those eons and other
“Texas, our Texas! All hail the mighty state!
Texas, our Texas! So wonderful, so great!
Boldest and grandest, withstanding ev'ry test;
O empire wide and glorious, you stand supremely blest. . . .”