Friday, June 5, 2009

Market Hunting in the Tri-State Metro Area

© 2009 Albert A Rasch
Market Hunting with an Air Rifle

While commenting over at my friend Hubert Hubert’s wonderful blog, Rabbit Stew, I was suddenly reminded of my early years as a market hunter.

“Market hunter!” You gasp as the world turns topsy turvey. "Say it isn't true Albert!"

Alas, yes it is true. I was a market hunter when I was about 12 or 13 years old. I made a few dollars every week or two supplying fresh feral rock pigeons to some of the neighborhood folks that came from the “Old Country.”
Image Credit: Alex Alexandrovna
You see, my old neighborhood in New Jersey was predominantly first and second generation immigrants from Italy. The knife and scissor sharpening man still rang his bell as he walked the streets, carrying his hand forged sharpener on his back and calling out his trade in a familiar yet foreign song. There were still a couple of old style corner delis left in the area, serving cold-cuts and cheeses made in the back room. Many of the brick homes had grape vines and fig trees in the yards, in addition to carefully tended vegetable gardens.

Old Italian women dressed in black complained about the still older Italian men playing Bocci ball and playing cards. While sitting on their porches, they kept a wary eye on the going ons in their respective fiefdoms. Woe onto you if you were caught in some malfeasance! Fortunately for me, I had the innocent look of an angel and could do no wrong; which also explains why I was always so well fed.

I had quite the reputation as an outdoorsman even then. When I was fortunate enough to convince some girl that I really was interested in her, and not just trying to get in her grandmother’s kitchen, I would regale her with my plans and coming adventures. Some the girls even bought it, which got me in their kitchen that much quicker.

My market hunting years started, innocently enough, when Mama Domicenti, overheard me discussing trajectory and terminal effects of the 22-250 with her granddaughter, whose name slips my mind. Let’s call her Veronica. At the time I was smitten with the speed and reach of the cartridge. Don’t get me wrong, I think I liked the girl too, but the kitchen, it was always the kitchen first.

I was in great form that day, pronouncing my prowess with Red Ryder BB gun, Crossman air rifle, bows, knives, and sharpened sticks. I’m sure I made up a bunch of stuff too. Stuff I was certain I would do soon enough that it would count as if I already did it.

Mama looked at me with on eyebrow raised. It wasn’t the warning brow, just the questioning one. When you’re an early teen, you get to learn the difference pretty quick. It could mean the difference between life and near death. Come to think about it, it seems that as soon as you get married you lose the ability to discern between them.

Anyway, Mama looks at me and asks, “Alberto, can you bring me six fresh “palombo?” Bambina how do you say palombo…”

“She means pigeons.” said my girlfriend de jour.

“Yes that’s right. Pigeons. If you bring me six palombo, ah, pigeons, I will make gnocchi, and you will eat big dinner with the familia.”

Image Credit: Dave Halley
I got to thinking. Flying rats. I don’t know…

But you don’t say no to Mama, not if you want to survive into the immediate future.

“Sure thing Mama!” I said. “When do you want them?”

“Tomorrow afternoon you bring, and then we eat after tomorrow. Ok?”

“Ok Mama, six pigeons tomorrow after school.”

My girlfriend looked disgusted. But at least I was in Mama’s good graces which meant dinner was in the bag, and that counted for more than you could shake a stick at.

The next day was filled with anxiety. School was interminable. I had all sorts of plans. That morning I had sprinkled bird seed all over our yard, the neighbor’s yards, anywhere that I had line of sight to, got bird seed.

Sheridan Blue Streak in 5mm/20 cal

I knocked on my neighbor’s door when I got home and asked if I could use his Sheridan. He was one of those cool twenty something year olds that occasionally gave you the time of day. He had a Corvette which you could look at but not touch, and he was always real good about loaning me the Sheridan, and I was especially careful to return it in the same condition I got it.

In the suburbs of the Tri-State Metro area, there are always tons of pigeons. There are plenty of feral ones, and many people still keep pigeons in roof top coops. Most of the folks that keep them have specific, fancy breeds that are unlikely to mingle with the run of the mill feral pigeons. Well mostly anyway...

Anyway, I wasn’t disappointed. There were plenty of pigeons in the area, and in no time I had limited out. Those 20 caliber round nose pellets would knock them over no fuss, no muss.

Image Credit: Ken
I wrapped them up individually in newspaper and then put the lot of them in a brown paper bag. A short walk later I was at Mama’s front door ringing the doorbell. One of my girlfriend’s sisters opened the door, took one look at me, and hollered loud enough for the neighbors down the block to hear, “Veronica, it’s your boyfriend!” Veronica yelled down, “I'm on the phone! Tell him Gramma is in the kitchen.” Like I didn’t know where she would be.

Mama saw me coming down the hall and wiped flour from her hands with a dish towel, smoothed her apron, and looked at me expectantly.

“Well, tell me, did you get them?”

“I sure did Mama, just like you asked me to.” I opened the bag and handed her the first package.

Image Credit: Where's Walden
“Oh, thatsa nice. You make a package for each. Very nice.” Mama unwrapped the first pigeon and looked it over with a critical eye. I could tell she was not happy. She put it down on the paper. Unwrapping the rest, she looked each over as carefully as if she was inspecting nuclear munitions or something.

“Alberto,” she said, “I thought you said you were a ‘cacciatore’. A cacciatore would be more careful. Look, you ruin the meat when you shoot!” She pointed to the holes in each breast. “I can use, but you must do better! Next time you shoot here,” she pointed to the head. “No meat, and,” her eyes twinkled, “little brains... like you. So you do better for Mama next time, Ok?”

That was my first lesson in shooting for the table.

The next day I dutifully showed up for dinner. In those days it seems that a lot of folks with large extended families had two dinners, one for the kids, and then the adults. So at about five in the evening I was sitting at the table, face scrubbed, hair combed, and hands washed. On the table was a pot of gnocchi, which are small potato dumplings, salad, bread, and about another half dozen things that I can’t recall. Mama comes out of the kitchen with a roasting pan upon which lay the half dozen pigeons. They looked like little bitty chickens to me. The pigeons with their delicately golden browned breasts, sat in a bed of carrots and potatoes, with spices sprinkled all over everything.

Image Credit: Maki

It was beautiful.
Image Credit: oaxoax
Mama had a wooden spoon that defined her authority. She was the Queen of the Kitchen, the spoon was her scepter, and we, her loyal subjects. Before we could eat though, we had to say Grace. Mama seated her ample figure at the head of the table and bowed her head. I’m not sure what she said, but I caught my name and all the other kid’s names, and gratsia. When, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mama make the sign of the cross, I hastily added mine to the general cross making at the table.

Mama stood up and started to ladle out the gnocchi. “My cacciatorre,” she said as she served me enough food for a half dozen grown men. On top of the gnocchi and veggies she planted a whole palombo.

I waited until everyone was served including Mama. Remember, good manners, they don't cost anything, but they pay huge dividends! Tucking a lace napkin under her chin, she looked around the table, pleased with her subject’s good behavior and intoned, “Mangiare!”

To make a long story short the pigeon was actually pretty good, the veggies were good, and the gnocchi even better!

That was the beginning of a couple of years of pigeon market hunting for me. Mama told a couple of her friends who would then place orders with her, then they told their friends, and before you knew it I had a dozen clients with varying orders. I learned pretty quick to make those head shots and got between a dime and quarter per bird depending on the client’s generosity. It was an odd week when I didn’t have to shoot a dozen birds. During Easter, I recall I was asked to procure something like sixty pigeons. I remember ranging far and wide that week!

Image Credit: Riverwatcher
I would make two or three dollars a week doing something I really enjoyed, and managed to stay out of trouble.

Until we got new neighbors.

I was used to pretty much shooting anywhere on my block, but these new folks moved in and when they saw me in a neighbor’s yard shooting a pigeon off the roof, they called the cops. The cops weren’t interested in some kid shooting pigeons, but they didn’t want to be bothered by someone calling the station and complaining. So in the end, I had to hang up the Sheridan, and call it quits on market hunting.

In hind-sight I should have told Mama about the new people.

She probably would have taken that spoon to them until they came to their senses.

Albert A Rasch
The Hunt Continues...


Wild Ed said...

This reminds me of my German grandmother and her kitchen. I still feel like I should jump for a .22 everytime I see a squirrel at our bird feeder. Her squirrel and gravy over mashed potatoes would make you cry it was so good. :)

flea said...


Now I really like you! I grew up in The Poeples Republic of Jersey as well.

Grew up in Union City, later moved to Edison area and then got the hell out. Jersey now is one step above living at a supermax prison. Pull out a pellet gun now and they will have DHS kicking your door in.

Ahhh Jersey...they make a great Taylor Ham, egg and cheese though.


The Suburban Bushwacker said...

The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles, American storytelling.

RKL said...

I used to be a dead shot with my BB gun as a kid. I used to plug a bird or two every day in my backyard. One time I put one too high and it sailed over our fence and into a neighbor's yard. My mom got a call from an old woman who just wanted me to keep my shots in our yard. Imagine what would happen today!


Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Albert, sounds like you're from either Elizabeth or maybe Bayonne or Jersey City; I'm from Westfield, in Union County.

Great story. Come to our place in NorCal and we'll go shoot barn pigeons -- grain-fed and damn tasty!

Sigboy said...

I used ti shoot them off the neighbors rooftop. When the new neighbors moved in you had to hope the bird rolled off the roof and than run over and get it before they saw.

Anonymous said...

Things aren't like they used to be when we were young. I can remember my dad shooting rabbits out of the garden from the kitchen window and having the neighbors watch.
Not anymore, you'd get arrested for just mentioning it.

Wild Ed said...

You guys need to learn about CB .22 shells for shooting in the backyard. They make less noise than our old pump up pellet rifles.

Ron Layton said...

Great post, Rasch! Reminds me of when I had just gotten discharged from the Army and a bad divorce. I was wondering the streets of Tucson with my beat up pickup and some climbing gear. I would do peoples palm trees for outrageously cheap jut to survive. I did thei job for an old Italian gentleman. He told me he would pay extra for baby pigeons which nested in the palm trees. As soon as I got in the tops it was pigeon nest heaven! He kept yelling "Rudy!!! Trow me nudder schquab!!" I would reply "Its Ron" and he would saw "OK Rudy." I gave up. Anyway after all the work was done and the mess cleaned up he invited me inside for a dinner I'll never forget. I couldn't identify half of what was being served by his wife who was about four feet tale and wore a black dress with apron. The food was incredible!! There were cooked figs, all kind of homegrown veggies and the roasted squab. And of course some of the finest homemade red in Tucson for libations.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff Albert, brings to mind the summer I used my blue streak to terrorize the bull frog population. I ate a ton of frog legs in '67'

Hubert Hubert said...

Your marvellous story has called forth a host of other fine stories, Albert. Blogging at its best. Keep it up, mate.


hodgeman said...

This reminds me of back when I was courting my wife- her Grandmother always wanted me to shoot her a "mess" of squirrels. Specifically- NO headshots and no shotguns.

Among the old folks in E. Tennessee squirrel brains and scrambled eggs were quite the delicacy.

Albert A Rasch said...


I lived in North Bergen, and ranged from Fort Lee all the way to Jersey City. Much of my "hunting" was centered around Hudson County Park and the Meadowlands. When we first moved there from NYC, I thought we had moved to the country. The country where the homes are duplexes on 25X100 lots. What did I know?


native said...

Great story Albert!
Sure brings up old memories of my youth spent in rural Oveido, Taft, Jacksonville, Dunellon etc. etc.

NorCal Cazadora said...

GREAT story, Albert!

We definitely have to get you to NorCal so you and Hank can trade Jersey stories over fine wild game meals.

Phillip said...

This is the kind of thing that made me add TROC to my blog roll! Great stuff, Albert... and the memories it invokes!

I used to get a quarter for every rat and a dime for every crow from the local farmer when I was a young'un. I didn't collect a lot, because that old Red Ryder didn't have a heck of a lot of killing power, but it sure kept me in the grain bins and ditch banks and, somehow, I could always afford more BBs.