Deep in the Heart, er, Bowels of Texas

It’s the middle of Texas’ driest year on record and a group of yapping spectators are gathered around a pool table in a windowless honkey-tonk on Austin’s Burnet Road. With sweating bottles of Lone Star in one hand and red tickets in the other, their eyes are starring, unblinking, at a cage under a Coors lamp shaped like a NASCAR racer. Inside, Franny* the chicken is taking her sweet time.

She’ll poop when she damn well pleases.

Ginny’s Longhorn Saloon has hosted “Chicken Shit Bingo” every Sunday night for years now. It’s an event that’s about as redneck as redneck gets but it draws a standing-room-only crowd every week. Folks, good ol’ boys, 20-somethings of the genus Hipsterus-Ironicus, tourists and retirees with slicked back hair and $250 alligator boots come from many miles around to pay two dollars a ticket to watch a hen defecate.

Things get going around 4 PM as a bearded western band starts plucking strings on a tiny stage in the corner. The saloon is covered in paraphernalia aged to defection by years of darkness, perspiration and cigarette smoke. Ginny Taylor, the tavern’s pint-sized proprietor, is holding court behind the bar, obligingly posing for photos for anyone gutsy enough to ask for one. She looks like she could go 15 rounds with Mama Fratelli from The Goonies but her sweet smile suggests she’s just a sweet, Lone Star gal underneath all that gruff exterior.

At the stroke of 5 PM, everyone jumps out of their seats and forms a line that snakes around the pool table and along the endless bar. Each patron hands over their cash and receives a ticket with a number on the back as Franny is brought into the tavern from her well-appointed hen house out back. She’s lowered into the cage and onto a bingo grid drawn on a piece of plywood. The staff have provided her with an ample amount of chicken seeds and fresh grapes. Those who already have their tickets in hand passively-aggresively scoot their way into the remaining cage-side spots. They break out their cell phones and cameras. Some call friends and family back home.

“You’re not going to believe where we’re at,” one girl says into her Blackberry. “No, we’ve already been to the Cathedral of Junk and down South Congress. Yeah, we saw the bar from Death Proof too. We’re doing Chicken Shit Bingo tonight. Yeah, we’re all standing around, waiting for the chicken to do her thing. I’ve got lucky number 37.”

And then they wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Chicken Shit Bingo isn’t a pastime for the impatient. Ginny’s daughter Terry is working behind the bar and is offering advice to three college guys from Colorado, “Yeah, you’ll want to order another beer. Sometimes it takes a while for Franny’s system to get going. Could take 10 minutes. Could take an hour. Her gizzard works in mysterious ways.”

Country artist Dale Watson, a regular player on the saloon’s stage, came up with the idea sometime in the 2000s and suggested it to Ginny. They figured a weekly Bingo event would last a month, tops. It’s since become an Austin institution that has landed in the pages of The Onion and Wired, almost but not quite as popular as the Congress Bridge bats.

Despite the buzzing crowd, which hushes and gasps as she bounces from square to square and goes silent anytime she so much as lifts a claw, Franny is in no hurry. She looks up occasionally from the board, as if it’s just dawned on her that she’s surrounded by dozens of spectator. The hen casually struts from grape to grape. She’s not really in the mood for the seeds sprinkled across the cage tonight. As one bit of fruit begins to bore her,  Franny wanders over to the other. The indecisive finickiness of this feathered diva has everyone spellbound.

47 minutes in, it happens.  Franny “does her business” on number 22. A tiny, young woman in glasses raises her arms in a V. “WOO HOO,” she yells, laughing all the way up to the MC who hands her a $180 pot. The crowd applauds her good fortune as the band returns from a break. A new line forms, filled with those eager to try their luck again in Round 2.

* A lengthy Google search did not yield the chicken’s true identity. So, for the sake of this story, her name is Franny. One named Sissy worked at Ginny’s back in 2008 but there’s no telling if she’s still the resident hen. 

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