Invisible Hooves

Chick-fil-A was not just a place to buy chicken, at least not to us. It was a symbol, the last honest company, a holdover from the days when America was Christian, when lemonade came from real lemons, when people looked you in the eye when they shook your hand, and when the chicken was always fresh, never frozen. They were looking to open up a new franchise, and you couldn’t have found a town more welcoming than mine. I was raised in Folsom, California, namesake of the only prison you’d be proud to get locked up in, and tucked among that country where the gold never really ran dry. We were far enough from Sacramento to be mostly white, but close enough to share its wealth. We were far enough from the hill country to call ourselves moderate, but close enough to adopt its prejudice. And although we lived on the arid shores of an artificial lake, to us it was a Galilee of perpetual calm. So when we told Chick-fil-A it was our pleasure, we meant it.

I was Folsom’s loyal son: a 16 year old patriot aching for a company to mistreat me. And I had a girlfriend who desperately wanted, needed, a Tiffany necklace. So it seemed like destiny when the sleek red Chick-fil-A finally opened. I walked down there with no resumé except a big smile and the assurance of 1 Timothy. It was barely enough. But I was young, burning with apostolic zeal and able to speak their language right back to them. I strode every inch of that second mile, and was I part of a union? Hell no. My gods were Jehovah and Ronald Reagan, as real as the sugar in your lemonade. After four rounds of interviews, they gave me the job.

Orientation was held in a deluxe conference room on top of a hill. Five of us teens had made the cut out of more than 50. We sat in leather chairs, too nervous to talk much. In hindsight we were all versions of each other: clean-faced, bright-eyed, and demure, five avatars of Joseph Smith. Beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows, the Sacramento Valley spread out like a promise: a land of buttermilk and honey-mustard.

The head of HR appeared. She was short and heavyset, with curly black hair, thick glasses, and an avian watchfulness. “Some of you,” she told us, “will be given a special assignment.”

I looked up from my W-4.

For most employees, the cow is the worst gig at Chick-fil-A. I couldn’t understand that. I hated working the register, and I wasn’t attentive enough to be a dining room attendant. I used to print blank receipts and pass notes and sketches to my mortified coworkers. I’d give someone a lemonade when they ordered a Mello Yello. Chinks in the armor of God, I’d later realize. But my girlfriend wanted that Tiffany necklace bad, and since I assumed we’d marry, the dilemma took on large and spiritual proportions. While my colleagues may not have enjoyed strapping on the convection oven in the blistering valley heat, for me, it was an opportunity to step into one peculiar magic of late capitalism: to become at once man, cow, and corporation, to brand brand on my body, to step into corporate corporeality. Of course my attraction to it then was more vague. Really it allowed me to transcend my lot as cheap labor. Plus I was good at it.

More than good, even. I was the best Chick-fil-A cow in regional, possibly national, history. Just mention my name if you stop by the Folsom franchise. Some of my old chums may still be there. If so, they would regale you with my antics. Like how I out-danced Zumba Bob at a school assembly, even though our suit was far less agile than theirs (Zumba Bob was a cowboy, for some reason). Maybe they’ll mention the time I stole the show at a divisional basketball game, about how my manager had to call the restaurant to say, “Bring more sandwiches, now.” You might even hear how, before my current girlfriend, I asked a girl to homecoming at a high school football game. I walked in front of the stands, wearing full bovine regalia, holding a big sign which read “Come to Homecoming, Allie” in knock-off Chick-fil-A scrawl. How’d she know it was me? It doesn’t matter. She’d have gone with anyone like that.

I wasn’t like other cows. To me the job was not about anything so vulgar as marketing. I was a link in the great tradition of animal-dressing, like a shaman of old. Sure, my nominal purpose was to sell chicken, but when I strapped on the cow—an animal more American even than the eagle—it was about God and country. And that Tiffany necklace. Because not long after I started, management cut back my shifts until I was pretty much only doing the cow. So failure was not an option. I had no other skills.

But I didn’t fail. Far from it. Under my tenure, the franchise fortunate enough to employ me soared up the sales ladder. We put the Chick-fil-A world on notice. The cooks, the cashiers, the managers, we were the ’96 Chicago Bulls, and I was Michael Jordan. Scottie Pippen too, probably. And I was equipped. The cow is a leviathan of modern technology, a corporate M1 tank and costing about as much. He stands over seven feet tall. His hooves are flat and massive as an IHOP short stack. His reinforced Styrofoam head and breastplate creates a mobile microwave; many have passed out in its service, from there to be herded to the freezer to recover with the chicken. You could find the heat signature of a summer cow from the International Space Station. But my location had invested cutting-edge technology in their franchise player. To keep my core temperature low, they strapped me with a Kevlar-like vest rigged with ice packs. Over the vest I wore a camelback filled with a mixture of PowerAde and water. And they supplied me with backup. My crew consisted of the marketing manager, who in my hubris I thought of as a sort of caddy, along with a salesperson who manned the sandwich stand.

The day it all came crashing down was the hottest day of the summer, well over 100 degrees, and was also longest scheduled cow shift in regional history, clocking in at over eight hours. But God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers. And don’t be mistaken: this was battle. There was a lot on the line that day. We had an opportunity to work three fundraisers back-to-back-to-back, a three-peat, in order to solidify our dominance among other franchises. Plus I could make a chunk of the necklace money in one day.

At 6:00am we rolled up to an empty field carting the equipment in a duffel bag. This bag was heavy, and absolutely reeked of sweat and chicken. But it wasn’t me who had to carry it. It was the marketing manager. I had to conserve my energy. The first event was a charity run, and I slayed it. I’d become so light on my hooves that I imagined if I had participated in the race, nobody would have had a shot at keeping up. But I had nothing to prove. So instead I flouted wordlessly around, silent as always. For that is the first and great commandment of cowdom. You are to be like God: silent.

There is a picture of me from that morning. In it, I use the cow head to pretend kiss a man on the cheek, his face wrapped in my hooves. And although my human face was actually level with the cow’s neck—the operator sees through disguised mesh on the beast’s throat—the cow dimensions had become my own, and I performed the gesture with ease. Definitely, I did awesome. The second event—a fundraiser at a middle school—went just as well, and on our drive out I waved to some ladies from the front seat of the Chick-fil-A van. I’d gotten numbers before. I was in mid-season form. I was MJ in France. Of course I would never have gone behind my girlfriend’s back, but when I was on the clock, I was the cow, and the cow has no girlfriend. My mind drifted to the thought of a career, the glories, maybe, of professional mascoting. I was Gideon on the riverbank. Nothing could stop me.

The final event of the day was at Folsom City Hall. By that point it was early afternoon, the blistering heat of the day, and I was relieved to be inside. We set up shop in a vacant snack bar. My manager helped me suit up while the salesperson readied the cash box. We were one of many local businesses to set up stands. Consumers buzzed through the main hall. I raised my arms in the air. These, I thought, these are the invisible hooves of capitalism. It was time to sell some chicken.

But it was mostly an older crowd. Disappointing, since the cow grazes on the energy of consumers for its own life. I swiveled that massive head for some action. Over by the Rotary Club, the Kovar’s Taekwondo Academy had set up a table. The sensei passed out flyers while trying to keep an eye on the pupils he’d chosen to represent the dojo. It was a mixed clan. Boys and girls, ranging from 5 to 12 years old, milled around with bristling energy, dressed up in their little white outfits with the colorful belts pulled tight. They were the perfect company for a seven-foot cow. Their parents would see us hanging out and get hungry, then go buy some chicken. I lumbered over and started doing my thing. It was an ideal marketing situation. They were responsive, their smiles toothy and their kicks dodgeable. I fluttered around like a comic monster. Together we enacted a great battle, swirling and feigning strikes, their hiyas echoing my moos. A crowd of adults gathered around us. They clapped and laughed. The local newspaper was there. I knew what the front page would look like.

Then, distracted by the gathering crowd, I failed to block a very real two-handed shove to my chest. I stumbled backward into unexpected resistance—there was something braced against the backs of my knees. Some kid, a brown belt at the very least, had dropped on all fours. It was the tabletop jutsu. I slammed to my back.

Through the mesh I watched with horror as dim shapes swarmed over my body. The architect of my defeat was an older kid, who crouched above me with an evil smirk. He pointed at the mesh where my real face was, and said, “Hit him there.” Over-and-over-and-over again the mob began to punch me in my actual, human face, their strikes punctuated by a now sinister chorus of hiyas. But I would not break my vow of silence. I would not break the spell. I would be the sacrificial cow. Lord, I thought with the Psalmist, how my enemies surround me. I groaned and mooed and bleated as they went on pounding. My nose erupted with blood. The frame of the cow is so stiff that if you fall to your back it’s extremely difficult to get back up. So I lay there slumped against the foam backplate, leaning straight into surprisingly mature strikes. I shifted my face to the side as far as possible. That was all I could do. The room went silent, watching.

I didn’t know much about Taekwondo—I wished I had; maybe that day would’ve gone differently—but I did know it was supposed to be about honor and respect and self-defense. From where sprang this bestial aggression? Who was the dark master who’d formed these fiends? From what foul dojo?

Finally my manager appeared by my side. He tore the little wasps off of me as the crowd backed off, murmuring. I bounced up and looked around, ready to defend myself. The urchins had scattered. A few stood in the corner, being lectured by their inattentive sensei. But the damage was done. They’d tasted blood. I looked over at the newspaper guy, but he dropped his gaze and pretended to look somewhere else.

We closed early. My team shut down the stand and set up an impromptu triage. They helped the equipment off my shoulders. My shirt was splattered with blood. I twisted a napkin into my nose, tilting my head up. We left with a full case of sandwiches. It was an awkward ride home.

Back at the restaurant, I had to file an incident report with my supervisor. I sat in his office and reiterated my humiliation in bureaucratic language. I’d like to think that report has been lost, buried in a clutter of tax forms and prayer cards. I like to imagine that some future archivist, curious about the forgotten symbols of an empire’s end, will discover my story. That with enough time it will come to mean something. Because even now, it just feels stupid.

Combined with my other inadequacies, the beating was enough for Chick-fil-A to slowly work me out of the schedule. I did not have enough money for a necklace. But I’d learned a thing or two from the cow, learned about things pretending to be other things. From eBay I purchased two things: a fake Tiffany necklace, and a real Tiffany box, which was much more expensive. I presented the gift with considerable gravity. She nearly sobbed with joy. For years after our prolonged and miserable break-up, I often wondered whether she ever found out, or whether she knew it was fake from the beginning. These days when I’m deliberating whether to buy something nice, I mostly spring for it, because in my head that extra money comes from the cache I saved years before on the necklace. I think, what the hell did I get beat up for if not that? Maybe that’s dumb, I don’t know.

For a long time I kept this story to myself. The humor was not immediately apparent to me. How could it be, when that night I had to look my father in the eye and tell him that the one fight of my life had been with kids, and that I’d lost? I’d like to say the blows to my pride were more injurious than those to my face, but the truth is, I don’t know. All I know is that the following Sunday, with Chick-fil-A closed, I was just another boy at church, eyes shut, human hands raised to God and the free market, trying hard to sing those same old songs.


When it popped out of my bag I: Screamed.