Chicken, Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent by David Henry Sterry

by D. R. Peak

29 May 2002


Crispy Fried in the City of Angels

“There is . . . but one categorical imperative, namely, this: Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
—Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals

It’s a real tough life when you’re a chicken. When you’re a chicken, your body is not your own. Neither is your time, your life, or your wants and needs, sexual or otherwise. You take their call and you show up on time. You enter the house, usually from the back door, making sure no one sees you. You have sex with your client, doing anything and everything they wish. When the hour is up you take the crisp $100 bill in its envelope from where it lays on the dresser, and you bolt out the door, only to wait until they call you and then you do it all over again. Sound like fun?

cover art

Chicken, Self-portrait of a Young Man for Rent

David Henry Sterry

(Regan Books)

Not according to writer David Henry Sterry, who, at 17 years old, arrived in Los Angeles with no job, no place to live and only $27 in his pocket. For an easy-going white suburban kid from a first generation immigrant family, just starting college, with no clue as how to survive in the big city, this was not a good thing. The first night his $27 was stolen and he was raped by a large man in a black T-shirt with the word “sexy” in silver glitter letters sprawled across his chest. The next day found him wandering around the seedier parts of Hollywood with a bleeding rectum, in a state of shock, so hungry he climbed into the dumpster of a fried chicken restaurant looking for leftovers in which to feed himself. He was valiantly rescued from a life of dumpster dining by the manager of that same chicken restaurant, a gay pimp named Sunny, who first gave him a job frying chicken for the hungry of Beverly Hills, then a place to stay for the night, safe from rapists wearing black T-shirts with the word “sexy” spelled out in glitter letters. And sooner than you could say “stick a fork in ‘em, they’re done,” Sterry was learning the tricks of the chicken trade. Not that kind of chicken, this kind:

chick-en/ n, slang: a teenager who engages in indiscriminate sexual practices for money.

Sterry had fallen headlong into the world of male prostitution. And, in Sterry’s world, being a chicken isn’t the life of a high-paid and classy gigolo, sports cars, swimming pools and trips to the Keys, but a life of selling yourself to whoever, whenever, for whatever cash you can get. Day after day; night after night. But industrial sex and drugs and selling yourself for hard-earned profit will only get you so far in the real world. It’s a real tough life when you’re a chicken and he doesn’t want you to forget that.

He tells us in an un-glowing manner about his first “trick,” a woman he calls Coma Girl. Emaciated of body and soulfully vacant, she wants him to have sex with her while she pretends to be dead. She orders him to whisper naughty things to her while he’s having sex with her stick-thin, unmoving and unresponsive body. Only the thought of that $100 bill on the dresser keeps him motivated enough to finish.

And within days he’s making more money than he ever thought possible and he’s having more sex than his teenaged brain ever dreamed of. But it doesn’t take him long to figure out at what price:

He wants sincere love from Kristy, a fellow college student who knows nothing of his life as a chicken. But he also wants Jade, a fellow sex-for-hire teen he meets at a party. He wants more money. He wants to graduate school. He wants to be the best chicken in the business. He wants to stop being a chicken, settle down with Kristy and start a family. He wants . . .

He doesn’t really know what he wants, and therein lies his problem. He’s smart enough to know that he can’t lead a successful double-life forever. At some point, something must give.

Sterry’s many anecdotes about his futile attempts to have a simple college life—a girlfriend, vacations with his family, good grades—while servicing lonely and twisted married women in the Hollywood hills for a $100 an hour plus tips, are hilarious and well told. Juggling the sordid, oft-twisted tales of life as a chicken with Sterry’s reminisces from his innocent childhood—where we see his family softly disintegrate by story’s end, leading the way for Sterry to become the great chicken he was—are no easy task for any writer, yet Sterry deftly handles the disparate juxtapositions of his two lives in a fun, quick prose, that sometimes makes light of the scary situations Sterry finds himself in. You get the feeling that he’s not telling you everything, saving you from the true horrors of it all with the quick wit of a stand up comedian, hoping you’ll read between the lines for the horrors he’s still too afraid to talk about.

So special mention must be made to Sterry’s dedication at the front of the book:

“This is dedicated to all the boys and girls who have been, and continue to be, victims of abuse at the hands of adults. Ask for help. Tell your story.”

As a young man, still struggling with his own sexuality, Sterry now realizes that he was forced into a life of abuse by adults who had the money and power to get what they wanted from him, a young, poor kid, looking to survive anyway he could. The fact that Sterry didn’t die of a drug overdose, or end up jail speaks volumes for his character.

David Henry Sterry, a chicken no longer, brave enough to tell his tale, hoping it will do others some good.

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