S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Flipping the Bird,” Park shares about his foray into the emu industry and designing T-shirts.
In a lifetime of offbeat jobs perhaps the strangest was my emu and ostrich T-shirt business.
It began when my farmer brother Ben called me in the winter of ’94 to tell me he and his wife had purchased two pairs of emus. He raised crops, not livestock, and I knew as much about emus as I did kiwis, but he told me they were an Australian bird that was relatively new to the United States and the market was going to explode because not only were they large, tasty birds with sixty pounds of meat, but the skin was usable as leather and the oil from their fat was a marvel.
“It has the same phosphorous molecules as the skin so it’s able to penetrate it,” said Ben. “Nothing heals a burn like it does.”
He ended his pitch by telling me the present market revolved around breeding the birds and mature pairs cost anywhere from ten to twenty thousand dollars. He had, however, been to a farm where they were selling a six-month-old pair for six thousand six hundred dollars. Would I be interested in investing? They’d raise my pair with their own, and a year or two later, if the market held, I could double my money.
If it were anyone but Ben I would have hung up already. I was forty-seven at the time and, other than drugs, had never invested in anything in my life. (Who thinks of investments when you’re dead broke?) But I’d had a couple good crops in a row and a friend had paid me back the three thousand he owed me so, for the one and only time in my life, I actually had enough cash to buy those emus.
And it was burning a hole in my pocket. If a fool and his money are soon parted I’m the biggest buffoon around, such a notorious spendthrift that if I can’t waste the money I give it away. (My brothers and nephews, to lesser degrees, are much the same.) So the idea of actually investing in something, much less a pair of living beings with all the risks attendant to that, appealed to me.
Mostly though, I liked the idea of pairing up on a project with Ben. He’d always been the brother I was closest to but we lived a thousand miles apart and he was a notorious workaholic who rarely looked up from the dirt. So I sent him a check for sixty-six hundred and found myself the absentee owner of a pair of emus I called “Moe” and “Curly Jo.” Later that spring I drove south to the farm and was intrigued by what weird creatures emus are. Put them in a 20’ X 100’ pen, for instance, and instead of crossing from one side to another they stick to the perimeter; so the grass in the middle stays intact while a rectangular trench develops around it. They’re also extremely dangerous birds, as their long legs go in all directions and feature lethally sharp talons.
Plus, like ostriches and cassowaries, the other members of the “ratite” family, they’re pretty much the last of the dinosaurs. When that meteorite took out their cousins sixty-five million years ago these hardy bastards survived. (If you see fossilized dinosaur footprints, in fact, the shape and length of the tracks precisely mimic an emu’s stride.)
I know they scared the hell out of me. I couldn’t have owned a pair if Ben and his wife Anna weren’t raising them for me, but once in awhile, when I’d be visiting at Christmas, for instance, I’d be asked to do some menial chore or another (all I could be trusted with, really).
Which is how I found myself in the pen of their best breeding pair one winter evening. I’d accompanied Bean, my eight-year-old niece, as she went to collect one of the large green emu eggs. She was a tiny little thing, as blonde as her Danish mother and just as tough.
Several Christmases before we’d all been sitting around the tree when someone asked where Bean was. Anna walked over to the sunroom windows, glanced outside and laughed.
“There she is,” she said, pointing to the stable area. “And it seems she’s learned to ride.”
The rest of us followed her lead, saw that the then three-year-old Bean, who’d never ridden before, was loping around the ring on her mother’s stallion. She had an ear-to-ear grin and was clinging to the horse’s mane.
“She must have climbed the fence and jumped on!” declared an obviously proud Anna.
I looked at my mother, another soft city slicker, and gulped.
That night with the emu egg, however, was a more delicate business. The ideal mating ritual with emus was to put a female and two males together and let them fight for her. The loser not only has to watch them get it on afterwards, but also has to sit on the eggs when they arrive. It’s a bad deal for the scrub and this one was named Elmer. He was as nasty tempered as you’d imagine after sitting on the egg all day, then taking a single dinner break after nightfall. I don’t know how my brother determined when that was, but it must have been pretty regular. I just hoped Elmer would be busy when Bean and I collected the egg.
So we open the hundred foot pen and the nest, of course, is on the other end. I’m shining the flashlight and we walk through the high grass in the middle (because there’s definitely no birds there) and when we reach the far corner there’s the nest with a giant, emerald egg in the center. I put my back to the fence and shined the light on the egg as Bean cradled it in her arms.
Which is when I felt rather than heard something and lifted the beam to see Elmer, the last of the pissed off dinosaurs, charging out of the darkness. He was five feet tall and moving like a velociraptor. Bean had her back turned so I reached down and grabbed her shoulder:
“It’s Elmer, Bean! Watch out!”
I was pretty much frozen with terror. Her? This little blonde sprite of a girl in a parka two sizes too big for her? She spins around, shifts the egg under her left arm and uses her right to punch the charging bird in the chest!
“Beat it, bozo!” she grunted. (Not scared, mind you, but disdainful.)
I don’t know who was more stunned … me or Elmer. I know he stumbled around for a few seconds, then disappeared back into the darkness.
Bean got married a couple years ago and I told that story at her wedding reception. She didn’t remember the incident then and had, I think, forgotten it by the time we reached the incubator that night.
Big surprise she grew up to be a cop.
What most intrigued me about the big birds, though, particularly as I visited farmers near Ben who also owned emus, were their clownish expressions. No two looked alike and their head feathers could be curly, straight or virtually non-existent.
What most intrigued me about emus were their clownish expressions. No two looked alike and their head feathers could be curly, straight or virtually non-existent. They were ready-made cartoons.
They were ready-made cartoons, in other words, so I took to sketching them. Later I visited ostrich farms around Portland and did the same. I showed the results to a savvy graphic artist I knew, thinking I might run an ad in a ratite magazine offering to draw owners’ birds from photographs. She’s the one who suggested I put them on T-shirts instead.
So I jumped in with both feet, finding a reliable screen printer and shirt outlets, then producing roughly sixty emu and ostrich designs over the next couple years. I put them on T-shirts and sweatshirts of all sizes and colors and offered a box of eight different cards at Christmas. (Marketing was easy because a single magazine served most of the breeders.) I also peddled the shirts through the mail but mostly I drove them to customers, attending almost fifty conventions across the United States. I even went to a Belgian ostrich exhibit during my yearly visit to Amsterdam. So a month long, cross-country itinerary might include weekend shows in Cloverdale, California, Dallas, Texas, Orlando, Florida and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with maybe a stop in Wisconsin on the way back. My late friend Elaine helped occasionally but I usually worked alone, shipping shirts ahead that wouldn’t fit in my Ford truck.
My brother Ben was responsible for it, too. I’d never had a new vehicle; I could barely keep a used one more than a couple months. So in the Spring of 1981, when I returned from Seattle on a Greyhound bus, Ben picked me up in Sacramento. I guess he thought his 35-year-old brother had lived like a wino long enough, because when we reached the farm he presented me with the Ford. It was a bare-bones, silver “fleet truck” with a long bed, a bench seat, a stick shift and a radio that rarely worked. It cost $8,800 and he told me I could pay him back at the rate of $100-a-month.
A saintly guy, that brother of mine (he later waived the final fifteen hundred I owed him), and over the next twenty-five years I put 300,000 miles on that truck. If ever something came off the assembly line to be proud of it was that Ford. I changed the oil regularly and took the best care of it a mechanically disinclined person can (it was covered with rust from my years near the ocean in Bolinas) but really, that was just to soothe my conscience. That truck would have gone on with or without me and I wouldn’t be surprised if it rumbled past tomorrow. (Even the tires only went flat in the driveway.)
Unfortunately it was uncomfortable to drive but as a tall person I was used to that. What I loved is being alone on the road with hundreds, even thousands of miles stretching in front of me. No music, no talk, no distractions or flourishes … nothing to keep me company but me. (Enjoying your own company is, I believe, the greatest gift of all, and why I always thought I’d thrive as the last man on earth. Well, as long as there were still canned foods and libraries, anyway.) I was also smoking multiple varieties of primo pot as I drove and it was nothing to pop out of a trance, realize I’d gone a hundred miles or more without noticing. Fortunately the heavy loads and the truck’s wobbly camper neutralized my penchant for speed; I mostly stayed under sixty-five as a result, thus keeping patrol cars at bay.
I stopped in whatever strange city beckoned along the way, and eventually I’d get to the convention a day or two early, find myself a motel room, then set up my booth Friday morning. There wasn’t much to it once I’d carted the shirts inside and hung up a few signs. After that, regardless of where my booth was located, the shirts sold themselves. The “Emu Craze” lasted about two years, from 1994 to 1996, and during that time I was hardly the only shark circling. I’d always have competition at shows, particularly from regional artists, but I’d sell ten shirts for every one they did.
It sears my wino soul but when it comes to cartooning I’ve an abiding gift for “cute.” No matter what I draw, even the scariest face I can think of … there’s an insipid cuteness there. This worked with the shirts because it was wives and girlfriends buying the goods. Except for Boregon (where the whole family might buy one shirt to share) I can’t remember a convention where I didn’t sell out. It was, in fact, one of my most satisfying experiences as an artist, because the positive feedback was immediate. I’d stand behind a long table stacked with the various shirt designs (stoned on the strong pot brownies I brought along), while waves of convention goers exclaimed over my products.
Many of them were rural farmers or livestock people from red states, so in the present climate they’d be labeled “Trump Republicans” whether they were or not. Fortunately no one cared about such things in the mid-Nineties. (Hard to imagine now.) Take Texas, for instance. I grew to love Texans. They’re big hearted, big living, big spending people who would have turned me a profit all by themselves. As it was I cleared forty to fifty thousand a year before everything crashed. (Like any failed business venture with an escalating component, the ratite craze was scorned as a Ponzi scheme later or, to be more precise, American greed at its finest.)
Brother Ben got rid of his birds eventually, grinding them into burger for his workers. In the end their leather was thin and the meat slightly gamey (ostrich, on the other hand, is superb, a tenderloin steak without the fat), but if the oil had been properly publicized you’d still be hearing about emus today. I keep a vial around and when it comes to burns it is a miracle! Several times I scalded my arms or back bumping into the thousand-watt lights in my grow room. These were serious injuries but I’d apply ice to the skin for a minute or two, then a swath of emu oil and that was it … I’d never feel or think of the burns again.
Moe and Curly Jo? I sold them a couple weeks before the crash for nine grand. I’m sure they made excellent chili.