About 45 minutes east of downtown L.A. and a few miles south of the San Bernardino Freeway, you can smell the air change. It may have changed a minute or two before, but at the junction of Euclid Avenue and Riverside Drive near Chino, as you wait to turn left at the light, the smells of the barnyard--hay, grass and fertilizer--have unmistakenly overtaken the scents of the city.
It is late morning here at the Maclin Open Air Market and Livestock Auction, a Southern California landmark for more than 50 years.
Today, a Wednesday, only cattle are sold. Cattle people are a different breed, we are told. And one can sense that the air not only smells different here, its vibrations are different, too. A chorale of mooing cattle sends a soothing mantra over the land.
A black Angus rubs tenderly against a Holstein. They stare at each other with, well, cow eyes. Such eyes, so dark and large and luminous. Their gentle gaze invites a human hand, but the cattle back away in fear.
"All right they're 17 by the head, gentlemen," auctioneer Pete McCormick calls, giving the number of cattle in the group to be auctioned. "400, 410, 10, 20, 440, 440, 460, 490 . . . sold for 490."
The printed word can not capture the music of the auctioneer, nor his velocity. His voice is the fiddler at a square dance, the call of "swing your partner" to "Turkey in the Straw."
"All right, I need 370, 80, 90, all right 390, now 4, 4, 410, now 10 now 410, 420, ah 420, all green cattle boys, 420, 30, 430, 440 . . . ah 430, sold, 430."
A cattleman in a spotless cream-colored straw Resistol cowboy hat--a thin black ribbon around the crown--points to the steer being auctioned: "This one doesn't have too much beef."
What is it?
"An Angus, Angus and something," he says. "Everything is crossbred. I've seen this one so often I know his first name. I've seen him for months. See his leg? It's not right, been infected," says the cattleman who buys and sells here every week.
So what's he good for?
"Meat. But I don't want to feed him and he's not cheap enough to kill," says Heine Hettinga, the man in the Resistol hat. A cattleman with 16,000 head of his own, give or take a few, he came to this country with his family in 1949 from Holland. In his 20s he started in the cattle business at the bottom, trimming hoofs and castrating bulls. Today, at 45, he's a self-made millionaire, say his friends at the auction.
"He's a cull," Hettinga says of the imperfect steer, "culled out of a bunch of cattle."
"I'm 48, 9, 50, I'm 2, 52, 3, now 4, 54 . . . sold 54," calls the auctioneer.
Hettinga points to a brown steer. "That's what you call chicken bones. See the fine bones on the legs? Won't grow big.
"See them, they're from Mexico. See the clip on the ear? That's how you can tell," he says.
Two brothers, Aziz and Dayani Alemzay, born in Afghanistan, stand near Hettinga. They are buying cattle for the first time. He advises them. "We're looking for something about 400 or 500 pounds," Aziz says, at about 55 cents a pound.
Hettinga assesses number 1,124, now being auctioned. "That bull is all meat," he tells the brothers, and bids for him.
"We are Muslims," Aziz says, explaining his reasons for buying the beef while it's still moving. "It's much better to buy and have it killed here. We know from beginning to end what has been done to it."
"Lookey here, boys," calls McCormick, the auctioneer. His tongue does its rapid fiddle, "I'm 42, 3, 3, 4, 44, 45 . . . 48, sold 48. Gomez." Hettinga yells to the men in the stands, "It's going to Gomez and the garbage heap." They laugh.
Joe Gomez makes a business of "hauling (garbage) off and feeding it to the cattle rather than hauling it to the dump," Hettinga says. "Everybody feeds some kind of byproducts." But Gomez "has garbage trucks and actually picks it up. He's a junkie by trade," Hettinga jokes.
Gomez taught him the business, he says. "We'll sit here and fight, then go out and drink."
Gomez jumps up; he has been sitting high in the stands: "That don't weigh no 1,000 pounds." He disputes the scale. The auctioneer has the steer weighed again.
"Joe, it's a thousand pounds," the auctioneer says.
"All right," Gomez says, looking unconvinced.
It's mid-afternoon and the wind is kicking up. The livestock foreman, Steve Harbison, is standing outside his office with the wind whistling in his ears. He has a face reminiscent of Gene Autry in his youth and a steady, gentle voice.
"You bet cattle people are different," says the 34-year-old south Texas native. There are so many things they have to consider, says Harbison, who ran a ranch in Texas before it "fell apart due to economic hard times" in the state two years ago.