Lewie really wanted to buy a pig. He was out of work and lonely. He was overeating. Like a time some years ago when he’d smoked so much reefer that he’d smoked himself straight, he was eating himself hungry. Bored with watching reruns of reruns, he found himself turning on the Home Shopping Club. That’s how bad things were getting. He couldn’t find a job. He couldn’t afford to go out. A pig would be a good companion for the long, empty days. The only reruns he could stand to watch anymore (besides Mr. Belvedere with Bob Uecker) were episodes of Green Acres that featured Arnold Ziffel, the pig.
He wasn’t going to get a pig like Arnold. For a city dweller a Vietnamese potbelly is the only pet to get. Lewie was living in an isolated flat over a barbershop on the far southwest side. The neighbors wouldn’t be a problem. Potbellies are like precocious kids, they get restless if they’re not taken out regularly, but Lewie lived near a forest preserve. He also had a dog that needed walks (and two frogs, which didn’t), so he didn’t foresee any problems. He knew that he could afford to take care of it. A 25-pound bag of Purina pig chow costs $15 and will feed a pig for months. He didn’t expect to be disillusioned. He didn’t know that something wasn’t kosher in the pig racket.
He’d sold his car, and after paying off his back rent, he had some money to spare. Though expensive, Vietnamese potbellied pigs are affectionate and intelligent. They like to cuddle with their owners and watch TV. They’re also small enough for apartment living. They can get heavy if they overeat, like the one the condo association on Lake Shore Drive sought to evict, calling it a farm animal. They’re bred on farms, but not really meant for them. You wouldn’t get too much bacon out of a potbelly. Fully grown, they average between 40 and 60 pounds and stand a foot high, about the size of a gym bag. If taken care of properly, they’re fine in apartments. They can be housebroken, and will go in a litter box. One owner built a rooting pen for his pig, like a playpen, with toys and pebbles in it. Another one likes to wax his floor and slide the pig across it like a round, bristly hockey puck. He says the pig likes it too.
Scanning the ads in the “Cats, Pets” column of the Sun-Times classifieds was depressing. Sellers were asking big money, sometimes $600, for these little pigs. They cost even more from pet stores. Almost all the ads listed phone numbers in distant area codes, so Lewie knew that calling around would eat up some food money. Still, he thought, he’d probably save by going directly to the source, down on the farm. Out in the heartland.
He wanted that pig today. Tomorrow would take care of itself. Transportation could be borrowed. A couple of ads looked promising. He phoned a potbellied-pig breeder in the Peoria area and a friendly woman answered his call. She listened to his query and immediately cautioned him. “Caveat emptor, young man.”
“What do you mean by that?” he asked her.
“What I mean by that is that some folks are selling farm pigs as potbellies,” she explained. “They advertise potbellied piglets for sale and sell regular pigs to people who don’t know the difference.”
Lewie didn’t know what to make of this. He thought that the woman might be trying to tack a few extra dollars onto the cost of her own pigs. But she didn’t seem concerned with selling. “I always tell people to ask for registration papers,” she said, “because when they’re young, it isn’t easy to tell a potbelly from a regular pig.” She said that to further confuse the issue, some farmers had experimented in crossbreeding. “See, when they were first imported over here, the only ones you could get were all black in their coloring. Then a few with white markings appeared, and they were rare, so prices for them were really high. To get white markings, some people crossbred the black ones with ordinary farm pigs.” She had first read about this in Pot-Bellied Pigs magazine two years ago, and said that she’d heard worse things since then.
The pig that results from crossbreeding a potbelly with a regular pig can grow to be the size of an average farm pig. And, she told Lewie, some farmers aren’t even bothering with crossbreds. They’re selling ordinary piglets as potbellies. “There’s a great deal of profit in it,” she said. “They can take a twenty-dollar pig and sell it for five or six hundred. I guess some people have gotten rich.”
Convinced, Lewie responded that it was a shame. “It is,” she said. “A person buys a piglet, raises it up, and falls in love with it. Two years later, they’re sharing their bedroom with a 300-pound hog. And what about the pig? What happens to him when his owner finds out that the cute little pet he thought he’d bought is a big old mud-bathing, slop-eating farm animal? What happens then?”
“You got a problem.”
“You know it’s a problem. That poor little pig was raised as a pet. He’s part of the family. You wouldn’t want to slaughter him.”
“I know I wouldn’t,” Lewie agreed.
“Well,” she said, “my potbellies are registered and have papers.” She went on to tell Lewie that the popularity of potbellies had waned a bit, and that she’d sell him a piglet for $250. They can fetch as much as $900, so this was a bargain. She said that a celebrity, Belinda Carlisle, former lead singer of the Go-Go’s and a Republican, had become a breeder of potbellied pigs. She herself had paid $10,000 for one of her breeding sows.
She couldn’t come down any more on the price. If Lewie wanted to take a look at some piglets, she’d be glad to arrange a time. Dispirited, Lewie wouldn’t go to the Peoria area just then. He thanked her for the warning. The price was higher than he could afford, and even if he did get a genuine registered potbelly, there were genuine problems to consider. Raising a pig didn’t seem like such a simple matter anymore.
Recently a short item in the Sun-Times sports section reported that Don Nelson, the coach of the Golden State Warriors, was forced to give up his potbellied pig when it did some business in his office. And Lewie had heard about what happened to people with full-time jobs who didn’t have time to take care of their pigs. If you lock up a potbellied pig alone in an apartment for too long, he’ll get bored and ornery. He might eat too much, or he might become mischievous, like the one whose owners found him in the remains of their kitchen. They caught him amid a pile of broken cabinet doors, assorted cutlery, and half-eaten food, with taffy smeared all over his rump. A serving spoon was stuck in the taffy. The pig was dancing in the wreckage wagging the spoon around like a flagpole. His hooves clicked against the linoleum. They swore he was grinning.
Lewie picked up a Sun-Times and scanned the classifieds for suspicious-looking pig ads. “Here’s one,” he told his dog and frogs. It advertised “Piglets, con-line, $250.” “Con-line, huh? That must be a scam,” he observed. He turned on the TV and grabbed a Milky Way.
Lewie has taken himself out of the market for a pet pig, though he might buy one when he gets another job. He’s spent some of the money left over from selling his car on “sports card collectibles,” which have been a sale item on the Home Shopping Club. The wolf is not at the door, not yet. He now owns a complete set of Bob Uecker cards, one from each year of his baseball career, before Miller Lite and Mr. Belevedere. Though they don’t make good companions and they’re not as much fun as pets, cards don’t eat, they don’t smell, and you don’t have to take them for a walk. Lewie says they might even be worth something someday. “Better than money in the bank,” he says. Of course, there’s really no basis of comparison between a pig and a Bob Uecker baseball card as a hedge against lean times.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.