There is a bird in South America that eats gold. It's a kind of turkey, and it's black. This bird, whose name I don't know, and even if I knew I wouldn't tell you, follows fast-moving streams and zeroes in on sparkling gold flakes. The gold deposits in its gullet. The locals catch the bird, split it open, and take out a chunk of gold sufficient to build a thatched hut from the proceeds. Shrewder people actually follow the gold-eating birds along the streams and pan where they dive.
As soon as I heard about it, I called my friend Larry, who loves exotic schemes. His last venture, a coffee-bean farm in Costa Rica, specialized in coffee beans eaten and excreted by goats, which makes the coffee more valuable than gold or cocaine. The trouble was that he had to import the goats from Kenya and when they got to Costa Rica they refused to eat the beans, preferring the fencing around the plantation instead. Larry did eventually corral the goats and persuade them to eat his coffee beans, but not before several of them went on a hunger strike and died for their principles. (Or principle, which in this case was: we only eat Kenyan coffee!). Starbucks was interested at first, but the prohibitive cost put them out of contention, so Larry ended up packaging his own and selling the stuff by the ounce to rock stars and Hollywood types. An ounce of Kenyan-goat-Costa Rican coffee came to $3,000 plus shipping. The packages were produced in the U.S. by a Boston printer who specialized in letter-press on handmade paper and shipped to Larry by Federal Express. The design on each package was a wood-block print by a different artist, so that Larry employed at least 50 artists initially. Later, when the sales stalled at around four packages, Larry sold the farm at a loss to a Miami guy with shades.
Fate intervened at the last minute in Larry's favor when, just as he was about to throw himself into the fast-flowing Corobici, his cell phone rang. It was his mother, calling from the U.S. to tell him that the 46 remaining packages sold on e-Bay for $75,000 each, because of the original art. One of the wood-block artists had, it appears, become so hugely marketable in the three months since Larry's failure, that he pulled up the remaining 45 artists in his wake, and now they were all worth more than the coffee. The draw, however, was also the coffee, because the buyers thought it a part and parcel of the artistic vision. So, what started out as coffee and didn't sell, did very well when it became art.
"Hey, Larry," I said, "there is this bird in South America that eats gold. What we do is buy us a canoe and just follow the suckers down the stream with a couple of sieves and shovels. We find out where they nest, buy the land, and start raising them. With our own flock of gold-eating birds we should clear a lot."
Larry heard me. "Shoot," he said, "we'd be doing what the Spanish couldn't when they came to the U.S. They looked for gold in all the wrong places."
"Whatever," I said. "It wasn't the U.S. back then, and it still isn't where they got the gold bird, or your coffee and goats, for that matter, but why hold that against anybody? It's the global economy, remember?"
He remembered. We've got plane tickets.
Andrei's new book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City.