The big struggle of my day is now stopping myself from buying a chicken sandwich at Popeyes. Work is catastrophically boring now … and I mean the pure existential reality of being a 56-year old man at a job. My actual job is pretty good. But it’s still a job. And I’ve been going to work for a long-ass time. The condition of having to have a job makes life catastrophically boring.
So there’s now a real danger of making bad choices when I leave the office building.
My company did this massive renovation of the building at Columbus Circle. Very smart design. Plants and weird angles everywhere. Very futuristic. In sci-fi movies, when they go to the “enlightened planet” to meet the “enlightened” empress with the elaborate hairdo, long silk gown and benevolent telepathic powers, the palace looks a little like my office.
We even have a big outside deck with a dazzling view of Central Park and the East Side skyline. Magnificent!
But I can never find a thing to eat in the cafeteria.
Which is a good thing because it stops me from trying to fill the inner abyss with food.
I usually settle on a bland soup. Vegetable minestrone. The ladle disappointingly brings to the surface a flotilla of red beans and limp macaroni.
But if I leave the building, I feel obsessed with food.
The first thing dancing in my head is always a sandwich called a “pernil with a twist” at a Cuban place called Sophie’s. Sliced pork with sautéed onions and fried plantains and a delicious green sauce. Heated in a press. Yum.
But it’s too expensive for a simple lunch. Just because I’m cheap. The bigger issue is that I don’t have the will power not to eat the whole thing.
A few weeks ago, I got a chicken sandwich from Popeyes. I told myself that I was doing this as a lark. Avoiding fast food restaurants is kind of a religion in my house. Mostly for health reasons. Also to be politically/socially responsible.
But my honest personal reason to avoid Popeyes is that I didn’t move to New York and endure all of its hardships to eat from a place where I’d order from my car window back in Mississippi.
As long as I can order a Cuban pernil with twist or a slice of “real” New York pizza, it’s degrading to order from a fast food chain.
So I told myself that I was being “ironic” or something by going to Popeyes. You know, putting myself in quotes to pretend that I’m like all those vulgar people who actually LIKE fast food.
This was bullshit, of course. There is McDonald’s right next to Popeyes on 8th Avenue. I know myself. If I was really performing some sort of “parody display” ritual to exorcise my own vulgarity, I would have gotten a Big Mac. That would have been the ultimate symbolic analogue in my psyche to throwing an infant into the bronze jaws of Moloch to appease the darkness.
No. I wanted that chicken sandwich that made everyone go crazy.
And it was cheap! Less than $5!
But I believed that this was a one-time thing with a certainty so foregone that I didn’t reflect on it in the least. Not a trace of worry.
You know, the first time the congressman visits the truck stop bathroom, he might tell himself it’s a one-time thing. But he knows good and well that it isn’t.
But this was no big deal. I ate the sandwich walking back to the office, thinking, “Well, yeah, I guess it IS pretty good. I mean, I hate to think about how they produced the ingredients. How they raise the chickens. But still … in the end … it’s just a chicken sandwich. No questionable meat or mysterious sauce. And, you know, yeah, I’ll admit it. It’s pretty good.”
Nothing in me … NOTHING … felt like this was something I’d do again.
Two weeks later, I was walking back from the dentist on 57th Street and I knew … I was gripped with an utter certainty … that I needed another Popeyes chicken sandwich and that no power would stop me from getting one.
And it was everything I wanted it to be.
It was like those movie scenes when the addict gets a drug fix. The Doors “This is the End” starts playing in the sound track as the camera hovers at the ceiling over the blissed-out junkie.
Except my camera was hovering over a little plaza on 8th Avenue where a stout middle-aged man shoved a sandwich in his face.
~ Ride the snake … ride the snake … to the lake ~
This time I appreciated the astonishing fast food culinary science, in particular, how that Popeye’s flavor brand lives in the skin. Yes, it’s just chicken, pickles and bread. But that Popeye’s tang lies at the heart of the experience of eating the sandwich the way the Holy Spirit is supposed be an incomprehensible aura around the mystical unity of the Father and the Son.
It’s a flavor in the mind.
The flavor obviously comes from chemicals or some sort of artifice so that the sandwich will taste the same at every Popeyes on the planet. As I bite into my sandwich, millions of other people are tasting the exact same flavor.
It’s like something made by the replicator on Star Trek. Picard just ordered “Tea … Earl Grey … HOT!” and I step up and say, “Computah … chicken … fried by a grandma down in the Treme … FUNKY!”
Popeyes tastes like a 3D print of the real thing. The uncanny valley of food.
So now I’m screwed. I won’t tell you whether I’ve been back. But I will say that whenever I walk out on the street for lunch at work, I’m negotiating with myself about going to Popeyes.
And I no longer feel the same elitist scorn for all those people who got in brawls when Popeyes first offered the chicken sandwich and kept selling out. Those awful videos of people weeping or screaming at the employees behind the counter.
They … WE … we all feel the same ennui and despair that makes a chicken sandwich the only thing that gives life meaning.