A few months ago, I moved in with my girlfriend, to a new apartment in a lower-income section of town. The apartment itself is nice, and the neighborhood isn’t what I’d call dangerous, but it’s definitely poor. Across the street from our building, for instance, is the Martin Luther King housing project, and just up the block there’s a Safeway, but to give you an idea of the way things go in our neighborhood, it looks like a regular Safeway on the outside, and has pretty much all the things you’d expect to find inside a Safeway — cheese, milk, bread, you know, groceries and shit — but when you get to the checkout line to put your things on the conveyor belt, instead of those plastic dividers to separate your food from the customers in front and behind you, this Safeway just has tightly-rolled grocery bags with rubber bands wrapped around them. This obviously raises some important questions. Do people steal the regular dividers? If so, what do they do with them? Is there a manager somewhere hoarding them, preparing for a divider shortage? If not, does the company just not care, or do they actively resent this franchise? And if so, why? Those questions I can’t answer, I only report what I see.
I’ve lived in rich neighborhoods and in poor neighborhoods, and lots in between, and there are advantages and drawbacks to each. Rich neighborhoods have lots of coffee shops with wifi access, and they also usually have a few seafood joints and nice places to get dinner. The major drawback is that the more your neighbors have paid to live in any given place, the more they feel entitled to crawl up your ass and complain about any little fucking thing they don’t like about how you live your life. I once had a neighbor in San Diego who basically told me that if I had to park on the street again, not to do it in front of his house anymore because my ugly car was bringing down the property values. In general, rich people have worked hard to carve out their tiny slice of paradise, and they’re not shy about telling you if you’re blocking the view. Conversely, poor neighborhoods have hardly any wifi and sometimes can barely manage cell service. The shops are usually shitty, and when I lived in Harlem I couldn’t get in and out of the Post Office in less than an hour and 45 minutes. In parts of San Francisco, I could never leave anything in my car, in case hobos happened to be “window shopping.” (Ever had to replace a window because someone wanted to steal a sweaty t-shirt? I have.). The upside is, your neighbors never hassle you. Also, when they’re not stealing, crackheads are great entertainers. My new neighborhood has plenty of those, including one guy who hangs out at the bus stop having imaginary conversations with Ricky Williams and Lebron James, plus a burly Middle Easterner who owns the bodega on the same corner, who regularly chases him out of the store snarling “I told you get outta here, crackbaby!”
“So, anyway, boss, what do you think of this new coconut water?” he’ll say, turning to me, once his itchy nemesis is out of his hair.
Incidentally, the store is called the Third World Market, which doesn’t strike me as particularly flattering.
But getting to my point, far and away my favorite thing about my new neighborhood is the Popeye’s. If you’ve been living in a rich neighborhood, you’re missing out, because Popeye’s is delicious. There’s a mom-and-pop chicken and waffle joint just across the way that I walk right past to get to Popeye’s. I wish it was as tasty, but it’s not. Like all fast food, I’m sure you’ll try to tell me how awful and unhealthy it is, and the trans-fats and the edible polymers and blah blah blah, but I don’t care. I don’t care how long those shrimp have been sitting in the freezer before they go into the fryer, because once they hit the soft, white roll of a four-dollar po’boy, they become crispy little nuggets of pure heaven. I can’t get enough. I eat probably two a week. But even aside from the exceptional food at a discount price, my neighborhood Popeye’s is something of a cultural center. Like the Casablanca of the ghetto or some sort of silk road oasis, the greasy, battered fare attracts travelers from disparate backgrounds, who all pass through, leaving the peculiar legacies of their respective cultures in their wake, often in the form of gum, graffiti, or implausibly explosive diarrhea stains. Seriously, their bathroom always looks like someone stuffed five pounds of gelatinous feces into a potato gun. I don’t know whether to be disgusted or fascinated. Construction workers, welfare moms, hobos who’ve scraped together a few dollars in change, slovenly writers like me – a love of fried food might be the only overlap in our Venn diagram, which is what helps make it such a lively place to be. And every time I go in, there’s one of three crackheads (separate from the starfucker at the bodega) who frequent the place, who, on a good day will open the door for you and bid you good day in the hopes of getting your spare change, and, on a bad day, will be stomping around the interior, ranting incoherently, demanding to be bought chicken, and flipping the bird to the staff and regulars who threaten to call the cops, who seem to know each crackhead by name, exhorting them to calm down like brusque babysitters.
“Hello, police? Yeah, it’s Skinny Tony again. He’s in here having another episode. Yeah, okay, bye. …See, motherfucker? I told you I was gonna call ‘em.”
And behind the counter, two heavyset, middle-aged Latino ladies who know just enough broken English to take orders and offer options. “SHREEMP A-SANGWEECH!” they yell through the narrow window to the kitchen behind them each time I order, mine seemingly being something of a specialty offering. It’s one of the few times I’ll order something as it’s written on the menu – “shrimp po’boy, please,” – and have it read back to me in vernacular – “Ju wanna shreemp a-sangweech?”
“Yes, please, a shrimp sandwich. And extra shrimpy, I’m wasting away over here,” I tell them, rubbing my stomach, a shameless flirt.
With other customers, it’s normally the reverse. People usually just walk up to the counter and begin naming cuts of meat – “Yeah, uh, I want, uh… three wings, a breast, a couple thighs, a leg…” – while the counter ladies hurriedly try to translate this into actual orders (their registers are very specific), all while clarifying the corresponding options – “Okay, seven piece meal – spicy or mild? What side ju wan?” – often while the customer is still adding to the order. The ladies are really good at this, by the way. Popeye’s is the fast-food clerk equivalent of having to count cards while the blackjack dealer spits them out as fast as he can and someone else throws tennis balls at your head.
In any case, it was this particular setup which led to the exchange I want to tell you about. With dreams of po’boys dancing in my head, I was standing behind an elderly black woman ordering some chicken tenders. Between the elderly woman’s diminished hearing capacity and general elderliness, and the counter ladies’ limited English skills, communication was, shall we say, strained. But, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, “chicken finds a way.”
OLDER LADY, swaying gently back and forth from heel to toe the way old people do: “Yeah, uh… could I get… uh… six pieces of the… uh… the chicken tenders?”
COUNTER LADY, head cocked to the side, hand on hip, ready for anything: “Seex piece tender, okay. What kinna sauce ju like?”
OLDER LADY, taken aback: “Do I want what?”
COUNTER LADY, dispassionately running through sauce options like it’s her job, her gold fillings shining in the light from the window: “What kind of sauce. We have Ranch, Blackened Ranch, Bayou Buffalo, Mardi Gras Mustard, and Spicy Buffalo.”
OLDER LADY: “Hmmm, I’ll take sweet and sour.”
COUNTER LADY, re-listing the sauce options, something that by now she could clearly recite underwater: “No sweet and sour. Ranch, Blackened Ranch, Bayou Buffalo, Mardi Gras Mustard, and Spicy Buffalo.”
OLDER LADY, appearing to re-evaluate the options and ponder her own preference: “Mmm, I’ll take Mardi Gras Mustard.”
COUNTER LADY: “Barbecue?”
OLDER LADY: “Yes.”
And so it goes.
In a way I think this exchange explains everything about America, capitalism, human nature, society, the melting pot, fried chicken, women, and the English language. I’m thankful to have been alive to witness it.