I came. I saw. I got the Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich.
After countless months of unquantifiable turmoil, incomprehensible existential dread, and a level of abandonment I have never felt before (I am a child of divorce), the Popeyes original and spicy chicken sandwich was back.
“You bastards,” I whispered when I saw the Twitter post announcing the sandwich would be back Sunday, November 3rd, 2019. “You goddamn beautiful bastards.”
After a week of Halloween festivities pummeling my mind and body with spooky amounts of inebriants, this news felt like seeing God at the end of the tunnel when you die.
I knew I didn’t deserve such a gift, so I dared not ask myself or anyone else in the line of 50 or so outside of the Popeyes on Divisadero and Hayes that Sunday morning why I was receiving it. Most of the faces around me were aimed at their phones, all of them hanging in a weird vibe of shameful glee, gluttony, and excitement. Passerby’s on the sidewalk looked at us in mixed-up confusion and curiosity. Some people even shouted from their car windows, booming beeps and honks as the light in front of them turned green against the bright blue Fall sky. There was a tension building, both inside of the line and out, and all because of this thing, this object of desire, this item that months ago was taken away from the people of this nation for seemingly no reason at all.
The line lurched. The doors had opened. My large intestine quivered with anticipation and fear. After more than an hour wait, we were in.
As I neared the entrance, a self-conscious, embarrassed feeling started to bubble in my gut. What was I doing, what were we doing wasting our time on consuming as the fires burned, our president was being impeached, the Russians were hacking, and Stephen Curry had broken his hand? I was, I am, distracting myself with the “good stuff” because sometimes that’s what you have to do to get up in the morning and face a new day. In a weird way, everyone in that line was honoring America in everything she had ever taught us.
To my surprise, the inside of Popeyes was dead quiet except for the hushed semi-worried whispers of the cashier and cooks scurrying behind the counter. I knew they were fucked. I saw it in their wide, nervous, helpless eyes. I work in catering from time to time and there is no feeling worse than having a gang of hungry humans demanding food that is either not ready or not there. I could sense the dread, the metaphorical guillotine looming above their necks as they rushed around with streamers of receipts with orders made in-house and online. No, I thought. They didn’t do that to themselves. They didn’t allow online orders on this day. Surely they wouldn’t do that to themselves. But just as I put in my order of two spicy chicken sandwiches, extra pickles, extra sauce, a man with a tight red muscle shirt and an aggressive 5 o’clock shadow started to shout.
“FUCK THE ONLINE ORDERS!” he barked. “RESPECT THE PEOPLE THAT ACTUALLY SHOWED UP!”
I found his efforts weirdly political in a way, but also grossly inappropriate seeing these Popeyes employees make about $7.50 – $15 an hour and getting yelled at about a chicken sandwich is definitely not in their job description. One guy near the spices jars told him to shut it, prompting what I imagined was going to be a potential battle, but then his number was called. After fight-the-power relaxed, tensions waned until the manager plopped about 20 shiny aluminum bags on the table. Part of me – the bad part – imagined she was going to start hocking them into the crowd. Another part of me – the good part – hoped she had snapped and decided to turn on the corporate powers that put her in this position. Everyone, at least 30 or more, paused and held their breath. They knew there wasn’t enough for everybody so the question was: who wouldn’t be getting one?
No one as a matter of fact. Suddenly, a guy in a motorcycle helmet rushed the counter. There were a few angry HEY’S! and NO! NO!NO! from the crowd. The delivery guy, indifferent to their protests, swiftly shoved all 20 sandwiches in a cherry red Doordash bag and skittered out. I forced myself not to turn around and bear witness when I heard a roar of disdain from the line outside, squeaking tennis shoes on hot concrete and ripped plastic, and finally screeching hot scooter ties. If Popeye’s didn’t get their act together fast, I feared people were going to start throwing themselves over the counters.
While I re-filed my Coke for the 3rd time, desperate for some kind of nourishment, I spoke to a guy with a smile on his face seemingly without a care in the world.
“How you holding up?”
He gave me a weary headshake. “Just trying to enjoy the day,” he told me. “Don’t know why people are so angry. Everyone’s going to get what they came for eventually. It just takes time.” He sighed, chuckled, as a Cheshire grin grew across his Buddha-like face. “Modern society made us this way though. What can you expect? We are always hungry, even when we really aren’t.”
Before I had the chance to ask what he meant, his number was called, and he was gone out of the door post haste. I didn’t blame him.
Then, 147, my number, rang out for all to hear. All in all, it took me about three hours to retrieve my holy grail.
Clomping down the sidewalk, out of the greasy, shadowy anger cave of Popeyes back into Sunday’s warm sunshine, I looked at the plastic bag stocked with my two sandwiches, an abundance of hot sauces and blackened ranch packets, and two small mashed potatoes.
“Hello my old friends,” I said to the two expertly wrapped chicken sandwiches.
I found my girlfriend and roommate sprawled on our two couches in the amber light of the afternoon. Cans of grape La Croix littered our coffee tables. The end of the Halloween week and weekend were over. All our hungover bodies needed now was hydration, fried sustenance, and salvation. They were watching some romantic comedy show on Amazon with Anne Hathaway. She was bipolar, crying inside of a cafe. I made a bad joke about if she had a Popeye’s chicken sandwich she’d be right as rain.
“That’s not funny,” my girlfriend Etta shot back.
Our roommate – still new having moved in only a month or so ago – gave me a semi-shocked look with a tiny grin.
“Where were you anyway?” Etta asked after the awkward air passed. “You couldn’t have been waiting that long for a chicken sandwich.”
I took my first long-awaited bite of warm tender white meat, golden fried skin, and crunchy bitter pickle. My friend, my brother, my lover, I thought, dare not saying it aloud. The light honey brown brioche bun – the whole reason the sandwich had supposedly been taken away in the first place – was moist, vibrant, and melted in my mouth. Even after drowning the thing in ranch, it didn’t get soggy. True magic. I took another bite and the savory, salty pop of fried chicken coupled with the spicy sauce of mayo, hot sauce, paprika, and garlic powder induced a shudder. Some die-hard chicken sandwich enthusiasts swore off the pickle, but I thought the thick green circular addition was the Thelma to the chicken’s Louise. For $3.99 for the sandwich alone and $8.99 for the meal, Popeye’s provides a thick piece of chicken that is like taking on a small grapefruit or softball. It’s a deal that I definitely plan on abusing over the holiday season.
“I was in America,” I said finally answering their question. I tossed Etta her sandwich. “And I was waiting that long for just a chicken sandwich.”
Etta shrugged, too hungover for my cryptic high-brow bullshit, and took her first bite.