THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted took place in Missouri in 2019. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.
If you’ve ever dined at the esteemed fried chicken establishment Popeye’s, you have a story. Maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad.
Maybe your story is about the drive thru line that moves at the speed of smell. Maybe your story is about the stoned kid at the counter yelling at you because they jacked up your order. Maybe it’s how you lost yourself in the savory biscuit covered in mashed potatoes and gravy, or how the crunch of a spicy chicken leg took a bad week and turned it on its head. Regardless, everyone has a story: it’s a unifier, a badge, something to swap in workplace-story currency or bring up when you’re feeling the mood to embellish for effect.
My story begins in the far away land of last Saturday. The craving of 12 spicy pieces of processed chicken, paired with the most wonderful green beans with the weird little pieces of, “ham”, and pillowy soft mashed potatoes covered in food science lab experiment that passed the FDA as, “gravy,” was too strong for me to ignore. With a location a mere 2-minute drive away from me, I figured it would be a quick trip to get exactly what I needed to satisfy the craving and sit down for a delicious evening.
As I pulled into the parking lot and headed to the drive thru, I was met with a line of eight cars in front of me; yeah, there were more that I couldn’t see around the corner, but hey, it’s prime eating time and I don’t blame anyone else for succumbing to the siren song of the Louisiana Kitchen. It was 5:05 in the pm, Central Standard Time.
After eight total minutes of not moving from my original entry point, the line moves one car length up. Mind you, there are still eight other cars in front of me. My spirit was waning. Fortunately, in a move that seemed choreographed, or at least preordained, six of the cars in front of me pulled out of the drive thru line simultaneously, leaving me a hole that even Larry Rountree III could hit (hey-o), and I move into position right before the speaker to place my order.
However, as a move up to the speaker, I see... what the heck do I see? It seems to be three blank receipts, printed out from a Popeyes-spangled printer, that someone has taped to the speaker and hastily written, “IT DONT WORK”. Ah, it makes sense now: it’s taking so long because each customer has to drive up to the window, then order, and sit there while they put it together.
OK! Knowledge is power, and while time is still not moving faster because of this, at least my patience returns in knowing that there’s one thing that’s not working right now and surely that must be the only thing wrong.
More than twenty minutes after this naive conclusion, I finally reach the window. I am greeted by a woman, let’s call her Rhonda, who flings open the window and breathlessly exclaims, “WE AIN’T GOT MUCH LEMME HEAR WHAT YOU WANT.”
I want to pause to point out that, while I’m not sure what the Popeye’s corporate training book has listed under “appropriate work attire,” and I’m not for certain the array of colors and how they correspond to an employee’s rank in the chicken empire, Rhonda was wearing a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a neon green trucker hat, and I knew what her name was because she was wearing a name tag... from the gas station across the street.
“Ah man, you don’t have much?” I reply, with an obvious hint of let down and a repressed hint of rage.
“No, no we’re just riding with what we got, not making anything new,” Rhonda responds, not really giving me any idea what that means for options, but clearly not caring to clarify either.
At this point, I take a quick look in my rear view mirror and see the rows of headlights behind me. My bleeding heart starts pumping twice as fast as I come to a realization: “Well, I feel kind of bad,” I tell Rhonda. “I wanted to get a 12-piece, but I know there’s a bunch of people behind me”.
“F*** ‘EM!” Rhonda expels with a wide grin on her face. “How many of those people would give a s*** about you if they were up where you were and you were back there?”
And in that moment, that one single moment, operating on a brain without chicken and patience that had nothing but “90s throwback weekend” on the radio and the hellscape of Twitter to keep it calm for nearly 40 minutes, I murdered the hopes and dreams of everyone who shared my same sustenance desire, but 5 minutes after I got there.
“Yeah Rhonda, let’s do it, 12-piece spicy, with green beans and mashed potatoes”.
“Don’t have any green beans or mashed potatoes, but what if I gave you two orders of red beans and rice?”
At this point I’ll take anything; as long as it comes with biscuits, I’m set. I affirm and Rhonda leaves the window, leaving me to mull over the choices my fat-kid brain makes me run with.
As I pay, I somehow decide to ask, “why is your name tag from the gas station across the street?” And this, dear reader, is what she said in response:
“Oh, I don’t work here”.
What would you do? Let it go? Push to find out? Look for the cameras because you’re clearly getting pranked? I chose option two.
“Well, my sister works here,” she explained. “They’re so understaffed that she’s the only one working right now and she’s just been here for a month. I figured I’d come over and help, the job ain’t that hard to learn”.
I’m now wondering what parts of my dinner this gas station superhero has had a hand in, but in the interest of consuming chicken, I make my brain push that thought far from my mind.
She finally hands everything to me and says good bye while scooting her hand towards me, in a “go! git! shoo!” manner. I pull away from the window, but knowing what the mass public knows about Popeye’s (it’s never what you wanted!) I do a quick glance over: I see a box of chicken, yes, OK, two containers with red beans and rice which is not what I wanted but is acceptable as per our negotiation....where are the biscuits????
I am enraged.
But just as I’m about to leave my car, Rhonda comes flying out of the front doors and running to my car:
“Almost forgot your biscuits!” she exhales as I roll down the window. “And when I went to get you your biscuits I saw that there weren’t many left so I just gave them all to you”. And just like that, the magic biscuit fairy floated back to her chicken kingdom of generosity. How many biscuits did I receive? 10.
Only got 8 pieces of chicken though, which, if math serves, is not 12.
If you’ve ever been a fan of the Missouri Tigers football team, you have a story. Maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad.
Maybe your story is about a kicked ball. Maybe your story is about the journalists who graduate from the fine University, disperse into the media, and then go against every good journalism lesson taught to insist, insist, that the Missouri football team is cursed. Maybe it’s how you lost yourself in a sea of gold as you rushed the field after beating #1 Oklahoma, or how the surprising runs of ‘07 and ‘13 took a looked-over program and turned the narrative on its head. Regardless, everyone has a story: it’s a unifier, a badge, something to swap in workplace-story currency or bring up when you’re feeling the mood to embellish for effect.
The lesson, of course, is that following a college football team is like ordering fast food. It’s not good for your health, it’s staffed by overworked and underpaid (ahem) teens, managed by those who probably had no idea that they’d end up there, and run by multi-millionaires who are simply looking for the best output with the least amount of effort. There are chains in specific regions that do better than others, sure, but when you really get down to it, the product itself is inconsistent.
Missouri, of course, is a Popeye’s store. It should be good; hell, it can even sometimes be great. But just as the biscuit god can grace you with its +4 presence, its drive thru times and uncaring service can drive you to the point of swearing off it completely.
But that’s not why you go there. You go there for when the magic hits. You know the bad is there, and it vastly outweighs the good, but you’re always going because, deep down, you’re holding out for the ability to experience the positive outcome of the random number generator. You accept the staff being stoned out of its mind and handing you a tray full of napkins instead of six tenders because you know, some time (maybe next time!), you’re going to get a bonus cornucopia. Instead of six tenders you get....13? That’s not even a standard disbursement number! Instead of two sides they give you... double the sides? you didn’t even know you wanted that much, but now you definitely do! And instead of forgetting the biscuits and just letting it go, they run out in the cold and give you all the biscuits they had left.
Being a Missouri fan isn’t easy. It’s never been easy and will probably never be easy. But that’s not why you’re a fan. You’re a fan because it’s not easy. You’re a fan and take the grief because, when you do have that good, that excellent, that elite, you know you’ve earned it.
So, yes, complain about the management, complain about the performance, complain about what should and shouldn’t happen. Take that hit and remember exactly where it came from. Embrace the negative, give it a full hug. Take all this bad and shower in it, consume it. Become one with the stink that is the 2019 season, and all the other terrible seasons before. Do it, because some time (maybe next time!), it’ll be the Tigers’ time to shine, and you went through every terrible game, terrible season, every crap-luck-moment in the world to come out the other side and get to that magical point.
The magic of +4 biscuits is always just around the corner.