Popeye’s Stanford Chicken Experiment

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I hadn’t eaten since six the night before, and it was now three in afternoon, the next day. I was starving. The kind of hungry where you suddenly realize your blood sugar has dropped to somewhere around minus zero, and the world starts to tilt.

It is still the pandemic, but the drive-throughs are open. I look, and by some miracle there are only two cars in the Popeye’s Chicken line, which I have passed a couple times in my day of errands and appointments that started before breakfast.

I am in Texas, in a town outside of Austin, two thousand, twenty-two hundred miles from my home in Seattle, and places in this sprawling suburb are spread out.

Actually all the drive through lanes at all fast food places have been full for weeks, a dozen deep. My daughter’s house that I am watching over while she works as a nurse on the Covid lines in Georgia is twenty minutes up the freeway. If I don’t eat now, I will be a hazard on the road. I am also, I realize, very thirsty in the Texas heat, and my last bottle of water is empty.

There is only one car ahead of me as I pull in, and they get through pretty quick, thank God, because the smell of fried chicken only increases my hunger. My head is starting to swim, I realize that I have probably passed from thirsty to seriously dehydrated. I am from Washington, where water falls from the sky. But this is Texas, and the temperature has hovered at 103 degrees all day.

There is no water left in my thermos, and not so much as a granola bar in the car. Because, car ants. That’s another story for another day. I just need to eat, and quick. I don’t much care what it is. It won’t be the last time I eat, I assume.

I pull in and drive to the speaker board.

“Number 1 please.”

“Regular or spicy?” This is the first hint of the resistance I am about to encounter.

“Regular, please.”

“White meat or dark?”

“I don’t care.”

“It comes however you want.”

For most people, these choices make them happy. For me, not so much. The more hungry I am, the less I am able to make food decisions. I have a small hope that this order won’t turn into a food quiz. That hope turns out to be futile.

“One of each.” Ha! No decision has to be made.

Them: (confused): “Each what?”

I lay my forehead on the steering wheel to think…

“OK, one breast and one wing.”

“I thought you said you wanted one of each.”

The smell of fried chicken is making my empty stomach howl. It’s been nearly 24 hours, and come to think of it, dinner yesterday was pretty much just a salad. I just want to eat.

But the ratched interrogation goes on. I have already lost the thread.

“One of each what?” Oh, yeah. “OK, then a thigh.”

Them: “So, a breast, a wing, and a thigh?”

No, I thought, #1 is two pieces. Never mind. Maybe if I just agree to everything…

“Sure.”

“It’s going to be extra.”

“That’s fine.”

“Did you want that regular or spicy?” I’m not going to let them trick me. I already said regular, I was pretty sure.

“Regular. And sweet tea,” I say, trying to move forward from the chicken thing. I am feeling lightheaded and now, a little nauseated.

“Sweet tea?”

Augh!!! It’s Texas!! Every food place in Texas has sweet tea on the menu. Except, apparently, this Popeye’s. I take a breath.

“Yes please.”

Them: “Raspberry?”

This throws me.

“No, sweet tea. Regular tea with sugar in it?” I say hopefully.

“We don’t have that.”

“No regular tea?”

“Yes. So you don’t want raspberry?” I think of the syrupy taste of raspberry tea, and how the chemicals in it set off migraines for me. I stay the course. I know this kid has seen sweet tea at home.

“You do have regular tea?”

“Yes.”

“Then that.” I avoid talking about sugar, Splenda, Equal, lemon wedges or ice. I am afraid to. I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole.

I’m starving, I’m thirsty, but I don’t want to lose patience and end up with spit in my food because I yelled at some minimum wage working kid.

“What size?” She sounds like a minimun wage working kid.

Me: Slowly banging my forehead against the steering wheel. Think, think.

Wait. I know this one. Small, medium and large are different size drinks everywhere. I always order in ounces.

“20 ounces please.”

… … … “Is that small?”

Laughing weakly. “I don’t know. Whatever comes with #1.”

“You can get whatever size you want.”

She doesn’t get it. I don’t want whatever size I want. What I want, or wanted, because I can see it’s never gonna happen, is for her to make the decision for me. To hand me a standard, pre-chosen assembly of food, something to drink, to not make any decisions, and just eat.

I think some more, but not about another decision. I think about my mother, who passed away long ago. She would have never done this to us kids, forced us to go through a 20-minute question-and-answer session before we could eat our dinner. Our mom was nice. At that moment, I miss her. My eyes get watery.

Popeye’s is training CIA interrogators.

I’m so hungry. So thirsty. I have money. Why can’t I eat?

“Medium, then.” I realize my mistake too late. In Texas, a medium drink can easily be a flimsy cup holding a quart of fluid with a shallow lid guaranteed to pop off the minute you try to grip it, one that won’t fit in any size cup holder in any vehicle. From there it is only one turn away from tipping over, flooding either your lap or the passenger seat. But I don’t ask questions, or try to change it. I am trying very hard to get through this order without passing out, as quickly as possible. But Time, that relative bitch, just slows.

The speaker crackles, and I know another question is coming, about sides. I don’t know the sides, because I don’t usually eat here. The board has become hieroglyphics, symbols I can’t translate.

And I break. This 16-year-old kid has broken me on Choice Two.

Before she can ask, I interrupt. I want to be careful, because fast food, I know from going to high school with jerks, comes two ways — spit-free, and not-spit-free.

“Miss, can you do me a favor?”

“Sure.”

“Please, please, and I mean this in the nicest way. I’m really, seriously hungry. In fact I came here because I can’t wait long enough to get home to cook my own dinner. I haven’t eaten since yesterday. Please, please don’t ask me any more questions. I can’t, literally can’t, decide anything else. Just, please, feed me.”

“OK ma’am. I understand. Do you want coleslaw, corn, greens, or green beans? You can get two biscuits for an extra dollar.”

My car thermometer tells me it is still 103 degrees out, but it is hotter inside my car with the window open, in front of the order screen. Heat is radiating from the asphalt, burning the skin on my face.

“I don’t care. Seriously. Stop, please, stop asking me questions! Throw it all in, I don’t care what it costs. I’ll pay you extra if you will just stop. asking. questions.”

I get an idea. I decide to try flattery.

“You know what? Just order for me whatever you would order. You work here, and I know you know what choices are good. I like everything you have. Just, whatever you would order for yourself. It’s fine. I trust you.”

“OK. I understand. Do you want hot sauce?”

… light sobs.

“Honey for your biscuits?”

(Between sobs). “I don’t have any biscuits. You won’t let me eeeaattt!

Finally, finally, and I don’t want you to think that the questions stopped there, I’m just too traumatized remembering to tell the rest, finally, I get up to the pay window.

My mascara is running, because this kid has made me cry. I’m wet with sweat because it’s Texas and my window has been open through this entire Q & A, letting the air conditioning pour out and the heat build inside the car.

At the window, she lets me pay. I get my bags, fragrant with chicken. All I want to do is park the car and rip a bag open. I lift my foot from the brake.

But, in a flash of insight, I know without looking, that there are no napkins inside the bags. I hit the brake again, and lower the window.

If you have ever eaten Popeye’s chicken you know that you have to have napkins. Otherwise, afterwards, your steering wheel becomes a slick, grease-covered circle that is impossible to grip. My trip to Popeye’s now includes the possibility of breaking glass and crumpled metal, probably taking out a carload of nuns on the drive home. That is actually possible since there is a private Catholic school two exits down.

With nothing to wipe my hands on, I have a choice to wait until I get home to eat, or to add my new tee-shirt, just pulled out of the Amazon package this morning, to the expense of this meal.

Home is twenty minutes away…

My tormenter comes back to the window with a bright customer-service smile on her face. “Can I help you?” She appears not to remember me, even though I have not left the pay window yet.

“Did you remember the napkins?”

Her smile fades, and she looks guilty. There is an older kid behind her, probably the shift manager, who has a bad case of acne mostly hidden under his virus mask. He is hovering over her, smirking. He looks happy to have caught her missing a step in this scripted process. I instantly loathe him because it is obvious now why I was not allowed to skip any choices and let her make them for me.

“Would you like some extra napkins?” I go along with this small deceit, because it is all clear now. It is the Stanford Prison Experiment, Popeye’s corporate style. She is being indoctrinated as one of the guards, instructed to make everything as hard as possible for the prisoner as part of an evil social experiment. She has no choice about letting me make no choices, about the interrogation, about letting me fry in the baking sun, about any of it. She is also a subject of the experiment, just like me.

I am dimly aware of the impatient, growing line of cars behind me.

“Yes please, extra napkins.” Shift Manager Kid fades into the back, to intimidate another guard trainee.

Minimum Wage Working Kid looks relieved when he disappears, and she smiles at me brightly, but lowers her voice so that Shift Manager Kid can’t hear. “Oh ma’am, I am so sorry. I almost forgot to give you your change.”

I stare at her without seeing her. I have crossed over, to the other side of hunger and thirst. The world looks surreal, hallucinatory.

I stare at the dime and penny on the palm that reaches out, but it means nothing to me. It is an abstract visual, divorced from meaning.

I have my food now. She can no longer torture me. I have been going through the order ordeal for a good ten minutes now.

But I no longer remember when I have not been in this hot asphalt prison. Time has frozen.

It started out so simple. Number 1.

It all went so bad, so fast.

I stare at her hand without comprehension. She holds it there for I don’t know how long. Then the hand with the coins on it withdraws silently, and she slowly slides the window closed.

I didn’t get napkins.

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