The dining room in the KFC on West 50th Street a few blocks from Times Square is in the basement. It is stuffy, dimly lit, and occasionally polluted by a mysterious funk. There are no windows.
I eat there about once a week.
I like holding a nubby drumstick or wing in my hands, slathering it in hot sauce, gnawing the meat off the bone as the sauce seeps into my mustache and my fingers get too slippery to hold my spork. But then I think about how fragile human dignity is, how easily it can slip away, and I grow cautious. I must be careful not to let myself drown in these greasy, delicious waters.
Although I have exceptionally strong willpower, I also crave repetition. If something is enjoyable to do once, it is usually even more enjoyable to do twice—in exactly the same manner—then three times, four, and so on, to infinity. But one day last summer, my carefully honed KFC routine was thrown off kilter.
I was on my lunch break, desperate to order the two-piece-with-a-biscuit meal I was craving so specifically, and as I stood in the interminable line, my eyes fell on an advertisement above the register: “Try a piece of Boneless Original Recipe today!” it insisted. “Just $1 with any order.”
I’d been seeing similar advertisements all over town. Only a few nights earlier, as I crossed 14th Street in the East Village, I’d been startled by a giant face looming in my periphery, eyes and mouth cartoonishly agog, a hysterical speech bubble exclaiming: “I ate the bones!” It seemed like half the commercials on TV lately featured some panicked schmuck shouting, “I think I ate the bones! I think I ate the bones!”
The advertisements—and in fact, the very idea of boneless chicken—offended me. Fast-food chicken, those delightfully greasy little drumsticks, wings, breasts, and thighs, is made more delicious by the tenaciousness required by its consumption. There is a certain laziness inherent to the very idea of fast food, of course, but do we have to continue to push its limits quite so relentlessly?
And yet … “Just $1 with any order.”
I could have my bones to gnaw on in one hand and a little boneless action in the other as well. Surely it wouldn’t be good, but exactly how bad would it be? Would it really hurt just to try?
Almost simultaneously, I had another reckless thought. It was a beautiful afternoon: Why not get my order to go, and eat it in a nearby park rather than in KFC’s smelly subterranean dining room?
I have characterized myself as someone who demands routine, which is true, but I am also capable of great spontaneity. So a few minutes later, there I was, at a table in the park, sun shining overhead, various containers of food spread out before me, ready to play the role of a carefree person who simply can’t bear the thought of eating indoors on a pleasant afternoon.
But when I opened the box of chicken, I got a nasty surprise: The boneless piece was missing! The two bone-in pieces were there, the biscuit was there, but no boneless chicken. I repacked everything in a huff and rushed back across the street.
“You forgot the boneless piece!” I shouted at the woman who had taken my order, every bit as hysterical as a simpleton in a TV commercial who has eaten his chicken so fast he didn’t even understand its boneless nature. The woman was alarmed, either by her mistake or my demeanor, but she kept her wits about her, rapidly stuffing a separate box with so many boneless pieces that the lid wouldn’t even stay shut.
Then I was back in the park, the bounty of chicken covering an entire table. Nearby, people chatted over salads and coffees. The sun continued to shine oppressively. I could sense conversations pausing, heads turning slightly in my direction. It was likely that the fried-chicken smell from my table was overpowering everything else in the park, and as I slathered the first piece with hot sauce, I longed for the dark seclusion of an underground room.
But I soldiered on, switching back and forth between regular and boneless pieces, trying to determine which, if either, was “better” than the other. When there were two pieces left, I stopped myself, stuffed nearly to the point of sickness, and stared up at the sun, sweating, full of despair.
“Hey!” A voice penetrated my stupor. “You like that KFC?”
“What?” I demanded, my hackles up immediately. So it was true! The fried-chicken smell had been offending people, and now I was going to have to defend myself.
“Where’s the KFC?” the guy said, louder this time. I’d noticed him earlier. He was sitting with a beautiful young woman, bantering pleasantly about fashion models and reality TV. I was confident I could take him if I had to.
“What?” I said again, dumfounded by his line of inquiry.
“Where’d you get that? It smells good.”
I analyzed his voice for traces of sarcasm and found none. “Just across the street there,” I said, allowing myself to relax a bit. “Not too far.”
He smiled and turned back to his conversation about reality TV.
I toyed with the idea of offering him my last two pieces of boneless chicken, since he apparently liked the smell so much. But that was ridiculous. He didn’t need my charity. In most situations, it is rather presumptuous to offer another human being food. Insulting even. I looked down at the chicken. Was it really so crazy to think someone would want it? I placed a few napkins and packets of hot sauce in the box, closed it up, and hurried out of the park, package in hand.
It doesn’t usually bother me in the slightest to throw food away. And after 15 years in New York, the sight of human suffering, at least in the form of homeless people, doesn’t make me flinch or think or feel anything much, except perhaps, “What the fuck happened to them?” My most identifiable emotion is usually annoyance—that they squandered their lives, perhaps, and are thrusting their failure in everyone’s faces, like we are the ones with the problem.
But something was different today.
There was a nearby plaza where I had recently seen a woman in rags shuffling on swollen feet wrapped in cardboard shoes, a shopping cart in front of her, and her own dried feces crusted on her legs behind her. She looked more like a zombie on The Walking Dead than a human being in the real world, and as she cut her way across the plaza, people moved away instinctively. If I saw her again, I would give her the leftovers and hope she wasn’t too far-gone to eat them.
She wasn’t there, so I kept wandering, scrutinizing the street corners and various alcoves between buildings for other people that might want a handout. The further I walked, the stupider I felt about the little box of boneless chicken in my hand—but I was determined to see this mission through to the end.
On the corner of 53rd and Seventh Avenue, near the entrance to the subway, I found my man. He was skinny and disheveled, his legs covered by a heavy blanket despite the afternoon heat. In his hand was a small cardboard sign that said, “Broke. Hungry. Anything helps.”
“Do you want this?” I said, leaning down.
He nodded almost imperceptibly.
“It’s chicken,” I said. Then I stood there stupidly for a second, as if there was something else I needed to explain. I often feel that way—as if all things need an explanation, but none is possible.
The man’s lips moved in a silent thank-you, and I walked away. I felt like I was sprinting, fleeing the scene of a crime.
I kept imagining those commercials, over and over again: a panicked face played for laughs—a white-collar schlub eating KFC with his co-workers, a middle-class black man eating dinner with his children, both so calculated and so politically correct. This was food that needed an explanation. Food that needed a marketing campaign. Food that was not only tasty and convenient but also bizarre and entertaining. I knew why I had paused, stammering, in front of the homeless man. “It’s chicken.” I doubted my own words. I imagined him opening the box, appreciating the way I’d tucked a packet of hot sauce and some napkins in there. Biting into the chicken. Cold but still tasty. His mouth searching for the bones that aren’t there. He doesn’t devour the contents of the box in one hilarious take, then look wide-eyed at his friends and family, shouting, “I think I ate the bones!” He is alone, on a street corner, under a blanket on a 70 degree day, eating food given to him by an ambivalent passerby. His life is not a commercial. He will probably die alone, hungry. My life isn’t a commercial either. I have to get back to work.