It’s the Two for Tuesday Special at Popeye’s Chicken on Mission and the place is packed. And while it’s just half-a-block from the trendy Thursday night Farmer’s Market, this food scene here is a world away.
When I get here on a recent Tuesday, it’s dinner time. There’s a line out the door and 75-year-old Alice Au-Lee is in it. Every week, Au-Lee travels from her home near the Civic Center for the dinner special. On the menu: one leg, one thigh for 1.49.
Au-Lee tells me she arrived with a bag filled with oranges, bananas and a large container of soup. The bag was heavy and the place was filling up, so she put the bag on a table while she waited in line.
When she got back, the food was gone.
“Predictable!” says Vic Maralez, who’s sitting at a neighboring table. “Out of every five people you meet, at least two of them are predators!”
But these predators aren’t pick-pocketing wallets or snatching away iPhones, they’re stealing bananas and Chinese soup.
“V-I-C,” Maralez says while spelling his first name. “My family couldn’t afford the K.”
The problem with the Mission, as Maralez sees it, is not the soaring home prices, the tech gentrification, or even the fact that folks are so down on their luck, they’re stealing fruit. It’s “the 13,” he says, and by this he means the Salvadoran-bred gang, MS-13.
He pulls up his shirt to reveal long red marks on his stomach from an altercation with, he says, MS-13 members over the weekend. He makes a point of telling me that he did okay in the fight, explaining proudly that he’s an ex-marine.
“I’m homeless right now,” he says a little defensively. “And I’m not ashamed to say it!”
Maralez is sitting with 53-year-old Timothy Lawson, also an ex-marine. Lawson says he’s procrastinating by eating fried chicken instead of writing an essay for his City College class.
“What’s happening,” Lawson says. “Is computers are degrading our morals. People only care about money anymore, they’ve given up trying to be decent.”
I’m sitting in between the two men, and they’re talking to me simultaneously, in stereo. It’s loud with all the people, so I can hardly hear them.
“Satan’s coming!” yells Maralez over the din.
For a minute I wonder, with the price of lodging in the Mission, where on earth Satan will stay?
“Elbo Room,” Maralez says, clearing that up. “Satan will be at the Elbo Room October 25th!”
Turns out, Satan is a metal band Maralez really likes.
At this point John Quincy Adams, 43, yells out to the Two for Tuesday Philosophers. He’s sitting by the door, one table over from Alice Au-Lee.
To hear him better, I move to his table. John Quincy Adams comes for the chicken special when he has the cash. He says it’s better than the free food at St. Anthony’s, which in turn, is better than the Glide Memorial fare.
John Quincy Adams (“like the president,” he says) talks about the waste at Popeye’s.
“There’s meat on the bone,” he says. “All these people throwing away perfectly good food. It could make a really great stew and homeless people would love to eat it!”
He says this throwaway culture extends to humans.
If people could imagine ending up homeless themselves, he says, “They wouldn’t treat you like garbage.”
He talks about how hard it is to live in a city that’s getting ever more expensive.
“But all this land here!” he says expansively. “It’s Indian land. It doesn’t belong to the Irish. Doesn’t belong to the Mexicans even. It belongs to the Indians!”
“The Irish?” I ask, wondering where they fit into the gentrification of the Mission.
He explains that he’s using the term “Irish” so as not to offend anyone.
He points to the blinding white paper on my notebook and says, “That there’s white.”
And then graciously adds, “But you – you’re not really white. And me –I’m not really black.”
Maralez comes up to our table. He’s about to leave. He breaks into our conversation to tell me he’ll see me at the revolution.
I’m not sure which revolution, but I’m glad to be invited. When I ask, he says “Revolution Café!”
As I head out, I walk past plate after plate of half eaten chicken. I say goodbye to Alice Au-Lee and to John Quincy Adams and I end up skipping the revolution.
Note thanks to a readers sharp eye, we have corrected the price of the special it is one leg, one thigh for 1.49, not 99 cents. Those days are gone.