When I was 7 years old, my grandpa came to live with us for a few months in the spring. His three daughters were passing him back and forth at that time, and so he stayed with us for a few months every year for the next few years. That first spring he would have been 92 years old. He was a small, handsome Filipino man, and his bottom lip jutted out and came to a point, making his mouth into a heart. Gregorio or Goyo or Pop, as we called him, really chewed his food. He was a great masticator. He would sit for an hour after we’d all left the dinner table chewing. Always in neat khakis and a button down shirt, he usually sat with the newspaper open and a look of concentration on his face as he stared at the print. To any question you asked, he would answer, “could be” in his Filipino-Chicago-New York-old person accent that was both husky and sing-songy at the same time.
In the spring especially, when the wind blows from the southeast, the smell of Popeyes Fried Chicken filled my house. One of my favorite things to do with my grandpa was go to Popeyes, a short one and a half blocks away at the intersection of northeast MLK and Ainsworth. He always ordered a 2-pc set of dark meat – a thigh and a leg. And he would buy me a biscuit for 50 cents. (Those biscuits! It’s like they bake them and then deep-fry them. They are so crunchy on the outside!) As he ate, he would clean the bones until they glistened, like there had never been meat on them at all. And when we got home, my mom would be annoyed. A woman who was a workaholic, she nonetheless always cooked a beautiful homemade dinner, and on those warm breezy spring days, Pop and I always had a diminished appetite.
On one day, several years into the annual spring Pop visit, in May I think, because I remember being in shorts and I picture all of the tulips in blossom (we had beautiful tulips in our driveway that are the same red and orange colors that Popeyes uses on its sign and menus), my friend Tassie was over. Pop was sitting at our kitchen table, staring at the newspaper. He slowly stood, tucked the paper under his arm, and headed for the door for his early evening stroll. “Don’t go to Popeyes” my mom called out, as she heard his footsteps. “You’ll ruin your appetite. I’m making your favorite dinner.” This could be only one thing: a very salty fried pork chop with white rice and diced fresh tomatoes and green onions. He plodded down the back stairs. My mom beckoned Tassie and me to her and said. “Follow him. Do not let him eat any chicken.”
We followed Pop. He was walking quickly for a now 94 year old, slowly for a 9 year old. We pretended to be spies, with guns made out of our fingers. We hid behind trees. We slithered along the pavement. We tried to hide behind each other in an endless game of running in circles like dogs.
Pop walked south for a block, took a left, and walked into the Popeyes parking lot. He walked up to the front door, but then curved left and began perambulating the outside of the store, which sits surrounded by parking lot thanks to their drive-thru. He walked fully around the place, walked past the door again, and then came up to a window where a family was eating. He plastered himself on the window, staring at their chicken dinners. He stared at them, at the boxes they were eating out of with fingers and sporks. They tried to avoid his eyes and eat in peace. I don’t remember how long he stood there. That’s one of those moments where even 5 seconds feels like eternity. Some many seconds/hours later, he slowly turned around and made his way home. By now it was getting to be dark. Tassie and I followed behind him without playing games, came into our small kitchen with the greasy, low yellow ceiling, and ate a delicious meal of fried pork chops. My grandpa probably chewed for two hours.
Pop died at age 101, on Father’s Day, only days after the founder of Popeyes died. We ate balut at his memorial. My mom swore at him for what a mean man he’d been in her childhood. I relished our times together, licking our fingers clean.