“I do love fried chicken!”
“My, oh my!”
“I want a leg and a thigh! And some mash potatoes and gravy!”
“I shore would like me four barbeque wings!”
The eyes of the African American men from the homeless shelter sparkled when I told them that in addition to a generous salary for loading my moving van, I would buy them lunch at the Kentucky Fried Chicken by my house.
I’d hired the men to load the van because I was moving out of state. The shelter secretary had personally selected them. “They’re good workers,” she said. “Three are big guys who can carry anything: one young and two middle-aged. One is an old fellow. He’s a frail-looking, small man, but he’ll work hard all day for you.”
Good workers they were. My dad, who had grown up in the transfer and storage business, called them “a great crew,” and he was delighted that with their take-no-prisoners approach to the job, he was able to load my house into the moving van in only four hours. He beamed, and so did they, as we piled in the vehicles to go to KFC before Daddy and I returned them to the shelter and headed off for our 400-mile trip.
When we pulled up to KFC, the three men riding with me stopped talking and sat stock still. “Hop out, guys,” I said as I turned off the car. “Time for dinner.” Wordlessly, they crawled out of my PT Cruiser, then stood by the restaurant door. While I waited for Daddy and the fourth worker in the moving van to arrive, I answered a text, checked the map to my new home one last time, and locked my car.
When Daddy pulled up in the moving van, the fourth worker climbed out of the cab and joined his fellows by the door. I followed Daddy as he walked around the van to make sure everything was secure, checking first one thing and then another before he was satisfied that we were ready to hit the road.
When he finished the final check, we started toward the restaurant door. The workers were still standing in the heat instead of going inside the air-conditioned restaurant. Puzzled, I walked by them and opened the door. The cool air poured out as I entered the KFC.
Dad walked in after me. Still the homeless men waited outside. I opened the door back up and said, “Come on in, guys. Dinner’s on me. Order whatever you want. The sky’s the limit.” Tentatively, they entered, but no one advanced to the counter.
Okay, I thought. Not one of these guys has ever been to a KFC. In all likelihood, not one has ever entered any kind of restaurant more than a half dozen times in his life. Except maybe through the kitchen door. They don’t know what to do.
I stepped up to the counter and said to the cashier, “Give these gentlemen whatever they want. The treat’s on me. These guys have worked hard for me all morning, and they deserve a good lunch.” I turned and motioned to the men to come forward.
Hesitantly, the first man, the boldest of the bunch, stepped to the counter. He ordered a three-piece dinner with mashed potatoes, gravy and a soda. The second man stepped up and ordered his meal, then the third. But the old fellow held back. He didn’t have any front teeth, so I thought, Wow. I hadn’t thought that he might not be able to eat fried chicken. He stood and looked at the menu overhead. “Go ahead,” I quietly urged him. “Order whatever you want.”
He moved close to the counter, leaned forward, and whispered to the young KFC employee, also African American, “Could I have four barbeque chicken wings, please?”
She scowled at him, and in a loud voice said, “We don’t make barbequed wings!”
“What do you have?” he whispered to her, furtively looking around to see who could hear.
“Well, read the menu for yourself and see what we have!” she scolded.
Then I realized. The old fellow couldn’t read. He’d never been in a KFC. He didn’t know what his choices were. He’d tried to interpret the pictures on the menu, but he had no idea from those pictures what was included on a meal, or exactly what choices he had.
“Please,” he pleaded. “Please tell me what you have.”
“Read. The. Menu,” she retorted.
He dropped his eyes.
I stepped up to the woman.
“He wants barbequed chicken wings. You don’t have barbequed chicken wings. Then tell him what kinds of wings you do have.” She glowered at me, but told him what his wing-options were. He selected hot wings. Then I put my hand on his arm. “Mashed potatoes and gravy? French fries? Would you like green beans? Maybe macaroni and cheese?”
He only wanted four wings. And a biscuit. And of course, on this hot day, a cold drink.
He ate three of his wings and his biscuit. He carefully wrapped the last wing up in his napkin. The napkin disappeared in his pocket. For himself for later? For a friend who didn’t get selected for a job today? Or maybe a homeless child at the shelter?
We were all subdued as we ate our meal. I think the men enjoyed the food, but that was secondary to how we all felt about seeing this dear old man humiliated by the waitress. He had looked to her to help him figure out this maze having dinner at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and she failed him. Intentionally.
I don’t know why the lady at KFC treated the dear old toothless, illiterate man so cruelly, but I do know this: she broke the hearts of six people that day: me, my daddy, and four homeless, hard-working, gentle men who had been so excited that they were going to get to go out and have some chicken for dinner at KFC.