I’m still angry about the chicken wings. It was late on a Monday night, and I was on my way home from band practice. We’d just tried our hand at a series of covers of ‘90s indie hits, most of which ended up sounding terrible. It didn’t matter, though—crowds love that sort of garbage as long as they recognize it, familiarity being more comforting than novelty.
A fortuitous parking space directly in front of a restaurant presented itself, a rare find on this main stretch between Somerville’s ascendant Union Square and the tony outskirts of Harvard’s ever-encroaching real estate footprint. I pulled in hastily, in part because news about Donald Trump disinviting the Philadelphia Eagles from their White House visit for being insufficiently submissive to his wet-brained ideals of patriotism had just broken on Twitter and I wanted to bathe in the absurdity of it without crashing my car.
I hadn’t been to the restaurant in a couple years. It’s one I remember quite liking, and from a high profile Boston chef to boot. Plus, it was Negroni Week, and it doesn’t typically take much doing to convince me to have one. The Negroni, I am happy to report, was well made. I drank it while Radiohead’s OK Computer was playing at the bar, and I remember being momentarily thrown out of time. It’s obviously a massively popular album, but distance has a way of warping our perception of things. Had it really been long enough that Radiohead had been ret-conned as cool enough again to play at a hip bar? “Please, could you stop the noise / I’m trying to get some rest / From all the unborn chicken voices in my head,” Thom Yorke sang as I perused the menu.
To be fair, the wings were sort of a lazy order. I quickly scanned passed the bacon-wrapped chicken liver and bone marrow pate and swordfish skewers with bok choy, cannellini beans, and olive salsa, and thought I’d try something simple. Something comforting and recognizable. Looking at the menu now, I’m still not even sure what it was I ended up eating. Fried chicken wings, it reads, with green chile, and pepitas. The dish that arrived did, indeed, feature fried chicken wings, four of them to be exact, which is somehow the funniest amount of chicken wings imaginable, slathered in some manner of creamy sauce I couldn’t identify. A touch of dill, perhaps? They were covered in a veritable rainforest canopy of parsley, a sort of garnish comb-over meant to overcompensate for the insubstantial meat on the bones.
I posted a picture to Twitter because I’m no longer able to operate in the real world without a chorus of strangers perceiving things through my point of view, and the low light exacerbated the sickly pale poultry bukkake effect of the plate. My followers were similarly nonplussed. Is that chicken wing…alfredo?
Elevated chicken wings isn’t something that should seem a necessary stunt, but any restaurant already operating on stiff margins has to spin gold out of hay. Speaking of which, while these may not have been as garish as the gold-covered chicken wings for finance assholes and Instagram psychopaths in New York, at $2.50 each, compared to $3 each for the latter, the idea was still the same: “We gotta make our nut back on these fucked up wings.” Of course, I ate them anyway. A chicken wing is still, after all, a chicken wing.
That wasn’t always the case, though. In fairness, the wings in question arrived at a tumultuous time for the chicken wing industrial complex. The massive demand for the things has taxed the already disgustingly overworked factory poultry industry to the brink. The explosion of wing-forward chain concepts, Uncle Titty-Liker’s Wing Moat and the like, and local restaurants like this one feeling obligated to have them on the menu as a loss-leader, has led to a steep increase in cost per pound, as much as 60%, some restaurants have complained.
Last summer, The Washington Post reported on the wingpocalypse, noting that Buffalo Wild Wings’ stock had dropped 63% in one quarter, owing to rising costs. It’s somehow become the single most expensive part of the chicken, which is quite the Horatio Alger story for the humble wing, once thought of as the least desirable throw-away.
A few decades ago, families would regularly cook an entire bird, saving the wings for stock. Around the 1980s, once people became more health conscious, super markets began selling deboned, wingless, and skinless chicken breasts. The wing was much too fatty in the dawn of the dieting era, but today, we can’t get enough of that garbage. Americans alone eat well well more than 20 billion of them a year. We’re surrounded by mountains of garbage. We slather it in spicy sauce and coat our faces with it. It doesn’t feel like garbage to us anymore, though, because someone convinced us it wasn’t.
There’s no other day that we devour chicken wings at a more gluttonous rate than the Super Bowl—there was an estimated 1.35 billion alone that weekend that the Eagles were embarrassing my erstwhile beloved Patriots. They embarrassed the president, too, officially making them America’s Team. Here’s what he said about them:
“They disagree with their President because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country. The Eagles wanted to send a smaller delegation, but the 1,000 fans planning to attend the event deserve better.”
They abandoned their fans, the White House said.
No single Eagle this year, you may not be surprised to hear, protested during the anthem at any game. And yet here was the president spinning them into a traitorous lot out of whole-cloth, simply because he found their reluctance to appear with him embarrassing. He lied about them, in other words. He made them appear as something they are not.
On a much more serious scale, that same week, the biggest news story was about Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley being denied access to a child’s detention center in Texas near Mexico. The parents of the children, the administration has said repeatedly, are de-facto criminals simply by virtue of their existing across an imaginary border we’ve drawn in the sand. Many of the people crossing the border are animals or worse, the president has reminded us many times, in the regular sort of artless transubstantiation from individual to un-human he regularly traffics in.
A couple weeks later, as outrage about the separation of migrant children from their parents has come to dominate the news, he’s still blowing that same dog whistle. Democrats, he tweeted, “don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13.” If that sort of language sounds familiar, it’s because it’s pulled straight from the blueprint fascists have used to demonize classes of people throughout history. We typically associate the word "infest" with vermin. What do we do with vermin? We exterminate them.
One would like to call it all the easily dismissed ravings of a madman if so many millions of others Americans, including other elected officials, didn't happen to think in the exact same way. On Friday, congressman Steve King, a Nazi in all but name, tried a similar trick. A group of young boys awaiting deportation weren’t actually young boys, they were “old enough to be tried as adults or serve in the military,” he said. “Prime MS-13 gang material” from a “culture of one of the top 10 most violent countries in the world.” It’s almost like if you can perform the mental gymnastics required to align children with the right—or, in this case, “wrong”—things, they become garbage as well.
Brian Kilmeade on Fox & Friends, the president’s regular morning briefing, echoed those thoughts. “Like it or not, these aren’t our kids,” he said. “Show them compassion, but it’s not like he is doing this to the people of Idaho or Texas.”
Instead of the Philadelphia Eagles, Trump decided to go on with a ceremony at the White House of his own design. A military band played the National Anthem before a crowd that seemed comprised in large part by White House interns and staffers. He mouthed awkwardly along to a singing of “God Bless America,” clearly not knowing the words, but knowing that if he sold the pageant hard enough it wouldn’t matter that it was garbage. It doesn’t matter that literally everything he says or does is based on a lie, if you’re used to eating shit for long enough, anyone who comes along to tell you how great it tastes can seem like a savior.
I played a show at the restaurant once. It was about 15 years ago, and it was an old neighborhood dive bar at the time, the type that does half-priced wing nights and throws in a pitcher of cheap domestic for the trouble. The guy who ran the shows there would insist on opening for every band on the weekend with his uninteresting organ trio. I remember thinking he was so old and corny at the time, but he’s probably not that much older and cornier than I am now. We’d go up there on the tiny stage, bands like mine, and yell about our petty calamities, while the locals perched motionlessly like gargoyles on their favored stools, unmoved by our minor-key insistence that the world was ending.
A few years later, I moved into a house just up the street. My roommates and I painted the walls a disgusting junkie pink, and would play video games and sneak into each other’s rooms when the others were out, looking for any leftover drugs from the night before. A dog named Nietzsche peppered the gravel yard with shit that no one bothered to clean up and it hardened into a minefield of fossilized turds as the seasons changed.
I don’t remember how much we paid to live there at the time, though it was certainly enough to get by on a scumbag’s salary. But there’s no way any of us now, even with actual adult lives and careers, could afford to live there anymore. Everything on that street, everything on every street it touches, is well beyond the reach of anyone but the wealthiest at this point, with two-bedroom spots selling for millions of dollars. That’s in part because Harvard is so close, but also because everywhere around here there’s a Harvard of some kind or another—an idea of borrowed prosperity by proxy—just up the street. It’s a place people want to come to. Aspirational.
Even in nearby Somerville, formerly a rough and tumble city dense with triple deckers, and still a sanctuary city, home to some of the so-called “animals” the president is so quick to throw into the rhetorical—and actual—trash, there’s no place for people like we used to be. I pass by the apartment every so often, and it looks much the same as it always did, perhaps with a new coat of paint, and a lot fewer dog turds than before. But it’s the same thing it always was. Its nature has not substantially changed, it’s just more expensive than it used to be. Someone told us all that it was nice here. Nicer than somewhere else where it was much worse. Then we all believed it. We’re suckers for that sort of garbage.