Like George Bailey, Al Copeland was a national treasure; a true rags to riches story if there ever was one. Born in a Chalmette tenement in the 1940’s and enduring a stint in the St. Thomas housing development, Al assuredly paid his dues before making it big as a fast food mogul and overall self-described “seriously classy dude” before finally making the move to the Northshore in the late 1990’s.
Although Al had many entrepreneurial adventures since founding the legendary Popeye’s Chicken franchise in 1974, he will always be remembered for his margarine soaked snack treats, faintly toxic, starchy, chicken fat delights and otherwise greasy, booty building cuisine. It’s easy to lose sight of Al’s immense legacy, whether by being blinded by his five hundred kilowatt Kenner Xmas light display, the thirty-two ounces of pure gold held aloft by a delicate tsunami of graying chest hair, the sheer classiness of his shockingly upscale Metairie Sweet Fire and Ice™ combination barely legaloxygen & cheesecake martini bar and aromatherapy chain, or deafened by the loud roar of one his many chicken themed racing boats – so we must go back to the original, un-veneered Al: the Al of 1974, who declared himself the “Booty Czar,” when he was just stepping out into the world to build – in his own words – a “vast empire of ass.” Indeed, he wasn’t stopping at St. Bernard parish, where the very first Popeye’s opened in 1972 just outside the Tastee Donuts dumpster in Arabi.
By 1980 there were 120 Popeye’s locations in Orleans parish alone. The indulgent cuisine of Mr. Copeland, however, led to an Excess Ass crisis that would dominate behind-closed-doors Orleans Parish politics for the next two decades. According to the state Bureau of Statistics, the metric tonnage of excess booty increased tenfold from 1974 to 1980, with another twenty-fold booty increase by just 1990. By 1995 the Excess Ass Index for Orleans Parish alone had surpassed even the entire state of Iowa – long considered unthinkable – finally peaking and holding somewhat steady at an astounding 500 million cubic tons. This had rippling effects throughout the entire Louisiana economy; for example, the now nearly forgotten Schwegmann’s grocery store chain – which once dominated the tri-parish landscape – struggled vainly to keep up with demand, widening aisles in all locations by 15% and switching too a 100% chips, pork products, package liquor and soda inventory – just before going utterly and completely bankrupt. And it wasn’t just the grocers.
Former criminal sheriff Charles Foti, now serving as criminal Attorney General, interviewed from the Popeye’s on Broad and Tulane right across from where you get out of prison, stated he resisted widening prison beds, shackles and orange jumpsuit sizes for almost 10 years. “Then I just gave up. Those inmates were just too fat. Plus, the Federal funds were plenty enough to handle it, plus last years kitchen renovation in my Metairie home” he said, scarfing down a supersized Popeye’s go-cup of red beans, with injected chicken fat and bacon grease. Added Foti: “Lord, that bacon fat makes this good. I’d have had Copeland cater to the inmates – I’m all for privatizing – but the deal fell through. He wanted way too much and I still needed to renovate my mothers carport at the time, and prison labor alone won’t cut it. The man was a ruthless deal maker, even though I have to say, he was a total class act. The man was one hundred percent class.”
Mr. Foti, however, should not shoulder all the blame for ignoring the crisis. According to Ivor van Heerden, a scientist at LSU, the city’s entire leadership was to blame. “Five hundred million cubic tons of excess ass. How can you ignore that? I mean, this is right in your face, every single day of every single week. The streets are literally crumbling” said the svelte definitely-not-from-Louisiana van Heerden. “If this goes on much longer, we are talking doomsday. And still, no one’s listening to me, as usual. No one. We did a study on this in 1989. Nineteen eighty nine. Katrina was nothing compared to this. And the city still considers this issue on a ‘need to know’ basis. Like it’s not obvious? Who in hell do they think they’re fooling?”
By the time Marc Morial was swept into office in 1998, it was impossible to find a pair of slacks with less than a sixty inch waist at the Macy’s downtown. In part, Morial was re-elected to handle the Chafing and Bunching Crisis of 1996 that had literally engulfed the city. “A shortage of tracksuits and sweatpants had been going on for years” said Mr. Morial in a rare post mayoral interview at the oxygen bar in the Sweet Fire and Ice location on Veterans, sipping on a big gulp blueberry cheesecake martini daiquiri. “We had been in grave discussions with the Wal Mart leadership about this, and that is the reason we have an uptown superstore at this time. The citizens who resisted the Wal Mart simply do not understand what was at stake. Only Wal Mart could deliver the over sized clothing in the numbers necessary to see the city through this crisis, and with the deal they gave us, we were able to retrofit 95% of N.O.P.D. uniforms with elastic stretch bands.”
The riverside Wal Mart brought an estimated 576% increase in tracksuits, stretch pants, sweats, scrubs, maternity wear, shower caps, flip flops and various anti-fungal powder products to the parish area. Even the city’s Goodwills had all but shutdown, including the popular uptown location, due to all the busted and broken shoes, frayed undergarments and donated slacks and pantsuits that had gaping holes worn into the inner thighs. “They were simply inundated with useless inventory.” Continued the ex-mayor: “and not everyone has a car to get to the Wal Mart or Target in Jefferson Parish, and the bus ride into Jefferson on Claiborne is a bitch, especially the shift switch at Carrollton.”
Local vampire novelist, apoplectic uptown snob and goth doyenne Anne Rice, who has since procured all rights to Mr. Copeland’s lifeless corpse, took out a full page ad in the Times-Picayune once again using her inestimable literary talents to verbally obliterate the famous businessman. “I hated that piece of Kenner trash … TRASH” hissed Mrs. Rice through clenched teeth in a phone interview Tuesday, her voice cracking, seething and white with rage. “I’m holding his grand soirée funerale at St. Alphonsus’ in the Irish Channel. Afterwards I will have his corpse run over with a garbage truck a few dozen times right out in front of the Cheesecake Bistro™ on St. Charles as I sip delicately on one of his ‘signature peach champagne cheesecake martinis,’ whatever in gods name that is. Then Lestat and I will simply deep fry him, just as I promised him I would in my last full page ad in 1992. Won’t we, my Lestat?” Added Mrs. Rice: “Lestat c’est moi!”
Archbishop Phillip Hannan, who was instrumental in Copeland’s winning pilot contract with the New Orleans Archdiocese to use Popeyes™ brand biscuits in lieu of the more traditional communion wafers, will be exhumed to somehow preside over the Anne Rice what-have-you, or funeral, or whatever. In better days, His Excellency described Al’s life as a “grand salvific journey from ass to class. Whether it’s from Popeye’s™ to Sweet Fire and Ice™, or from the Ninth Ward to the Northshore, Mr. Alvin Copeland’s life was a journey – an odyssey devoted to God & Class.” Al’s lifelong journey was not an entirely pleasant one, however. He had a string of ugly divorces and only mildly successful face lifts, was unable to retain the heart shaped swimming pool – paved in pure Alaskan cubic zirconium – from his first marriage, and he was the only billionaire ever cheap enough to make a failed bribery attempt on Governor Edwin Edwards.
As of this writing Mr. Copeland’s new line of Popeye’s flavored baby food products is pending FDA approval.
Farewell, Al, New Orleans will miss you.