2/20/14

Ryka Aoki

The Mark of a Good Day

I consider an Egg McMuffin the mark of a good day. If I have it together enough to get to McDonald’s while they are still serving breakfast, I know something in my life is going well. It’s a reality check, and living in Hollywood, you need as many reality checks as possible. There are too many ways to lose your mind, to think that breakfast with friends means some sort of goat-cheese-and-soy-chilaquiles at 2:30 p.m. at a hip café served by a waitress you might have seen in a dental commercial. “No rush—you want a mimosa at 4 pm? Sure. Here’s some whole-grain, gluten-free toast.”
But breakfast at McDonalds? No one is pandering to your artistic inclinations, or made-for-TV love life. Breakfast ends at 10:30. 10:35? Sorry! No Egg McMuffin for you! Your fickle muse, your chronic insomnia, your industry-party hangover be damned.
This morning, I’m up early for no reason other than I had no choice. Fatigue has been a depressing constant since my anemia acted up. Sometimes I ignore it, but heroics have only made me worse later, and besides, it sucks not to be able to walk up stairs without being out of breath. My girlfriend says, “Stop the heroics. Let the iron supplements do their thing and sleep when you have to. Use some common sense!”
Which I did, and now, my reward is an Egg McMuffin. There you go. In fact, I seemed to have used so much common sense that this morning I’m not even doing that bit: “Crap—it’s 10:45! Wait! Breakfast goes to 11 on weekends, thank the goddess”.
I’m here at McDonalds at 9am, and this might as well be another planet.
Within a half block of Sunset, the Vine St. McDonalds is always crowded, but instead of the late night hipster/homeless crowd, this morning the place is filled with parents chit-chatting with grandparents. Grandparents with their children. Moms wiping ketchup off their struggling daughters. Dads wiping sodas off their struggling sons. Wow. Families. Lots of them.
I get in line. I’m kind of short, which usually means someone ahead of me will back up and thrust an elbow in my eye. But here? There is no elbow in my eye. In part, it’s because there don't seem to be many tall people around. But also, I notice that folks are giving each other space. No one pushes. No one breathes into my hair.
I get my food and move to the dining area, where I see families at big tables and single diners and couples are at the smaller ones. Wait a minute. Families at are at family tables and singles and couples are at smaller ones?
When does that happen? How many times have I seen one person taking up a whole table, forcing families to separate; or sit elbow to elbow with double-parked Happy Meals? Gee—how often have I been that person?
And, though it’s early for me, it’s actually somewhat after nine, which means the place has been open for at least three hours. My server’s probably four hours into his shift. Yet he’s not beaten down and bitter, like folks I’ve seen who work the afternoon lunch crowd. He’s pretty chipper, actually. Of course, for a night person, anyone chipper before noon seems weird to begin with. But, to still look pressed and starched after a breakfast rush?
I get my tray, sit down at a small table, and settle in to unwrap an experience: the prefabricated goodness of my Egg McMuffin Extra Value Meal. It’s so good that I’m halfway through my hash browns before I realize the place is full of moms and children and families and all that stuff, yet I’m fine. In general, I hate noise. And yes, I like a miter-cut, golden-brown slab of hash brown as much as the next girl, but regardless, with all these talking families, this should sound like mini-Armageddon.
But here, it’s all blending in. Sure, it's noisy, but nothing is setting me on edge, nothing is standing out.
Then I get it. The voices aren't dominating each other. No one is speaking excessively loudly. Of course. That’s why the restaurant doesn't seem crowded, even though it’s full. Why the server still has a smile. Why no one tried to poke out my eye with an elbow. Why families are able to sit at family tables.
Everyone is aware of everyone else. Not overly polite or fake, just aware of themselves, of each other, of the space they are taking. When I refill my soda, a mother gently guides her daughter to clear a space for me. We make eye contact and smile. It’s nothing over the top. Nothing earth-shattering.
Just, “Hey, I notice that you’re here, too.”
Actually, there is one single person taking a larger table. Spread out, oblivious, working intensely on some sort project on a laptop. Or not quite oblivious. The person stares, then glares at the next table. A frown, and then back to the keyboard. A child cries; the taps get louder. Another dirty look. And—there goes the cell phone! And suddenly, I can hear one loud, singular voice pushing over all the others.
It’s like I’m watching a little piece of the rest of my life.
I think sometimes we feel like we’re the heroes and stars of our own TV series. Maybe it’s an easy metaphor because I live in Hollywood, but then again, Hollywood wouldn't be Hollywood if its stories did not have some degree of universality. We identify with heroes and leads, and whether it’s because we are accustomed to it, or because we feel our work or our history makes us special, I am sure that person is furiously, perhaps even heroically, fulfilling the lead in whatever movie was playing in his head. Of course you're going to take a big table and spread out. You’re the star! It’s your stage. Everyone else is an extra, there to fill out the setting, create scenery, and for God’s sake stay in the background and not get in the way.
But our lives aren't movies. And even if they were, who’s to say where the camera is pointing? Who’s to say there aren’t cameras all over the McDonald’s, each shooting whatever gripping drama, tender love story, light comedy, or tale of survival is playing in front of it?
More likely, though, there are no cameras. Just people, inhabiting their space, meeting their needs as I am meeting mine. There might be only two soda machines for the entire place, but if each of us gets our drink, smiles, and moves along, it’s really not so bad. It can even be fun.
I’m sure that person thinks the project on that laptop is very important. And it probably is. But that person doesn't seem to realize that these other noises and voices are important, too. They aren't from extras who wandered into the shot. They are from the families connecting, the server earning money, someone bringing in their blind parent to her chair. And a lot of them eating Egg McMuffins, just like you or me, when I’m lucky enough (or sensible enough) to wake up in time.
Sometimes, we’re just not that special, and that’s fine. Sometimes the world doesn't need special. Sometimes the world is not a movie with a jet fighter, insurmountable obstacle, or super villain with a cat. Sometimes, what’s ailing us is not some exotic unidentifiable medical enigma, it's just anemia, and we don't need three surgeries, a helicopter, and Hugh Laurie. We just need to take our fucking iron supplements.
You may notice I haven't yet talked about how race figures in the equation. Or sex, or color of skin, or sexual orientation. I haven't introduced my activism, my blood type, my forthcoming novel, or my plans to rehabilitate my knee. In fact, I wonder sometimes if mentioning all that stuff makes us not simply feel special, but more special. More important. More necessary. And that, I think, is tragic.
Sure, there are cases of injustice, attacks, people in need. Sometimes, the spotlight hits, the moment arrives, and it’s all about us. We get the medal, win the promotion, walk the red carpet, get the Lifetime Achievement Award. Go us!
But usually, I suspect far, far more times than we’d like to think, we’re waiting in line at McDonald’s with everybody else. And we can either get uptight and think of these other beings as obstacles and extras; idiots who don't get our orders right, or who can't control their children, or who stop talking when we’re trying to manifest our destiny. We can back into each other, poke our elbows, take the big table, flip off the family giving dirty looks.
Or we can look around at other people going about their lives, and realize we’re all here together. Why not? Is it really so terrible to share a similar existence? Is it so novel to think that maybe what the world needs is not more heroes, but simply more people aware of each other, acknowledging each other’s presence?
Is it so wrong to think that maybe there’s no need to be first? There’s no camera to hog? Instead of finding ways to be special, maybe we’re trying too hard. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with not being that special, and just having some good sense. It might just be that we’re all somehow together, and when we notice each other, give each other space, maybe with a smile, we do something far more blessed than raising ourselves above others.
Maybe the best times of all is when we give each other a just a bit of our attention, our time, our goodwill, and allow ourselves to share – not in individual greatness, but in a beautiful weekend morning, unashamed of who we are, which Extra Value Meal we are eating, and who is in front of us in line.

Ryka Aoki is a professor of English at Santa Monica College and of Gender Studies at Antioch University, and her forthcoming novel, He Mele a Hilo, will be published by Topside Signature Press this spring. Her collection Seasonal Velocities was a finalist for a 2013 Lambda Literary Award in Transgender Nonfiction. and her chapbook Sometimes Too Hot the Eye of Heaven Shines won RADAR Productions’ Eli Coppola Award  For more on her work, visit www.rykaryka.com.

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