On days I drive it takes only thirty-four minutes to arrive from Whittier to Redondo Beach, but only because I leave very early in the morning, to beat traffic. Traffic gets bad at 5:12 AM, goes from crowded-but-fast to crowded-and-great-can-you-believe-it-now-Grandma-is-writing-a-check-for-her-groceries. The switchover is instantaneous. Grandma can’t find two forms of ID. She goes back to her purse for cash. Counts out perfect change.
So I leave the house at 4:43 AM without eating breakfast and I arrive to Redondo Beach at 5:17 AM. And I go to McDonald’s. I order a Number Two: Sausage McMuffin with Egg value meal, with coffee. How many creams and sugars? Four creams, four Equals. Okay. That’ll be $4.77. I take my meal to the back of the McDonald’s and I sit and I take the morning in slowly. My breath becomes a prayer to the heavens. The smell of coffee is a great consolation. I drink, I eat. I like the crunch of my hash brown. I pray simply a recited prayer over and over and over, slowly as I breathe. I ask for the day’s basic needs, for the willingness to forgive the people I resent, for the strength to keep away from evil. I thank God for my family and friends. I breathe in, I breathe out.
When I get to McDonald’s I have forty-three minutes until work begins, so I eat slowly. I am learning to breathe with my whole body, mindfully.
Each time I am here, the same things happen:
I am the first person to arrive each morning. I order, I sit, I eat, I breathe.
A man who works here cleans the floor. First he takes his wet thick-and-short-bristles push-broom and scrubs the floor. Then with his mop he soaks the floor and wipes away the dirt. Then he pours his bucket full of sudsy water everywhere onto the floor, and soap water goes under all the tables, and he mops that back up. It is a long process. He goes back and forth over the entire floor three times. By the end, everything looks clean and nice. He is never in a rush. He does not look angry while he mops. He doesn’t even look tired. I imagine that this man enters his body completely—and that for him there is only now: now when he works, when he does not think, when he only does, when he does not resent anyone, when he has no longings, when there is only this water and this mop and these movements. He is slow in his work. His face is peaceful. I like him.
In comes the man with the short disgusting ponytail and a buzz around the sides of his head, who arrives with his ear buds in his ears, and who orders food with his ear buds in his ears, and who eats with his ear buds in his ears. He never looks at anyone. He listens to his music. He eats his breakfast burrito. He taps his feet.
But then the woman comes next. The lovely ugly a little bit fat very out of style crossing guard who doesn’t shower before work. She carries a big cloth sack full of stuff. She wears a fanny pack. She wears jeans from the 1990s, pleated. She tucks her sweatshirt into her jeans. She wears a bright orange vest that says CROSSING GUARD on the back. Her short brown hair sticks up in the back, because she has just woken up, because she hasn’t showered. She walks slowly, as though crossing the street with children, everywhere. She limps. She brings her food to her small booth, sets it down on the table. She pauses, she holds her breath. In a moment, she pushes the fanny pack to the side, making enough room between her stomach and the table, so she can squat into her seat at the single booth. She slides in slowly, carefully, inch by inch, and then while she sits and eats she doesn’t move her body—only sits upright while she brings food to her mouth. Any high schooler would see her and make fun of her—within earshot. I’m sure she has awful nicknames among some children, things you would be embarrassed to be told in public. But do you know that she is my Saint Aquinas? I will tell you why. Because before she moves her fanny pack to the side and before she squats so awkwardly-carefully down into her seat, she, standing next to her table, having set down her food, fishes through her big cloth sack full of stuff. She pulls out a plastic Ziplock bag where she keeps an old piece of paper. She opens the bag. She pulls out the paper. There are pictures on it. She leans the paper up so the pictures will face her as she eats, pictures of her dead parents from when they were alive and young: her mother in a pink blouse, smiling, hair done up nice for church; her father next to his army buddies, everyone smoking a cigarette and holding a gun. Saint Aquinas eats her breakfast looking at the pictures on the paper. She misses her parents. She brings them with her to McDonald’s every morning. She keeps them in a Ziplock. She loves them. She is lonely. Probably the last people who loved her unconditionally, who called her Sweetie, who held her, who touched her face, were these two people in these pictures. And they are gone. Maybe she’s eating a McMuffin and crazy-thinking: Good morning, Mom! How are you, Dad? You want some hash brown? Maybe all this is only weird, and bad-weird. Maybe this is pitiful and crazy and sad. Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe she prays to them, and to God. Maybe she knows that while these two are dead and gone and not ever coming back, and maybe while there is a deep and abiding longing to be near them, to smell them, to feel her father’s hands on her shoulders, to hear her mother say her name, maybe beneath those pitiful-seeming and easy-to-laugh-at-and-call-an-unshowered-lady-crazy-for habits she is practicing deep and mysterious and beautiful truths. No, she is not crazy. She is not crazy at all. She is looking at her mother. She is looking at her father. She is remembering them. This morning she is thinking about all the birthday parties, all the times talking in the car, all the weekends, all the bedtimes, all the phone calls, all the sandwiches, all the music they clapped to and sang to and loved each other near, all the advice and laughter and forgiveness that passed between them like a secret language, back and forth for years. She is seeing a vision from God. She is joined to a prayer and a hope and a love that makes all our knowledge like straw to light fires with.