Archive for the ‘People Watching’ Category

Some days I take the train to work. Some days I drive. Part II.

In Breath, Connected, McDonald's, Myth, People Watching, Saint Aquinas, Stillness, Story on 11 November 2011 at 9:30 AM

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.


Some days I take the train to work. Some days I drive. Part I.

In Job, Landscape, Myth, People Watching, Story, Tourette's Syndrome, Train on 9 November 2011 at 5:06 PM

On days I take the train—the Metro Link Green Line in Los Angeles, from Norwalk to Redondo Beach—I park my car at the Norwalk station. The parking lot is big and quiet. It holds many cars. I arrive to the parking lot at 4:57 AM, park my car, walk to the ticket-selling machine, buy my train ticket, then wait with the others. Even though we see each other most mornings and totally recognize one other, and even though we all repeat our habits and stand in the same places and sit each morning in the same seats and open the same books, and even though in this sharing the same space over and over again we might as well be roommates or siblings, we do not speak to one another. No one says words. Still, while I have not come to know them, I have come to love these people. Sadly, though, 4:57 AM is too early in the morning to make friends. And yet there they are, every time I take the train: my don’t-talk friends.

When I show up to the ticket-selling machine there is sometimes a bicycle man—he was there this morning but not yesterday—who has attached enormous 1970s-living-room speakers to the sides of his bicycle seat. How do I describe him to you? The bicycle is, how you say, pimped out. Many, many accessories: dozens of reflectors in the spokes, big side view mirrors, flashy colors, as though Pee Wee Herman designed a bicycle with Super Fly. The speakers are covered in purple and black fabric, in a leopard pattern. They play loud bass-heavy soul and funk from the 1960s, 1970s. (My boss plays the same songs from his office computer nearly every day, though not with quite the same amount of bass; plus, my boss also likes the 1980s, especially Luther Vandross, known as Lutha’! around the office.) Now it’s 5:02 AM and the bicycle man is buying his ticket for the train (yes, he brings that thing onto the train, though on the train he turns the music off), and his bicycle is playing slow jams very loudly this morning, and I feel like I should be making out with a pretty girl after our third date, just the two of us on my thrift-shop couch, hoping to God my roommates don’t walk in.

There is the man in the blue windbreaker and cheap-nice black shoes who looks like the man who played Jack Bristow on ALIAS. He is boring, mostly, but when I look at him I want to smile and say something rad and clever and TV-like, but I just end up staring too long at his face, and he sees me staring, and of course he doesn’t know why I’m staring, but I smile anyway as though he does know why I’m staring, a smile that says, Hey, you look like Jack Bristow, you loveable lying tender cruel-hearted piece of shit spy killing worried dad, you.

There is the heavy-big-round-fat-many-keys-keychain carrying facilities services custodian guy who brings his Razor scooter—yes, a grown man in his forties rides a Razor scooter—and who wears clear braces and who looks like Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat but combs his hair back much like but not as cool as Pat Riley. He, the only one of my early morning unfriends who ever spoke to me,  has approached me several times to join him in investing in and selling alternative energy sources; there is always a convention “in a couple weeks” at a nearby hotel. “If you show up, make sure you give them my name, bro.” He makes to hand me the flyer. I am polite, never say No, but I keep my hands in my pocket. Now when I see him I keep away from him. Problem is, we get off at the same stop and there is always a little bit of awkwardness as we leave the train for the crosswalk. After the light turns green, sure, I walk and he rides off on his Razor, but first we both have to wait for the light to turn green, which can take up to two minutes, and, until that damned light turns green, there we are next to one another pretending he hasn’t offered me a place in his stupid effing pyramid scheme, pretending I haven’t done anything I can to keep away from him. And what now? Do we say Goodbye? See you later? Kind of. He looks over and I do that head flick thing like, Hey. But I make sure to have my ear buds in even if I’m not listening to anything.

Here is the young woman with too-long too-thick dark brown hair who is a little pretty and who puts on makeup the whole time. This is embarrassing, I think, for everyone on the train who can see her. She is about the only thing on the train that moves because everyone else is sleeping or reading or listening to music, they are silent, sitting still, everybody is not moving at all in a way that should be called Look At Those Sleeping Bunnies, and so to move your eyes toward where you see her movements—is natural. But then she’s putting on makeup. Lots of it. For twenty minutes. In front of everyone. That’s a bedroom thing. That’s a bathroom thing.  That is definitely not a ride the train thing. She opens her eyes in a funny way, very very wide, so that you can see the red guts of them underneath her eyeballs, and her cheeks get long and strange, and her forehead wrinkles up in a yucky way, and the skin of her cheek mixes with the fat of her neck. And I can’t help thinking how she believes, Right now, in this moment, right now I am pretty. Because every time she approves of a movement she’s made with that brush or lipstick or powdery fluffy pad, she has approved the movement because she’s thinking, I am prettier now than I was a moment ago. And while I know that this is a normal thing for people to think, and while I know everyone who wears makeup thinks something similar at some point, the thing is this: I do not ever want to know when someone is thinking it. I don’t make you watch me strut in front of the mirror every morning, saying, O Baby, yes, this is a hunk of man right here! And I don’t want her thinking those things in front of me, either. Or I would feel like a voyeur. Because you can’t just stare at someone putting on makeup while reading their thoughts without feeling like a voyeur. So I look down, I look away, I close my eyes, I sit in another car.

And, among the many other people who wait for the train at 5:07 AM with me, there is the man with Tourette’s Syndrome. He is nice looking with nice gray hair combed nicely and he has a big nice smile and he is tall and he wears nice clothes (like nice-casual, comfortable-white-collar stuff, I-play-golf-sometimes-and-I-also-BBQ-my-own-meat-and-wash-my-own-car stuff). He is married. He is an engineer of some kind, since he gets off in El Segundo near the aerospace companies. He has coached children’s soccer, you can tell, and he was awful at it, but he loved buying everyone pizza at the end of the season. He is the sort of man I would gladly carpool with and tell stories to, whose weekends I’d love to hear about, whose jokes I’d laugh at even if I thought they were only half-funny. I’m sure he has a daughter he’s proud of, whom he loves very much, who graduated college three years ago and is traveling abroad now, and now he’s chosen to ride the train every morning in order to save money for her, so he can send the extra cash to her in Germany or Bolivia or something. Every five seconds he twitches: his shoulders roll, or his cheek clicks his eye shut, or his head knocks back with a muscle spasm. I feel for him when it happens, but I imagine he is used to it and does not need my pity. I imagine his wife who loves him can by now ignore it. She hardly notices it anymore. And I imagine him playing with his daughter years ago, when she was just three, four, five, and, when she asked him—Why, Daddy, does your body move around so much?—he just made it into a game. He made it into a tickle fight somehow, took a few seconds to exaggerate the twitching in order to become a limping pretend-scary tender careful tickle monster, and, rather than actually scare her; rather than say, I have a disorder called Tourette’s Syndrome, Honey, and I don’t have full control over my body, Sweetie; rather than allow her little girl mind to think her daddy was not the strongest daddy in the world, different than other daddies, less than other daddies, weak somehow: he instead played this tickle monster game and she ran away, pretend-scared and screaming, and she laughed as he tickled her until bedtime. Like her mother, the girl also learned to ignore it, was able finally to be grown-up and accept the truth of “Tourette’s Syndrome,” but really she forgot the name altogether. She accepted it deeply, without words, without its name, the way you accept the sound of someone else’s laughter. It is a part of him how his big nice smile is a part of him, how his smell is a part of him. You don’t name those things. You just love those things. Sometimes, the man with Tourette’s Syndrome falls asleep on the train and nearly misses his stop in El Segundo. (I wonder whether I will ever have the courage to wake him up if in fact he’s still sleeping when the train arrives to his stop, admitting to him in my touching his back, Hey, yes, hurry, I have noticed, this is your stop, isn’t it?) Those are beautiful moments, when he sleeps, because his whole body stops moving, is at rest, carries with it no spontaneous muscle contraction, is peaceful. When he is sleeping like this in his own bed or on the couch in the afternoon, I bet his wife touches his hair, his neck. She kisses him on the shoulder. And even though she has for years ignored his uncontrolled movements, and even though she almost does not ever really notice them anymore, she loves this moment best. In this moment she sees his face as it appears in photographs, as it appears in her memories when she thinks of him during the day, this still, this quiet, this perfect, this handsome, this strong, this good.