One Tragic Meal, Please

I have a one day job in San Francisco, and while considering my lunch options, I finally settle on Delfina, a charming restaurant nestled in the Mission District that splendidly integrates Californian ingredients with a superb knowledge of Italian cuisine.  But what to eat?  It's definitely a toss up between the grilled fresh calamari with warm white bean salad and the liberty duck leg confit with grilled torpedo onions.

No, really, I go to McDonalds for a "Big N' Tasty."  Only $1.00!

I get two.

Fast food restaurants in big cities are a little different than they are in the burbs.  The main "dining" area sometimes only consists of a few stools or tables, but there is often overflow seating, either upstairs on the second level or downstairs in a basement dining room.  At this McDonalds, it's a basement.  I grab my delicious and inexpensive paper-wrapped artery hardeners and head down the stairs, taking a seat in the crowded, windowless room.

I've brought the book I'm currently reading, but I didn't notice when I grabbed it this morning that I only have two pages left. It looked like there were more, but it turns out the last thirty pages or so are sources and chapter notes and all that boring shit no one ever reads.

So, I'm left to eat my lunch and stare either at my disappearing Big N' Tasty (not that big, nor tasty) or other people.

I choose other people.

It's an odd thing, I realize after a while. Here we are, about thirty-five of us, crammed into this basement section of the restaurant. No windows to look out, nothing on the walls, just seats, tables, and human beings in close proximity. And no one is talking to anyone. Only one or two are reading the newspaper.  No one is even looking around, except for me.

Stick thirty-five dogs in a room, and there will be barking, scampering, urinating, and the inevitable sniffing of butts. There will be biting and fighting. There will be, within minutes, fucking. Same goes with probably every other species out there (substituting hoots or grunts or chirps for the barks, of course). Well, fish would just flop around and die, I guess. Still, there would be interaction with most other types of creatures, a lot of it, the finding of mates, the choosing of sides, and lots of wrassling and snapping until the pecking order has been decided upon.

And here we are, people, the most advanced and intelligent life-forms on the planet, sitting in silence. We've built cities and launched spacecraft and created languages.  Why don't we say something? Why don't we (except for me) even look at each other?

I'm not much of a talker, but it hits me.  That guy sitting over there could be my best friend. He's not, but he could be, for all I know. If a conversation started, who knows?  We might hit it off. We might be friends for the rest of our lives. Surely, someone, somewhere, met their best friend in a fast food joint. If you asked enough people, "Where'd you meet your best friend?" someone would eventually say "At McDonalds."

That woman over there could be the love of my life. Sure, she's in her mid-70's. And I think she might have a glass eye.  But so what? It's possible!

Take this one fellow with the hat and team him up with me, and maybe the connection of our two brains and thoughts and ideas and intelligence and backgrounds would be the perfect combination to start the most successful business in the history of the country. Why not? Ask enough business owners how they got started and eventually one might say, "Well, I met this guy in a McDonalds, and a couple years later we started a business."

How did you meet the people in your life? Through childhood, school, work, friends, neighbors. But there must be some people you know, and know well, who you met randomly. In a bar, on a bus, at a park, a show, maybe even a fast-food restaurant. Maybe McDonalds. When you met them, did you think "Hey, this is my new friend?" Did you become friends immediately?  Of course not, but it had to start with a word, a sentence, a greeting, a "Nice to meet you" or a "Got the time?" or a "Hey, how is that new Spicy McChicken Sandwich, anyway?"

Ask enough killers where they met their victims, and eventually one will say "I met him in a McDonalds."

That guy. The one who could be my best friend. He could be my worst enemy, instead. We could wind up hating each other. Possibly. Fist-fighting. Knife-fighting. Destroying each other's lives. Who knows? The two of us meeting could set off a chain of events that would find us, decades from now, trying to kill each other with .50 caliber Browning M2 machine guns in Chilpancingo, Mexico on New Years Eve. While dressed as penguins.  You never know.

Why don't we talk? Why don't we say anything? Why do we just sit here, quietly munching and staring at our meals. There could be friendships and families founded from right here, right now.  There could be drama, just waiting to unfold.  Two of us could have a child who would have a child who would have a child who would cure cancer, or possibly invent an exciting new kind of pretzel treat.  And we're sitting here doing nothing about it!

Of course, weíre affecting each otherís lives anyway, by not talking. Take the Asian guy finishing off his fries over there.  By not engaging him in conversation, Iím affecting his life. If I were to talk to him, he might walk out of here a few minutes later than he would otherwise (or earlier, considering my conversational skills and that my mouth is full of Big N' Tasty) and might miss (or catch) his bus and then be too late/early to randomly meet the love of his life/his worst enemy. Or, hell, the bus could just run him over.  By not talking to him, I'm not setting events in motion, and thereby allowing other events to be set in motion, instead.

I hold his life in my hands, right now. Go ahead, Mr. Asian Fry-Finishing Person. Take your time. Take your time while I sit here, controlling you like a puppet. Chew slowly, savor those fries, they could be your last. I own your future. I decided what comes next. You are my temporal bitch.  A word from me, or two words, or no words, could alter your future, or not alter it, as well as the future of your children, and their children, if my silence even allows them to be born.

You can affect people all over the world by doing nothing. In fact, you do. You can shut yourself off from the world for a day, a week, a month, and still wreak havoc with peopleís lives. By not stepping out your door, you donít bump into people. You donít draw their looks, donít get in their way, donít remind them of something, donít make them think theyíve seen you somewhere before. Which leads to other thoughts, hesitations, decisions, actions, impulses. Which leads to different futures. By not taking up a seat on a bus, someone else sits, takes a load off, feels that much less unpleasant for being on a bus that smells like unwashed feet. They have a better day. They make a different choice, later on, than they would have made if theyíd had to stand.  Maybe get that promotion or surprise someone with flowers or are kind to a stranger.

Maybe two people fight over the seat and have shitty days as a result. Or someone sits next to their future best friend. Or their future wife. The person who will someday get them a dream job or loan them money or invent something with them.

Maybe they sit next to their future killer. Or victim.

You leave a hole everywhere you donít go.

Asian Guy, my puppet, finishes up and leaves, walking into whatever future I've made better or worse by not interacting with him.  I'm his puppet, too, of course, and the puppet of everyone else here and elsewhere.  We're all puppets, our strings stretching back in time to the Big Bang.  Whatever set that off.

Now, however, Iím not satisfied to passively influence the lives of others. I want to see it happen, make it happen. I'm already sad I didn't aggressively interfere with Asian Guy's life.  I want to say something to someone, strike up a conversation, or, more likely, I want someone to say something to me. Sure, I know the chances of establishing a life-long, life-changing friendship with someone in this room is slim, but not as slim as eventually winding up in a death struggle with one of them in Mexico. And I donít really think I could have hot sex with the woman in her 70ís. Not with that glass eye, anyway.  Yeesh.  But still. You never know.

But I just sit there, looking around, and I wish something would happen in all the silence, and I wish someone would say something, do something, change something, and a then woman sitting nearby reading a newspaper suddenly laughs out loud, and she screeches "Oh! They found Winona Ryder guilty of shoplifting!" and then she looks around at everyone, waiting for someone to say something, and then she looks at me, and sees me looking at her, and she laughs again, and she says "Guilty!" and I look at her, and then I look down at my burger, and I think, Oh, shut up.