The Wild East / Comedy
Got off the bus. Saw the yellow arches and headed towards that venerable international institution.
My friend, whose birthday it is this evening, may have looked back from his seat on the bus and wondered why I hadn’t entered the MRT station. Instead, I made a beeline for the McDonald’s, passing by a small corner park where I decided I would return, after first using the can and getting some water to drink.
After assessing what I could physically handle, water sounded perfect at this very moment.
There were no tables outside; and oddly, there was a lack of the customary vegetable oil or frying-of-French-fry smell that McDee’s usually emanates. At least I don’t recall any of this.
‘Pull’, the door said, so I opened and went inside: bright fluorescent, near-blinding lights.
Emanating upwards almost visibly from the orange-and-brown tile floor was an unappealing stale odor; no doubt its sanitization was both a Sisyphean and Herculean task. After all, there must be a limit to how clean a floor can ever get after having served a billion hamburgers in a joint like this…
As I entered, the lady on the right was alone at a table, bent forward, clipping her nails. This graphic image was such a shock that it almost completely wiped out the memory of having first seen a first lady on the right, who was doing some kind of Chinese homework assignment. Two young guys had large drinks on the table in front of them. Another lady was talking with three people at a neighboring table, one man and two women. Two youths were peering into a computer; one had a half-eaten burger beside him on a table, resting on the plastic wrapper; this was technically the only McDonald’s food I saw anyone in the process of eating whilst visiting ‘Chez MacDo’, as the French call it. One man was learning back in his chair, looking intently at his cellphone. One woman was writing on a newspaper. One man was reading the newspaper, full-on, really interested in what he was reading. A group of three people sat together; the man had a bag of barbecued/fried chicken bits – “outside food” from a Taiwanese vendor. I saw the basil that was mixed in with the chicken bits, in a greasy little bag. It smelled good.
With relief, I was grateful to see the bathroom was on the ground floor. McDonald’s often seems to build the bathroom on the second or third floor these days, probably to discourage pedestrian traffic such as myself, or homeless/near-homeless people who might take advantage of the free public washroom to quickly bathe and take care of their other hygiene needs.
I found the one stall with a real toilet – not the squatting hole kind that is found all too often in Asia and in this place, Taiwan. No, McDonald’s, as part of its universal appeal to the masses, may have the squatting kind of hole in the floor but must also provide the minimum of a proper stall (perhaps to meet standards for disabled access); and of course a proper door on it; with a functioning lock; free toilet paper; and a Western-standard quality toilet bowl.
I lifted up the seat and tossed up my dinner, puking it all out. There was some cabbage there, some basil in my mix, too from the ginger chicken; and it tasted like coffee – the nice latte I’d followed dinner with – and a hint of the last entry into my stomach, very sweet fruit tea – too sweet. The thought crossed my mind that maybe the fruit tea was the culprit. Nah. I still felt a bit nauseous, although nausea is the appropriate response to most situations. But I must add that it wasn’t McDonald’s that made me sick as a dog, either; it was taking the bloody Number 9 bus coming down the mountain.
I’ve been up and down many, many mountains in my life, many of them more windy, and far longer trips than that; and in far more rickety and dilapidated vehicles than the infernal Number 9 bus. On the way down the mountain from Jutze Hu (Bamboo Lake), I’d told Connor on that bus from hell, while swallowing hard: “I don’t like this driver. This guy’s the absolute worst driver I’ve ever seen. He keeps putting on the brakes and accelerating.”
We fell silent, sharing a bilious moment that lasted dangerously long, and I wished to God they’d provided barfbags on this particular stretch of the journey, just in case. I distracted myself by trying to look out the front of the vehicle. A friend Katannya who’d worked on boats for years, once told me during a trip down the mountain in Hsinchu to “look at the horizon”. But I wasn’t sure whether that meant one should look at the point on the dashboard itself, or the road.
In desperation, I tried to remember the name of that actor, everybody loved him; what was his name? The one with the hamster up his butt. Before that he was a Hollywood hunk. He was in Officer and a Gentleman, Pretty Woman. Gene Autry? No way, not even close; but his name sounded something like that. Don – Johnson? No, but he was a contemporary of this actor. Kevin — Costner. Go ahead and draw out this mental exercise, stall for time. He was in Dances with Wolves, and bared his ass, which was really nice. Set all the women atwitter. Of course it wasn’t him… Kevin Costner was another contemporary, though. What was his name? Keep thinking. Keep your mind off the road and this horrifying, never-ending ride down the mountain…
Don’t think of – or say – the word ‘carsick’ or ‘barfbag’, for the love of Christ.
I look over at Connor and I can see from his pinched expression, and how he is gazing anxiously ahead of him and on the edge of his seat, that he too is trying desperately to keep his shit together.
We got on the #9 bus to Beelzebub.
It was an unfortunate end to our otherwise fine evening, to feel the urge to get off that bus, by any means necessary. I almost wished we would have walked down the mountain in the dark rather than end it in this manner – hastily parting ways in order to run and toss up such a delicious dinner. In Jutzehu, I’d facetiously threatened that we’d walk down the mountain if we couldn’t remember the name of that actor…. If only I hadn’t relented; but then again, the continuation of this game was saving me from hurling now on this goddamned bus, and we were both hanging by a thread, even as we approached the flattened Beitou city limit…
“Richard Gere,” I mumbled in a hoarse whisper, and Connor didn’t look at me, just nodded, not trusting himself to speak, exceedingly pale around the gills.
I put the lid of the seat back down, which is the considerate thing to do, really, in the interest of optimizing the next customer’s experience, then went to wash my hands in the fairly clean McDonald’s sink. The sink and floor were disgustingly wet, of course, but that is the case for all public restrooms. I saw in the mirror how my eyes were reddened from the reflux exertions, and idly thought about how the soap probably smelled like that – stringent, somewhat industrial – so people wouldn’t use too much of it.
There was a sign posted in English/Mandarin next to the mirror that said the washroom was “sanitized hourly,” so to “feel free” in using it. How thoughtful it was to provide this reassuring information.
I rearranged my hair to look more bouffant and over-flowing, then went outside to stand in line.
Behind the counter there was a box. Written on it in all caps, it shouted: SWEET AND SOUR SAUCE CUPS.
For some reason this made my stomach turn slightly, again, so I thought it best to consciously stop thinking about those words (in hindsight, I think the problem lay in sweet and sour mixed together, in little plastic cups), and look away. The lady in front of me turned away from the counter, and passed a HELLO KITTY happy meal into the eager outstretched hands of her girl-child. Sad – as a child, I too used to look forward to something as innocuous-sounding and appealingly packaged as The Happy Meal, which is utterly devoid of any nutritional value.
It’s my turn now. I reach out to lean on the counter for support, and ask nicely for some water. One may ask, “Why water?” You see, McDonald’s staff could never turn down such a simple request from one of its customers, even a non-paying one. So the slight young girl-worker graciously filled a small plastic cup with water from a machine and handed it to me with both hands, delivering the plastic cup with the same gravity as if this were tea ceremony. With respect – that’s how they do it here, whether it’s McDonald’s or a 7-11.
I thanked her – such grace and kindness – and slowly made my way past all the tables again, neither too fast nor too slow, so I had the chance to clearly pick out as many details as possible while avoiding drawing attention to myself for lingering too long to get a gander at all their activities.
This time, I returned to the exit using a slightly different path so I could learn more precisely what these people were doing here, at this particular moment in time (Monday, Aug. 20, 2012, circa 10pm), at this McDonald’s, in an Asian city (Beitou, Taiwan).
The group discussing something with the lady at the next table was having some kind of business-related meeting I think; there were black-and-white printouts with pictures of something in the center of their table. The pair on the computer was also having a work meeting, perusing a list of files and documents on the C drive of their computer. The man was now flipping through photos on his cellphone, photos of houses; he could have been in the process of looking for a new place to live. The woman was circling numbers in the newspaper with a red ink pen – #317 and #323, if I recall correctly. It was part of the lottery or more likely a game of some sort; a numeric form of Soduku. Perhaps she was wasting time before her next engagement, it was her habit to do that stuff all the time, or she found it relaxing to do Soduku after a meal, alone. The woman clipping her nails was now just examining them very closely, her hands both held about 4-5 inches from her face, a little hunched over. I have abso-fucking-lutely no idea why she’d want to carry out a scrupulously detailed, time-consuming (at least a half-hour) manicure while at a McDonald’s restaurant at 10pm on a Monday evening in Beitou; but I totally disapproved, and still do to this day. And the woman next to the door was still studying hard, on the very same page of her homework, which was half typed and half she may have written herself in Chinese. It looked like she was revising for an exam having to do with real estate, or business, or law; or business law.
I took a sip of the refreshing cold water as I exited this dining establishment, pleased with the evening’s crowning achievement. Maybe I was a little worse for all the wear and tear of this harrowing experience, but after all, it had cost nothing. More importantly, balanced carefully in the palm of my hand was a small but precious cup of water. I was hoarding this prize until I could get to the tiny, heavily engineered corner landscaping excuse for a park in front of the Beitou MRT station.
I sat down on a bench there, noting the exercising nimble granny making use of the elliptical equipment, whilst two children shouted happily near the metal rocking horses and melted away, accompanied by their mum.
And then I tuned the world out.