Exchanging Vices with the McDonald’s Breakfast Crowd



W 82nd St & Broadway, New York, NY 10024

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

I’m in the McDonald’s on Broadway and 82nd one morning, walking towards the counter, about to order a Sausage McMuffin with Egg: a special breakfast vice that I allow myself in exchange for having given up cigarettes, which makes two breakfast vices now that I’ve started smoking again. Floating in a compact mirror above a table, turning pink to red under postprandial lipstick, I see a pair of lips and–adjacent to their reflection–the lovely back of a young woman. Two things I haven’t seen at McDonald’s maybe ever, unless Ronald McDonald’s clown mouth qualifies as hot. Most of the customers here are gray-faced meat-eating men, or gray-faced meat-eating women, or glass-eyed soda-soaked children. People without jobs. People with no place to be at 10 AM. People who smoke cigarettes and eat fat-fried fat. People like me. So I can’t help looking at the radiant back of this young woman, at her reflected lips, for a long time.

Which, like lipstick and loveliness at McDonald’s, is rare. I don’t ogle women for breakfast generally, or for lunch or dinner. Ogling just makes me hungry for yet another vice–one not on the menu; I’m married. And even if I weren’t, the way I look at women–through married, cigarette-smoking, Sausage-McMuffin-eating eyes—does not make women look back. It makes them look away. Which makes me feel bad about myself. Leading to even more cigarettes and Sausage McMuffins to numb my sorrow and shame. Which makes me feel—and look—even worse, with phlegm-filled coughs, smoke-dried skin and Sausage McMuffin love handles. Making it even less likely I’ll attract a woman who wants to be ogled. And around and down I go, one vice descending into another, on a death-spiraling cycle of desire, rejection, tobacco, pork, decay and self-loathing, all beginning with looking at what I shouldn’t have for breakfast.

So I turn from the lips in the mirror and actually look at the menu, as though I might order something other than a Sausage McMuffin with Egg. Like today is the day I change my personality. Like I’m not me and this isn’t McDonald’s. Each breakfast item has its own number: 1. Egg McMuffin; 2. Sausage McMuffin with Egg; 3. Sausage Biscuit; and so on, through 8–variations on an unhealthy theme. No chance for change here, it would seem. Even worse, when I do the breakfast math–eight breakfast items minus one breakfast order equals seven things I won’t be eating for breakfast—I’m left disappointed, and angry, and most of all, paralyzed. I want all eight, and I can’t decide which one to order. The story of my life, in a meal.

Ordinarily, when I can’t make up my mind, I light a cigarette to fill the time I spend making up my mind so that once I’ve made my mind up it seems to me I went with my gut—that I didn’t waste the last five minutes simmering in an agonizing stew of smoking and thinking. Otherwise, how could I live with myself? But I can’t smoke at McDonald’s. So I can’t think. If this breakfast is going to be the first meal of my new life, I’ll have to give in to thoughtless appetite, and act.

“I’ll have the Number 8!” I say, over the din of hungry customers. “To stay!” The Deluxe Big Breakfast, which essentially is numbers 1 through 7 combined, for the man who wants to eat everything and give up nothing: sausage, eggs, a biscuit instead of an English muffin, hash browns, pancakes, butter, syrup, jelly, cream, sugar, coffee and orange juice. About 5000 calories. Two and half day’s worth of food, based on the FDA’s recommended intake for an active man, much less a sedentary smoker sitting in a molded plastic seat eating 5000 calories in 10 minutes. Which is maybe more food than I need. But I figure I can smoke it off on the sidewalk after breakfast.

I pick up my tray and start looking around for an empty seat. When, brimming with confidence, I decide to sit near the lipstick girl. I had the courage to step outside my breakfast box and say no to the Sausage McMuffin and order the Deluxe Big Breakfast. Why stop there? Maybe she’ll see that guts and a gut can go together.

So I take the table facing her profile and, tactfully, begin eying her like a desperate married man aching for a stranger’s attention. She’s staring straight ahead, still looking in her compact, allowing me to see for the first time that her nose is a little big. Actually it’s really big. But so is mine, and love–even between strangers–must contain some form of acceptance. I forgive her, and begin lifting the Styrofoam top insulating my pancakes. When I realize–just in time!–that eating a Deluxe Big Breakfast is not seductive. Who wants to flirt with a man who smells like fake maple syrup? With a man who eats anything at McDonald’s? I need to stop this cycle of self-loathing now and give myself a fighting chance to attract a woman’s interest.

So I slide my tray away and put the cream in my coffee and open up my New York Times, like I’m an intellectual and McDonald’s is a café—notwithstanding the “No Loitering” sign on the wall and the uniformed security guard monitoring the customers, especially the homeless guy sitting in the corner with a tabletop full of empty sugar packets. Everyone else here has a New York Post or coupon circulars or a paper tray insert. They’re reading about which horse won at Belmont or what cell phone’s on sale or how the new McGriddle is available for a limited time only. For all I know, they may not even be able to read. Versus me: a guy who doesn’t need pictures with his food, who for that matter doesn’t need food, and at a restaurant no less. How many guys at McDonald’s can say that? Talk about will power! Surely she’ll be able to see I’m at the top of the fast food chain.

Finally, ready to present my best self, I take a sip of coffee and look up from the Arts & Leisure section.

The lipstick girl folds her compact and turns her head to look at me.

Our eyes meet.

A whiff of breakfast meat unfurls in the air.

And I see the same haunted, Sausage McMuffin-eating eyes that are in my head, or in Ronald McDonald’s: she is a he. Only with long hair, great legs and a short spring skirt on—and a lipstick in his hand instead of a Sausage McMuffin with Egg. And unlike most men, and most women, he wants me.

Which turns me into a she: into someone who does not want him. Whereupon I set down Arts & Leisure, grab my Deluxe Big Breakfast and start shoveling pancakes into my mouth, to look as unattractive as possible. Just like a woman, I make believe he doesn’t exist.

Until I get a few pancakes under my belt and it occurs to me, just like a woman–a low self-esteem woman—there’s no such thing as bad attention. As long as it’s in public, and there’s a uniformed security guard around in case someone gets the wrong idea—a McMuffin-eating transvestite, for example—it’s okay to flirt. So I look up from my stack. And down. And up and down. Coyly darting back and forth between my lipstick guy and my Deluxe Big Breakfast–which at this point I’m picking at, just like a woman. Not wanting to lead him on. But also not wanting to turn him off. Just wanting him to want me. Without having to want him back.

And it seems to me, a guy could get used to this.

Until I start to feel a little guilty and a little sorry for the other guy. Because I’m a guy, and I know exactly how he feels—apart from what it’s like to wear lipstick and a skirt.

So I look up one more time, to give him a friendly, manly “I’m okay, you’re okay” smile; to end the Deluxe Big Breakfast on a human, humane note. But I should have known, knowing myself, it was too late. I’d toyed with him long enough.

He stands up and straightens his skirt. Then he walks out the door, one hand reaching for his cigarettes—basically what I do after someone rejects me, except he keeps them in his purse.

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