Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Mr. Barbicane Takes A Trip" Chapter Fourteen

Had Mr. Barbicane decided not to eat at that point, if he had decided instead to put down the bag of food and the bottle of Diet Coke and cross the short distance between his seat and the ticket counter for his gate and engaged the woman who had been touching her heart, perhaps asking her about the gesture, it’s possible, but not very likely, that Mr. Barbicane and the woman would have, in the course of the conversation, discovered that they once had the same employer. That they had, in fact, once been in the same McDonald’s at the same time, but not at the same table.

In March of 1983, both Mr. Barbicane and the woman, whose name was Vivian Teller, worked for Redi-Temp, a temporary employment agency with offices on Madison Avenue between Thirty-eighth and Thirty-ninth Streets in Manhattan. Mr. Brabicane’s unemployment had run out the previous January and, unable to find permanent work, he was compelled to take on temp assignments at various offices throughout the city. Miss Teller was in a similar situation. She had come to New York City in hopes of an acting career. She had been taking drama, singing and acting lessons, going out on auditions and working for little or no pay in various showcase productions in lower Manhattan. She had been doing this for the better part of a year with very little measurable success.

She managed to have two affairs during that period. The first with an actor she met in her first scene study class, a man her own age named Rodney who concentrated less on the craft of acting than on the maintenance of his facial hair. One night at the apartment of people they knew Vivian laughed at the joke of someone who had more talent than Rodney. Rodney then slapped Vivian across the face. The next day Rodney quit the scene study class and left for Minneapolis with two hundred dollars he took from the envelope in which Vivian kept her rent money hidden in a box of Van Camp Fish Sticks in the back of her freezer.

The other affair had been with a dancer who was older and taller than Vivian and also a woman. It was the first such relationship for Vivian, but one in a long line of corrosive affairs for the dancer. It made Vivian feel exotic and wicked and very bohemian. She and the dancer would be openly affectionate with each other in public. They would spend long Sunday mornings in bed with the New York Times, making love until three o’clock in the afternoon when they would finally get dressed, go out, and have breakfast at a place called “Pancakes Make People Happy.” Vivian did not fully identify herself as a lesbian, but coming after Rodney she felt this was a distinct upgrade.

Unfortunately, the dancer applied a time honored and fairly rigid pattern to all her affairs, and she did not alter this often repeated timetable for Vivian. There was an increasing monopolization of Vivian’s time, repeated challenges about people she talked to on the phone, and interrogations about people she worked with in acting classes or at her temp jobs. There were also stepped up demands for sex as proof that Vivian still found the dancer attractive and youthful. Things were further complicated by the dancer’s demands that Vivian come out to her family, less as a political act than as a commitment to her lover. The constant demand that she demonstrate her affection for this truly beautiful woman who had on occasion so powerfully pleasured Vivian that she thought she would never be able to walk normally again depressed her.

It came to a head, as it had with Rodney, at a party. In this case Vivian made the mistake of complimenting her hostess’s attire. The hostess was in the midst of thanking her for the compliment and was about to tell her where she had acquired the particular blouse when Vivian saw her eyes shoot wide, shocked by something happening behind Vivian. Vivian didn’t turn quickly enough to see the dancer actually hurl the contents of her glass at her face, but she did catch sight of a large, dark cloud of inexpensive red wine coming at her and blotting out the room. The dancer threw her glass to the floor, where the thick carpet (also now stained with the wine) prevented her exit from being properly punctuated with breaking glass, then left the apartment.

Vivian stood there with wine on her face, embarrassment and conciliatory cooing all around her, and wondered if this would be the pattern of her relationships for the rest of her life: Passion, then madness, and the whole mess capped off with her at the receiving end of a cheap melodramatic gesture.

On the day Vivian Teller and Mr. Barbicane ended up in the same McDonald’s at the same time, but not at the same table, she was very close to deciding to give up on a career in the theater and seek employment among people of a more even temperament. She was half way through a three week assignment working as a receptionist and back-up typist at a trade organization called The American Plastics Manufacturers Association where she answered phones, took messages and typed reports about trends in the expandable polystyrene bead segment of the industry. It was a place without art or affectation, uncontaminated by creativity or ego. It was bliss as near as Miss Teller could discern. What was stardom compared to contentment?

The office was on Fifty-seventh Street near Seventh Avenue. At lunch she would walk through the big art store on the south side of the street and work her way to one of the nearby fast food restaurants. She was not a connoisseur of fast food. She was eating in these places as a sort of revenge against her departed dancer/lover who was a vegetarian and wanted the world to know about it.

The McDonald’s in which Mr. Barbicane and Miss Teller didn’t meet was around the corner on Eighth Avenue. It had two levels and both Mr. Barbicane and Miss Teller were seated on the second level, both facing the window. One was at a table, the other was at a booth. They were about twenty feet apart, coincidentally the same approximate distance that separated them in the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport more than twenty years later.

Miss Teller arrived at a quarter past one, Mr. Barbicane got there at twelve fifty-eight. They purchased similar but not identical meals. While they both purchased Big Macs, Mr. Barbicane added a large order of fries and Miss Teller an apple pie.

The McDonald’s apple pie does not resemble a pie, but rather looks like a flattened tube of some sort of breading or crust reminiscent of a burrito.

Both Mr. Barbicane and Miss Teller purchased large Diet Cokes. Diet Coke had been introduced a year earlier and was the first new Coca-Cola product to reach consumers since 1886. It rapidly overtook its sister product, Tab, which was sweetened with saccharin. Diet Coke was originally sweetened with saccharin, but the formula was changed and the beverage was sweetened with aspartame by the time Mr. Barbicane and Miss Teller placed their orders.

The Big Mac hamburger sandwiches seen on television and in print advertising look nothing like the woebegone and compressed constructions you get at the outlets themselves. Where the Big Macs in the commercials are always impeccably built, towering and full of apparent goodness, the ones you actually get when you unwrap them from the wax paper and remove the cardboard ring designed to hold the sandwich together as you move it from the counter to your table or your car, looks like a crude parody of the delicious treat depicted in the ads. Looking at a recently unwrapped Big Mac is to experience a great sense of sadness, as if the failure and frustration of the underpaid workers toiling to pile the ingredients into this lopsided tower had been taken up by the food they prepared. To look at a Big Mac cradled in paper on a recently wiped plastic table, often sill redolent of the cleaning chemicals used to disinfect it (the table, not the sandwich) is to experience an entire generation of dead ends all summed up in one edible lump.

Long after she’d eaten her last Big Mac (which was in 1987) Miss Teller would think of the sad sandwiches and think about a play she’d once performed in somewhere in the wilds of Alphabet City. The play was about a sin-eater. A sin-eater was someone in British and Irish culture who, for a price, went to the bedside of a dying person and took on their sins by eating bread ritually placed on the breast of the one who was dying. The play was about a sin-eater named Finn who ran afoul of the priest in his town. Vivian had been surprised to learn that the Catholic Church considered sin eating a cardinal sin punishable by excommunication. The church didn’t want people getting the idea that there was an alternative form of absolution and that sins could be dealt with in any manner other than through confession and contrition.

To Vivian, a Big Mac looked like the perfect vehicle for a lifetime of sin. It looked like something that had been soaking up venal and cardinal infractions for a very long time. And, not surprising to her, it tasted really good. Ugly enough to be a made out of canvas and tempera by Claes Oldenburg, a Big Mac has a sinister, seductive taste calling to us with both the sweetness of the secret sauce and the cutting taste of the over-salted meat patties. A Big Mac gets on your hands and you have to lick the shreds of lettuce and sauce and diced onion and bits of pickles that appear to have been prepared with pinking shears. It was messy and shameful and you knew it as you ate it.

Sin, apparently, tastes very good, elevates your cholesterol level and makes you fat.

Mr. Barbicane, who was that day working in an office that processed complaints filed against a manufacturer of casual wear, did not consider the religious aspects of his Big Mac. For him it was one of several possible meals that could be had for an economical price within walking distance of his assignment.

The two people sat there, sharing the space for approximately forty minutes. Then Mr. Barbican left first and returned to the office early. Vivian lingered, looking out the second floor window at the offices in the building across the street where she saw workers not dissimilar from her in offices not that unlike the one occupied by The American Plastics Manufactures Association. She wondered what she would do next then took another bite of her Big Mac and hoped, somewhere, somehow, her ex-dancer was aware that she was eating meat.

All this might strike the casual observer as a remarkable coincidence; that two people so close to each other in an airport were once in the same room at the same time, but not at the same table in a city more than a thousand miles away, more than twenty-years earlier. And that the two people who were unaware of each other then were essentially just as unaware of each other now, and that they would continue on along the divergent paths of their lives without ever being aware of how those two paths came so close to crossing not once, but twice. That is the impression someone looking at this from the outside might take away. But really, this sort of thing happens all the time. It’s just that nobody knows about it.


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