Genine Lentine on how a McJob and her brother’s magic tricks led her to the zendo. Advisory: this piece contains adult language and partially unbuttoned fast food uniforms.
What brings you here this morning?
This is the guiding question of the “way-seeking mind talk,” a talk students at the San Francisco Zen Center are invited to offer on Thursday mornings during intensive periods of study. On these mornings, the regular schedule of zazen and service is abbreviated so that a student may tell her story of how she got there—a twenty-five-minute slice of how she came to be sitting on a cushion in the Buddha hall at 6:45 a.m., speaking to a group of people sitting in zazen posture, their eyes lowered to a forty-five-degree angle.
These talks chronicle an arc of awareness, an unfolding portrait of a mind getting to know itself. They often single out specific traumatic events as turning points, recounting new permutations of what other human beings and circumstance can levy onto the self. They are tales of extremity and moments of clarity, of hunches followed, of determined recommitment to life: an emergency tracheotomy on a premature infant, as recounted half a century later through that blessed, resealed trachea; an encounter with a person who sees something everyone else had missed; an offhand reference to a parent in prison, to suicide attempts. One after another, students explore the infinite ways a life cracks open and shines.
These accounts are registered by the assembly with extremely subtle facial responses, the kind Paul Ekman studies, the kind longtime meditators are said to be better than the average population at detecting. Faint variations that say, I’m here with you, or that was funny, or that was tragic, or that’s just like my life. An upturned corner of the mouth, delicate nostril flare, lift of the chin. Sometimes there’s outright laughter—relief at the prevailing nervous suspension—and, of course, much quiet sniffling.
A feeling of temporal dilation pervades the room, but still there’s a clear boundary. At 7:20, if the talk hasn’t already tapered off into, “Well, I think that’s about it,” or, “Does anyone else have a question?” a bell might ring to indicate the time. This audience was woken up by a different bell at 4:55 a.m., and they haven’t yet eaten breakfast.
When I gave my talk a couple years ago, I focused on a cascade of revelations brought about by a string of very thorny breakups, so-called losses, and strokes of fortune. Yes, they are indistinguishable. Mostly, I gave examples of how the world makes explicit offers framed almost exactly to the specifications of one’s barely registered needs, but usually the offering remains unrecognizable to the recipient. I illustrated this phenomenon by describing how one afternoon I set out on my bike down Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts, heading to the library to work at one of the spacious oak tables overlooking the harbor, and I almost rode right past a beautiful, perfectly proportioned maple writing desk a guest house had put out at the curb. I caught just in time the familiar flaw in the logic of my hurry: Too bad I can’t stop to pick up that table; I have to get to the library… so I can, uh, use the table there. I turned back to get the desk and right then a gardener appeared from the adjacent yard and asked if I’d like some help carrying it home.
With so many tiny moments when an acutely relevant lesson feels fully articulated and noticed in the nick of time, it’s impossible to include them all. I did not find time, for example, to speak of how, the very next day after I met Popeye—a beloved figure in Provincetown who collected aluminum cans, told fabulous stories, and marched at the front of the Fourth of July parade every summer—he suffered a fatal heart attack the morning before the parade. He was found in a porta-potty in full sailor regalia. I took his death personally, numbering it among all the other incidents that verified my theory that if I cared about someone, that person would disappear immediately. But somehow this incident with Popeye, in its acute swiftness, helped me see the absurdity of my theory. And with the hairsbreadth of space that opened for me in relation to this person to whom I’d spoken only once, I was emboldened to entertain other, closer, losses with more space as well.
Time constraints require one to be selective, so no Popeye story—that will have to be saved for the director’s cut—but still, the expectation is that the talk is going to touch on all the key points. And so, for months after the talk, whenever I mentioned a new fact about my life to my friend Stephen, his face took on a wide-eyed, genuine disappointment, confusion, and shock: I can’t believe you left that out of your way-seeking mind talk! For him, the way-seeking mind talk is the primary point of reference, the hegemonic text for knowing anyone, as if you are supposed to include every pivotal incident, overshot gesture and course correction, relationship, and part-time job in your life.
Though I mentioned only briefly the profound and abundant gifts of working for six years with the poet Stanley Kunitz, Stephen remembers my talk as being very “heavy on Stanley” and yet considers grave the following omissions: (1) My brother is a magician. (2) My first job was as a hostess at McDonald’s.
I thought I might reconsider my talk, now, by-inquiring into just these items, including a couple of sub-items: item number two included attending training at a place called Hamburger University and also included my first blowjob. Stephen says, however, I was right not to include that “blue material.” It wouldn’t have played well in the Buddha hall.
What can be learned through the select lens of these two biographical points, or in the parlance common to Zen Center, these “conditions of my karmic life?” Let me consider first having an older brother who is a magician. What this does is offer some lessons in form. It provides an opportunity to see someone sewing a cape out of black and white checked gingham and adopting a persona based on the motif of checkers, an identity that then embraces anything articulated in a checkered pattern—jaunty checkered caps, checkered socks, a checkered umbrella.
When my brother was fifteen, Mr. Checkers was born and it is an identity he still inhabits today. What I want to believe is that the gingham cloth was on hand already, maybe left over from a church altar banner my mother was making. I prefer this because resourcefulness—responding to the environment—is a cornerstone in my aesthetic. I don’t want to think that he just came up with the name Mr. Checkers and then went out and bought the fabric. If you can’t make magic from the material in your immediate surroundings, it’s no magic I’m interested in.
Having a brother with an alter ego makes gift buying easy. Unlike the full-fledged, complex individual ego who may or may not still respond positively to the licorice all-sorts so eagerly received last year, an alter ego is usually based on just a few prominent features with a high predictive value. You find a stuffed plush dog sporting a checkered vest and you need look no further for your brother’s Christmas gift. Watching him receive these gifts was a lesson in the constriction of identity. He had to like these iterations of his chosen self. If he didn’t like them, he himself had to change. Perhaps it was precisely this fixity that offered him a relatively stable place to park an identity dissolving in the tumult of adolescence.
I watched him tape Baggies into newspapers, which then became makeshift ovens in which he’d bake a cookie by passing a hand over the sports section. I watched him tuck folded playing cards into oranges, prepping them for when he’d discover them at the birthday party. He emailed me recently to tell me he learned the cookie trick in the parking lot of the Highland Palms Convalescent Home after his first magic show, when a resident, a fellow magician, paid him the highest compliment one magician can offer another: he showed him a trick—two actually—“Right there in the parking lot he showed me a cigarette vanish and the cookie trick.”
Fine, he can tell me this now, but then, when I petitioned him to teach me how something was done, he offered only flat refusal, leaving me to study the mirrors, the cut-away doors, the knives with rubber blades on my own when I could get my hands on them. Acting as his assistant made this easy and provided another benefit: the checkered miniskirt my sister sewed for me. The white go-go boots? Those I already had.
Magicians’ catalogs arrived in the mail. I got home from school before he did, so this gave me a chance to read them first, to see that there were whole stores devoted to wands, capes, and disappearing chambers. These were items I thought you had to receive by some secret transmission in midnight ceremonies, or have them custom-fabricated by fairies, or you had to be born into them. Our mail carrier handed them to me at the screen door.
The access granted by my position gave me training as a cynic. As he lied to the audience, I pictured the Queen of Hearts, creased and soggy, smuggled inside the orange. I wasn’t interested in illusion; I wanted to know how the trick worked—the details of the physical world, the way the baggie hung on the newspaper, how he measured out the flour, cracked the egg.
I felt betrayed that he couldn’t recognize that I was a fellow magician and let me in on these secrets and, before long, I felt bored with his act, with the creed he invoked, and ultimately, with what must be a paltry kind of magic if it could not be shared. Even then I knew that if I shared my potato chips with my dog, the effect was not one of diminishment, rather they somehow seemed to last longer.
It remains true today that a screwdriver containing several different sizes of bits in its handle intrigues me more than any of those magic supplies designed to be good for just one trick. It still shocks me that you can walk into a hardware store and just buy those marsupial implements.
Knowing I can easily procure one of these screwdrivers, just as now, as an adult, I can have a whole avocado to myself, makes me rethink all the things I thought were hidden, like whether _____ really is _____. But nothing is hidden, asserts thirteenth-century Zen teacher Eihei Dogen. Or, as Shunryu Suzuki Roshi says, “The world is its own magic.”
My brother tried to hide his tricks from me, but this strategy only made me less interested. Rather than stoke his mystique, I just got annoyed with his secrecy and announced whatever intelligence I had been able to gather to the group assembled and left the birthday party to go scout for lizards in the ice plants.
Would You Like _____ With That?
Now to consider item number two. Working at McDonald’s offered, in many ways, an explicit initiation to Zen practice: the rigorous timing of activities, the rotation of roles, adherence to a schedule, the repetition, the elaborated rituals, the emphasis on service, the mid-lunch-rush blur of self and other, registers all ringing up multiple sales, each clerk turning in sequence to the trays of burgers and fries, the crisp snap of five white paper bags opening at once.
The whole notion of fast food might sound anathema to even the most mass-market account of Zen, a system that emphasizes, if nothing else, paying attention to what you’re doing. What could be less “Zen” than scarfing down a burger at forty-five miles an hour on the onramp to the Dulles Access Road?
But to prepare this fast food, to assemble, ring up, and present it in a bag at this speed actually requires close attention; letting your mind drift is a quick way to get a basket-weave burn on your arm from the fry basket or to get clocked by a box of frozen patties.
It is the rare person who, upon hearing me utter the declarative statement, My first job was as a hostess at McDonald’s, does not volley the predicate back to me as an interrogative: A hostess, at McDonald’s? If this question has arisen in your mind, I will tell you what you might not have realized: you can take a tour of your local McDonald’s, and you can enlist McDonald’s to host your next birthday party. Both of these services fall under the purview of the hostess, as does attending to customer problems—cold fries, limp fries, too few fries. Too many fries? Never.
Giving a McDonald’s birthday party involves laying out burgers and fries on a tray, their wrappers quietly rustling against each other, and pre-filling courtesy cups with an orange liquid formulated to trigger a memory of juice. Also, the walk-in freezer held a stock of frozen birthday cakes—chocolate with vanilla frosting topped with Ronald McDonald depicted in his familiar cant of solicitous welcome holding out an array of bright gel balloons. We had our own helium tank on the premises to blow up balloons for the parties, but on a slow afternoon it was often pressed into service for the amusement value of speaking like a duck, especially appreciated when someone ventured to operate the drive-thru speaker in that voice.
The kids lined up along the banquettes and each took the three items and arranged them in front of themselves as I passed before them, as if I were serving oryoki, the three-bowl mindful meal often eaten in Zen temples. Offering a tray of burgers to a child, you are bowing whether you intend to or not. Isn’t oryoki, with everything you need wrapped up in a neat package, a form of a Happy Meal?
Along with these hospitality functions, if someone failed to show for a shift, as a hostess I was also fully trained in running the register and working the grill, recharging the soft-serve dispenser, whatever was needed.
On the register, the range of what you could do if you were actually there, rather than letting your mind wander, quickly impressed me. Yes, our job was to move the line quickly, but actual people constituted that line! And these people were subject to moods and they had wishes and needs and their wishes were articulated along a relatively finite continuum of combinations of burgers, fries, fountain drinks, and simulacra of desserts. Their tenderness was vast, but the forms they sought were finite and you could meet at least their explicit requests.
In these quick encounters, I could feel the palpable difference between seeing the person before me and just looking through them to the next transaction; I learned the trick that paying attention doesn’t take extra time, it actually gives you more time. A current position description on a McDonald’s employment website specifies that one of the key functions of a hostess is “making every single soul feel welcome at the door.”
My manager sent me to a daylong training seminar on customer service at Hamburger University in Silver Spring, Maryland. It is this turn of autobiography that is so startling to my friend Stephen and brings on in him what I would call nostalgia by proxy, a longing to look back on someone else’s past, imagining how his life could have been different had he attended Hamburger University. To be able to say, I went to Hamburger University! You think you have a general handle on the roster of what you could regret and then someone tells you she attended Hamburger University. How could you know to aspire to something without knowing it existed?
At Hamburger University, whether the carousel-slide-projector talk touted the proprietary excellence of the russet potatoes used for McDonald’s fries or gave precise instructions about how to pack an order so as to keep those fries upright, the one basic message was this: customer service, like the bodhisattva vow, is composed of a vast array—menu!—of possible gestures and responses. It is a posture of being. What I carried away from both this training and from the vow is this: there will always be more you can imagine doing, but you do what you can. Granted, with the former, this mostly translated into selling customers things they didn’t yet know they wanted, that is, selling up. Fries? A shake? A pie? Already ordered regular fries? Would you like a large fries? Already ordered large fries? Supersize it? But still, even if the motives were perhaps questionable, there was something in the training that inculcated a kind of alert availability.
At its heart, working at McDonald’s proffered an early and thoroughgoing acquaintance with the power of repetition and form. Asking “May I take your order?” over and over was a constant invitation to notice how form invites expansion within that form. The complexion of my mind at that time was astir in registering the sensation of the subtle and tremendous distinctions within uniformity, just as in Catholic school, when I had marveled at how each person wore their plaid uniform differently, noting where on my friends’ thighs their skirts came to an end, how the pleats on, say Janet’s (or Rona’s!) skirt, moved in a way that was impossible to turn away from, while others simply hung flat.
“The line,” where all the food was prepared, presented many opportunities for the wholehearted attention Dogen speaks of in the Tenzo kyokun, or Instructions for the Cook. For example, when wrapping the burgers in their translucent waxy papers, do so less than wholeheartedly, which is to say, half-assedly, and watch the tray of burgers come unwrapped slowly under the heat lamps. The Egg McMuffin rings required practice so that the crack of the egg took on the iconic circular form, each one distinct, each one perfect, an ovular enso. A basic tenet of kitchen work practice at Zen Center holds forth a kind of finesse that isn’t about decoration or something being extra. It is the simple, full expression of something that works well because you give it your thorough attention.
And within that realm of form and attention, my first job at McDonald’s offered another first, a most exquisite opportunity for exploration, right there in the break room. Greg B. I’ll leave it at that, though his name is so generic, it is perhaps possible to use it without violating his privacy. For good measure, I’ll change his surname slightly the way names are transparently masked in some fiction: Brennan. Okay. Throw in another G: Gregg. Let him be Gregg Brennan. After all, would he want anyone now to read that he leaned back on the basement break room couch, blue polyester uniform retaining in the web of its molecular structure a faint sheen from the fry vat, his legs parted enough to make space for me where I knelt before his lap, his hips rising as my head lowered onto what was assuming in my mouth a conformation, the proportions and fluctuant densities of which I would later determine, in consultation with my friend Meredith, to be of a textbook perfection, the textbook being the copy of Playgirl she had just given me for my sixteenth birthday?
At Meredith’s slumber party that weekend, we passed the magazine around, kneeling over it head to head, turning the pages from above—“Wait, turn back. I like this one!”—comparing what we found in the magazine to what we were seeing “in the field.” Gregg’s looked like the centerfold’s, I decided. The centerfold radiated a golden quality, the source of which was untraceable. “He’s so beautiful, you could sleep with him and still be a virgin!” I posited. Something about this formulation pleased my friend Nancy, the only one among us having regular sex, and I felt she looked at me differently from then on.
Could Gregg—can I—withstand being reminded now that we both wore those paper hats? Yes. We did. In the break room, we took the hats off and afterward we put them back on. Just as is fitting for any ceremony.
Gregg was one of the people-who actually looked, if I can say this, hot in his uniform, the blue cap with its striped band and slightly cocked brim, like an admiral’s. In Provincetown, there is a theme week dedicated to leather, latex, and uniforms, though I don’t remember ever seeing anyone walking around in a fast food uniform; the predilection tilts more toward protective services, but anything can become erotic given the right constraints and freedoms.
What is it to look hot in a blue polyester tunic with a striped yoke and matching pants? It comes down to this: some people wear their uniforms and some are worn by their uniforms. Gregg wore his uniform, which is to say that to behold him was to behold a living, breathing body, uncompromised by the inertia of the fabric. Perhaps how Gregg’s long muscled swimmer’s torso outshone all that was standard in his uniform is what Shunryu Suzuki Roshi was pointing to when he said, “When you are all in your robes, I can see your individuality.”
I wanted to unbutton that uniform shirt; it didn’t matter that the buttons had golden arches embossed on them or that the pockets were just squares of fabric sewn shut. Of course, the timed nature of the operation heightened the proceedings. We had twenty minutes for our break. This is something any Zen practitioner knows, the value of a “container” for focusing the mind.
We banked on the stairs creaking to give us ample notice of anyone coming down for a break. But the stairs were silent for as long as we needed them to be, which, given the fact that it had been, by then, almost ten minutes since we had clocked out, and that Gregg was sixteen years old, was, from zipper down to zipper up, say, four minutes—five max. Only four or five minutes. Four or five minutes have probably elapsed in typing the last few lines, but I doubt I will be chronicling them a few decades from now.
Being time. The unalloyed delight of absorption.
Here in the break room unfolded a five-minute teaching in mindfulness, in bowing, in following the breath, my attention drifting once or twice to the sleeves of soda cup lids stored behind the couch, remembering that I had to stock them after break, and then returning to the breath, his breath.
In his breath, I read: that, yes.
What happens if I vary the pressure slightly? Yes. How about here? The underside. I’d been studying the frenulum, as much for the word as for what it promised. And here it was. Who needs the word when the tip of your tongue is on the delicate referent? Attention to detail. But not too much. And without a “gaining idea.”
Come back to the breath. Appropriate response: more of this, less of that. Functional silence: only such speech as is necessary. Slower. Faster.
The relief that comes from not talking at all. As Mark Doty asks in his poem “Bootblack,” What can be said of this happiness?
All this was so much fine-tuned and robust training for the doan ryo, playing the various ritual instruments during Zen services, in which slight variations in pressure and timing in striking a bell or drum can mean the difference between a settled assembly and one where each person feels just slightly off and thinks it’s that they didn’t sleep well or that the person in front of them is personally dedicated to annoying them, and all that may be so, but more likely it’s that the bell was too shrill or the timing uneven.
Gregg and I went back upstairs and still had time for a snack, one of those apple pies rotating along glowing coils, the sleeves slipping as they made each quarter turn. The heat the filling retained always exceeded my patience in letting it cool. We handed the rectangular pie back and forth until Gregg gave me the last corner, then we clocked back in with a few seconds to spare.