Nothing in common.

You know when you read an article in the newspaper and think, “That’s interesting, but it could never happen to me.” You sip your coffee, and move on to another article, all comfortable, sometimes a little smug, because you believe you have nothing in common with the persons featured in the news. The persons upon whom some injustice was inflicted, whose dignity was stomped, who were made to feel pointless and burdensome.

That’s what I did when I read about the group of elderly Koreans who were asked to leave a McDonald’s in Flushing, Queens. The story was in The New York Times about one month ago; I’m sure you read it too. The septuagenarians used Mickey D’s as a de facto community center and meet-up space. The management actually called in police officers to inform the patrons that they were in violation of the 20-minute seating maximum, and made them leave the restaurant.

I felt badly for the old people. Hanging at McDonald’s was a break from their isolated lives and an opportunity to socialize. Their advanced age freed them from obligations such as work and raising families, but also pushed them off to the side. The freedom of their unstructured days had made them superfluous, even in a McDonald’s.

I sipped my coffee as I read the article, and moved on to other news. It was an interesting story, sad yet funny in some ways, but not at all relevant to me. I’m, well, younger than people in their seventies. I’m a vibrant Boricua still plugged into life, actively in the mix. I moved on through my day and the following weeks, and forgot about the old people. Until I got kicked out of McDonald’s.

That’s right. La Boricua was asked to leave McDonald’s yesterday. Specifically, I was informed that I had exceeded the maximum amount of time allowed to be seated (which I had not, but more on that later). Here’s how it went down.

I’d spent the morning and early afternoon working. I work at home, so that meant six hours alone at my desk, in my rank workout clothes, kinkies untamed, and mind scrambled by lecture and assignment preparation, essay grading, and manuscript revision. All my interactions were conducted online, and I had only spoken to (read: yelled and cursed at) the automated voice-recognition system used by my bank. My brain was as crispy as my hair and socks, so I decided to run some errands to get me into the shower and out of the house.

I’m not a regular McDonald’s patron. The last time I entered one might have been in early 2013, during a road trip, and then only to use the restroom. But yesterday I wanted to treat myself, not to a McSuperSized anything, just a coffee. I’m not saying that McDonald’s coffee is a supreme brew (oh, excuse me, a premium roast of 100% Arabica beans); however, there is no such thing as a “cafe” or “coffee house” in my immediate ‘hood. Mickey D’s was the closest option for a lawsuit-hot coffee and a passably hygienic seat by a window (remember my germaphobe tendencies).

It was that magical in-between time when the lunch crowd had long gone and the school kids had not yet been dismissed. The lite FM was playing the best of the ’70s and ’80s, and there were seats aplenty in McDonald’s, including the one by the window on which I parked my little brown butt. I opened my swimming instruction book to learn about breathing drills, and imagined how effortlessly I would glide through Cape Cod Bay this summer.

I hadn’t even freestyled out of the Brewster section of the bay when the uniformed security guard (in a McDonald’s?) informed me that customers were allowed a maximum of 20 minutes to sit. I resolved to be kinder and gentler in 2014, so I didn’t give my normal nasty Nancy response. Rather I inquired why it was necessary to inform me of the policy if I’d only just sat down with my coffee. Obviously, the franchise needs to equip its rule enforcers with watches because the guard told me I’d been sitting there for at least 40 minutes.

“That’s interesting because my receipt shows that my transaction, that is, the purchase of my coffee, was at 3:10 p.m. It probably took me at least two minutes to put my change away and select my seat–I’m very particular in those and many other ways. So let’s say I actually sat at about 3:12. It is now 3:29. Please explain how that is 40 minutes.”

I honestly wasn’t out to give him a hard time. His was not an enviable position, dealing with smart asses like me all day, but I was likely the least obnoxious of the people he confronts daily. But I had no empathy at that moment, or interest in going back and forth with that guy. He rolled his eyes and began to respond, but I have no idea what he said because I gathered my things, gave him my receipt (“Figure it out.”), swept past him and out the door.

Not my finest moment. I tossed the coffee because it was impossible to sip while stomping down the sidewalk. I stomped all the way home, agitated because I was not caffeinated. That guy had burst the delusional bubble in which I was floating, or swimming, happily. But even for me, I was really steamed and fuming. The coffee wasn’t exceptional and the surroundings were only lacking. However, the trip had been a break from the self-structured life that frees me, yet isolates me. I had been at McDonald’s because there was no other place I needed to be, and that’s what rattled me the most. The freedom of working from home and being part of the “gig economy” also sometimes makes me feel uncomfortably akin to other “free” social agents.

I wonder how you say “We have something in common” in Korean?

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