This morning, sitting on the subway on my way to work, there is a lady eating pretzels from a bag. She looks as if she’s sitting in front of the most boring movie ever, absently bringing pretzels to her mouth, chewing listlessly, barely able to keep her eyes open. She looks like she might be a fun person, with a great, youthful body and clothes, a mishmash of braids pulled up in a wonderfully haphazard way, and she’s got a large set of earphones on. But nothing about her body is reacting in any way to music or anything else, other than the slow, trance-like movement of pretzel to mouth. Every now and then her eyes droop, and I wonder if she’s about to fall asleep or if she’s blinking in slow motion along with the bored chewing of pretzel after pretzel. She gets off at my stop and I’m actually surprised she has the energy to get upright.
I see lots of curious breakfast eating scenarios on the morning commute. Last week there was a lady who stumbled onto the car loaded down with a number of bags. She seemed like one of those people who always makes an entrance –always running late, always in a bit of a fluster. We’re on a short subway line over which there are only five stations. She gets her shopping bags situated and starts fussing around in one of them and pulls out a bag with a couple of oversized bagels. She retrieves one of them and drops the other back into the shopping bag, and proceeds to wolf down the untoasted, unembellished bagel in three or four giant bites. As we’re nearing the end of the line she busts out the other bagel and begins to devour that one in the same fashion. Of course everyone has her/his own likes and dislikes, but it seems to me this meal was not intended to fulfil the pleasure aspect of eating food – only some kind of hunger. I just don't see what kind of pleasure could be had in stuffing giant hunks of heavy, dry bread down my gullet.
There was a semi-regular rider on a morning bus I used to take, another middle-aged woman, who would gobble pita sandwiches at a speed that would shock the bagel eater. She wore office clothing that wasn’t cheap, with coordinating jewellery and pulled together handbag and shoes – prissy looking in a June Cleaver kind of way. Like many of her peers, she would always sit up front by the driver. Seeing her eat her sandwiches was painful – there was something surreptitious about it as if she was disposing of evidence. She would stuff great portions of the pita halves into her mouth in progressive bites (three bites to one mouthful), starting her next progression at the same time she was swallowing the previous. She was an assembly line of biting, chewing and swallowing, as if she was desperate to get her consumption quota achieved before she reached her destination.
I understand what it’s like to experience a “sugar drop” in the morning and be ravenously hungry. But it strikes me that not one of these morning eaters exhibit any sort of enjoyment of their food; and of course each one of these ladies has a different circumstance, but also each one of them was not partaking in a meal – each was just depositing food in her body and who knows what the reasons were.
Another time a grandma came on a bus with a little girl, about one, in a stroller. The little girl was a cute, girly little thing, with Down Syndrome. The grandma, as one might expect, fussed over the baby continually. But soon I became creeped out by the fact that she wouldn’t stop touching the little girl’s face and mouth, alternatively poking at it with a juice bottle and sticking cheesies in her mouth, or sometimes just rubbing her finger across the tiny lips as if to stimulate them. The little one wasn’t that interested in any of this breakfast, and really seemed content to just look around at the other people. And granny would take a neon orange cheesie chip and rub it along her lips until the kid finally consented to take an uninterested nibble. It was like the grandma had some insatiable need to provide nourishment for the kid and she couldn’t keep her fingers away from the little girl's face and mouth. Certainly it’s an understandable need and common among grandmas, but the fact that she was pushing junk food into a kid who didn’t even appear to want it, at breakfast time, is a bit twisted if you ask me.
I’m not being holier than thou. I’m not above eating junk occasionally, or eating on the go. In fact tonight I’m seeing an outdoor concert after work and I expect there is a “street meat” hot dog in my near future. And my weekday breakfasts are always healthy, but most of them are consumed at my desk while I'm working. And you can bet there's been more mindless munching in front of my television than I'd care to discuss.
But it all gets me thinking about the many and complex relationships people have with food, and the idea that often, eating is not even about food or sustenance. I’m lucky – I appreciate good food, and do try to eat healthy, “clean” meals most of the time. And I enjoy them. But thinking about the transit eaters gives me a resolve to be more attentive about my meals and the way I approach them. Like the transit eaters, I have many of my meals alone. I have often celebrated the spiritual aspect of shared meals – maybe I’ve been dealt a reminder to make eating a mindful, celebratory practice when I’m alone too.