Friday, January 26, 2007

Breakfast clubs from YOUNGBLOOD of

Breakfast clubs
Last updated 01:27am (Mla time) 01/25/2007

Published on page A11 of the January 25, 2007 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

WHEN we were growing up in San Juan, it was my parents' practice to hurry us children through breakfast (me most especially, since I eat so slowly that a sloth could go through a hotel buffet before I even finish the appetizers), hustle us, still bleary-eyed, into our car, and drive us to school before our brains became clear enough to remember that we didn't like going to school. After that, they would drive over to McDonald's Greenhills, the nearest one at the time, to meet their friends for breakfast.

Upon entering the restaurant, my parents, who were usually joined at the hip, would separate. My mom would join her amigas while my dad headed straight for his buddies. Conversations ranged from whose daughter was dating whose son to the latest fashion and on to whether the stock market was going up or down. For my parents and everyone in their circle of friends, it was a great way to start the workday.

The people who gathered in the restaurant were parents who had just seen their children off to school, elderly couples who lived in the San Juan area, or health buffs capping their morning walks or tai chi with a cup of coffee and some friendly conversation. The regulars enjoyed special treatment (as special as you can get in a fast-food restaurant, at least) by the morning staff. They were allowed to bring food inside the restaurant (having a McBreakfast every day will get to you eventually) even if it was a huge box of non-Mcpastries and all they ordered was coffee. Some people left mugs, which they preferred to use instead of styrofoam cups. And the regulars got free coffee refills long before it became de rigueur.

But as special as the treatment they were getting from the restaurant crew was, it was nothing compared to the feeling of belonging. When regulars came in for breakfast during weekdays, they were greeted by what sounded like the whole restaurant—not all at once, of course, which would have been creepy. And the whole place was always noisier than a classroom filled with misbehaving students.

Everyone knew everybody else, if only by face. It was almost like a secret club, minus the code names and unique handshakes. I remember asking my mother on more than one occasion who the lady she was saying hello was, only to be told, "I have no idea. We just see each other at McDonald's."

In the few times that I accompanied my parents to their breakfast club, I noticed one thing: Everybody seemed happy. It was as if problems were checked in at the door with the umbrellas and frowning would cost them their coffee refills.

Some people might think of this whole exercise as shallow and superficial, but I like to think of it as a release, if only for a little while, from the worries and cares of the world. No matter what was going on in their lives, the regulars knew that there was a place they could go to where they didn't have to talk about it, and if anyone did indulge in self-pity, peer pressure would stop him.

This community of McBreakfasters has always fascinated me, especially since I have never seen another quite like it. Sure, other communities have sprung up over a cup of coffee and a two-piece pancake meal, but none is as warm, vibrant and alive as the one my parents belonged to. Even now, when I enter the same McDonald's outlet on a weekday morning, everything seems subdued. Some people stopped coming once their youngest child went off to college. Others, like my father, have passed on. And though it's impossible not to see somebody one knows on any weekday morning there, the ratio of familiar to unfamiliar faces is becoming smaller and smaller.

I don't think they knew it, but my parents' McDonald's tradition taught me a few things. First, that breakfast is an important meal because it jump-starts your metabolism aside from giving you important nutrients to start your day.

But wait, I learned that from my homeroom teacher. Let's try again. What I learned from my parents' weekday breakfasts was that it is important to have a place, a ritual and a group of friends to help you either ground yourself in this tumultuous world or to help you forget your problems, if only for the duration of a meal. A little escapism is fine, as long as it rejuvenates your desire to take on anything that crosses your path. I also learned that you get treated better by people you treat like family, and that you can have almost anything (like a free refill), if you ask nicely enough.

I didn't realize it until now, but I have had the opportunity to put the first lesson to good use. Some high school friends and I have been getting together for breakfast every other weekend for the past few years now. We talk about anything under the sun, help each other out with problems, share with each other our craziest dreams and weirdest business ideas. Though we may be but a small group, albeit a noisy one, amid a sea of diners and we don't go to one restaurant often enough to be considered regulars (no special favors from the staff yet), we have found a tiny community, a rail to cling on to in the ship of life when the waves of the world threaten to wash us overboard. Someday, I hope to pass on like my father, hopefully to a place where every day is a breakfast shared with good friends.

Yvette Tan, 29, has just given up her job in the media to join the world of commerce. She writes for various publications and is addicted to lip gloss.

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