Saturday, July 16, 2005
The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapters 25, 26, and 27
Even in cities where social convention, discretion, and restraint are common and deep-rooted (this not being one of them), Yvonne’s exposé was something that couldn’t help but set the satellites humming.
At this point, The Sidewalk Smokers Club is just emerging from the incubation stage and they’ve gathered formally but once in the more structured gathering around Randall’s table at the Argentine restaurant – where you could smoke inside on occasion – so that to the casual observer, nothing more than a playful meeting of friends was transpiring. And this is what casual observers have always concluded upon witnessing a gathering of raffish undesirables: that something less than a revolution was occurring over there with that crowd, when precisely the opposite was true.
Or as one of Randall’s favorite bum philosophy tenets held: Great movements don’t look like great movements in the beginning.
Corey and Randall had debated this for a while. Corey had liked, “Great movements are always born of unsuspecting bum philosophers,” but Randall resisted it as being self-referential. Furthermore, he was dead-set against the use of the word “always” in the text of his growing manifesto, even if it enjoyed frequent usage in the parlance of bums and hoboes.
Anyhow, like most things in the long run, it didn’t matter a lick. The point is that Yvonne’s having dropped her pants publicly provided the impetus for a series of phone calls betwixt these people, the affect of which was to weave them together through the inescapable electronic spiderwebery that today connects from Antarctica to Hudson Bay, from Guayaquil to distant St. Petersburg, from Bakersfield to nearby Tehachapi.
Yvonne’s action represented a crucible for Randall’s table, which became the forum in which it was taken up. She could not have timed things better if, in fact, she had any hand at all in their timing, for Joya was there like a shot. And that was good. She found Randall sitting alone, nursing a scotch and counting his cigarettes.
The sight of her was, as usual, one of immense pleasure. Her obvious physical attraction aside, Randall thought Joya lent a prestige that flowed from the strange mix of aloofness and openness she projected. Once you accessed her, she was great, but, as Yvonne knew, you had to access her. And, well, to the extent Randall held court at the Argentine restaurant, Joya’s presence there meant he had accessed something of her, if not all.
“She’s gorgeous,” was the first thing Joya hit Randall with and so revealed her having viewed the goods. He noted a lack of the biscuits-and-gravy ease he had liked so much in her voice. She was all business.
“In bits and pieces, and as a totality.”
Joya frowned and scolded him for this frat boy patter of which she would hear more. “Can you believe?” she followed up.
“No,” he said as earnestly as possible, “but at certain moments life can be kind.”
Corey and Clarisse were next to arrive. Like Joya and Randall, they were on time for the late-evening confab. It was a Friday night and the place was more crowded than usual, less conducive to the shifty-eyed, whispery conversation Yvonne’s layout invited. All the tables were filled and the volume of conversation not so readily absorbed by the restaurant’s velvety interior. Some business folks unwound at the bar. The violinist and keyboard man were on duty, but reduced to background ambiance, biding their time until the later hours when the smokers, lushes, lonely lifers, and violin fans clustered to absorb the things they meant to convey (or unreasonable facsimiles of them). Corey and Clarisse saw Joya and Randall sort of hunched forward across the table verbally sparring with each other. Clarisse did not move toward them with the same relish her husband did. The day had been a tough one spiritually and the naked vision of a woman whom she knew personally, to which the rest of humanity had been treated, had left her out of sorts (as it had much the rest of humanity). Adding to her reticence was the fact Corey hadn’t seen the pictures yet and his highly calculated facade of coolness could not hide from his wife the general enthusiasm with which he’d infused their evening preparations. Clarisse kissed Randall and Joya. Joya kissed Corey and Clarisse etc. They sat down purposefully, although the first moments were rather uncomfortable with silence. In the end, even with all our desensitized and secular detachment, what was being discussed here, in bum philosophy phraseology, was a dirty magazine. To see the pictures somebody had to buy the thing and what a holier-than-thou guy like Randall was doing with the magazine never came up, although it was on everyone’s mind.
In order that Yvonne’s wares could be viewed, an expression of interest was required. And so all involved would have to surrender a little bit of their sexually guarded selves and (just as Randall had) admit to a touch of perversity or curiosity where naked, posing bodies were concerned. And such an admission always serves to deepen friendship and fellow-feeling between, well, fellows.
“Okay, who’s got the rag?” Corey sought to break things down to a lowest common denominator. A cool draft passed over the table. The quartet looked up and out toward the door to see Jordan come bounding in, cigarette tucked behind his ear for just the right touch of rake. Some girls in the restaurant turned to consider him briefly. What they concluded was of no interest to J. They’d looked and that was good enough. Nobody rose to greet him with any formality. Randall had already taken the magazine, rolled up in hand, out of the leather bag he’d brought for the expressed purpose of safeguarding it from born-agains, militia types, and other fauna noxious to the Bill of Writes. Jordan, who had not seen the pictures yet, nodded to Joya who had contacted him, being more familiar with the coffeehouse barista than she was with the rest of the gang.
Randall looked around the restaurant and back over his shoulder. Something kept him from opening the thing up straight away and it was probably the fact four people would immediately lurch forth to sample the interior, thereby rendering modest attempts at concealment pointless. But there was no way out of it, and he didn’t mind another look himself, and so he opened the layout’s first page wherein Yvonne still had her clothes on. Things unfolded pretty much to form with Jordan and Corey leaning over like dogs at their just-filled bowl of kibble. Joya and Clarisse were permitted the lady’s grace of remaining seated because they had already seen the pictures.
“Oh,” said Corey, which seemed to be all the situation permitted, although to Clarisse’s ears it wasn’t quite as understated as it seemed. Internally, each was wrestling with the desire to make love with Yvonne at the first opportunity that presented itself. That is, should it present itself, the odds of which had dimmed since the upshot was that she had made herself a sex symbol and sex symbols, as we all know, are very difficult to have sex with.
The waiter appeared and Randall shut the magazine not quite in time. The entire table was drenched in an air of up-to-no-good, in the act of concealment, in a feverishness for which a simple eatery could provide no outlet. And in that way, The Club struggled through dinner without insight, reduced to blabbering about the fact that Yvonne did look good, and questioning again and again the “why?” of her having done this revealing thing.
The crowed thinned, the smokers stayed, and soon enough they were lighting up whilst giving into the violinist’s sway. Randall, freed somewhat by the scotch, found the chutzpah necessary to present the magazine – the 300-pound gorilla in the room – anew. Correctness, maintaining yet a shadow of presence, required that the publication sit there unattended for a few moments while everyone pretended immersion in deep existential ruminations and sad, rheumy-eyed reminiscence. But as luck would have it, Joya and Clarisse both reached for the magazine at the same time, annihilating all the courtly feigning, returning the mood to a more appropriate, edgy discomfort. Clarisse, being French or Belgian (and heterosexual) conceded possession to Joya who masked her visual hunger by opening the layout to its first frame where the girl still has her clothes on. But the door opened and blew that cobweb of pretense away by flipping the pages quickly to the centerfold, again. They all looked up to see whom it was that had shot a cool blast of air on the whole suffocating and steamy scene. And, as the requirements of drama would have things, they saw Sister Steam herself, Yvonne, standing before them, a thin Virginia Slim dangling from her mouth, one hand to hip like the cowgirl one of them was fantasizing her to be at that moment.
There was yet another pause, but to call it uncomfortable would be overstating the thing. It’s just that there were so many uncommon thoughts and feelings flowing about that it took more than the normal split seconds to process, collate and work out responses to them.
The magazine was out on the table and, upon seeing it, Yvonne decided to break the ice, which is a thoroughly inappropriate metaphor given the rising room temperature.
“I guess you’ve all seen that!” she said in a not very humiliated way. They stumbled over a murky unburdening of compliments about “the beauty,” the “hot” nature of what she’d done (or undone, as it were). “Well, like, I was just…you know, like you know and you are all like saying that whatever, so I guess that’s all I can say.” And then she stopped and smiled.
That they all understood perfectly what she meant to convey was testimony both to the linkage occurring between The Sidewalk Smokers – for there was really no need of explanation – and to the deterioration of linguistic usage in our culture which began, perhaps, many years ago with the advent of television.
Anyhow it didn’t matter because protestations that the photos had been taken when she was young and needed money or some such drub were unnecessary where her fast-coalescing allies were concerned.
And that’s because they liked what she had done.
It’s tough to break away anymore in this world. There are no wild countries to settle in for a time and cleanse one’s soul of modernity and automatic dishwashers.
Everyone everywhere eats from the same meal ticket now, works for the same things the planet over; an apartment in a thriving capital and some other place where that capital can be forgotten during lengthy vacations primed with domestic help, for example.
But that has all been said. The point is that such a glaring affront to the rules of a game in which life had placed her, and so brazen a move for survival as publicly exploiting her sexuality (and the gusto with which she’d done so), meant that Yvonne had gone someplace in life foreign to most of our members. She enjoyed the status of a politician who has gone to war, fought, survived and come home to rebuild their lives: however perverse the drawn parallel may appear.
She’d risen, or perhaps sunk, out of the anonymity to which the giant numbers and prodigious talents of her generation had originally relegated her. At least that’s what the raw minds of The Sidewalk Smokers Club were unanimously churning out along with the conclusion that they were more than willing to be participants in any organization counting Yvonne as a member.
Randall confirmed, under his breath, that “the only spectacle anymore is being in the spectacle,” which was not exactly what had been said the first time, but he was drunk, and it served his immediate purposes.
The men were forced to take the gentlemanly road and avoid staring at Yvonne with a clearer perception of what was going on under the little bare-shouldered Chiffon camisole and those soft brown leather pants. The ladies, on the other hand, took every advantage an outdated code of behavior permitted them and stared fiercely at the lower registers of Yvonne’s cachet. Joya shuffled her seat over to the left and pointed the star into an adjacent chair. “C’mon hon, sit down and have a drink.”
We know how Yvonne had been knocked out of joint by her first meeting with Joya and since then had been doing her best to hook up. And now that the moment was nigh her strengthened hand in things sexual provided perspective. So she accepted Joya’s overture with the awareness of a yellow-furred spring chick doddering side-to-side through a fox den.
The group kept working toward earnest discussion, but there just wasn’t much to be said that hadn’t been in the first few exchanges. She’d provided an excuse; they’d rejected the roles of judges and jury because their respective senses of adventure had been pricked. It had already been commented that she looked great, that she was gutsy or insane depending, and the thing was done.
So Clarisse suggested a cigarette, and despite the fact they sat in liberated territory, the group were driven somehow to the sidewalk. The conversational continuum broken, the change of venue from indoor to outdoor, and the natural curiosity of those who like to simultaneously smoke and chat, invited a new topic much to Jordan’s dismay. Something which had happened that morning.
That whatever it was they discussed was to Jordan’s dismay is an obvious tip-off to the fact the old lady’s passing at county health hotel had refused to take its rightful place in the parade of insignificant news stories.
The city attorney who’d posted the calculated gamble of converting her into a cause célèbre was, in fact winning both the wager and the electoral race as tracked by the polls. They were showing dramatic improvement in his standing and a marked separation from the larger pack of similarly ambitious folk bent upon acquiring the massive headaches of running a large and unruly city. What the bump in numbers meant was anybody’s guess and anybody could guess it was related to the easy victory associated with taking on the cause of a murdered old woman at the hands of a careless, big, heartless hospital – “public” hospital. He – the city attorney – had yet to present any governing proposal different from the vagaries of good schools for our kids (whether you had them or not) and a further unraveling of the city’s communal fabric by way of tax cuts to his most potent and well-heeled campaign contributors. Turning to the formidable machinery of information and opinion-making at his disposal, the city attorney had no trouble quashing anything that might have invited opponents to say that what had happened to the old lady wasn’t wrong – a de facto approval of murder – and let it be known he’d take it from there. This is known as good politics and is the process by which those who rule us rise. Opponents wisely passed on the challenge and returned to more familiar territory marked out by high-priced consultants, trying to outdo each other’s zeal for better schools for our kids and tax reform. And so the polls had to be a result of “the old lady thing,” as his harried aides called the canard in closed-door conferences.
The police chief was a well-meaning man trying to direct the well-equipped army in his charge against well-run Mafias of global crime settled in the wealthy burg under his purview. There were pernicious gangs comprised of heartless, soulless teenagers with no hope for anything but an early death and a possible championship by the excessively paid local basketball team. There were multiple, stupid deaths every day; each of which had to be catalogued, investigated and prosecuted. There were children who’d gone out for an ice cream that never returned home and their desperate, agonizing parents accusing the chief of not caring for the little people – the nobodies.
So he really could have cared less about the old lady who had died quite in her time, give or take a half-year of overpriced medical ministration. And although nobody else in the busy machine of urban living cared, the city attorney was the city attorney. He was leading in polls measuring the race to become the police chief’s new boss and could not be ignored. The storyline itself was one that reporters could follow and develop while avoiding the dangerous job of exposing corporate crooks and angering their own publishers’ stockholders.
Oh, hope. Everyone was playing it safe, taking the path of least resistance embodied in the exploitation of an old lady’s death.
Which brings us to what The Smokers were talking about that had Jordan so upset: The latest development in the investigation of his murder had been a police sketch of the suspect drawn with the help of a certain hospital orderly. And Jordan had a pretty good idea of which hospital orderly.
The drawing suggested a Latino man, which is not at all surprising given the good/bad biases afoot in the land. Jordan was of a definite European/Anglo/American stock, but skin pigment aside, the sketch nonetheless echoed his true appearance.
The Sidewalk Smokers had seen the artist’s rendering, but none made any link between the murderer and the guy smoking a hand-rolled Drum tobacco cigarette in the street with them. And that was a good thing, for him.
Randall ruminated at the margins of the jabbering bunch, alone, about how Yvonne had merely shed her clothes in order to become a minor somebody whom somebody who wanted to be a big somebody could launch from.
It wasn’t all bad for women. If he shed his clothes for a magazine, not too many would really be interested in buying that magazine. Actually, he admitted, nobody would. And here he was, racing along like a nervous swallow hepped-up on increasing quantities of caffeine and other things mixed into tobacco product, out of sorts with the nature around him, but far from any kind of suffering that might draw attention to his efforts as a thinker. And after all, was that fair?
Jordan, too, was thinking about how nobody would want to see him naked in a magazine, and about how he’d done something very bold and courageous. He’d acted upon an ideal, a simple humanist principle picked up God knows where, that there should be a little leeway regarding how much suffering one had to endure in dying and that, furthermore, states and/or financial institutions should be denied any power in setting the threshold. And that act was now keeping him up nights. That act was seasoning his innards and toughening his skin, yet he could not for the life of him talk about it.
“Oh God, let the old lady go,” Joya trilled at Yvonne, their faces very close and embellished with big smiles. “Especially if she’s already let go herself. Why should she suffer? And her family, too!” the sex star said of the victim. Jordan was listening and heartened that they were in rough accord with his own platform for action – what with the press giving his side no play at all.
But the heartening went only so far. After years of laboring in obscurity and trying to set his ship’s course straight, Jordan was already wincing at the creeping Klieg lights. For the moment he remained an unknown quantity, but his fear was palpable.
The idea that he might suddenly become a media star in his own hanging was blowing him adrift of his moorings.
What to do? Enjoy life for the moment. The meal was covered. There was wine and smokes, and the day had been an eventful one. Speaking of which, Jordan decided to look over his shoulder and give Yvonne the visual shakedown she had been demanding since he first got wind of her naked sensation.
Randall was doing cell work, organizing, as Corey stood looking over his shoulder like a supportive personal trainer, mostly at Yvonne, but some at Joya, too (and a little less at his own wife). “Let us pretend for a moment that the tyranny we smokers suffer is a just one, that our behavior merits it. The question begging to be asked then is who chooses to take issue with it? Who knows what forces are behind this assault, what certain powers in certain places want us all to be or do?”
“Sure, but there’s nothin’ new to say on it, hon. It’s all been said, even what you’re saying.”
“And that is bum philosophy man: The things that are known by all, but must be said simply because the mundane truths beg repeating to each new generation. And I’m the guy who is codifying it. A new Aristotle.”
Corey chimed in: “While there may be nothing new to say on this, we can find new ways of saying it. What we need to do as smokers is avoid pouting. Focus instead on that nervous ease to smoking and the way it fits the energy required by our times.
We don’t want to push too hard in our demand to spew cancer-causing smoke into others’ faces. There’s a larger trend of being attacked for doing just about anything that most other people don’t do. It’s a tyranny of the majority; a concept requiring revival.”
Randall declaimed the tenet: “We’re not giving it to people newer. We’re giving it to them cooler.”
Clarisse was stunned by this little discourse. She did not know Corey to be capable of such clarity and (!) attitude. Up to now she’d likened all this business with Randall to a buddy poker game and now the two of them had one another sold on the idea.
And two nuts can do a lot more damage than one.
Worse, her husband was actually growing. And personal growth is one of the more dangerous things matrimony must confront. Especially when one-half of that matrimony is stagnating.
And Clarisse was stagnating.
Yvonne, for her part, simply liked what she was hearing and seemed pleased to be relieved of the sensation of standing naked in front of some people she still hardly knew, but was fond of.
Naturally, her relief was without foundation, for Corey was seeing her naked. He took the tiniest step back, yielding an invisible podium to Randall, and looked away as if deep in thought, lest his wife be monitoring his attentions to Yvonne, which she was. These are slick city people, The Sidewalk Smokers. They are in the land of smart vying to be the smartest. Nothing is taken at face value and involuntary gestures count for more than anything a player is consciously staging. And speaking of staging, Randall closed, “It’s about battling the culture of prohibition. It says a person has a right to drink a beer in the park at the company softball game. It says that if we’d wanted Aunt Millie to run things, we would have elected her.”
To recap. We have one person trying to smoke himself into illness and notoriety whilst developing an updated and applicable charter for personal choice and communal rights. It was (the philosophy), in spite of his intentions, turning out to be more a policy or series of apolitical pronouncements, propositions, defensive parries. But that was the practical aspect of the thing. Practical, Corey and Randall felt, meant profit and so they seized it with an old-time religious zeal (Randall).
Anyhow, it didn’t matter for, as Randall will eventually note, an author’s intentions mean next to nothing.
We have another person trying to avoid notoriety because it could pave the way to a lifetime jail sentence – or worse – but which seems to be bearing down on him with the speed of a steam-spewing locomotive. And let it be recorded that in the gap of time which unfolded between chapters Twenty-six and Twenty-seven, he went out and got his hair changed to an older, if equally unPresidential, looking thing. He even had gold highlights brushed in. It was very not Latino (guess who).
We have a third person with a sudden and smashing notoriety who could therefore take it or leave it. She had followed a familiar recipe of isolating what her talent was, willfully overcoming social convention and the opinions of others, and finally breaking out of the iron circle her life had become – that all our lives become (Yvonne).
There’s yet another guy in search of someone noteworthy from whose efforts he can skim profit and provide his wife with the life of notoriety and quiet family activity she paradoxically craves.
We have a Tabasco Western Girl who doesn’t need notoriety because she is notoriety incarnate. She behaves like a star because she is one and audience size passes not even for a trifle with her. Nothing she possesses is certified or defined by the self-appointed opinion-makers. Erudite in style, but vulgar in thought, she is prone to religion and the secret, unexpressed belief that the Gods are out there and that if you favor them, they favor you right back. Her seemingly effortless success stands as a terrible defeat for the little atheist in all of us (guess again).
All of the above is just in case anything occurring to this point had been lost on you.