Saturday, September 24, 2005
The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapter 40
Chapter Forty Chapter Forty (Chapter One ran on April 9, 2005).
Joya was downtown where penniless painters, homeless people, and municipal employees with overstated titles spent their days.
It was a part of the city not without charm if you liked grime or cigarette butts smashed black and rust into dead concrete. Connoisseurs of the past could find a brass spittoon and trolley track residue there with a lustrous patina of soot to boot.
During the day it had the ol’ hustle-n-bustle. Short, brown and hook-nosed garment workers filled the buildings of its historic core and packed its streets and buses at dusk. At night, skulking shadows of discarded and lonely spirits hung like cutouts on the Devil’s Christmas tree.
Not that folks hadn’t tried to improve the described state of affairs. Quite the contrary. Downtown was a veritable test-tube of urban experimentation. Billions had been poured into it over the years in an effort to combat the passion of the populace for a front lawn and/or backyard. It had not worked and probably never would, but there were pockets of improvement and these were utilized by the banking class, a smattering of industrialists, and the indefatigable lions of City Hall who never tired of trying to make the city center something other than what it was, something like it had once been.
Naturally, not a single plan for renovation ever proposed even mentioned the unfortunate who lived there. Instead their focus was on where to put a superior breed pulled in from outlying areas by the promise of boutiques and coffee shops.
Joya was riding around in a fancy car that a city attorney had no business owning, loving the whole strange visit. It was like parachuting into another country or a movie set where people lived in cities they no longer live in. She made icky faces at the sight of canker sores on the bare feet of those not as fortunate to enjoy a pair of coconut-clunking big boots. She wondered at the reaching buildings and at what it might be like to live boxed-off, up in the sky. The city attorney was pointing out triumphs of architecture and style that she would have never noticed because the oppressive misery matrix overwhelmed whatever pockets of beauty enduring.
She found him to be enthusiastic about efforts to change things and the role he played, or claimed to play, in them. Driving with one hand, city attorney used the alternate appendage to enumerate with manicured fingertips the monies to be sprung for the renewal of opera houses, art museums and other such stuff attended, however lamentably, by a handful of people with time for specialized tastes and refinement.
She looked around her and had mostly sad sightings. She thought how there probably wasn’t a thing that could be done to revive a place that everyone had run from.
Joya said, “Well hell! Before the opera house they ought to put up a few portable toilets so they don’t do their business in the street.”
“Already have,” he said assuredly, “but the prostitutes use them for places to entertain their johns.”
“They use the john for the johns!”
She found this funny, but he was permitted, under no circumstances whatsoever, to laugh at something like that. He played it serious and it was quite beyond Joya how this man, dedicated to public service, found the strength to carry on with so much evidence as to the utter hopelessness of it all. Still, she couldn’t help but admire his ability to carry on the good fight.
Of course, the good fight was, in the end, all about career and the upward helium drift of the ambitious politician. He stood as yet another example of undeniable wisdom in the modern master-plan for harnessing a person’s selfishness to the (hopefully) commonweal’s benefit.
“See these buildings?” And he waved his free arm all around them. “During the day they’re filled with sweatshops; long, sweeping, street-long loft spaces packed with hundreds of Mexican girls and boys sewing the clothes you and your fashion-frenzied friends pay so much money for.”
Joya thought that was something of an odd thing to come from the mouth of the city’s chief enforcer of laws and she said so. “Aren’t sweatshops illegal?”
“Of course,” he said in apparent mirth.
“Well why don’t you do something about it then?”
“What can I do? That’s an imposed reality, from on-high.”
“What about the lesbian city councilwoman?”
“Ha!” and he chuckled. “She has even less power than I do.” Joya wasn’t rock-solid informed on the hierarchy of city officeholders so it was all good information.
“What if she became mayor?” She was curious.
“Then she’d be a weak mayor.”
“We couldn’t have that,” she tried to sound cynical.
He shrugged. “Depends on just how much bidding you’d like the mayor to do on your behalf. On what you’d actually like to get done.”
“What if I wanted to get a lot done?”
“I wouldn’t expect much from a lesbian.”
Joya was enjoying a little game people with alternative sexual tendencies like to play which is not available to, let’s say, Black people who can never dissimulate their skin tone. It was not fair either, and was beneath Joya, but the gambit did not go too far because the city attorney suddenly began a winded endorsement of the lesbiancitycouncilperson: “Nothing’s been handed to her. This game is hard enough without having to be scorned by a good many of your fellow citizens. She’s alright, I like her.”
He pulled up to a valet station in front of a well-lit and beautifully designed restaurant located at the bottom of a tall building on an otherwise abandoned street. Slumping, disjointed collections of dirty laundry rumbled close in only to be chased away by the security guard. “That’s alright, that’s alright,” said City Attorney (as Joya liked to call him), “let ‘em come here.” And he ripped some bills from a roll and handed them to three different beggars.
“Hey City Attorney, those are twenty-dollar bills!” Joya jumped at his showboating.
“Ah, if you’re going to give them something, give them a meal.”
Where Joya came from, City Attorney was what they called a liberal, but he didn’t seem half-bad.
The restaurant itself was all exquisiteness and fine service. Joya was no novice, no innocent country girl (though she could play the part) and this was no introduction to a better world. She knew how to behave and knew how to enjoy and once they stopped talking about politics some equilibrium was restored to the power balance between them. She matched his city bigwig aura with her own qualities of certified glossy girl and fancy piece of sex; a creature that commands vast privileges when her gifts are properly marshaled.
Cautious as he was about public image, and leery as she was about losing control in the company of a powerful man, they both got a little tipsy on martini juice. He called it ‘mind syrup’ and she laughed at the way he was able to stimulate her. He never made the clumsy move and his brilliance bathed in halo light things that would have seemed uncouth in others. “He is,” she kept saying to herself, “not a prick.”
And oh, how she had wanted him to be one for there was business at hand and skinning a skunk is easier than skinning an otter.
The place was winding down, the dinner was inflating with pauses both pregnant and sterile, and Joya asked the waiter if it were alright to have a smoke.
This made City Attorney uncomfortable for two reasons; the first being more obvious than the second. He didn’t want to be involved in breaking a law given it was his job to enforce it. But when he protested on this count, Joya slyly brought up the matter of sweatshops.
He’d always thought he desired a girl interested in the issues, but wasn’t so sure now, for he had a politically correct answer that would prove unsatisfactory to this rather unique specimen.
Second, and more unsettling, was the fact he felt she was wielding his power. After all, why would the waiter or restaurateur deign to piss-off the city attorney by telling his date she couldn’t smoke a silly cigarette?
And like all powerful people, he decided not to let it happen. City Attorney took a deep breath and resorted to his first reason with a sweetener thrown in to avoid the comebacker he was anticipating. He said it was against the law, that it wasn’t right for him to be seen breaking it, and that he’d be glad to stand with her, even share the cigarette if she would only “please” agree to do so outside. She thought it over. The evening’s success hung in the balance when he suddenly threw in the clincher, thrilled as he was to be hanging with a woman at once so attractive, cool, yet up to his speed: “I’ll be an associate member of The Sidewalk Smokers Club...for a minute.”
A big wide smile cracked across her face at the reminder of her new friends and the notoriety they had achieved.
Oh hope. The motives of everyone’s favorite person/character in this screed were not so pure, even if they were devoted to the benefit of another.
“Alright,” Joya shimmied to her feet with just enough booty action to catch his eye.
Outside she warmed to her purpose; began to work on him about the city ordinance against smoking indoors. City Attorney briefly yearned for one of the many bubbleheads who’d dated him without an inkling of what it was he actually did. “I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole,” he said. “There’s nothing to be gained from it, politically speaking.”
“City Attorney, you have a ten-foot pole?”
“You could get us our freedom back,” she countered.
“The Sidewalk Smokers Club, hon!” and with that she gave him a peck on the cheek.
His jaw dropped. She stuck the cigarette in his mouth. He instinctively scanned the area, without moving his head, to register whom was watching the scandalous act and all he saw was a Latino valet who was probably unregistered to vote, if not illegal altogether. The Latino vote was going, in any case, to another candidate. So he relaxed and drew upon it – the cigarette. There was that slight hitch in the chest endemic to nonsmokers who choose to break their golden rule on some special occasion and he made the proper adjustment before pulling twice.
It hit just right. His taste buds came alive with the memory of his meal (extending its pleasure-time) and the brown-leaf alchemy combined. It returned him to another time, long ago, underneath the bleachers in a wintery place where the cold beer adjusted his body temperature to the surroundings and rosy-cheeked girls promised unfathomable ecstasies in the dark.
“I’m really having fun being in your club,” he told her and Joya realized that something had gone terribly wrong. First, she found herself liking this a lot, and that was not supposed to happen. She’d gone undercover and let the role overtake her. Second, the night had grown so pleasant and glowing that her further plan for talking some soft sense into City Attorney about his pursuit of the Angel Without
Mercy now seemed inappropriate.
Instead, he drove her home. They sat quietly. This cultured man and his well-stacked stereo system delivered a layered piece of orchestral musings that framed perfectly Joya’s interrupted night. She wanted sex. Any kind of sex. They sealed things off with a kiss and a promise to meet again.
She clip-clopped to her house, swaying this way and that; a tall building in a growing swirl of wind and energy.