Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapter 65


Chapter Sixty-five

Yvonne’s learning about Joya’s remarkable transition to City Attorney’s fiancee did not shock her and there would be no jealousy for you cannot lose what you never had.

Each Smoker was bitter that something irretrievable had been lost to them. But that bitterness was tempered by the sweet fact it had been sacrificed at the altar of their own well-being. Joya loved them. They knew it now.

Corey, meanwhile, was still emboldened. His name and face were in print, his strategies commented on and the result, if not always desired, still resonated with him. It filled in some of the emptiness that haunts all of us. He called Yvonne, explained there was going to be a press conference at Joya’s two days hence. “Two days hence!” she laughed, delighting in the message’s packaging, while taking him down a notch.

Undeterred, Corey explained that, “folks want to hear from Randall.”

“Oh sweeeteey,” she condescended, “the people that live here aren’t folks.”

Corey grit his teeth in determination (and admiration). “Specifically, the question everyone wants answered is how he justifies his public posturing with his rotten health.”

“What’s he going to say?”

“He’s going to say that we’re coming out against the BID’s plan to move The Smokers to the bad part of town and that we can count on the support of the city attorney’s office.”

“That is an answer to a different question.”

“He will announce our plan to hire a high-powered attorney to take up your case,” Corey ploughed on in the same way he would direct Randall to do. “We’re going to hire someone who does breakfast-and-golf with the publishers. Are you with us?” he plied the menu once again.

She found the table sufficiently, if not elegantly, appointed and it was so agreed.

They would appear together in yet another inspiring rally for Sidewalksmokerism.
Clarisse had been contacted by Corey, too. It was her job to bring in some star power, if she could, from her list of lucky ones. Atop the pyramid of all this sat the A-list actress, but Randall said she was too big, that The Smokers did not want to end up in her own personal movie of herself.

After that came Vindaloo Baxley, still humiliated that Jordan had gone very solid with an insignificant Armenian-American bank clerk. What killed her was that she somehow understood the charm of it all and knew she could never offer any man the same thing.

Having a cool smoke-out with girls from the girly magazines is one thing; getting a show of support at an actual, politically inspired event was something else entirely. No, Vindaloo told Clarisse, she did not think so. City Attorney was definitely not where things were at and the occasional bit of street theater represented the extent of her commitment to such things, but she’d see if she could find the time to come down to Clarisse’s studio and check out what she had going on.

And for this last concession, the Belgian/French girl was eternally grateful, as were all The Smokers.

On the night before the press conference – Randall’s first since being home from the hospital – Hat Midone showed up with two companions for another destructive, seductive romp. Randall, despite his condition, could not pass it up. They were real beer commercial girls; girls who wouldn’t have given him a second look a few months ago. So he leapt.

“The best parties,” he scribbled in wobbly script the next morning, “are the ones you can’t remember.”

At one point in that long night Randall was turning over the bad news of Vindaloo Baxley’s bailing and considering anew the prospects of getting the A-lister back on board.

“It doesn’t look good,” Midone read his mind. The actor had then offered to make a showing on behalf of the coalition. Randall politely declined. “It’s okay,” Hat joshed, pouring something very dangerous down his throat, “I know I don’t project the wholesome profile you need to go for, but you have permission to use my name.”
Randall thought that Hat was right, that it was sad The Smokers were becoming what they were not, and what did it mean? Besotted, impressionable, subject to the actor’s formidable charms, Randall told Hat, never mind, he could come to the press conference, even speak if he so desired and Hat said he would. Randall did not remember this, but Hat did and called morning next to say he’d be making his entrance at 11 a.m.

After another round of calls, consultations, and calculations, the initial plan was finalized. Randall would announce tentative news that City Attorney planned to back The Sidewalk Smokers Club in its battle with the Fashion Business Improvement District and its paramilitary detail. City Attorney would then capitalize on the brief bit of momentum to (hopefully) be garnered from his appearance by confirming – from a different location – that he was staking the success of his campaign for mayor on the slogan of “Open City, Free Street.”

Hat showed up at Randall’s half an hour late (11:30 a.m.). Still, he looked great and dressed the part in his old-school jeans, black work boots, white and tight t-shirt, and a pack of Luckys (which he didn’t smoke) twisted into the short sleeve.

His ample head of hair was slathered in grease and slicked back, but the front bangs insisted. He was a very dashing young man.

“You’re half an hour late,” Randall scolded him.

“Fuck you,” said Hat Midone.

Randall thought how the day might be a difficult one. Together they left his disorderly apartment and split in the direction of their respective parked cars. “Where you goin’?” Hat asked.

“To my car,” Randall retorted, “we should take my car.”

Without the slightest degree of sensitivity toward Randall’s feelings Hat explained that his car was convertible and new and powerful and cool while the other entry in the which-car-should-we-ride-in sweepstakes possessed none of these features.

“I know, but I don’t want to create any resentment,” Randall responded rather correctly.

“It’s a little late for that,” Hat stated, also correctly, proving how two people can win the same argument.

As Hat’s ride rolled down the street past Joya’s Joyas in search of a parking spot, Randall could see the store had undergone a face-lift. This could be attributed to Clarisse’s sublime intervention. She had turned the fact she owed Joya a table into a tsunami of self-promotion in support of herself and The Smokers. The table had become a new set of area rugs, which had morphed into a graphic separation of walls by starkly different primary colors and then transmuted into a series of new display cases particularly suited to the new decor.

Joya wasn’t sure about this usurpation of identity, but kept quiet because Clarisse was Vindaloo’s designer du jour and that couldn’t be a bad thing if enough people could see it and they were, after all, just about to have a press conference.

After driving up and down the commercial strip a few times in search of a parking space, Hat said, “Fuck this. No way to make an entrance, man. Can you get somebody to park my car when we roll up?”

“No.”

“Perfect,” spat Hat as he veered the convertible at the line of waiting paparazzi mixed in with beat reporters burgeoning out from the curve in anticipation of their arrival. Hat came so close, so fast at the curb, that some felt compelled to dive to the cement and out of the way. The duo leaped from the car. Randall’s heel got caught in the hood mechanism and he stumbled a bit. People laughed. Hat puffed. Nobody was there to park it and traffic began slowing thanks to the slight bottleneck beginning to take shape.

“Hat!” they cried, “Randall!” even. A table was set up outside the window display for the press conference. The store was kept empty by a large security guard with a yellow jacket that had the words “Event Staff” blazoned across his wide back. Inside Joya, with the shadowy Sadina behind her, was beckoning to The Actor and The Smoker.

With a confidence born of experience, Midone led the way with his elbow stuck out, horizontally, toward the door. Joya unlocked and opened just enough for both men to slip in and closed it on a woman reporter’s foot. “Oh hon!” she said reopening enough for the limb to slither away.

“Shit,” Randall turned to the actor, “how did they know you were going to be here?”

“I had my publicist call them.”

“Why?” Joya and Randall queried in symphony.

“It’s in my contract. Any time I make a public appearance I have to at least let them know so they can be prepared for anything that might happen.”

“Happen?”

“I’m Hat Midone!”

There was no response from Joya or Randall who were, after all, the worker bees in this situation. He turned to her and said, “Why are you locking everybody out?”

“It’s a smokin’ crowd and we’ve already been through that hon. And the fine…well.”

“Okay,” Randall nodded, “but don’t worry about money.”

Money had ceased to be a problem for The Sidewalk Smokers Club as they had ceased, increasingly, to be The Sidewalk Smokers Club.

“And,” she went on, “Clarisse has redecorated the place for me and I’d like to keep it fresh and new for as long as possible.”

“Nothing can stay new for a long time,” Randall pointed out to no particular end. He looked around as did Hat who said, “This looks a lot like Vindaloo’s place.” Joya felt it best not to comment. Randall took a look into one of Clarisse’s sensual display cases and saw new things in there, too. “Your work is changing Joya,” he commented.

“Those aren’t mine,” she said, “they’re Sadina’s.”

“You’re back!” he turned happily to the Indian girl whose chocolate complexion cracked with cream for a smile.

“Yeah,” Joya said, “now that I don’t have any use for her as a girlfriend I have to exploit her artistic side.” Sadina, in her own unique style, said nothing in response.

“She never rises to the bait,” Joya smiled, “she keeps ya wonderin’.”

There was an increase in the ruckus going on outside. “Yvonne! Yvonne!”

“Jeezus,” Hat muttered, “that’s the end of my star turn,” correct as usual. The lovely, distressed Yvonne was being shielded as she came out of a car parked behind Hat’s, which was being ticketed by the city government’s most efficient outfit.

Corey had his arms around Yvonne and was unable to apply Hat’s strategy in getting to the door and things went pretty slow to the delight of everyone. Joya stationed herself at the portal, but stepped back when the wave-mass behind the pair hurled them into the store’s facade, causing a slight giving in the entirety of the glass frontispiece.

“Well, God!” Joya said, rather frightened before she opened up. Hat had joined her and punched at the hands and arms of the media elite grabbing at whatever part of Yvonne within reach. In they slipped. “Christ!” said Corey with no less vehemence than Randall. “What the hell, hey, your Hat Midone!” and he extended a hand of welcome to the actor. “Guess that explains the crowd.”

“My publicist. But I’m not sure Hat’s who everybody came to see,” said Hat pushing his chin up in Yvonne’s direction.

She looked as beautiful as ever. Ephemeral and light from the weakening that had occurred in her and which Randall and Corey had not foreseen, assuming, as they did, that the difficulties would increase her strength (which also happened, sort of).

Those black beans eyes had taken on a Perils of Pauline pallor first evidenced when the business of the magazine layout had become her life’s defining feature.

“Fortunately,” she said, “this isn’t about me anymore,” and she turned to Randall. “I think you’re the hot ticket.”

So everyone was hot and it was a great moment, which, if not for this novel, would never have been recorded. Without the novel, this subtle crest of triumph for The Smokers would be obscured in the ham-handed reporting of beginning, end, and official milestones in between, readily provided by your mainstream media types.

Swimming together in a sea of consecration as semi-important noteworthy players it was easy for Randall to invoke his own deep humility. “You they want to fuck. Me they want to kill.”

“There’s a lot of unserious media outlets here,” Corey complained. Hat did not take it personally. He owed his bread and butter to the fact a majority of the vultures assembled made-do with crumbs from his table. They could not be less interested in fulfilling the function of informing the public on matters of policy, economy, and process. The line between real news and fluff had been long erased, with the real world movers ceding larger parcels of territory to the likes of actors, bombers and, in this case, Sidewalk Smokers.

“You wanted people to know what you’re up to and we took care of it,” said Hat, matter-of-factly. As was quickly becoming his habit, Mr. Midone, which is how the newspapers on the East Coast referred to him, was correct.

“At least we’re offering a dose of politics with our sex,” said Randall winking at Yvonne who was, by now, impervious to this kind of remark and ready with an automatic smile that gave nothing whatsoever of herself.

“And they are waiting for that dose,” Joya pointed out.

“But we’re not all here,” Randall tried to put off the inevitable even if it was true that Clarisse and Jordan had yet to arrive.

“Yeah,” Corey took command, “but the moment is clearly now,” which it clearly was.

So he took a deep breath and, followed by Hat, went out the door and waded into the fray, arms akimbo after the actor’s fine example. The mass surged backwards and Corey was able to announce the press conference’s imminent launching, “If and when you step the hell back behind the table and give us a little room to breathe.”

The site of Clarisse standing in the opening he had parted with the power of his own voice brought a smile to Corey and she smiled to see him in that state of agitation, forehead creased, chest extended, legs set wide and firm upon the sidewalk. He was a man with an idea and the fact that idea was Yvonne was not enough to dampen her renewed interest.

She made her way in a tiny ballerina gait on flat shoes, head switching this way and that, cigarette brought once to lips, kindling monumental feelings Corey thought he’d buried for good.

Yvonne saw all of this and accepted it with the regret she felt entitled to. She really liked Corey even if their interest in one another had been somewhat staggered by the pace of events.

Historical actors make their love in closets, quickly.

Of course, he was but a married man with problems and she was a type of woman, a beautiful woman cursed with the prospect of never being able to settle for happiness, her future an endless offering. Upon the shelf or pedestal or wherever it was timid, fearful, but worthwhile men had placed her in their minds, Yvonne had long been out of reach to anyone with enough space in their lives and hearts for two people. She was an object and archetype to be admired from a distance, which is how she ended up in that silly magazine all that time ago. Her sexuality commanded the space, but her loneliness had left her in need of attention and boy did she ever get it.

Corey followed his wife into the store.

“Wow, eet looks greyt!” Clarisse said to Joya with a wave of her hand around the space. She’d left the details to a new and young assistant. Like Joya, she had decided that greater achievement was based upon an ability to delegate – leaving the details to others – while painting their ideas in broader strokes and moving on and into new territories. Randall thought this was his influence and all we can say is that he may have been right. “Thanks hon,” Joya said in her way, “and I do mean thanks for all you’ve done with it.”And, as usual, she sounded like she meant it so much, and that meant so much to the rest of them.

“Deed it improfe bizness?”

“Sadina’s watching the store now. The ladies around here hate my guts and I have other things going on,” and she waved her diamond ring in Clarisse’s face which lit up as if passed over by a magic joywand.

“I heerd! I’m happy for you!”

There was a knock on the window. Corey was calling Randall out. He’d been introduced.

“Randall-Hat-Hat-Randal-Hat-Corey,” issued forth from the many-headed hydra as he left the warmth of Joya’s Joyas behind. Corey stepped forward, arms raised outward in the universal gesture signifying a request for calm and quiet, which he got.

“We’re gettin’ better at all this,” said Joya from inside.

“Where’s Yvonne?” a reporter from a celebrity entertainment show yelled out.

“You can see her very clearly behind me, Jim,” answered Corey who now knew many – even those summoned through Hat Midone’s network – by their first names.

“Not as clearly as I can see her in the privacy of my own home,” chirped a British correspondent who pronounced “privacy” like “privy.” Everyone laughed at this while Randall whispered in Corey’s ear and the latter ceded center stage to the man everybody had assembled to hear.

“For those of you who take the business of your craft seriously, I’ve got a few announcements to make, but if there are any intelligent questions – and I stress the word intelligent – I’m open.”

It was a bold stroke straight from convalescence, self-assured and unguarded. He was open. They’d come for a piece of him and he would give it.

“How are you feeling?” asked one reporter kindly enough.

“It was something of a scare, but I’m much better now,” Randall confessed.

What passed for nicety done with, another reporter began the questioning in earnest: “Has this little brush with mortality changed your posture on the behavior of yourself and your friends?”

“You mean,” asked Randall in return, “my posture toward sidewalk smoking?” lest viewers think he was ashamed to call it what it was.

“Yeah,’ said another, trying to look busy for his managing editor watching on television from a paper-stuffed room somewhere else in the city.

“Hasn’t changed a bit. One should be able to put into and take out of their body what they please without the untoward interference from the forces of law, order, or capital.”

“What about those who have to breathe it to the detriment of their health?”

“We’re certain something could be worked out. It was done for a few centuries before this persecution began.”

“Would you be so lax toward corporate polluters?”

“Of course not,’ Randall snapped unpleasantly, “human bodies are not factories and ounces of dissipating smoke are not properly compared with tons of toxic emissions.”

“What about millions of smokers creating tons of toxic emissions?” asked the thin girl in the horn-rimmed glasses who never missed a Sidewalk Puffers Production.

“That’s a hypothetical.”

“Wow!” Joya emoted, “what did they give him in that hospital?”

“Health care,” said Clarisse.

Back out at the press conference a familiar anchorman blew hard on his windpipes in a fashion particular to those who have reached the apex in the television-reporting field. “How do you respond to rumors that you’re receiving funds from the tobacco industry to finance…whatever it is you are doing?”

Randall took the time to light up an Export-A, because in tense moments he preferred to go with an old friend. “You people are showing up,” he said after having taken a strong pull of smoke. “We’re just smoking on the sidewalks because we’re not allowed to do it inside. It’s where we were directed to go. But we’re here to say we will move no more. On the sidewalks we will, if necessary, make our stand.”

“What about the tobacco money?” the reporter/star blew hard.

“If you have to beg, a friend’s a good place to start,” said Randall; reaching into the unwieldy body of work he had been gleaning from his own mind, and those of his cohorts, all these strange and exciting months.

“So you don’t deny it?” said a very, very pretty blonde girl cut by the same machine most lady reporters are.

“We’ve never hid or denied anything,” said Randall, and it was true. With Yvonne, The Smokers brandished the very banner of transparency and it was largely responsible for what little moral respect they could muster from more serious sectors.

“But,” the girl in the horn-rimmed glassed chimed in, “don’t you feel taking that money taints both the objectivity of your message and your integrity?”

“Absolutely,” said Randall, “but we’re just smoking, not running for office.”

“So what you’re saying is that, despite the fact you were forced to stare death in the face, you plan to go on advocating this behavior?”

“The face,” Randall rejoined, “was not so ugly as I thought. In any case, if you think moving forward his hard, you should try going backward.”

“Yes,” the anchorman’s voice soared over the mice around him, “but to what purpose?”

“To keep fighting the good fight,” Randall explained, “is the sole purpose of fighting.” He was not completely comfortable speaking in bum-philosophic platitudes, but what else was he supposed to do? The Smokers wanted to make a point, sure, but they wanted to do a little business, too.

“So you’re fighting as an empty exercise?”

This brought a pause that depressed all present. “To keep fighting the good fight is the sole purpose of fighting,” was the perfect expression for a people desperate of not influencing things. It was deeply pessimistic. It was the fight of bums and nobody would admit to being that. Nobody but The Smokers was secure enough to admit it and that bothered the fuck out of all the spectators. The Smokers seemed fearless which, of course, could not have been farther from the truth. They were fearful, that is, full of fear, almost drunk on it and on the protection they found in one another.

The crowd had grown denser, tenser. “I can’t tell,” said a voice (Randall could no longer spot where every question was coming from), “if you’re attacking the right or the left.”

“Let me help you then,” R. was on a significant roll and the journalists (for lack of a more representative term) found themselves seduced by his rare preparedness to speak honestly five, six, seven times consecutively. “I’m attacking both.”

“How much money are you taking from the tobacco industry?” asked somebody from a fluff program who had no business doing so, since such was not the content of its nightly neon-splashed reports.

“Lots. More than we need,” which was true.

“How can there be more than you need?”

“We hold that every man has his price, but the moral one keeps his affordable.”

“So?”

“So our price was low and the gift high.”

“Where does that leave the women in your ranks?” asked the skinny girl with the horn-rimmed glasses (not unlike Randall’s) from the free alternative tabloid.

“All our members are men. The world requires it.”

She did not respond nor did anyone else pursue the line of questioning. Perhaps (and this we do not know) this masculine answer soothed some mysterious feminine longing in her, recalled a firm and gentle father, lit her desire.

The pause in questioning from the shuffling mass continued and so Randall, finally, filled it with his own news. “We had motives other than satisfying your curiosity about my near brush with death…”

Corey breathed easy now as Randall conducted the event as he would a symphony.

Having stymied the pack, the bum philosopher launched their campaign to prevent the Fashion Business Improvement District from, “moving out those sidewalk smokers whom have gathered since our last press conference at this location and made it a destination.”

“How do you plan to do that?” the anchorman’s foghorn spewed.

“By spending the money,” Randall said to the apparent satisfaction of everyone there and suddenly burst into a fit of coughing that set The Smokers’ case back a bit both with those on hand and with the growing numbers now watching or listening.

“It’s obvious that ruining your health didn’t affect your attitude toward this disgusting habit-”

“Foul!” yelled Randall like an annoyed schoolyard Johnny bouncing his basketball against the asphalt. His adversary would not be detained. “What if anything did you learn from the civil disorder that occurred the last time we were here?”

“We learned that, even at your own party, it’s hard to control everything.”

Inside Yvonne said, “We certainly did!”

“Is it all bum philosophy?” asked Joya.

“Yes,” said Yvonne, very relieved the focus had shifted to the boys for once and thinking that sometimes it wasn’t so bad being the woman behind the scenes.

“That’s all you got?” the reporter who’d asked the last question pushed for more copy to fill his column. And it really was all Randall had, but he knew the clock was still running and he had better make something up.

“No,” Randall was ready, “we also learned it is sometimes better not to control everything at your own party.”

Corey nodded, pleased. Randall had taken questions directed at him personally and turned the answers into answers from The Sidewalk Smokers, and that was something they finally decided not to fight; a fusion of the two sagas in peoples’ minds.

In his office, surrounded by loyal advisors, City Attorney was watching with an increased sense of concern. It was not that Randall’s performance, as it were, was not good. The press would turn out to be favorable and that was a start. However, if he was in-tuned to the media’s own smartypants sensibilities then he must also be talking over the head of your average household member.

“If there’s one thing worse than a prickly press,” CA said to the nodding heads surrounding him, “it’s a press that likes you for all the wrong reasons.”

It so happens that at the very moment City Attorney was sharing these thoughts with his inner circle Randall implicated him in the matter. “We have it from reliable sources asking to remain anonymous that the city attorney, whom you all know may very well be our next mayor, plans to join our campaign to push back the forces of repression unleashed by the BID.”

Corey smiled, the bit about “repression unleashed” being his lick.

City Attorney, meanwhile, took it in stride. His passion for the lanky Colorado lesbian was stronger than all the other forces at this moment in his life even if early press returns on their engagement hinted at his having sacrificed a life’s work to gain her.

The press, for its collective part, seemed duly impressed by Randall’s claim and unwilling to push given that time would soon attest to its veracity. They could have picked up CA’s scent and inquired as to whether the quiet dropping of charges against Yvonne had anything to do with this most recent, novel alliance, but that would have required background work and research.

Randall coughed violently again. Corey made a clenched fist of approval, like a player in a game. His partner pushed on, “Attacking on several social fronts, The Sidewalk Smokers Club will continue to press its lawsuit against the publishing industry coalition on Yvonne’s behalf and on behalf of the significant number of women who have accepted inclusion in her class for the purpose of litigation. With the help of fresh funding, we’ve assembled a legal team equal to the task of taking on your bosses.”

“Who?” came out from the pack in unison. Randall told them. They were impressed.

Inside, Yvonne’s smile had vanished as she again became again the topic of discussion.

“You don’t really expect to prevail?” sneered the anchorman, taking a little off his blowhard delivery for effect. “Millions of girls have appeared in those magazines over the years without expecting more than their fee and cab fare home.”

“You put things so delicately,” Randall said before coughing lightly yet again. “And you’re right. There have been millions, but you know sometimes it’s just a matter of the one pretty girl being luckier than all the rest.”

Inside, Joya couldn’t resist rubbing Yvonne’s bubbling ass and teasing her: “Ya see hon? You’re luckier than all the resta the pretty girls!” Yvonne found it in herself to laugh, with some release actually. She felt suddenly comfortable with her role now that Randall had stepped forward and fleshed out so much of what The Smokers had been trying to do, which mostly amounted to throwing lots of stuff at the wall in the hope that something stuck.

Back outside the girl in horn-rimmed glassed was at it again. “Does Yvonne really feel herself to be lucky to be caught up in all this?” Randall was getting tired.

The effort to keep the focus off Yvonne was beginning to sputter and so was he. Looking back over his shoulder into the store he saw her looking better than the night they first met. He looked back down at the reporter and asked himself what was so hard about having to address a comely girl from Vassar or Trinity or one of those places? That ain’t workin’.

“No, but even inside The Sidewalk Smokers Club, we find ourselves at cross purposes.

Admittedly, your obsession with her has been good for us,” he said hoping this was distasteful enough to force a change in their tack.

Inside, Clarisse could not contain herself. “Bravo Ran-dell, bravo Co-ree, bravo bum philosophes!

A tow truck positioned itself in front of Hat’s car, forcing the press to surge forward and knock over a few of its pushier members up front. Hat, glad to have been of help, took the cue, calmly pulled the pack of cigarettes from his short sleeve, fired one up, pointed at the driver with it and said, “Fuck that! Party at my house!” before jumping over the table, through the thickened crowd, and into the open convertible, which then blasted off in a fashion most becoming a fellow of such special formation. The tow truck driver followed suit. The pack scrambled after him.

5 comments:

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