Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapters 63 and 64


Chapter Sixty-three

Corey’s ongoing campaign for keeping the local press interested was a relative success. Indeed, certain outlets responsible for The Smokers’ story becoming what it was had assigned regular beat reporters to the ongoing affair. And still, the fanfare of the first event was entirely absent now. The Smokers were not gathered to celebrate, which is how people had come to know them. They had met to dispense with some business; the baggage of having become The Sidewalk Smokers Club. It was naught but a gray, emotionless affair during which they imparted the information required of public, semi-official figures, such as themselves.

Joya’s Joyas again served as the venue. It looked different than the time before. Colors had been emboldened, design elements had thickened. We cannot say that nobody cared. Quite the opposite. Sales were made, business relationships initiated, notes and pictures taken in all seriousness.

The press event opened promptly. Corey coolly explained Randall’s illness and a doctor’s order that he quit smoking as soon as possible.

“They say he tried to smoke himself sick,” said a misplaced member of the local business journal’s staff who’d convinced his editors The Smokers represented an evolution in marketing.

Corey responded that “they” probably owed The Smokers money and then invited the reporters to impugn the statement’s veracity with a little investigation, which he knew they would not. Yes. He would be flip and he would help make Randall a small monster.

“He’s pretty much the leader, right?” asked someone from a smaller chain of papers serving bedroom communities.

“You make those distinctions,” said Corey. “We consider ourselves friends.” This was both his partner’s cadence and brand of guerrilla reasoning. He held the floor, pressed his advantage, switched. “If it’s a free country we’re just looking for a free space, someplace, anywhere.”

It was a claim not completely true since The Smokers had very narrow tastes where desirable neighborhoods were concerned and wouldn’t be caught dead in most. But it was good, broad-stroke rhetoric that kept the message simple.

“And you don’t see any contradiction between your advocating sidewalk smoking while ‘your friend,’ as you refer to him, lays nears death as a result of the very same habit?” a blogger tried to burn him.

Of course Randall was nothing like “near death,” but the reporter needed that element so that his story had a little depth, sweep. Corey needed that too and remained mum on the point. Instead he said, “That is exactly the fact, but Randall is the guy you want to talk to about it,” which was both a very cynical and very professional dodge.

“I thought you said he wasn’t the leader?” said the bespectacled girl from the left tabloid, disjointing her attack with a little librarian’s smile.

“He’s the guy that got sick. I can only provide hearsay and I know none of you uses hearsay in your pieces.”

Randall read about it and thought Corey had acquitted himself admirably, setting the stage, leaving them wanting more, and handing off just at the proper moment.

Now, at least, they could focus on wrapping up Yvonne’s case and Joya’s battle against the BID to make them all extinct. Regarding each matter they had managed to furnish themselves with enough juice to put up a fight, to not just sit there, to not just be tumbleweed pulled through that junkyard by some invisible siren, unknowable, irresistible.

Chapter Sixty-four

Jordan called the hospital where Randall was preparing for his imminent departure. He was being discharged a little earlier than necessary because the hospital had a lot of people to treat and was less than subtle in letting him know it. He was able to pay the bill and when Jordan heard this he felt good and saw his debt owed the system somehow settled through his association with The Club.

The two men exchanged impressions, Randall agreeing fully with Jordan’s observation that choice of treatment was woefully lacking and that one largely accepts into one’s body (and out of one’s bank account) whatever the health experts ordain.

“They never really ask if they can do it do they?” Randall looked for a match.

“Nah,” and J. hung up.

Randall, of course, had been playing with fire by using sickness as a strategy. He did not count upon the black cloud that had gathered over him and begun to follow he and his image everywhere. The illness made Randall into something dark and sequestered.

Meanwhile, the beginnings of bum philosophy were being posted across the electronic republics, followed closely in small pockets of people in strange countries contacted by Corey who did not at all mind the extra work posed by Randall’s incapacitation.

The bum philosophy was an utterly irresponsible attack upon the work ethic – the measure by which we determine bad from good – and nobody with even a whiff of influence was interested in changing this. Call it what you want, Randall’s and, to a lesser extent, Corey’s invention was anything but status quo in that it gave the lazy new hope. Coupled with their arrogance on public smoking they might as well have launched an airborne plague in a major American city. Some asserted that they already had.

For the moment at least, Randall had become something he despised. His bad behavior was getting good life. It was a nasty switch because he’d imagined himself bouncing along the high road, apple pie progressivism filling his sails. It had however, been decided differently. And there wasn’t a thing he could do about it except answer the questions with the same answers he’d carried around during all those years when nobody was listening.

The phone next to Randall’s hospital bed went off and he picked up. It was City Attorney.

“Welcome back to the inferno buddy boy.”

“Thanks.”

“I’m ready to throw my weight behind your battle with the BID.”

“Wow,” Randall said, “this is almost big-time.”

City Attorney, who never had much of an appreciation for Randall’s humor, decided to forge ahead. “Whatever we can get out of this office we will,” he found himself selling. “First thing I do is advise the police department to stay out. They’ll be only too thrilled to dump a hot potato back on the fire guys. Next I go after the ordinance through legal means. We fight to keep the streets open for smokers. We present ourselves as defenders of free air and space against the hobgoblins of an over-regulated society.”

“How about we actually believe in it too?”

City Attorney understood he had to entertain such quaint notions with an apprentice outfit like The Sidewalk Smokers Club. “We put our bodies where we have to,” he promised.

This excited Randall who should have known it is easier for a city attorney to say such things than it is for a city attorney to deliver on them.

“I appreciate your poetic conception of politics,” he told him, “but are you looking to get your ass kicked?”

“What do you want from me?” City Attorney snapped, a little frustrated at not having gotten the gratitude he expected. But gratitude is a dog’s disease (Stalin) and only the fact this turn of words was concocted by a terrible man prevented its absorption by the bum philosophy. Randall heard in CA’s intemperance the voice of a kid, down the block from a big family of brothers and sisters, who wants to be friends.

“What do you expect? This is a little out of the blue you know,” he noted.

“I’m going to marry Joya,” City Attorney explained, tired of withholding.

“Does she know?” asked Randall.

“Yeah,” said CA, “it’s what she wanted.”

“What did she want?” Randall prodded.

“This.”

“This what?”

“This discussion, damn it. She wants me to make this commitment politically.”

“And then she’ll marry you?”

“Jeezus,” City Attorney said to camouflage his inner questioning of the decision’s virtue.

“Wow, okay,” Randall promptly composed himself. He had read about such machinations in the courts of old European aristocracies and the meeting halls of Democratic New York State circa 1910. Now here he was witnessing, and part of, a similar turn. He was confused, needed time, couldn’t sort out the good from bad. And this, by City Attorney’s design.

“Wouldn’t a diamond ring have been easier?”

“Hon, don’t give a jewel, be a jewel,” City Attorney recited his muse’s mantra.

Randall scrambled for a scrap of paper to scribble on.

The boys, of course, are at it in the backroom. Even an outsider like Randall gets invited once, maybe twice, to the backroom, if only because he’s a boy.

And what about the girls? Joya certainly played a decisive role behind the scenes, and the cost to her was higher than for (almost) anybody else because she had given herself up. Incredible stuff, and still she was not an actor on the actual stage.
Clarisse tried to buy some influence and had her contribution reduced to a lady-who-does-lunch-style trust fund for the cause.

Yvonne was fairly convinced – despite her fondness for all involved – that she’d set herself up for a using and she was not at all happy about it. Oddly enough, and contrary to her own public image, she was a good girl who wanted to go along with things and be liked.

And so we can see that The Sidewalk Smokers’ revolution is a limited thing; backward almost in the way Randall had come to view creative life (“Being and artist means being a beggar”). Yes, they were doing the best they could, reacting to the reactions of something they’d never mapped out and which they were not experienced enough to anticipate, but it was still a kind of scrambling.

“You’re going to take a pretty big hit here,” Randall pointed out, probing the depths of love.

“Maybe one that finishes me off. But we need a plan in any case, and ours is to cede
the field to the lesbian city councilwoman for a while,” City Attorney sketched. “She’ll be the frontrunner in the race for a job she doesn’t want and never thought she would be so close to getting. We get her in over her head. She’ll fumble it, subconsciously.”

Randall was impressed at the many simultaneous levels of thought CA could handle and he struggled to get a handle on his mental loco-motion. “And you?”

“I ride this horse for all she’s worth. I fight for the maintenance of a personal freedom, the openness of public space, the meeting places of democracy’s citizen legislators.”

It was all music to Randall’s ears. “You think you can do it? You could actually pull it off?”

“Like I said, it’s a plan,” was the best City Attorney, who was not in the habit of making guarantees, could do. He knew that a jump is a jump, a voluntary surrender of control in exchange for a lottery ticket. A victory of the weakling vertigo over ubiquitous gravity. A seduction by velocity.

“Alright let’s do it,” Randall said, agreeing to commit the resources of whatever-it-was he was the almost-leader of.

The Smokers, while being pulled apart were never more together, barreling toward another chapter, grown by the power of one influential politician, going in for their chances, upstream…muscular.

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