Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapters 66, 67 and 68

Chapter Sixty-six

City Attorney had already provided an inkling of how well (or not) all of this might be going over with the general population, but Jordan occupied an even better vantage point from his place in bed next to a naked and (he imagined) satisfied Eilin.
They had watched the press conference live on a local news station.

As the creature that squeezed sweetness out from every pore of Jordan’s body watched Randall’s iconoclastic defense of all things free, a small smirk of dissatisfaction slowly spread across her face. Jordan, who’d waited the better part of his adult life to hear/see points of view like Randall’s on something quite so grand as television, was torn between his own ecstasy and Eilin’s evident disapproval. They did not get to go much deeper into things after his love turned to him and said, “These are the special friends you’re always telling me about?” because the station switched over to City Attorney’s office where the second part of the planned one-two media punch was about to be delivered.

As CA’s face filled the screen and began to discuss the virtues of The Sidewalk Smokers Club and liberty unimpeded by the nettlesome intrusions of the nanny state, Eilin hit the mute button and reduced him to a head with a mouth moving in a futility that rather shocked Jordan. The mute button, he thought, was a mighty tool indeed. And that’s bum philosophy, too.

“How come you cut it off? I wanted to hear,” he told his inspiration.

“I can’t stand him,’ she fired back, point-blank actually.

Of course, politicians are no strangers to provoking the ire of the governed, but such disdain is normally reserved for those of a higher rank than city attorney, which is a position largely invisible to those not mesmerized by the inner workings of your typical, large metropolitan municipal operation. And there was nothing in Eilin’s discussion up to that moment, when she silenced CA from a sitting and naked position in her own bed, to suggest she was even up on the broad stroke political themes of the day, let alone the minor calculations of a secondary functionary.

“Might I ask why you harbor this animosity toward our noble holder of civil servant?”

“He’s a coward. He’s fickle,” she answered. “He went after the Angel Without Mercy so he could do better in the polls and then he dropped it later, very quietly.”
Jordan again dodged getting into the particulars of the Angel Without Mercy saga, but was perturbed to hear how much the matter upset Eilin. To be sure, his action proved to have a demonstrable resonance. Clearly, the death of an old lady in a hospital, where she lay unconscious and vulnerable to the acts of inscrutable nighttime hall wanderers, could wreak havoc with public confidence in the medical system.

“He gave an explanation, I thought…” was the best Jordan could come up with and the forceful and willful girl waved him off without the use of her vocal chords.
So he squeezed out a minimal defense of City Attorney’s courage in siding with the group going up against majority opinion in a time-honored tradition of dissent where beating back badges was concerned. Eilin, again, cut him off with a shake of the head.

Jordan understood that it was a bad idea to be right on an issue that rubs the woman you’re hoping to spend eternity with the wrong way. And still there were those eyebrows that, no matter how much information she had been given, no matter what level of confession, framed her face in a thin-lined fragility of eternally expressed expectation. Innocence is mostly in the eyebrows.

The discussion was dead. Love was alive. Jordan backtracked over his own recent wanderings, recanting – inside of course – all the irreverence, disrespect, and demands for personal satisfaction; responding to the lecture of that highest calling uttered by the woman beloved.

Chapter Sixty-seven

But that was one man’s point of view, strongly influenced by one woman’s. The mute button does not silence a voice across all humanity, only a single household - and one room at that. And some of City Attorney’s pronouncements were of paramount importance to a certain class of smokers both citywide and nationwide, to local retailers, to a nettlesome yet effective club of crazies, and especially to lesbiancitycouncilwomanperson who was watching, along with chosen staffers, in stunned trepidation as the frontrunner for mayor torpedoed his career and left her in the position of achieving the impossible.

With the command of someone used to having his viewpoint heard and respected, City Attorney had dispatched with the answering of questions and gone right into the reading of a statement.

He said, and in no uncertain terms, that he was throwing the power of his office
behind The Sidewalk Smokers Club and “their lively defense of kindred spirits facing efforts to remove them from the streets they help make exciting for us all, and which” – and he emphasized with intonations of voice and hand-gesture coordination – “belong to everyone.

“And while I respect and recognize the importance of business, small and large, to our well-being I must hold to the position of a man who would govern through the balanced consideration of all the citizens – especially those without a voice.”

The essence of City Attorney’s preamble had once been the Republic’s guiding principal – the nice little gift to the plain folks that had made risking their asses worth it – but was now deemed outside the mainstream; a place some people choose to avoid, but others simply can’t find.

Anyhow, City Attorney went on to say that, “allowing merchants to use force in removing the very people who symbolize the freedom of our sidewalks is a betrayal of the public’s trust in our ability to protect them.”

Somewhere, City Attorney’s mother was crying over this courageous act of self-immolation. Somewhere else – actually in the back room of Joya’s Joyas – the object of his passions cried, too, over love’s power evident. And somewhere grim and cynical men with money riding on every second of their existence wrote the young man off for his sacrilege – and worse – for his impertinent beauty.

CA had anticipated questions as to the unpopularity of The Smokers’ cause given its unhealthful side effects and slovenly example for the children – “our future,” in paid-political-spot-parlance.

“The majority,” he pointed out, “does not have the difficulty defending its prerogatives the minority has. The majority, as a matter of fact, is often the primary agent in suffocating the pleasures of lesser-loved groups.”

A politics of pleasure even! In another century, future or past, he might be emperor of a happy land.

In this monologue City Attorney had consciously taken a page from Randall’s book.

And we emphasize that it was a page and not the whole thing. He flattered the gathered media’s intelligence and left a coherent legacy in the instance this was his swan song as an elected public official. He was taking his chance to say something by saying something. The clarion call to tolerance would most likely go unheard by a people inured to prepared statements, while only those who feared what he said, understood what he said.

And what he said was that, at a practical level, enforcement of The Smoke-Free Workplace Act had launched an uneven affair that singled out a small group, while a much broader public went unmolested, in clear violation of what specific privilege he did not know, nor care, because he simply felt it was wrong.

To illustrate the act’s sloppy drafting and how quickly things might get out of hand, he alluded to the night he himself was caught on camera while fire officials Thorpe and Diaz were arresting Yvonne. And although it was one part of his discourse that managed to connect with the broadest cross section of viewers, it left Yvonne wondering, yet again, why things always came back to her.

Standing behind her, Randall silently rejoiced at CA’s effective invocation of The Smokers’ most recognizable and appealing icon, proving that sometimes people with the same goals can be at cross purposes.

Chapter Sixty-eight

They met again at the Argentine restaurant to discuss combating the BID’s plan for clearing the air, as it were. The Smokers were forever having to think two steps ahead of the talky-smart people and they found the task more daunting as the marathon wore on. What had for an instant been wild, novel, and a clear break from the mundane quotidian, now became an obligation, and, therefore quotidian. And they were still a little shocked at how many people wanted to sit around and actually watch. They were not themselves.The Sidewalk Smokers Club was no longer a freewheeling bunch of amoral thinkers pinching harmlessly at the belly of the beast; they were an object of scorn for right-thinking people and each was constantly being confronted at moments when (they thought) the game wasn’t supposed to be on. But that was the point. The show ran until the programmers pulled it. If you wanted to hide, they showed you hiding.

For those who had taken up their banner, there was an example that must be lived up to and sometimes they just didn’t feel irreverent or, for that matter, care much for a smoke – on the sidewalk or anywhere else. Clearly, there were consequences to their actions and the more magnified those actions became, so did the consequences.

The Argentine restaurant owner was glad as ever to see them. The paparazzi were on hand and disappointed at Yvonne’s having dressed down to the point where it would be a stretch to sell the pictures they might steal of her. Joya showed up on CA’s arm, and that would be a novelty for the photographers if failing politicians were any kind of item at all, which they weren’t, or if they’d known she was (once?) lesbian, which they failed to uncover in spite of their obsession. Corey and a slimmed-down Clarisse showed up together, but avoided outward displays of affection that might confirm the signal they seemed to be sending. It was not time. Jordan did not come with Eilin, who shunned the spotlight and left him with an earful for the road about what she characterized as a charade.

Once The Club was seated the eatery’s owner explained that puffing inside had become an impossibility since the last Smoker-inspired event. He said that, under the special circumstances they had brought upon themselves, the Sidewalkers should indulge themselves on the sidewalk where the paparazzi waited without being sure for what. This was disheartening because, although they were The Sidewalk Smokers, they came to the restaurant to smoke inside. They’d killed the thing they loved and they knew it.

Seeing Joya locked at the elbow with City Attorney took more than a little getting used to. In fact, most of them failed to make the adjustment completely. She was their Joya, however single or lesbian or impossibly unobtainable, and therefore available for each to press a personal and private crush upon. Frequent adoring glimpses from this well-groomed Serious-man at her side stripped the girl of a racy peril once evinced and there was not a heart among them, which didn’t crack just a little bit more.

And the damage went beyond that excessively considered organ into sketchier regions of the person – domains where jealousy lay curled like a snake curdling a deadly poison for injecting. Only Randall knew for sure (Yvonne having surmised) that Joya had forsaken singledom and taken up with a big shot on behalf of their bid to stave off the extinction of a peculiar and threatened subculture. None, not even Randall, knew of what she had done to spare Jordan a date with the hangman – Jordan least of all. So there was a good dosage of misconception mixing in with the wine as City Attorney opened the discussion in place of Randall, who already had a sense that his best work was behind him.

“First off, the double-event went over like a lead balloon,” said City Attorney. “Our polls show a vast majority of the public that is tuned in find Randall to be arrogant, condescending, and a bad influence, not only upon children, but upon adults as well.” Randall received a mild round of applause, smiles and encouraging nods of the head. “Of course, the 20 percent of those who think what he said needed to be said support him strongly as they have the whole Sidewalk Smokers phenomenon over the past months.”

Yvonne rose from her chair and announced that she was retreating to the ladies room and then she did. City Attorney continued, “I guess this is as good a time as any to reveal that except with college-aged men, Yvonne is highly unpopular. Folks think she is immoral, was looking for trouble when she got her pictures taken, and found it in the measure she rightly deserved.”

Jordan was annoyed. “What’re we in the Bible Belt?”

“No, the Bible Balloon,” said CA continuing, “Her…our lawsuit against the magazine industry is considered by a vast majority of those polled as frivolous, without merit, and a cheap lunge for some easy money by an easy girl.”
Yvonne returned.

“Who’s an easy girl?”

“You are hon!” said Joya with a smile that lit Yvonne up as City Attorney took his cue, glossed right over her question in his polished gravy way and said, “And it won’t help that the suit might actually achieve what she wants. I think the magazine industry is going to cave and agree to a decent settlement.”

“Whooo!” Corey leapt from his seat and nearly hit the ceiling with the top of his head. “Good,” Jordan echoed his smokemate’s physical sentiment with habitual understatement. Yvonne remained passive, playing up her emotional exhaustion.

“Why dey would do dat?” Clarisse appropriately inquired.

“Because college-aged men are a primary target group for most of their advertisers and college-age men like Yvonne. A lot.”

“So they don’t think she’s immoral and got what she had coming to her?” asked Joya.

“Sure they do, but those are virtues,” explained Jordan who was college-aged in his way.

The restaurant owner appeared with two magnums of pricey champagne obviously arranged for by City Attorney since the bubbly had never figured in prior congresses. Not that everybody wasn’t very excited by this new wrinkle the new member had introduced.

The champagne service performed by the Argentine himself provided a lull in City Attorney’s report. Each thought they were past the point where being watched tickled them, but it wasn’t true and they were pleased to hear the rising and lowering of the restaurant’s din parallel the volume of their own discussion. People were attuned. The Sidewalk Smokers had not lost all of their cachet.

Jordan thought that perhaps City Attorney’s polls meant squat. Polls were for the cobblers of majorities, not for a tiny marching band interpreting the Bronx cheer.

As long as they had their fans, they’d be fine. They’d be where they had always been, even if he wasn’t sure where, exactly, that was.

Clarisse had downed her flute in a single gasp and spirited herself off to the ladies room without announcement. “She’s looking pretty hot,” said Jordan who, because he was in love, no longer felt his own public utterances about young women to be offensive.

“Yeah, she was kinda heavy after you guys broke,” said Joya, ever mindful of such details. City Attorney smiled. He might purchase a bit of her, but the whole woman would always escape him.


Yvonne looked away, distracted. Just because she never got around to really handling Corey’s entreaties didn’t mean she wasn’t going to be upset at the loss of an increasingly valuable prospect. Yvonne learned something new. And she took out a pen and scribbled on a cocktail napkin, “You want it more when it’s not yours.”

Randall saw her tuck it away and knew from established custom the contents would soon become his property.

“Well,” Corey covered for his wife, “she was going through a lot and the food in this country is pretty different than it is where she comes from,” which was sweet and pleased everybody to hear him say it. Clarisse came back and City Attorney courteously filled her flute anew.

“Everybody take another sip because the next pill is going to be more bitter than the first,” he warned.

They all took a sip and then focused. “This is how it is,” he started. “We’ll never be able to stop the BID.”

“You’re bailing?” Randall blurted, memories of DeConcini haunting.

“No, I committed to helping with this and I’m still with you. I’m just warning that it could get very uncomfortable, things could get scattered, people could get scattered.”

The group’s mood sunk precipitously as did the restaurant’s din, the other diners waxing and waning with the tides of feeling washing over The Smokers. Doubt crept in. Would their act go stale? Not playing the game excellently had gotten them invited to Hat Midone’s parties, but being good at not playing the game did not foreshadow a good playing of the game. “Hat may be where it’s at in some circles, but not in enough of them,” CA chided. “And not in the ones that really count.” The Smokers bristled. They were appreciative of the actor for taking up their cause and lightening a heavy load. They liked being in his world as much as they enjoyed him in theirs.

The Smokers were a law of diminishing returns unto themselves. Despite passionate support from their constituency, their problems and misadventures did not evoke much sympathy beyond it.

“Well, I can’t say that ahm surprised,” Joya said. “We don’t deserve any sympathy.

We like something that most people hate.”

“Wither the nation?” Randall threw up his hands.

“Yeah,” Yvonne threw in, “since when does it matter that everyone should like us?
We’ve been in and out of jail.”

“‘Everyone’ is what I bring to the table, supposedly,” City Attorney said in a wistful kind of way. “It has been my job to rally support for you and I haven’t delivered.”

Jordan thought it was nice that City Attorney was capable of a softer, human side, but wished he’d find less importune times to demonstrate it. To fight off his nervousness he decided to have a smoke. J. excused himself, saw the paparazzi on the sidewalk, and opted for a trip to the men’s room instead. “If we don’t succeed we won’t be allowed to smoke outside and if we do succeed we still won’t be allowed,” he muttered to his image while passing the mirror en route to the urinal.

Behind him a conversation about his own person was undertaken.

“What’s with Jordan?” carped Yvonne. “It’s like he’s a zombie. He shows up sometimes, but he never really adds anything. He has no ideas and no practical skills.”

Not that any of them possessed practical skills, but there had never really been much between the pin-up queen and the mercy murderer. Joya, who knew more than most rose to J.’s defense, but in a general kind of way. “C’mon let’s don’t fight amongst ourselves. We’ve come this far by workin’ together hons,” and they took the cue even though Yvonne was accurate in her observation. Randall, who had decided upon his own visit to the men’s room, now held himself in check after noting that whoever left the table was immediately the object of revision by their co-smokers.

“Let me ask you all something,” City Attorney took up the reins again, “has he been in the hospital lately?” And in a few seconds he’d found out all he needed to know about Jordan.

J. returned to a silent table and this left him feeling uncomfortable as well he might have given his criminal doings and the presence of a top law enforcement official sitting familiarly in what passed for a kind of inner sanctum. Randall picked up on the tension, if not all the reasons for it, and moved the moment along. “So what are our options? We have made something of a commitment to those people out there and to Joya who makes her living on that street.”

Condemned to a life of compromise, City Attorney said what he said next in a kind of automatic way. “Well, you’ve done well with scandal, but you’re not going to get much farther. I’d recommend you all take a pass on it. Live to fight another day for something bigger.”

The sound of “another day and something bigger” only served to increase The Smokers sense of exhaustion. Lack of imagination can do this to people, but to their credit, The Club recognized the cop-out for what it was. In their silence they were a unanimous “no!”

“That’s the best you can come up with?” Jordan attacked, unaware that his friends had unwittingly provided City Attorney with a precise profile of his criminality.

The object of his ire looked at J. for a second, shook his head, and smiled a smile too weary for a man of his age and energy. “I forgot to tell you that Andy Dumburton says hello and that the offer is still on the table.”

Nobody knew what the hell he was talking about and Jordan was too flummoxed over the fact Dumburton’s name was Andy for City Attorney’s play to force a moment of truth. City Attorney, of course, did not know who knew what about whom. Randall crossed his legs one way and then the other. Corey got up, announced he was going to have a smoke, saw the paparazzi scramble for their gear, and turned back toward what the Brits called “the loo.”

They followed him with their eyes and when Corey disappeared, Yvonne opened her mouth to speak and waved a hand in the direction he’d just headed only to be interrupted by Randall who sought to limit any frustrated finger-pointing. “He’s done remarkably well. Corey deserves a better shake when he returns to the serious world.”

Jordan shifted in his seat, for this was clearly not the banter of victory foretold.

City Attorney did not wait for Corey to return. He went on to explain how he could file for a temporary injunction enjoining the BID from carrying out its plans for a policy sweep of the area. He could not, he said, guarantee it would work. He’d lost pull, people at city hall were taking him less seriously and The Smokers’ unpopularity called into question the manner in which he was using his office.

“You’re defending a basic freedom!” Corey said upon returning to catch the end of this talk.

“People don’t care,” he answered Corey flatly. City Attorney was very discouraged.

He’d signed on in a fit of romanticism and now it seemed they didn’t even like him and his terribly informed vision of the garbage pale world. They had a charm he never would, because they were always wrong and he was always right.

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