Tuesday, February 07, 2006
The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapters 72 and 73
Randall had gone back and forth with City Attorney a number of times as the latter did his best to convince Randall of the need to head-off a heartbreaking defeat for his nicotine-addled allies. The politician’s flirtation with The Smokers had delivered on all the peril it promised and the time to end it had come. He was adamant. It was over. Although officially willing to accept CA’s advice, Randall was loath to give up that which had accrued to his credit. He had the support of people in the streets and now City Attorney wanted him to relinquish that loyalty without leading the fight – to waste their belief and disappoint them.
Despite City Attorney’s miserable track record with The Smokers (could anyone have done better?), his brass-knuckled insider’s view of things left Randall feeling naive about the workings of government, his present persona as iconic iconoclast not withstanding.
In short, he did not realize just how black the heart of the beast is nor how deep in he was.
And for all that, he procrastinated in his mission to convince the true sidewalk smokers, of The Club’s invention, that the party was over and that it would be safer to move along.
This had been a high point (excepting the hospital stay) for him; fun, exciting, edifying, educational, and ego-gratifying and now he had no idea what was next. He’d improved his station, his anti-status, his bank account and sense of self-worth, but his ideas could not yet take him beyond what had been achieved in concert with his strange bedfellows. He’d never seen quite this far before and was afraid the gift of vision would be lost along with the fight at hand.
Then City Attorney, who seemed more preoccupied than normal, called and told him about the new poll that had come out in the daily newspaper of record. Randall riffed through the pages to the article in question and began the absorption.
What he read came as something of a surprise (as City Attorney had hoped), because Randall had committed the sin of believing his own hype and because he’d been duped into thinking people wanted freedom and fought every incursion, not only for their own well-being, but as a duty to the larger collective of which they were a part.
Operating from the margins, he was unaware of how such a position was a kind of political pornography to be enjoyed in private, or with extremely close friends, and never to be mentioned in proper society.
But he knew there was a silent majority of people watching in the wings, supporting The Smokers in their effort to fend off yet another, small, but insignificant bit of everyone’s liberty.
Until he read about the poll.
Seventy-percent of bar owners and employees citywide had expressed a preference for working in an environment free of smoke. It was a 60 percent increase from two years ago among the same class of people who’d fought the law’s enactment because of its expected negative impact on their disposable income.
Randall realized that what he had really been sensing from the body politic was a silent minority of 30 percent instead of a silent majority poised to fill the public squares and buildings with raw voices of protest.
And there was more. Patrons had also been interviewed; among them those who swore never to frequent a restaurant where they weren’t allowed to light up. A disappointing 79 percent of them found it “important” to have a smoke-free bar, restaurant or lounge, and that, too, was up 20 percent from back when debating the proposed Smoke-Free Workplace Act was all the rage.
Randall tried to equivocate the figures away. “They’re patrons,” he told himself, “not smokers, not people who go out to the sidewalk to smoke when obligated.” He did so weakly, continued down the page with a deep sense of apprehension and rightly so because there was a clincher to come. Support among smokers for the law had increased from 24 percent to 45 percent, an (almost) doubling in the approval rate.
Of course, most smokers were still opposed. That gave hope, but not so much when Randall considered the final factoid, which revealed that, at the time of the Smoke-Free Workplace Act’s passage, 17.9 percent of people interviewed identified themselves as smokers and two years later the number was down to 5.9 percent, along with the incidence of lung cancer citywide.
There was a comment from the city fire department’s Oscar Diaz who had, along with his partner, gained a small fame or infamy depending on where a person stood on the question of indoor smoking. He said, “This is proof that over time people have come to learn what’s good for them, and what’s good for them is a clean workplace free from the hazards of smoking,” which was as safe as saying nothing at all.
While the optimist in him could torture a positive message or two out of the miserable document, Randall decided to interpret it in the same black-and-white with which it was expressed on the page. In the past, evidence of truth from the enemy camp was never reason for Randall to give up the ghost. No. But now there were one or two hundred people, young and old, who’d identified he and his cohorts as something to be admired and emulated. And because of this their heads were on the chopping block.
City Attorney would be glad to hear the message had finally gotten through loud and clear to Randall given that he’d already called up the paper’s managing editor and thanked him for the planted piece on the fake poll. He owed him one, he said, and the managing editor agreed, noting how other outlets had been calling for an explanation of the poll results only to be rebuffed with a flimsy claim that they were exclusive to his paper.
Freedom, Randall concluded, is something a certain kind of person or part of the populace can get very excited about. The modern consumerist lifestyle makes it almost an anachronism, because there is no place to be free from anything. It’s an acquired taste, freedom, and its usage may require more sophistication than our political and philosophical forebears surmised.
“The most important freedom is that which you permit your opposite number,” he wrote, but placed in a new file, for it was definitely unbum-like.
Maybe (and he sighed) the goal of describing the great things simply was simply not possible.
Sacred cows were falling like cut grass in the pastures of Randall’s mind. Things were adding up to a state of affairs that spelled unemployment for the rake and he permitted himself a real bout of fear over the future.
He reached for an El Presidente short cigar plucked from the jungles of Nicaragua and visited there through the history of scent and the representation of taste that carried the Central American rainforest in it.
Corey and Clarisse sat in low-slung chairs of her own design. They looked very graceful but were, in truth, a little uncomfortable. And such are the travails of occupying a corner at Vindaloo Baxley’s latest fête.
The reason for their invitation this time around could be attributed to the fact Vindaloo’s heartstrings had now been struck by Corey and she had not the slightest respect for the sanctity of a marriage, no matter how tattered. She thought he was cute. A friend of Vindaloo’s backed her up on it. Another came by Clarisse’s studio and purchased some pieces. She invited them to the party as per Vindaloo’s instruction – the party being reported here. They were once again reaping the benefits of life as an integrated couple, united behind their days ahead together.
People stopped to chat, asked with familiarity about their work, which they all seemed most interested in and concerned with. It was a nice night. Hat was there. He came over with Vindaloo. They crouched down to achieve eye contact with Clarisse and Corey. They spoke of lawsuits, of the pending removal of the smokers at Joya’s place. They were polished and sophisticated beyond their age and wealthy beyond the quality of their work and Corey just had to love them for their support.
“I’m going down there Corey,” Vindaloo could barely control her rage at the injustice. The latest development had tipped the scale and deepened her commitment.
“You know you can count on me,” Hat echoed her sentiment.
Clarisse was going to clarify how the strategy was to discourage the sidewalk smokers and get them to move on, but Corey sensed this and squeezed her hand for silence. He was intrigued. They were lending The Smokers their powerful and unique claim on the valuable and limited stores of attention out there. And he knew it was his to capitalize on it. Sure there were plans, but there must also be great moments of pluck and inspiration (he told himself), too.
People of devalued stock, but more of them, would be drawn by Vindaloo and Hat – he knew. Perhaps a star might be born.
All of which passed through his now-sharpened mind and instincts in a flash. “Let me say for all The Club’s members, that your help is much appreciated.”
Everybody glowed. All the elements necessary for a wonderful evening that required purchase had been purchased. Those treasures too sublime to be bought outright were instead rented at considerable cost. The time was now.