Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapter One

Chapter One

Like so many of his time and place, Jordan liked meat.

But he didn’t eat much because, as an American of that time and place, he had bowed before a generalized social disapproval more cosmetic than concrete.

Still, he liked the Argentine steakhouse. The rich and thick cuts of beef, the velvety cream-based deserts were cause enough to drop on occasion more money than he could honestly afford.

But what resolved the quandary of to-dine-or-not-to-dine affirmatively for Jordan was this fact: the restaurant’s decidedly continental owners permitted their clientele to smoke tobacco on most evenings, when it turned late, and the atmosphere was cleared of snitches and self-appointed commissars.

Anyhow it didn’t matter for, on this night, Jordan knew he was going to have to light-up outdoors. He preferred smoking indoors because of a certain easy glamour he felt it projected, no matter what they said.

Bogart, Gable, Bacall, ghosts of a black-and-white America he could not truly know, but was compelled to emulate, had all smoked and looked as Gods doing so. Apart from the unquestionable patina of ’20s, ’30s sophistication it lent his otherwise suburban pedigree, there was the added pleasure of enjoying the everyman’s drug in combination with another which society had not yet turned its teeth on – coffee.

But there would be time – and that is our point here – there would be time.

The temporary lift this purportedly toxic concoction inevitably induced throughout his food-heavy corpus, the earthy accent it lent the meal’s aftertaste, were no less a part of life for him than a hot shower after a good workout.

This is what was good in Jordan and the reason why he is focused upon here. He knew how to live life, suck the giant sphere of all it permitted him, always in sage anticipation of the day when the privilege was withdrawn.

Jordan had never been comfortable with the easy way he fit the nascent century’s model of the middling man, but saw no way out. He’d wished there had been a war to survive, a childhood pockmarked with moments of gruel or a ghetto formation peppered with rough-and-tumble tales of humiliating injustice.

But it was his misfortune to have been lucky.

Jordan’s was a path strewn with justice where the basic social contract had been honored. There were glitches and unpleasant moments. Everybody has those. But mostly he labored and was paid commensurately. He surrendered the appropriate tax deductions and received mostly first world government services in return. He was almost ashamed. This was the particular burden of Jordan’s generation and class: the gnawing desire to complain without having suffered any indignity worth recounting.

There were few lifestyle alternatives; one really, offered in differing shades of gray, unlike when the world had been crazy and food was never secure. There had been a range to existence, often more bad than good, but from Jordan’s blasé standpoint, infinitely more colorful.

That was all over now, save for a few people in quaint places where the new homogeneity was late in arriving.

None of which was on Jordan’s mind as he sat with acquaintances at the end of a typically sumptuous repast.

For him, smoking tobacco was a great way to thumb his nose at a meddling world; an easy transgression that produced, and only on occasion, mild retribution. And Jordan liked it easy and mild.

And so it was that this important foot soldier in an as-yet undeclared war, announced that he was going “out for a smoke.” He might have said something value-neutral such as he was going out to “get some air,” or to “stretch my legs.” But he could not pass up launching this small barb at the knowledge-working, organic-eating, moneymaking, and spiritually attuned beings from whom he alternately craved approval and sought liberation.

And such are the conflicts available to those in a society where too much food is the problem, rather than too little.

And just as he had expected, the announcement was accompanied by a snicker from the controlling women who lorded over the health and eating habits of Jordan’s old friends. Men with whom he had once roamed the city in a fevered state of perversion.

Beneficiaries of the prosperity and balance good women brought to their lives, the boys were also prone to the darker side of feminine guidance that relieved them of having to ink things out for themselves. And Jordan could see it in their pathetic, evasive countenances advertising a lack of guts to demand the smoke that skirt steak pleaded for.

But that was because he was looking for these things. What he did not see was the admiring look of one young lady, bored with her man, who saw in Jordan’s gesture the signpost of a life with more texture, a signifier of some exhilarating daring-do.

She was wrong of course. Just as she had been in the choosing of her own husband, whose four-wheel-powered ride stirred up sediment from a thousand automobile commercials she’d thought ridiculous, but which implanted deep within an identification of said machines with bumpy river crossings and Moroccan adventures – expensive, exotic experiences she craved.

Having a cigarette with Jordan provided her with multiple utilities on this otherwise uneventful evening; one of vice’s supreme charms.

This time it would serve as her own silent commentary, not unlike Jordan’s, regarding the sterility of life in her adopted country.

Clarisse (that was her name) hailed from Europe; Belgium or France, nobody really knew for sure nor had the slightest curiosity either way.

Wherever it was that she came from, smoking was far from the evil it was locally. Its communal value, its undeniable use as social monkey grease linked to relaxation and post-work activity, were making this pervasive evil harder to root out over there.

Clarisse loved America because it had, in a sense, hired her. But she grappled always with the Protestant stipulation that she meet a 17th Century Presbyterian definition of clean and healthy. She had no desire to maximize her total, lifetime number of hours worked, she wanted to abbreviate them.

“Everyting in Amureeka,” she was given to observing out loud, “ees eeleegul.” And so smoking afforded her a mild form of protest in the country where she lived and paid taxes, but might never vote.

The second utility to her vice touched on the personal.

Clarisse didn’t know Jordan particularly well, nor did she have any specific designs upon him, because as things stood, she would be the last to realize that her choice of mate was inadequate to the task of satisfying her.

This reality aside, she just then had an indescribable urge to goose her man, Corey (that was his name), and this provided her an excellent opportunity to couple his annoyance over her tobacco addiction to an oral exercise with another guy. Corey, she knew, would watch them from his seat through the restaurant’s showcase window as so much that was not-at-all-innocent could innocently transpire.

The meeting would be pregnant with opportunity: intimate and nocturnal. The druggy stimulation, the inspiration by lit fire; an exciting, mysterious rendezvous made possible by the persecution of smoke and its inhalers.

As she joined Jordan he was wrestling with the fact he liked to roll his own Drum – a woodsy, almost maple-tasting product – into thin Club paper, which he preferred because it did not have adhesive to finish the “stick.” “Stand here, will you?” and he moved her by the small of her back, to block the wind.

She parted her overcoat and revealed her demure, refreshingly natural cleavage. From where Corey was sitting, it just didn’t look right. If Corey did not like the fact his woman smoked, her habit was more than compensated for by the allure of those suggestive breasts and he didn’t see why their influence should be any less persuasive where Jordan was concerned. He loved his wife for features other then her chest, but struggled now to come up with one.

Clarisse knew precisely the effect her coat-spreading gesture was having on both men, because she had spent money on special bras and hours before mirrors working to exact the maximum benefit from that bounty which youth – that cruelest of brokers – had loaned her.

Jordan, for his part, was having enough trouble without the added and sexy distraction. His minimum requirements for doing a passable rolling job – no matter he’d been smoking in excess of ten years – was a small surgical tool-set and table.

These not being at hand he proceeded, half meaning to, half not, to drop the contents of his small project all over that part of Clarisse’s anatomy just discussed, creating spectacle enough to propel Corey from his chair and out to the sidewalk.

“I don’t know,” he lied, “I just feel like a cigarette.” Clarisse knew at once she had overplayed her hand and, that for the time being, whatever lurked inside the smooth shell that was Jordan would remain a mystery.

And Jordan thought it best to abandon the project. As such, he would have to ask Clarisse for a smoke, an act that almost always yielded assent in that fraternal sorority of which a local chapter is being born before our very eyes.

But births are painful things and Jordan knew that by asking Clarisse for a cigarette in front of her man some invisible line of propriety might be crossed. So he was putting his pull with her to the test. And when the request was finally made she said, “Ooh! Off curse, yeh, yeh.”

Of course this tiny chemistry of two was not enough to form a rebel republic newly sprung from a single, addictive practice.

At least five people are required to lend any project, from the building of a tree house, to a campaign for the American presidency, the ballast necessary for launching.

So at this point it could not happen. But destiny was in The Club’s cards because, suddenly and without notice, a blonde woman with long hair, acting very single, materialized. She held her cigarette between two loose, lyrical fingers and her hand was trembling. The thing they call a conspiratorial gleam shone not just from her eyes, but from every pronounced crevice in her body. Without touching, she embraced them completely. “I know somebody here has a light,” she said to nobody in particular.

Description begs dipping into unfamiliar usage here, for the blonde was a ‘strapping’ gal: a tower of femininity. Jordan and Corey were simultaneously moved by a fear that she’d smite them with lightening if they said something really stupid, and by a synchronized desire to take her upstairs (had there been an
upstairs handy).

“Sure,” said Clarisse fishing her pocketbook. Corey felt relieved by Joya’s (that was her name) arrival and Jordan got the feeling his plan for a quiet, meditative cigarette had taken the stage door left.

“You’re cute,” she told her benefactor, “and so are your two boyfriends.” People who say things like that, and come across as meaning them, tend to make a lot of friends.

The boys shucked their shoulders and bobbed their heads in a show of false humility that made them seem more like strutting roosters than less. Her smile was that of a puppeteer having just completed a grand and public performance. Joya relaxed and dropped her guard.

“It’s pathetic isn’t it? We’re persecuted for smoking when the world’s a mess.”

Slight variations on this un-embellishment, this broad stroke against the planet’s gross mismanagement were taken for scripture by (almost) all present. The world was a mess and people were passing laws making benign and personal behaviors illegal.

It was enough to make one smoke.

Corey – feeling an understandable need to highlight his presence before the sultry stand-in – tossed in three-dollars-worth. “What about second-hand smoke?”
Immediately he wanted to kick himself. Arguments of this kind are anathema to smokers who see it as so much thought-control and manipulated science.

“Oh shut up,” the blonde told him and Corey felt as if he had been kissed.

“Are you from New York?” he asked her and she said no, that she was from Colorado.

And he could see her profile in some Colorado, not the real one, but another made up in his mind with years of help from television: standing stout, blue-eyed and windblown, bundled tightly into boot-cut blue jeans, behind her one of those old western-style windmills with a metallic daisy fan madly spinning. It could be no other way. In chapters yet to be spun her partners in history will never ask Joya about Colorado, because she represented all the Colorado they cared to know. In later years, when they heard Colorado, they would think of Joya and not the other way around. And she will never bring it up – her place of origin – because she likes the city she has settled in and does not care to look back.

Clarisse pulled out her pack and finally handed Jordan the butt he’d requested. “I love Lucky Strikes,” said the Coloradoan (Coloradan?) looking at the pack. “My dad smoked ‘em.”

Of course, lots of peoples’ dads smoked Luckys. The pack hasn’t changed for half a century, because it simply cannot be improved upon. You have them, you’re a soldier in the Korean War – a V-day bomber pilot.

And here is a new commercial pitch worth testing: “Lucky Strikes: Your dad smoked ‘em.”

The cowgirl grabbed Clarisse’s wrist, caught her by surprise. She snatched the pack, banged another short-and-stout out, slid over and put it in Corey’s mouth. “Thought I heard ya say ya wanted one, too.”

“He dusent smoke,” Clarisse injected.

“Uh, sure I do,” Corey responded transparently.

It was a turn of events Clarisse could not have foreseen when heading out the door toward Jordan to satisfy her craving for a butt and put a light under her husband’s butt. Call her deejay double-butt.

Jordan coughed when he hit his (cigarette). Certainly not Drum. Luckys were harsh, everybody knew, because that’s what made their dads so tough. But smoking one was a kind of test for those seeking inclusion in such a club, it was a real smoker’s smoke and you didn’t question its integrity out loud. You just said, no, that you didn’t want one – if you dared.

Still, a deformation, a flaw in The Club’s foundation might have occurred had membership been limited to those assembled thus far. But these specimens were destined to bind themselves into a book with a most saleable title.

And so a “Hello” broke the static moment and everyone turned eastward toward a layer of airborne orange lava tracing the sky to see another subject, dead cigarette clenched between thin lips, his stamped passport to their select company. “Mind if I join you?”

Claire lit the newcomer’s fire, as she had just about everyone else’s, and he nodded that nod which is so much a part of the international smoker’s language, given that their mouths are usually engaged. There was a pause during which a communal exhalation transpired. Enough smoke to fill the restaurant floated over their heads – good a case as any for the prophets of prohibition.

“God that’s good,” said the Coloradan, reaching over to the ashtray left on the windowsill in an effort to limit the Mexican busboy’s burden. “Yeah,” went up a gentle chorus as each mind drifted elsewhere, briefly, before refocusing upon the moment.

“How’s this Argentine place?”

“Great,” Corey, Clarisse, and Jordan said all at once. “Eef you like mit,” added Clarisse.

“Never been,” the new guy added, “can’t afford it.”

Somebody asked him what he did and he answered, “Philosopher,” which says many things and nothing at once. In a kindness both to he and themselves, nobody asked what kind of philosopher or how he lived from it.

Corey decided against mentioning his own plans for acquiring a fortune through information-packaging. For now it was a mere idea without enough juice to reach a great global audience. It would require the help of someone else’s money and someone else’s idea. Meeting those same someones was what had brought most of these smokers to the city.

“What do you call your ‘philosophy’?” Corey asked the guy, followed by, “I’m sorry, what was your name?”

“Randall, and bum philosophy, to answer your questions in the opposite order they were asked.” It took everyone a second to catch up.

“Bum philosophy,” the Coloradan perked up. “What a great idea!” and also in reverse order, “What is it?”

“Bum philosophy,” Randall explained, “is what you learn at the School of Every Day, the universal defeats and paper victories we are all subject to, and their subsequent fruits of wisdom. The lines across your forehead are the diploma, your own heartfelt conclusions, scripture.”

Corey saw no profit in packaging a bum philosophy, so he let it drop. The Coloradan, however, remained curious. “Well, give us an example.”

“Okay,” said Randall, drawing long first. “In the long run we’re all dead.”

This struck almost everyone as uncannily like a true bum’s kind of philosophy. On the one hand there was little that was profound about it. You did not need much more schooling than living life to say it, yet there was an undeniable verity, and just a dash of the profound, which made it philosophic.

“I thought Keynes said that,” Jordan jumped in tentatively, reticent to identify himself as a dying breed of liberally educated, non-specialist stuffed full of dinner companion conversation and no investments.

“That’s right,” said Randall, blanketing his face with red glow as he drew again upon his short and fine-looking cigarette. In the now-almost shut down commercial strip, the weak light and the caucus of coughers created an impression of industrial fireflies flitting about, up and down, on-and-off-orange, emitting exhaust in their circuitous travels.

There was a pause in expectation of elaboration, but none was forthcoming.

“So bum philosophy is a plagiarism of lesser, mostly digestible philosophic platitudes?” Jordan knew he might be blowing any chance of ever sexing it up with the two girls by insisting on demonstrating his surfeit of book knowledge, but chose to forge ahead anyway. Such are the dangers of possessing a natural hunger for knowledge.

“Compendium, not plagiarism,” Randall readily rejoined. “We give credit where credit is due, are proud to point out that bum philosophy and fancy schmanzy philosophy intersect on many planes, usually lower ones.”

“What outlet is going to sell warmed-over philosophy?” Corey finally decided to jump into the fray, revealing both a competitive side and his disappointment at the fact Randall could not help his career.

“Bum philosophy’s just big philosophy made bite-sized for bums: the grand sentiments made pithy and repeated often. We’re not saying anything the Greeks haven’t covered.

We’re just sampling man, grafting thought-sounds onto other thought-sounds.

Collaging from pages of the past. Cutting and pasting a new story, man, giving them the same thing, but making it a little cooler.”

None of which satisfied the requirement of Corey’s question, but stood as proof of the un-elected legislator in Randall.

“You got that down pretty good, huh, hon?” the Coloradan said.

“You ask what it has that’s new? (nobody had) And I ask what’s new? We are sold the same things in the same ways over and over.”

“That’s not too well reasoned, hon,” the blonde interjected in a way that made two of the men’s hearts jump with the possibility she might be also be college educated to no practical end.

“Bum philosophy,” he shrugged at the obviousness of it all, very lazy and bummy.

The answer, coupled with his complete conviction and old-school intellectual charm (he wore horn-rimmed glasses), made Randall very new school and his audience thought he might be onto something, a nicely bound thought system that opened with an apology for its many shortcomings.

Anyhow, it didn’t matter. All cigarettes had been sucked down to their spongy brown filters. Clarisse coiled her arm around Corey’s elbow and signaled retreat to the restaurant’s interior. Randall bid all a good night and waited around for a second, in hopeful anticipation the Coloradoan might be going his way. When the silence finally grew unnatural, he nodded and departed west along the avenue, which was free of traffic and pulsing with the whoosh of speedy autos under an arcade of metrically paced fluorescent lights.

“Civilized stars,” Jordan mumbled to himself. “Not wild and shooting, but static and sure.”

In spite of himself, he had the lovely Joya all to his lonesome and divined that not only had she heard what he said, but had liked it immensely. His stomach felt a bit unsettled by cigarette and big meat. It was opposite the effect he was hoping to induce by his indulgences and Jordan wasn’t up to asking Joya on the date he felt she was waiting for. She lit another stick, blew true and smiled. He thought, “This girl knows how to handle a cigarette,” as her trembling hand hypnotized him. She then tilted her head and switched on the eye-twinkling, only to notice that he was off. The girl reached into her purse and pulled out a shiny card case that reflected the bright night it had suddenly become. She pulled out a paper slice and reached out for his hand and bent it to the contour of his palm. “Ahm Joya. Give me a call,” she said without any excess sexual mystery, friend-like. He nodded and she was gone; her long straight hair swaying to-and-fro under the influence of her clunky cowboy boots marking coconut shell rhythm echoing back to him.

He looked at the card. It was beige with turquoise lettering and announced, Joyas Joya’s. Mentally dulled by wine, beef and nicotine, he reasoned that she was in the business of selling facsimile versions of her self.

“Excellent commerce.”

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