Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapters Three and Four

Chapter Three

Randall was home bum philosophizing. He’d decided that despite his timely answers to Jordan’s question about John Maynard Keynes’ “in the long run we’re all dead,” he’d actually gotten away with one there. A tight linguistic tautology that repulsed all inquiry was not the thing he was after. Slightly older than those other Sidewalk Smokers, he was unfortunately smitten with traces of an earlier idealism, an idealism that did not hamper the rabid upward strivings of generations X, Y, and Zzzzz.

Randall wanted to be remembered after he was gone, but he did not seek a monument built upon greenbacks. He desired, corny though it seemed at such a late date, to make a difference in peoples’ lives – for the good. The distinction is important, he bum philosophized, because Western Civilization – or the mess which passes for it – had grown so twisted, so focused upon a success associated with life in the public’s eye, that outrageous, ignorant, and even criminal behavior had all become legitimate means to notoriety. And notoriety was most cherished. With their images conveyed across the space of flows, mass murderers developed fans and/or immoral athletes gained lucrative endorsement contracts from product peddlers seeking bold or radical spokespeople whom tested well in focus groups of 14-year olds.

He chewed on this and decided to make it bum-friendly: “Bad stuff gets good life.”
Guided by his formulation, idiots seeking to bypass the time-tested, slow, hard path to success through work could use bum philosophy and chart a different course.

“Bad stuff gets good life,” was an immoral nod to the mass market, he admitted to himself, a ploy for popularity and wealth. And yes, as stated above, he wanted to make a difference for the good. But after all – he equivocated away – a thinker’s intentions are not even half the game and folks are going to get what they want from an idea anyway.

Secretly he hoped the deeper moral implications of the “bad stuff gets good life” phenomenon would affect souls properly prepared to absorb them. The brighter lights, propelled by bum philosophy in a different direction, would fight for the better world; conducting themselves according to such antiquated niceties as charity, solidarity, and uncommon sense (bum philosophy holding that sense was not at all a common occurrence).

It was a double-game imposed by the market. “Bad stuff gets good life,” as product to the cynical because a guy’s got to eat. “Bad stuff gets good life,” as a warning and desperate call for decency.

And so, this is what Randall is supposedly about (at this point), decency.

He began to boldly write. “We’ve gotten away from what the dead white men hoped for.
They knew that siccing us on each other had its risks. And they gave us laws that were supposed to teach tolerance and understanding. And they hoped the decency would make us close.

“But the civility is gone,” he scribbled on. “Anything not nailed down is fair game, and people can profit from stealing your mail, your identity, your car’s hood ornament. Every once-open and free space has been closed amen to a covetousness reinforced by the ‘bad stuff gets good life’ principal. Sole responsibility for ourselves has freed us from worrying about others.”

It was all about class clowns and daffy charmers riding the waves of a success so narrowly defined as to curse those it blessed. The humble, the generous, the honest and struggling folks got to sit on the side and watch the brash and brassy enjoy the fruits of labor not theirs.

Randall’s mind was overheating. He dropped his pen. It could not keep pace with the canter of his thoughts, which concluded that favoring ugly winners at the expense of beautiful losers would ultimately rot the very core of the apple that provided the civic body its nutrition. These last thoughts swirled around inside of he, Randall the Good, only to be locked out of his opus. For although it was true, it was decidedly academic and unbum-like.

How he longed to tell it to the world. How uninterested the world seemed (and was).
Randall stepped out to his front sidewalk for a smoke. He inhaled long and the infusion relaxed him for a few moments.

He looked up at the nimbus accumulations unfurl and roll above, unimpeded in their cyclical motion by those things perturbing his spirit.

“The happiest man,” he mused, “lives his life as a floating cloud.”

Chapter Four

Jordan, meanwhile, was floating like a cloud, pushed by a high-speed wind.

The ambulance ride was fun. It was dark and a relief from the bright clinical light under which had cooked for hour after hour at his first stop on the health-care-go-round. The vehicle’s high speed and the lovely anaesthetic each left Jordan with a sense of having escaped the affliction and accompanying nightmare. The attendants were, well, attendant and assured him the doctors at “county” were actually quite good, “because they get so much practice,” which was comforting in its way.

They rolled Jordan in on a Gurney and quickly departed with blessings of life and good luck, which took on a greater meaning and resonance than in more quotidian situations. His innate cultural sensitivity notwithstanding, Jordan noticed how county hospital was rife with people of colors different than his. The emergency room was packed with them, but no wispy nurse to badger. A perfectly nice fellow wearing what looked like a shower cap came along after about an hour and moved the patient into another room more in line with what a military hospital might look like. Six beds against one wall and another six across the opposite one. Another fellow in green scrubs and a shower cap came by a little later and administered more anaesthetic. Jordan was wide-awake, but his pain had become a part of the recent past and he decided, rather redundantly, to lay low.

There was a commotion as they rolled a great whale of a young Latino man into the bay adjacent his own. Jordan could discern from surrounding conversations that the patient had been shot and was in a fight for his life. They did not put a paper bag over his face and tell him to breathe. Rather they stuck an oxygen mask there and began working his chest in a manner that struck Jordan as frighteningly akin to rummaging. Embarrassingly healthy all his life Jordan was, quite simply, shocked at how rudimentary the practice of medicine remained. His idea of the steady handed surgeon with lithe, delicate fingers, aided by all manner of computerphernalia had been put to rest for years to come.

There were, however, elements of hospital emergencies that did correspond to the television-inspired notions cramming his head. For example: the gun-wound-guy was hooked up to the machine that beeped with the beat of his heart, which was, Jordan thought, not feeling very beepey. They took those giant prongs from TV and crammed them into the poor guy’s chest, too. The sound of electronic jolts was just like what he’d heard on the medical dramas, although there was a fleshy wetness that lent it an authenticity the spectacle-makers would be hard-pressed to duplicate.

Jordan was impressed with the sheer number of people trying to save this guy, whom by all appearances was a criminal, and the feverishness with which they worked.

After what seemed like a few hours into this noble, selfless exercise the machine stopped beeping and went monotone. The room’s energy level dropped all at once. Somebody said, “Call homicide.”

This was certainly dispiriting and the rest of the evening was hardly much better. Ensuing cases included fuzzy drug-heads, confused hysterics, folks who thrived on the attention being sick offered them, and all manner of flotsam and jetsam which Jordan habitually voted to fund and care for, but had little occasion to meet first-hand. Having now done so, he lamented the haughty attitude he’d taken with his latest set of bosses. His access to that kind of white-collar employment was all that had stood between he and these unfortunates; perfectly good folk badgered by senseless violence and stranded in a deadening purgatory.

This is what Jordan’s parents, whose attitudes he’d mocked since the college professors had gotten their paws on his mind, had worked so hard to shield him from. Born to them, Jordan thought cleanliness, security and access to education were givens. Now he was seeing how, with a simple change in the address of his birthplace, it might easily have been otherwise. Dead as political crowd pleasers, race and class remained big players on the game board of life.

Jordan closed his eyes in the company of no one and fell asleep after God knows how many hours of this Friday night parade, this tale from the crypt, and awoke in a different room that was carpeted, softer and infinitely more placid in atmospherics.

Again, he lay around for a few hours before anybody attended to him. Were he at a restaurant Jordan would be screaming bloody murder, but he wasn’t. These folks weren’t feeding him an expensive meal financed by his good fortune. They were battling a pain in the stomach, a service for which he would feel forever indebted – figuratively and literally – to them.

Finally, and at long last, a man in a white coat, maybe a doctor, maybe not, came by and queried Jordan regarding his readiness for surgery. Given the implicit severity in having a scalpel put to one’s body, he responded with an understandable dose of skeptical consumerism. “Well, do I have appendicitis or not?”

“Well,” the guy in the lab jacket said, “you can’t really tell one hundred percent, but we’re pretty sure.”

Jordan had watched the news magazines, was thoroughly up-to-date on the tragedies
visited upon unsuspecting schlumps just like him by under-funded and harried hospital teams.

“Whaddya mean pretty sure?”

The guy looked at his watch in a gesture suggesting impatience and then confirmed it with what he said next. “Look, you saw a little bit of what we went through last night. Tonight’s Saturday and it’s going to be three times as bad. Kids are going to be coming in here shot up and crying for their mothers and you’re not, I’m sorry to say, going to be a priority. Now, you can go home and wait for the anaesthetic to wear off or for your appendix to explode and kill you, or we can go ahead and cut that thing out now, while there’s still time.”

And so, Jordan reluctantly assented to the carving of his loins.

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