Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapters 13 and 14

Chapter Thirteen

Fire inspectors Diaz and Thorpe were exiting a local French restaurant where the owner had been issued yet another citation in a long history of them. Never mind that her mostly continental clientele wanted to smoke and that most of her waiters and bartenders (okay, all of them) partook on the job. She was in violation of the Smoke-Free Workplace Act and her obstinate flouting made the eatery a regular stop on the officers’ nightly tour of duty.

Not only did the French place permit its clientele and workforce to smoke; it sold separate cigarettes sitting in an oversized cognac sifter on the bar to any and all takers. And it did so at a handsome profit because drugs, as anyone who went to college and did a basic econ class knows, have what is called a very ‘elastic’ demand. A bum philosopher might say that wild horses couldn’t keep their users away.

Actually, the phenomena revealed more than this already known tidbit about vice. It said something about the economics of freedoms, liberties, rights and other high-flying concepts our Swiss-cheese democracy is purportedly based upon. Every time a law such as the Smoke-Free Workplace measure is passed and codified, a cadre of individualists will come out of their satellite-dished bunkers to complain about how our freedoms are being taken away.

The fact is that freedoms come at a price, and we’re not talking death on a foreign battlefield. We’re talking cash. The Constitution is silent on the specific question whilst the culture is louder than a set of stacked Marshall amplifiers. To emphasize, freedoms aren’t eliminated with parking ordinances, dog-curbing laws, and other niggling legalities with which city councilpeople, county commissioners, congresspersons, and presidents occupy their time.

They simply get a little (or a lot) more expensive, for such are the realities in a country that is run like a business with a preference for the bottom line. And if pricing freedoms upward left some folks out in the cold, the issue was a non-starter because, not only do we not give a twig for the poor, the poor themselves would rather not be identified as such.

And so this is what you had: A French restaurant that catered to the Epicurean tastes of its clientele, passing on the cost of smoking fines to them. The price of escargot and martinis would rise incrementally without truly affecting business because, for the amoral among us, escargot and martinis fall in the same classification of earthly delights that cigarettes do. Free-market-magic.

Fines accumulated by the proprietress under the Smoke-Free Workplace Act were merely a cost of doing business; no different than the license fees, property assessments, zoning changes and other levies, hidden and otherwise, she was required to pony-up for annually, quarterly, weekly.

Anyway, Diaz and Thorpe had cited the woman, a former fashion designer, who smiled cordially and then invited them to a drink. Believing that a restaurateur’s duty was to be on good terms with everyone who entered her calculated little eaters/drinkers/smokers/cocaine-sniffers-in-the-bathroom paradise, she stuck to the role of good hostess. The inspectors, of course, were denied by conditions of their employment to drink alcohol while on the job. They might have stayed all night and stared at the ephemeral beauties present, but they expected no common ground with those gathered, only a sense of being slighted in a subtle, better-than-thou way. In short, due to a series of factors both shallow and deep, and not timely enough to discuss here, Diaz and Thorpe felt inferior and out of place.

By dint of good fortune, hard work, and the inevitable deterioration of the aging process, their appointment as inspectors had run them smack into the same snooty kids from high school that’d gone on to college – or reasonable facsimiles of them.

So they passed on the drinks and walked around issuing seven citations to the most attractive or obviously rich diners, for in their hands was held the ace of absolute state power. And although the clientele’s dress was designed to intimate achievement and polish, the confrontations revealed more brusque natures beneath the Italian-cut outfits. In the early days of enforcement, the savage responses of the wealthy would leave them taken aback; now it heightened the pleasure. The inspectors willingly sought out the insults as proof that, in the end, these folks squatted daily and squeezed out the same offal the peasants they fancied themselves so superior to did.

Citations issued, smiling adieu exchanged, they drove by the Argentine restaurant where an irregular situation had been developing. To wit: sometimes a veritable delegation of sidewalk smokers caucused before the wooden and gold glow of its picture windows and other times, later usually, there were none at all. When you’re a smoking inspector, there are certain things to look for and read into. It’s a specialized field of enforcement. To the extent that more egregious offenders on their beat had been fined into submission, Diaz and Thorpe were now closer to locking-in on the subtler patterns of behavior unfolding at the popular nightspot.

The inspectors concluded that those outdoors smokers had to go somewhere, and that was probably inside where they obviously closed down the joint, smoking, because that is what they do – smokers.

They found our friends meeting in the full-fledged flurry we just left behind. The very size of the gathering (there were other people lighting up, too) shocked and discouraged the inspectors who’d given the better part of themselves to the French restaurant raid. Since they drove around in a marked car and wore uniforms, there was a problem of secret approach difficult to resolve. They opted for the only strategy available, which involved parking their red-and-white ride on a side street and walking past the Argentine restaurant via the sidewalk opposite. They felt a curious desire to observe the chatty group of attractive semi-young people assembled and could think of no other way to camouflage their presence than to light up a pair of cigarettes, a box of which they kept in the glove compartment as rather effective props.

They were Marlboro Lights, a very popular brand and, their mass distribution aside, rather enjoyable smokes: light as advertised, quick burning. It was all in the service of a larger cause and so they smoked – with little pleasure.

It is a mystery to nonsmokers how someone would willfully, at times frantically, do such a thing to themselves, but smoking is the ultimate acquired taste since it doesn’t taste good in the way, say, that French fries do. But when there is a craving pleasant to quell, all things related to the act are gilded with the same glow the quieted addiction is.

Diaz and Thorpe watched for a while and could conclude little more than the fact that Yvonne was “one hot looking bitch” and that one of them would love, “to stuff her.” Not pretty or correct, sure, but these are working-class stiffs speaking on the sly; assuming they cannot be heard by those who might be offended.

Let it be noted that the detectives marked The Club members’ faces in their memories and promised to keep an eye on that sidewalk, to pounce on its indoor smokers the day it was found to be empty.

Chapter Fourteen

Some time later, Jordan stood at the supermarket check-out line for what seemed an eternity. J. was feeling sorry for himself. Before entering the store, a shadowy intimidating drifter of a man had hit him up for money. He gave over four bits. In gratitude the beneficiary of his openness dashed the coins against the showcase window to the store and slinked away snarling.

The encounter had stoked in him a sense of foreboding that was, oddly enough, buttressed by the magazines Jordan was forced to peruse while people purchased shave cream with credit cards. These magazines covered the vanity fair of party life and sexy activities every American who did not shop in specialty stores had to consider while waiting to pony up for their basics. It was a world in which every cover girl – and they were mostly girls – looked great and promised to hold forth inside on their last devastating love, on vacation spots, and on God. These accounts usually involved the identical experience of climbers up the narrow tree to stage and broadcast glory – which is to say not much experience at all. Some went deep into the lives of these girls and the boys whom they invited to abuse and exploit them in exchange for riches. Very old story. There were society parties in New York featuring statuette females photographed with their name and the designer of their dress printed below. There were exotic ocean islands and many figured contract agreements for lush period pieces shot on location in ancient and unscathed environs. How they lived is how everyone wanted to live.

Jordan certainly did not live it. To be sure, his life was not at all bad when compared, say, with the habitual starving-man-in-the-third-world measuring stick. He partied, yes, and he traveled, if not to hotspots, then to lukewarm ones and sort of made money along the way. His was, he thought just then, a pale edition of what supermarket stars in full bloom enjoyed. The inescapable truth was that nothing in the tangible future suggested, despite J.’s hopes and energetic efforts, such an existence wasn’t slipping away forever as he sloppily flopped around from one pesky crisis to another.

An attractive girl behind him smiled as Jordan, in full debate with his self, waved away a thought with a chop of his open right hand.

Finally paid up, he exited the store and looked both ways for the panhandler and saw him slithering along the parking lot’s perimeter. But Jordan did not quicken his pace to the car, rather pulled up and yanked a ready-made from his shirt pocket.

Such jackals could smell fear from across a city space and when they did, one was done for. There are few better ways to confront a potential crisis of confidence, or to at least disguise the approach of one, than through performance of the nonchalant cigarette lighting ritual. For, in addition to the cosmetic adjustment, the chemical payoff served to buck one up (however artificially).

In short, Jordan lit a cigarette to convey coolness and feel coolness. We can assume that it worked since that particular and potential peril petered. He wondered how the great and tremendous men, the Caesars and Ghengises, dealt with things before the birth of cool, which, after all was not even a century young.

As he was getting to his car a swarthy man of indeterminate ethnicity pulled out his large one and began to piss just a yard beyond the hood. He shot – among other things – a sidelong glance that sent a shiver up Jordan’s spine. Like many of his time and place, J. was thoroughly secular and nonbelieving. And although he did not pray at the right hand of the father, he avoided making any definitive stance on the existence of spirits since such things are not truly verifiable – in any scientific way – with the tools of perception currently at our disposal.

Put differently Jordan wasn’t so smart that he couldn’t believe in devils.

He cranked the ignition and guided his hunk of steel, glass, grease and synthetics out of the lot, leaving behind a small oil stain destined to become part of the region’s drinking-water table.

None of which was on Jordan’s mind. He had hit the brakes at the exit when a cranky homeless man walked unconsciously into his path and shook a fist at the driver over this one of many indignities his economic situation exposed him to.

“Devils,” Jordan whispered to himself, fighting off a growing desire to wrap himself in a woolen blanket.

He waited at the freeway turn-on, marveling at the messy air and car cavalcade. How anyone of note might conclude such a configuration represented human progress was beyond his ability to comprehend, and he shrugged, since ultimately, nobody ever asked his opinion when it came to such weighty matters.

He was given the green arrow to turn left, but upon lowering his foot lightly onto the accelerator, he saw a black balloon of a Mercedes Benz float from the right into what was, by law, his intersection. The driver stared directly into his face with black eyes and a scowl. “Devils,” Jordan thought again. The Benz seemed to accelerate through the crossway for a brief moment and Jordan hit the gas only to note a sudden and complete halt in the Mercedes’ progress. J-man’s mind ordered his foot to step on the brake, but in one of those inexplicable occurrences that are as much a part of life as lurking inexplicable devils, the foot, for reasons only it knows, chose the gas pedal instead. The car bucked into the black beast. The damage was to the left rear quarter-panel and of tiny dimension.

All of this was accompanied by the attendant burning rubber screech and k-thunk of fender-benders the world over. “Dammit,’ Jordan yelled out as he looked down at his right foot in disbelief at the cruel betrayal. Initial sentiments were concerned with his lack of auto insurance coverage because if they ticket you for that, you can’t get traffic school. They don’t offer it. It was a consideration calibrated to the goings-on of everyday life, but alas, this moment was not to be run-of-the-mill in any sense for this chapter’s ill-starred subject.

Jordan looked up in time to see three sinister sprites bound toward him in a way particular to the truly young. Their raiment corresponded to current kidswear and was calculated to frighten the bejeezus out of nice and orderly people. Not that Jordan was either, but he was still scared. His window was open and gave the driver a clear line to his head, which he (the driver) took, hitting it with considerable force at the temple. It was the kind of blow that might kill a person; just not this time.

J. was, of course, stunned. The usual slow-motion sense of unreality or hyper-reality, which are part and parcel of such moments, kicked-in so that the empty plastic soft-drink bottle with which another of the thugs was blasting him, seemed like a flee.

Back at the driver’s window, the first tormentor launched a blow toward his chin, but a slight evasion resulted in its landing at the throat, which turned out to be an improvement on the aggressor’s original intent.

Out the corner of his eye Jordan could see a third player in this drama jumping up and down on the hood of his ride, wreaking considerable damage as he did so. People all around were honking horns, although no one dared step out and set some remedy to the matter.

It was the white American’s worst nightmare: being caught on the nation’s byways in some disabled fashion that evened-out (somewhat anyway) the economic advantages held over envious minorities. Thugs of superior physicality and violent tendencies had Jordan where they wanted him and that was not good. This was one of many thoughts racing through his mind as his head, back, neck and car hood were made depositories of an unfathomable rage. Jordan contorted himself enough to stick a foot into the driver’s chest – which qualified as something of a miscue – permitting as it did his nemesis to grab hold and twist him so that his head was vulnerable to the onslaught of what turned out to be a Gatorade bludgeon.

Still, and through a process he could never fully explain to the satisfaction of anyone, Jordan was able to get out of the car and lurch and hop around the crash site a few moments until the immediate peril was seemingly neutralized.

Upon closer inspection, and with a little time to breathe, Jordan was able to affix his attackers to the local Armenian community thanks to the t-shirt of one, which boasted the name of a familiar, ethnically based street gang. He was not heartened. They were, it seemed, very upset that he would deign to engage them in a car accident, as if choice had anything to do with it. J. inspected his body for bruises, of which there were many, while they barked on about the car being a “motherfuckin’ Mercedes man,” invoking some apparent waiver from roadway accidents not extended to lesser models and makes.

Jordan’s stream of “what the fucks?” and “are you guys crazys?” had slowed to a trickle when the Armenian Power gang (that was their name) realized they’d created a scene, a traffic jam, and ensured a visit by the police sure to do them in.

The driver looked at Jordan with an expression unmistakable for anything but what it was: antagonism by ethnicity. When whites discriminate and brutalize minorities, it is done with arrogance, an unconsciousness even, rooted in a sense of superiority, inherited legal advantage, stupidity, and more than a dash of fear. When a member of a minority returns the favor, it is the expression of a deep-rooted sense of being wronged. It is, in short, more vengeful than fearful and Jordan got a taste of this fucking privileged white guy sentiment when the driver suddenly busted his nose into a bloody fountain that speckled the snowy t-shirts of his attackers.

J. had never been punched in the nose before and was ill-prepared to ward off the blow since, even with everything that had happened up up to then, he didn’t suspect humanity capable of such antagonism (towards him personally).

The sight of blood everywhere – though mostly on Jordan’s face and soaked t-shirt – seemed to have a calming affect upon the assailants. Perhaps their lust had been sated. Perhaps it snapped them out of a manic state. Perhaps the reality was different from the violent records and films that had help shape and inform their reaction to the fender-bender.

As the traffic simmered and the horns moaned with impatience and a businessman flashed his cell phone at Jordan from a Cadillac, the kids would have had to be even stupider than they appeared to not realize how big the hole they’d been digging had grown. It was hot. The tar baked. A crowd of onlookers gathered. There was not a tree, a forgiving green lawn, a drop of softness in the whole scenario to soothe Jordan’s sense of just how harsh the world was at that moment. Despite being the obvious victim, he thought the situation all his doing. He deduced that through careless, imperceptible, yet incremental steps, he’d lowered himself out of the financial position his parents had worked so hard to put him in. His cash shortage was the root to which the entire lousy circumstance could be traced. Disdainful of authority and fiduciary matters all his adult life, Jordan now felt for himself the value of money his parents were always talking about it and which he dismissed so arrogantly, because they’d provided him with so much easy access to it. In short, and in that moment, he wanted his mommy and daddy.

“Shit,” one of the gang kids said examining his own bloody t-shirt. “muthafucka givin’ me AIDS and shit.”

A pair of security guards from a nearby hamburger stand arrived and from that moment the worst was over. A Latina woman in a white nurse’s uniform stepped down out of her minivan like an archangel from a B movie, bearing a white cloth which she handed to Jordan with the sentiment that she felt, “so sorry for jou.”

And that helped. A moment later a police cruiser rolled onto the scene. Jordan usually considered the police department as more an occupying army of mustachioed suburbanites than anything else, but was still glad to see them.

What the police saw was a bloody-faced and inoffensive looking white guy with a sheet to his nose and a bunch of rough-looking toughs from the neighborhood sitting coolly on a black Mercedes. It was discrimination time and with good reason. The cops tarried not a moment with Jordan as they bore in on the Armenian Power group – some of whom they probably recognized and probably needed an offense such as this to jail them. The kids were hardly afraid of the officers and rebuffed their initial queries with wise-guy shrugs and smart-aleck answers.

But there are far too many ways of getting arrested in America for such cool detachment to be of much use except in a movie about coolly detached wise-guys and smart-alecks. And that made it simple for the men in blue.

“License,” one of the sun-glassed policemen demanded. When nobody could produce what had been asked for he barked out, “Driving without a license. Cuff ‘em. Call the towing service and tell ‘em to come get daddy’s car.”

These boys had been cruising their own ethnic turf, keeping it pure from others of different background and as such found themselves with a lot of friends surrounding the cordoned-off accident site. A helicopter had stationed itself overhead so that everything said was said at a high volume. – yelled out if you will – which only infused the situation with greater tension. An angry middle-aged man stepped into the fray, informing the police that these handcuffed boys had acted in self-defense.

The cops looked at a forlorn Jordan for only the second time since stumbling into this mess and, although they weren’t buying it, were compelled by prior humiliations at the hands of good defense lawyers to record the man’s testimony.

A female officer handled the duty of interrogating Jordan who presented her with an account most faithful to everything written above. The dreaded question about auto insurance popped up.


Under normal circumstances, a heavy-handed citation would have been issued, followed by years of increased fees from his actuarial. But, mercifully, the lady officer moved onto the question of whether he needed an ambulance or not. With everything going on, Jordan still remembered the expensive ride he’d taken to county medical not too many days before and – although he had a desire to be obliging – answered “No” for the second time in as many questions.

A third cop asked the man who’d defended the boys for identification and soon determined that he was the Mercedes driver’s father. “Get the hell outta here before I arrest you, too.”

The crowd was growing surlier at the increasingly one-sided nature of this curbside justice and the cops decided to wrap things up downtown, as it were. “Get lost,” the lady officer told Jordan, who could have sworn it almost came out tenderly. J. went back to his car and settled behind the wheel. “Devils.” The plastic bottle lay there on the floor. He grabbed it and stepped out. Approaching the rather chastened trio leaning handcuffed against their beloved Mercedes Benz, he waved the bottle in its owner’s face. In response he got a question. “What are you gonna do about the Mercedes man?” Jordan, with the full complicity of law enforcement, slammed it bottom-down onto the hood, leaving further memento of their unfortunate rendezvous. “You don’t do this to people over a stupid car,” he screamed above the helicopter din. “It’s steel and glass, not bones and blood. Think about that while you’re sitting in jail,” he finished, fairly certain the porous epidermal layer of the local criminal justice system would perspire these rats back onto the streets in a matter of hours.


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