Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapters 19, 20, and 21

Chapter Nineteen

Corey found Randall brimming with energy and excitement although, as a counterpart in this dubious venture, he himself was more circumspect. “Let me get this straight.

You’re going to make a comeback from smoking. It’s going to be a brave story that will get all kinds of public attention and lend celebrity to you and, hence, the bum philosophy concept.”

“And then you’ll find ways to distribute it through the great information revolution and your knowledge of its tools.”

Corey sighed, “I need a cigarette.”

It was late, the crowd was thin with a few Spanish-speaking patrons, and so this subcommittee of the larger incorporation of co-smokers was permitted to sort out its affairs indoors. Although his wife was a smoker, Corey had hidden from her the extent of his Marlboros crush. There is an instinctive impulse in a wife to keep a husband healthy as possible so as to promote the achievement of their mutual success (as she envisions it). And so Corey was terrified Clarisse should learn of his new addiction/pleasure despite the unadorned truth she herself was a militant puffer.

His choice of tobacco product could be attributed wholly to marketing. The famed cowboys upon which Marlboro had staked its sales for what seemed like centuries hit Corey right where he hurt; in that place which told him there was something thoroughly inauthentic about his life.

It was part and parcel of a profound respect he and others from his generation had for an earlier edition of men who worked with their hands branding cows, beating sheet metal, and similar activities emblematic of a rough-and-tumble American life gone by.

Corey wished he were a cowboy and, well, what with all those giant billboards of Western folk in ten-gallon hats grimly gripping the stick between taught lips, Marlboro seemed like the next best thing.

It was a beginner’s smoke to be sure. In time, he’d move on to making something of a more personal statement with his choice of poison, just like his wife who, as we know, enjoyed daddy’s cigarettes – fucky stripes.

“It’s a beaut of an idea…how the hell did you come up with it?”

“Such are the rigors of bum philosophy. Sitting around, man, smoking and thinking, taking part in these dying arts. Realizing that the American leviathan, with tacit approval of the sacred majority has turned its fury upon smokers despite its earlier commiseration with the nicotine peddlers.”

“That’s true,” Corey concurred. “Used to be that big tobacco had a free hand in a hoodwinking and, I guess, murdering its customers.”

“Correct man, correct. Not to mention the invaluable aid of an addictive product and a lot of sexy salespeople. But that’s all over now you see. It’s gone the way of the epic national struggle, the forced departure for foreign borders, the escape by train to a renegade state’s protection.”

Randall clearly suffered from the same nostalgia for more adventurous, hands-on times Corey and Jordan did. “Now, the prior generation – a generation that largely enjoyed its fit of bacchic living – has decided its children will not. Theirs is the parsimony of reformed rakes and government at all levels is rife with the type; folks freaked out by the fact their lives have turned out just like everyone else’s before them.”

While Randall spoke, Corey stared at the cigarette, his hot new God, and marveled at the way it burned so quickly and evenly down the ivory shaft. “Yeah,” he jumped in, focused on the smoke lilting lightly, lifting. “They’re bummed that all the easy sex and rock music and banner-waving politics hasn’t saved them from the eternal stuff – marriage and mortgages. They’re just like everyone else has ever been.”

“Same as it ever was,” Randall chimed in for pop poetic effect. “The world has changed them more so than the other way around, which they had promised themselves would not happen. Now, man, you’ve got doctors of medicine, opinion-brokers, loquacious senators, attention-starved state attorneys general, commanders-in-chief fond of easy victories – and God knows who else man – joined in a rare display of public comity. That it isolates a minority for extinction never crosses their minds nor the minds of those suffering its consequences.

Much to his surprise, Corey was thoroughly enjoying the evening. The second cigarette – the one following the meal – was the first he had truly savored, ever; a sign his addiction was kicking-in nicely. The very fact of his smoking twisted him into a harmonic convergence with the hyper-thoughtful Randall and this exercise of chewing over (what seemed to him) certain larger questions afoot in the land was so rare as to be a form a flattery. He’d always been a safe citizen and never dreamed that trading off bits of his health would gain him access to the coolness of bohemia.

But wait. Thinking back on junior high school it all crystallized. Sure he could have. On any day Corey might have endured a few awkward moments of initiation by approaching the scruffy, long-haired, denim-wearing kids at the schoolyard baseball backstop and become a part of this time-honored western tradition. Then again, considering the strict nature of his parents, maybe not.

Anyhow it didn’t matter. The smoke was soothing, the conversation engaging, and his budding relationship with Randall evolving into an almost sensible proposition.

“So smokers,” the philosopher pressed on, “are subject to a strange ostracizing, especially when you consider that what they do is legal.”

“For now,” said Corey, which pleased Randall because they were in agreement on a fundamental point – that things were getting worse.

“That’s right man,” answered Randall, never one to let the conversation run too far out of his control. “And all of this that we’re saying would give my comeback a socially useful, progressive subtext where individual liberties are concerned.”

Corey was having so much fun that he pulled the conversation right back into his own mouth. “Sure, smoking’s unhealthy, but talk to me about how dangerous merely driving a car us. They won’t make that illegal.”

Establishing the protocol for what was to be a healthy partitioning of tasks between them, Randall tugged things back to his end of the table. “The anti-smoking campaign is marked by something less than reason and more like repression, man. A witch hunt!

Corey deeply admired Randall’s ability to tie up an argument with such aphorisms and it was at the root of his faith in the dandy’s ability to create an idea people would pay for.

Randall’s conclusion lent the meeting an air of historic importance. There they were, two insignificant thinkers at the outset of a crusade which, commercial pretensions aside, might set right a wrong visited upon American society by itself.

It was a nifty turn, this marriage of market device to things warm-and-soulful, and it probably wouldn’t work. Like most concepts put forth by braying young turks, it was an old one that had proven more elegant on paper than in practice.

Still, Corey reasoned mightily that, even if they were to fail financially, their career trajectories might actually gain a kind of historic arc.

He was beginning to think like an artist in his craving for the attention of unknown persons, which is what usually happens. In fact, one of two things can occur in such couplings of head and heart (from different bodies). Either the logical man is thoroughly undermined by the texture of an artistic life, or the logical man crushes the delicate disorder of the artist’s existence. It cannot be otherwise, the power of one being spiritual and intangible, that of the other, material, tactile, and rooted in real-time.

Perhaps such thoughts occupied each man as the restaurant was slowly enveloped in the ghosts of the Tango King, Gardel. It was dark and golden brown and wooden. The dinner was accented with almonds and capers, seared beef and beads of reflected candlelight shivering to burst from the mirrors constraining them.

There was a melancholy violin being played by a fellow with a beard, drawing his bow across diners’ flaccid heartstrings, his face accenting the feelings he presented.

He was accompanied by a man on a keyboard that made more sounds than it was fair for a legitimate musical instrument to do, but who, in any case, ably performed the task of providing brooding backdrops to the violinist’s circles of sadness. The other customers were also absorbed in the amber energy. Some watched the players, some the drifting strains of their cigarettes’ death. Others reflected into the deep purple pleadings of their glasses of medium-priced Cabernet. A woman burned the tips on a lock of her hair in a candle. And all of it was the good alchemy that almost always affects love and food and war and poesy.

“It’s all in the mix,” Randall bum-philosophized, “and the mix is very much luck. A little bit of this and a bittle lit of that.”

Clearly not the cigarette talking. Corey thought it best to pull Randall in if he could and get to the point. “But what the hell is it that you plan to do? I mean, how are you going to make it all work?”

“I’m still sorting it out, but basically I’m going to almost ruin myself with smoking. I’m going to smoke and smoke and smoke until I hit a tailspin. You, meanwhile, will be drawing peoples’ attention to it. You’re the plumber kiddo, the salesman; exaggerating the drama as much as possible. We’ll create a storyline of personal tragedy that people can witness, watch me wallow, pilloried by the same forces that will eventually trumpet my comeback.”

You need a plan in life. The wine, the smoke, the heavy meat, the need to find a way of succeeding all served to mute Corey’s skepticism regarding how Randall would achieve such dramatic results with something quite so subtle as a cigarette. But he asked, “It’s not heroine you know, cigarette smoke. You’re talking a lot of smoking and you still might be fine for a long time.”

“I’m still working that out, too,” Randall admitted. “You must remember, Corey, the great ideas only look solid and unimpeachable in hindsight. There was no map for them and the zany trips of painful discovery their creators took through the carnival of the world.”

Corey noticed how the place had emptied out and he extinguished a Marlboro that should have been put to death at least two minutes earlier. Randall took the signal and wound down his discourse. “We need people we don’t even know. How’s that for cruelty?”

Corey was no philosopher, but the evening had kick-started sleeping parts of his brain to strenuous exertion. “Maybe it’s not cruelty at all. Maybe that’s what brings people together.”

And in saying so he demonstrated the positive outlook of the business-inclined person with a beat on where the money is, and for whom the question of death is to be dealt with at a much later date.

Chapter Twenty

Jordan was driving and ruminating on the news Joya had shocked him with regarding her (as they say) sexual proclivities. He was thinking about how all the guys in the little group (and God knows who else) were falling head over for this gal who, odds had it, would never be interested in any them.

All of which was kind of common around town, for Joya was what they called a Lipstick Lesbian. Without wandering too far through the minefield that gay culture can be for the moderately indoctrinated, let stand the observation that this thriving local fauna (The Lipsticks, that is) struck some observers as representing a step up (or forward) in the social evolution of female homosexuality. The ladies’ predecessors, thrust into the role of trailblazing rebels, projected a necessary surfeit of anger as response to those who disapproved of the way they satisfied themselves between the sheets, or wherever. Which is to say they had a lot of attitude. They wore their sexuality on their sleeves, made it speak in political strophes, and this yielded some very catchy slogans.

But that was all over (for the most part). Blessed with the space carved out for them by these more graceless antecedents, Joya’s class of girl-girl lovers was of a completely different public profile. Cosmetically, the toughness had been excised and style lines settled along the standard pretty girl requirements. They came awfully close to a lesbianism injected into the male psyche by certain magazines that cooked up exciting visual scenarios of delicate young women pleasuring each other.

Jordan was thinking all of this stuff when he noticed a low-set car with four heads bobbing in it. Fearfully, he slowed down, lamenting the proliferation of Armenian gang members throughout the city.

In the abject, terror-filled aftermath of his beating, the immediate effect on Jordan’s world view resulted in a blanket condemnation, hatred even, for Armenians and everything they touched. This was heightened by the fact that his story, despite the helicopter overhead and the traffic jam that had inconvenienced thousands, had never been picked up by local news outlets. His sense of injustice, already inflamed at the hammering itself, had been piqued to a fine-tuning. Jordan believed he had been the product of a reverse discrimination; that had it been an Armenian pounded into hamburger meat by three suburban college grads, the news would have burned across the prairie in minutes.

He returned to more pleasant thoughts on The Lipsticks and of how they had confidently stepped out of the sexual ghettoes to move assuredly through the alcoholic watering holes and gastronomic grazing places frequented by the larger population of crossfuckers.

And, to get to the point, you couldn’t tell they were lesbians. They didn’t make a big show of kissing or holding hands. They were very relaxed.

Uninterested in men, The Lipsticks were not threatened by them, either. Instead, they interacted openly and frankly. The duller sex, in the dark, was drawn to their sexiness and too surprised at their engaging, fun-loving ways to be suspicious.

Other women, such as Yvonne, not picking up lesbian signals, were left vulnerable to the marvelous flavor that laced the air around these exotics.

The low-riding car with four heads was moving so slow as to cause Jordan’s car to cough for lack of gas as he insisted upon a healthy distance between them.

None of the above (and certainly not the Armenian material) is meant to suggest that Joya – delightful and unaffected as she was – was so innocent as to be unaware of the affect her novelty sexuality was having upon those around her.

She was quite aware, and what’s more, thought nothing of finding advantage in it.

Savvy, she skirted the line between flirtation and outright provocation so perfectly that she was rarely accused of romantic betrayal (although Jordan could not help but feel just a bit stung). More common was the sense of slight to the fact that Joya had refused to fuck them, physically. For we must never forget the extent to which perfectly normal-appearing people are damaged and twisted in ways strange enough to invite their own misery as satisfaction. The lanky blonde knew this, too. One time, upon being informed an admirer was crying over her untimely exit, she matter-of-factly responded: “That’s what girls do.” Lipsticks could say things like this about women (publicly and for the record) that men were no longer permitted, and this honesty restored a lost balance to the running commentary on the sexes, their relations with opposites, and between themselves.

With his car practically stalling from fuel deprivation and the driver behind prodding him with less-than-polite taps of the horn, Jordan decided to make a break for it and blast by the four heads in that low-riding death machine. That his vehicle was ill-suited to such feats of speed and braggadocio became all too clear and J., not given to material covetousness, again considered the myth of a well-paying corporate job as his wreck labored past the haunting automotive specter.

Among the things he did not know yet was that her barley-and-oats-beauty notwithstanding, Joya was as afraid as the next girl. There was fear of her situation as a gay woman in a world unfriendly enough as it was to females who were not gay.

Generous, her fear was for all beings, four-legged, black-skinned or even – and in this she was radical – the white guy. Yes, the world could be, no, was a cold and unforgiving place and she, a spawning salmon of ideas, must needs swim upstream to where an edge could be taken.

Joya was a survivor. Yet she survived in the most natural of ways, without any unseemly scratching and clawing.

She never confessed her age and possessed a certain bouquet of womanliness signifying a vintage ranging anywhere from 20 to 40 and which was no help in unlocking any of the many secrets that floated around this woman like a full-bodied halo, burned off by vanilla bean and jungle spice.

The racing sentiments caused Jordan to ramp-up to a respectable 65-miles-per-hour clip and he drew even with the low-riding car. He could not resist stealing a glance at the cancerous samplings of Armenian ganghood and prepared the appropriate scowl before turning. What he saw were four smiling elderly people cruising an old Dodge
Dart in dire need of new suspension at a speed folks in their age group are known to torment the rest of the populace with.

Chapter Twenty-one

It was a tech mixer. Yvonne casually ran her catering crew through its well-trained and disciplined paces.

As it is for so many of us, the thing Yvonne made her money doing was insufficient to engaging the full level of her intelligence. On this day she was bored and more in search of a man than anything else. The question of why was one she would not have been able to answer.

And anyhow it didn’t matter, for she was at the mixer and the mixer is the matter under observation.

When it comes to questions of class, men find themselves willing to transcend all barriers (downward) where women are concerned. By her own self-critical standards Yvonne considered herself something of a server of people, underemployed, no matter how many times her acumen as a broker of tastes and small business person was lauded. She felt a server because she was made to by her clients. Compounding this annoyance was the fact she was a pretty server, which triggered all manner of dark impulses in others. And so powerful men might lower themselves to talk with her, but she was not a prep school girl and was ever-mindful of the reasons why.

The attendees were coifed, current men of industry, such as it was, and able to talk movies and certain popular books. They were largely of a common generation, save for a few patrician septuagenarians doddering about, still airing-out their avarice. A typical conversation between herself and men of this gauge was limited to three or four forms, at least two of them being about money. They were way too much like one another and Yvonne shivered. The grown-up world was just like high school with everyone fearful of the terrible swelling sea of ideas, hiding in each other’s shadow.

She decided to step outside the hotel at which this compendium was being held for a smoke.

Corey, also on hand, although proactively in search of contacts and information, was running his own critical commentary on the mixer through his own mind.

For him the gathering was made up of a generation that had been a spoiled and, paradoxically, ambitious one. The big trucks they drove, the cut-cool suits, the perfect blend of tempered maturity coupled with a waggish, insistent youthful presence were all hallmarks. It was an envied and criticized generation, selfishness being the primary accusation. But in their defense it should be noted that the prerogatives they were jealous of were prerogatives granted by the same elders now so outspoken in their desire to revoke them.

Corey, who was working his way through unconscious meets and greets at the side of the room opposite Yvonne, decided he, too, wanted a cigarette. And so, through the shared burdens of pleasure and addiction, a unique alliance was formed within the intense political workings that were the primary substance of this club of smokers.

Her immediate response was a wide and bright smile so spontaneous and genuine that it served to remind the worst curmudgeon of how beguiling humanity can be and – despite everything – worthy of our love.

“Hey,” Corey smiled under her irresistible warmth. He snapped his fingers for effect and said, “Yvonne, right?” She was used to being remembered and dismissed the finger-snap as evidence that he found her cute and was hiding the fact (which he was).

It was mentioned earlier that, in addition to this empowering self-belief, Yvonne possessed a trait crucial to success in the velvet jungle our cast of players moved about in – persistence.

When her fortune depended upon the graces of another, as they do for all of us, that person became the object of an onslaught so relentless as to reduce their reticence to empty essence. She called and visited and sent flowers in such a shameful way that her actions became transparent, which made them seem honest and (almost) alright. She eliminated the element of judgment from the gatekeeper’s decision-making process. She eliminated, in fact, the whole process. She was 100 percent confident of her eventual, total success. In such a hurry was she that obstacles were embraced and anticipated, because they clearly represented the next step.

Yvonne lived like a violent and speedy video game in which you must quickly process a few options before deciding which of the fast-approaching ghouls to blow away.

And since this drive towards all things she wanted career-wise was usually successful, Yvonne had never gotten it into her head that the same approach does not always work when it comes to love. That, in fact, such an approach is actually antipathetic to the intertwining of two erotic forces.

But back to the couple. “How are yous” were exchanged and niceties before the conversation moved into deeper realms of interest.

“So,” she asked pretty-as-you-please, “how’s your little club?”


“Yeah, all those people you hang out with on the sidewalk outside restaurants smoking cigarettes. Your sidewalk smoking club.”

Let it be recorded how the name – the finished idea – was born with Yvonne (following a tiny adjustment) and also that Corey’s passion for her began, in earnest, with the sharing of a cigarette.

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