Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapters 22, 23, and 24

Chapter Twenty-two

Jordan had a parking ticket and a loan he wanted to pay quickly so that Joya didn’t think he was turned-off by the fact she was lesbian (which she was not at all worried about). He asked for extra hours at Java World and was surprised to learn how such graces were not so easily granted. His boss had some doubts about J.’s appearance, which was presently marred by a shiner under each eye from the Armenian fist his face had run into. Again, the victim is getting the blame. In Jordan’s case it was a subtle thing. Obviously he’d been the object of some very rough treatment and this somehow stained him with the darkness of his tormentors. He begged and cajoled without going into the financial difficulties, correctly reckoning that it could only further diminish his stature in the employer’s eyes.

The boss finally gave in so that Jordan, making just below what we call a “living wage,” was now working some 12 hours a day – minus time for cigarette breaks – foaming up cappuccinos, tossing Caesar salads, and running to the refrigerator for soy milk in cases where the regular stuff ran afoul of the dairy repellent whom, in turn, ran afoul of everyone else.

The long hours tested his patience, for retail is a very, as they say “people-oriented” business, and people – even when your heart bursts with warmth for humanity as does J.’s – can be a real pain in the ass.

“Choice,” Jordan learned again and again, is a highly valued consumer commodity and no amount of choice can satiate the desire for more choice. Filling the vast hole that exists in modern life is an endless variety of the same products.

At Java World, there were 43 different kinds of “drinks” (as such concoctions were dubbed in the little coffeehouse universe). In addition to the standard latte, cappuccino, and house-blend – all of which could be had with the aforementioned soy milk, no-fat, or low-fat, or fatty milk – were a variety of pure espresso servings in accelerating doses up to four shots, the effect of which was just this side a line of cocaine.

There was a “Raspberry Chocolate Truffle,” combining sugar from chocolate and sugar from raspberry syrup and sugar from the whipped crème over a base of black tar squeezed out from the imported Italian coffeemaker. There was, too, the “Supreme Orange Dream,” bane of the American Diabetes Association; a complicated labor requiring an orange invariably ordered up by three daughters of a local business luminary in the middle of the Sunday morning crush – and nobody else.

Did the boss need to cater in such a way to one small family? If they came 52 Sundays a year he did.

“Fifty-two weeks a year times three Supreme Orange Dreams, Jordan,” the boss barked. “Do the math.” Ah the math. Learn the math kiddies.

The rare person who came into the coffee shop and asked for a “coffee” always caused the staff to turn toward the counter in surprise. There was never a shortage of people asking for something not offered on the multi-colored chalkboard behind the baristas; people who exasperated Jordan to no end so that things did not always go smoothly on his shift. One workout queen asked for a no-fat, de-caff latte without foam and he presented her with an empty cup. The sly humor escaped her. Two other young ladies drove him crazy with nearly ten minutes of personal requests until he let the term “Barbies” slip from his lips at the cash register.

For these infractions of the-customer-is-always-right golden rule he was mildly upbraided by his employer who – despite a vested interest in the clientele’s temporary happiness – was not too far-removed from Jordan’s opinions after years of serving folks food and libations.

Jordan’s job was made much easier by the presence of Carlos. This transplant of Zacatecas state had the place wired. He was the first to arrive in the morning. In his possession would be a giant bag of fresh bagels picked up on the way in and a single small bag with a garlic bagel, for a particular customer who requested the same thing every day.

Which brings up another matter. Until he had been reduced to working at the coffee shop, Jordan had never fully understood the extent to which certain people are creatures of grinding, never-changing habit.

But back to Carlos. He was trusted with opening the cash register, while Jordan was relegated to setting up the plastic tables and chairs outdoors and whipping the heavy crème with sugar. Whereas Jordan often grew flustered and walked away when the rush of people needing a fix became overwhelming, Carlos was an island of calm. Alternately coaxing patience from the clientele and cranking out quality drinks at breakneck pace, he simultaneously directed other staffers in the toasting of bagels and slicing of tomatoes until the consumer-produced panic had finally subsided. Indispensable to the business he was paid a minimum wage, which did not permit him to feed a family and pay his bills, as reward. He did not, however, complain about such things.

Rather inversely, something in the Zacatecan sowed a seed of pity for the misplaced, almost middle-aged white guy with no wife and no kids, and made sure little harm or stress ever flowed Jordan’s way. He did it for Jordan and he did it for himself, mindful of the fact his boss was truly glad to have someone who wasn’t Mexican serving his overwhelmingly white clientele. There are enclaves; places made up of particular kinds of people, sometimes called communities, other times cultures, more times cliques. And every time a customer asked that he or one of the other Mexicans employed at Java World not prepare their food, Carlos knew he was in an enclave, a community, a clique not his own.

Anyhow, when Carlos saw the condition of Jordan’s face he knew the score exactly.

There are almost too many ways to damage one’s visage, but he recognized a good beating by fist when he saw one. If Jordan had been in a car accident and smashed his face into the windshield he might not have projected the pungent residue of sheer fear which washed over Carlos like bandwaves from a radio tower. “Jou got beet up, eh?”

“How could you tell?”

“Fuck up jou nose pretty good anh?”

"Do ya have to restate the obvious?”

Carlos loved the erudition Jordan offered up in his simple, machine-gun-fast rejoinders. It was an English he was not accustomed to hearing and the Zacatecan listened closely to each and every droll muttering. For unlike those mostly spoiled members of The Sidewalk Smokers Club, Carlos possessed the newly arrived immigrant’s gut understanding that America was, with a little self-improvement, essentially out there for whomever wanted it. That there were things for the taking. That thrift, hard work, and other of the old church-girl virtues were held in a higher estimation than any kind of altruistic, communal sense of belonging, or caring, or what have you. That you dreamed for yourself and so he wanted to learn.


“Armenian Power.”

Carlos laughed. Pitched in a daily struggle to survive, subject of an entirely anti-intellectual dominion, he was not held to the standards of universal harmony and political oversight the college-educated were. As such, his reaction was a pure and unfettered racial one. “Chinga los Armenios,” he said with a recoiled smirk for spitting. In fact, he had to step outside and relieve his mouth of the sour saliva summonsed from his glands by mere thoughts of Armenian gang members. Stepping back in, Carlos inquired as to the particulars of the assault, which clearly fascinated him, all the while nodding familiarly. Jordan got the sense his coworker was something of an expert in the varieties and techniques utilized by different criminal cells across the region: a kind of military scientist to the gang world.

Something in him felt comforted by this sharing with a colleague – such as he was.

His own crew did not want to be darkened by his misfortune. He made them think about their problems and Randall believed that when you think about your problems, they become problems. Carlos, by contrast, took Jordan’s recounting in stride, mindful of what such violence means, but aware that Jordan had been spared any tangible tragedy. This is what comforted Jordan, the expert opinion which, without saying a thing, made clear that all was well and that such threats hang over those less fortunate than himself – woman, child, the flowering and fading alike – all the time in the places where people like Carlos lived. He was grateful to know Carlos in that moment and he returned his mind to the hospital bed for a moment, filled with a deeper comprehension for his roommate there and the obvious agony felt by those family members who came to see him motivated by love and concern.

Carlos’ fellow-feeling got the best of him and he transcended a barrier common to whites and their minority servants by confiding in Jordan. “I have un cuerno de chivo in my car.” J. did not possess the linguistic tools to grasp what this meant, and so he shrugged in the same confidential and knowing way Carlos had done to that point. “Jou wann see?”

It was early, the shop had been promptly and efficiently appointed for the morning’s rush. Their boss had not yet arrived to gum up the works with his requisite hour of personal engagement with the customers. Jordan didn’t know what he was agreeing to, but was also caught up in the deeper level of camaraderie that suddenly existed between the men. Now they had two things in common.

So they went out to Carlos’ car, an extremely well cared-for El Camino (there are grains of truth to stereotypes) with attendant embellishments particular to Mexican-American culture, which will not be described here in deference to the etiquette which frowns upon the highlighting of such idiosyncracies by someone of distinct origin.

The flatbed contained a lockbox chained up to the rear of the cab. Carlos opened it and there, unadorned before Jordan’s eyes lie an AK-47 rapid fire rifle – in all its gleaming muscularity.

“That’s a machine gun,” Jordan said with a tone normally saved for utterance before great works of art or slain persons. Carlos nodded. “Jou know I’m a very well known cholo in Inglewood.” Jordan nodded in the affirmative although he had not known anything of the kind.

Carlos read his thoughts. “Jeh, I teld you it once already.”

“So,” Jordan moved on, “why do you call it that?”

Cuerno de chivo?”

“Right, cuerno de chivo,” Jordan was able to roll his “rrrrr’ in cuerno thanks to a trick once taught him by a short-lived relationship with a Latina girlfriend. Carlos was not impressed. He wiped his hand across the curved magazine of the firearm. “Goat’s Horn,” he smiled, a happy pirate.

“Ah,” was the best J. could do.

There was a pause as they admired the instrument of death. It was, Jordan thought, an advertisement for good killing. It lay upon a delicate piece of chamois, which Carlos pulled free and used it to erase smudges with a tenderness usually reserved by a mother for her child. He shook it fluffy and placed it underneath the gun anew.

He turned the lid down and secured the lockbox. “So, I’m telleen jou now, eef jou eber wantto get dose guys, jou tell me and cuerno de chivo is for dem.” Jordan wasn’t sure if Carlos was offering to lend him the gun. This would have been of little use since he hadn’t the first idea of how such a thing worked, although if pressed in a pinch he’d start with the trigger. His comrade in street fighting once again read his mind. “I am fast with these. Jou wanto get dem, I go with jou.”

So fresh in his mind was the adrenaline-pumped fear and anger which Jordan had felt just two days before that he almost set a date and time by which he and Carlos would cruise neighborhoods surrounding the scene of the crime (as it were) and lay bloody waste to the three assholes who had made his sleep a difficult a place to be. But his desire for a return to the normal and grinding life he’d once known got the best of him and he responded with a simple, but heartfelt, “Thanks Carlos. I’ll let you know if it comes to that.”

Chapter Twenty-three

Randall was working on a new installation to his signature work seeking that elusive and common link between all humans.

“Our problems makes us one,” was the root idea. He was presently working out the related premise that money was a social dissolvent because (according to bum philosophy): “When you have money, you don’t need people.”

He was talking about eliminating the trading-off of one’s emotional self in exchange
for help (with whatever). When you had money you just paid for help and dispensed with professions of camaraderie or promises to return the favor. Money pushed people away from one another.

It was a bitter bum philosophy, for Randall, it must be pointed out (again), was broke and stagnated in his dream by the lack of money his philosophical investigations had produced. And he was harsh against the rich for not sharing more with the literary community in particular.

Meanwhile, he had just purchased a series of different tobacco products with which he planned to plunge his person into perdition. And he was doing it alone, not unlike a crackhead or heroine junky too far-gone to be joined in the trip by someone close.

The radio was running and an ambitious city attorney with his eye on the mayoralty was conducting a press conference regarding an investigation into the cruel death of the old lady at county hospital. It was now widely suspected that her demise had been at the hands of a monster the papers had begun to call the “Angel Without Mercy” supposedly lurking in the hospital’s halls for some time now. The hospital denied this was the case, but the city attorney claimed to have in his possession information to the contrary and, given the hospital’s size and wealth, the public seemed inclined to believe him, even as he concealed this proof under the guise of an “ongoing investigation.”

“And war is peace,” Randall muttered, taking issue with the appellation “Angel Without Mercy.” In his view, plug-pullers were fountains of mercy and that their prosecution would, ultimately, be rendered anachronistic. Someday, helping those who wanted to die do so would evolve from an illegal exercise into a very normal procedure. He did not think that so crude a modus operandi as that employed by the Angel possessed dignity, but what choice was there?

The Angel’s sin lay in the fact the act was illegal and nothing more. Randall began to think about laws and quickly concluded them to be very dangerous things. He mused over all the people throughout history who had been pilloried, jailed, or killed for breaking laws later wiped off the books as being awful or irrelevant. There were some good laws, to be sure, but they were hardly ever put to use in creating the justice they promised.

“There are,” he scribbled, “good laws, but nobody uses them.”

He thought about smoking laws. And he reasoned that twisting justice to please the person at the other end of a room from a cigarette was a dishonest representation and well, an injustice to the idea of justice.

Then he went and got the mail, put all the bills aside for a much later date when he was famous, and was left with a “Private Policy” statement from his automobile insurance company which the legislature had forced him into a business relationship with.

A law had required the actuary to issue the privacy statement and a considerable number of trees were made to suffer as a result. It was the same law that allowed the company to operate in the financial arena, something that had been prohibited some 70 years or so ago when the arrangement had gotten a lot of people, innocent and otherwise, into a lot of trouble. Few remembered and those that did were not permitted much say in this arcane matter affecting the lives of countless, blissful millions.

“Dear Randall,” it said, “We take your personal privacy seriously,” and went on to explain, briefly, the law which obligated the company to take his privacy seriously, hinted at future fiduciary pitches and closed with a reminder that, “privacy has always been important to us.” Some authoritative-sounding words like “organizational,” “digital,” and “safeguards” had been sprinkled throughout.

These were to ease the minds of those who feared the insurer would share information about their drunk driving record with the person who was deciding whether to dole out a 30-year mortgage to them. There was another sentence and one after that with the word “computer” in it to drive home the point that Randall’s information was safe, never mind the fact it was precisely the computer that threatened to compromise it.

He realized that if he kept on in this vein, the world would dissolve itself on his tongue like wisps of cotton candy. It could do that, big as it was. And so he stopped himself because he wanted bum philosophy to reach and activate the many bums living lives presently isolated from a creed that would make them the most happy. He wanted the thing to be practical and accessible; primary criteria at the retail level.

And this was bum philosophy’s greatest virtue; that it aspired to so little.

He was a long way from any organized essay on the tenet regarding money and the manner in which it does away with the necessity for dealing with people, but that was okay too, because beyond the initial utterance, there wasn’t much to say. It spoke to itself and invited the most lazy of minds to chew on something very much in the mix. He lit up again. There was a sandpaper feel to the back of his throat, a mere scratch on the skin of his robust constitution. He would, tomorrow, consider upping the dosage or lowering the quality of his smoke so as to hasten disaster along.

Chapter Twenty-four

Clarisse was still sitting around brooding over the Trixie Marie show.

She had not gone, of course, to the opening night party. And, of course, nobody had noticed, least of all Trixie Marie, but Clarisse was hardly free from the antiquated prejudices of her homeland and rested assured that her rival had taken offense at her absence.

Within the 19th Century rules Clarisse adhered to, when you absented yourself from a social gathering, you were saying something to the hostess, mostly that you were withholding enthusiastic approval. In the 21st Century city in which she was presently residing, where the gallery event was characterized by wine in plastic cups and a clientele interested as much in the potential for some dirty sex as the art, the gesture amounted to less than an Indian head nickel. If Trixie Marie had noticed the snub at all, it would have been in a new world way, not an old world one.

Anyhow it didn’t matter. Clarisse's house of clouds was no less wispy than those constructed by any of us so that we might get through the day.

She’d gone to the gallery at midday, in between lunch and dinner shifts. Like a furniture world Garbo, Clarisse wore sunglasses and dressed down so as not to draw attention, but then scotched her anonymity by lighting up a Lucky Strike inside the gallery. The owner cast a half-hearted glance of disapproval over in Clarisse’s direction, but was unwilling to fulfill her duty as an auxiliary police person in the war on smoke. Clarisse after all, might be a potential customer and there was no reason to cut things short before they even got started.

She was crestfallen. Trixie Marie’s show was astounding. Clarisse’s trained eye saw the leaps in growth made since the prior exhibit, which she had not liked at all.

She admitted with stunned horror that it was a breakout collection bound to garner its creator both critical acclaim and financial reward. Clarisse knew it because this was the kind of ensemble she had dreamed of putting together for what had become, unfortunately, years now.

These are life’s realities, the ones that have nothing to do with movies and television shows where adversity is battled in a series of rapid-fire montage shots and triumph is just a romantic relationship away from becoming a crowning reality.

Yvonne’s happy rules don’t apply here. This is where the person with more talent or more connections or more luck or more of all three takes the lead. The person who does not have these advantages at their disposal gets hit with the reality like a two-by-four to the cranium. She stared admiringly at the pieces before her and took a lesson in construction from a woman she’d long considered her lesser, a woman who, through a quiet and steadfast industriousness, had imposed her vision upon the community. Clarisse, by contrast, barely got to her studio for a cleanup job and some idea-sketches let alone morph into the human wood-and-glue-assembling machine her rival had.

Her shoulders slumped. Clarisse knew that somewhere, between tending to her failing marriage, serving tables, and waiting around for the sun to shine upon her for no particular reason other than that she wanted it to, a lot of time had been wasted.

Time her rival had demonstrated could, in fact, be put to good use.

The gallery owner, with little else to do, had interpreted the visitor’s body language and come to certain conclusions about the purpose of the visit. Each vocation being a world of limited players, she felt the sad and mysterious girl in her establishment seemed familiar. Clarisse reached mechanically for another Lucky Strike and struck a match only to be shaken out of her self-pity by the lofty mid-Atlantic accent of the gallerykeeper who said, “Miss, I’m going to have to ask you to smoke that outside.”

Clarisse really wasn’t in the mood for anybody’s shit and said it this way: “Escuse me?” with an arch to her eyebrows that expressed much more than the utterance itself. Recognizing the intemperate nature of an unconsecrated artist, the gallery keeper recovered her superior form. “You’ll have to smoke that outside. This is, after all, a furniture gallery and there is much in it that is flammable.”

“You sound like de author of thees book,” Clarisse responded and, when this failed to alter the narrative’s course, lit the cigarette, puffed fully, released completely, and strode past. “Fock you,” she said, egged-on by the requirements of drama to establish a new layer of personality with this rather uncharacteristic utterance.

She stepped out to the corner of the street. Her angularity, her svelte package, the clean cut of her clothes, the high-nose of her lowlands pedigree and, yes, her cigarette, made her the object of much desire in the few men who passed in the next moments. They dreamed of her as some kind of ideal – someone who might shake their lives of lethargy and infuse them with adventure – and as we know could not have been farther off the mark.

One of those men was a short Mexican with a white, straw cowboy hat and boots like Joya’s on his way to work as a leaf-blower for a landscaper. The other was an old guy, bald on top, alone in life, who’d purposely lost the capacity to appreciate something quite so divine as Clarisse so as not to suffer the kind of longings she was provoking. It didn’t work. If Clarisse’s potent sexuality has not been dwelled upon to this point, it is because it was never quite so apparent as in this moment when the best of her nature caused a defiant back-arching as response to the raw adversity confronting her, a courageous nonchalance in her savoring that thing sticking out of her mouth.

All of which was running through Randall’s mind as he sat at an outdoor café, just across the street from the gallery (these two types of establishments tending to cluster near one another as they do), savoring Clarisse in a manner not much different than she was applying to her smoke.

It was only lunchtime, but it had been a big day for Randall. He’d worked his way through half a pack of his special Canadian-cut butts – more than double his daily intake – and was discovering that not only did he feel great, but that he looked it.

Adding historical weight to these more personal concerns, it should be noted that he had purchased a magazine but an hour before and… on second thought, let’s get to that a little further on. He left his seat at the café marked by his belongings from alien incursion. He approached Clarisse who, in her distraction, never saw him coming. “Great show, huh?” The remark was made, not in innocence, but in complete calculation. He knew something of her ambitions, had seen the show, and comprehended the undertow dragging her through a private hell. His intention was to clarify her own thoughts about the challenge ahead because that, in the end, is what friends are for.

“Yes,” she smiled in a tepid way.

“Experience in the spectacle is the only spectacle anymore.”

Well, it’s a sexy thing when a guy can read right through your feelings and then help you justify them.

“Boom philosophy,” she tried to sneer.

“Too good for that,” he countered.

And it’s another sexy thing when a guy can make a little joke of himself and disarm a woman of the most potent tool at her disposal. Which is to say Randall had shut her up.

“Okay look,” he ventured, “I don’t want to shortcut your self-absorption man, but I’ve got something that will definitely mark this day as an interesting one. C’mon, lemme buy you a latte.”

She had no reason to resist, had been teased by the dramatist’s simple presentation of the as-yet-undisclosed matter, and followed him back to his table with a simple shrug. He took off his sunglasses and arched his eyebrows for fun and suspense and sat. He reached down and threw a glossy magazine on the table. Its texture and composition immediately tipped Clarisse off to the fact it was filled with pictures of naked women and she wondered if a mistake had not been made in following Randall who, for all she knew, might be some kind of murderous pervert. Not having the best eyes, and having attended Trixie Marie’s show without her contact lenses, Clarisse looked at the magazine without processing. She shrugged.

“Look closer,” he said and stabbed the cover with his forefinger. “Who does that remind you of?”

The girl on the cover wore a polka dot bikini and was pulling at its elastic. When Clarisse got to the face, which took some time given the monumental body her eyes had to climb, she thought that it reminded her of Yvonne – a little younger – but Yvonne.

“Eet remind me of Eevonne.”

“Look closer.”

“Eet still remind me of Eevonne.”

“It is Yvonne.”

She stared at him long and hard before saying, “non.” He slapped it open to the centerfold. She saw the girl that looked like Eevonne in a very prone posture. He turned two pages back to someone that looked like Eevonne surrendering herself and her intimacy with a smile as wide as the quarter moon. He flipped to the other side of the centerfold. There were pictures of certain parts of someone that looked liked Eevonne’s body, but not the whole Eevonne.

“It is Eevonne,” Clarisse echoed him, reached for the Lucky Strikes, offered one to Randall (which he took) and shook her head in disbelief.

Just like that, life’s sometimes unpredictable and engaging forces swept her out of a powerful funk and back into the maelstrom of events that rarely afford curious people the time necessary to destroy themselves with their own exalted expectations.

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