Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapter 35

Chapter Thirty-five

It was the day of the benefit/press cattle call. Randall’s press release had been sent by mail, faxed, and transmitted through mysterious channels across a vast infrastructure of invisibility to various media outlets. He was helped by Jordan who had been fired from or walked out of a goodly portion of them. Some twenty reporters had confirmed attendance; no mean trick when that industry’s consolidation is factored into the equation. Of course, the element of titillation is what led their editors to forswear the habitual aversion to topics upsetting to the established order.

Joya had pressed her shop girl Sadina into service for the store’s proper preparation. Clarisse who, in between the time she stood Jordan up and called Joya to help, had added to her friends’ effort a smashingly odd looking table behind which the press conference was to be held. Joya loved it. “Hon, that has to be the biggest and coolest thing since the great glaciers!” And she wasn’t just piling it on. The table was truly franzy and, as is the case with all good artistry, seemed to whisper its purveyor’s very name as one stared at it. “Clarisse,” said Sadina in a tone that made the object of her address shift from one foot to the other and back again, “it really is something.” What with Corey and Clarisse mostly on the outs and their relationship decaying daily, they were not given to confidences of late, and yet without his input she had a good idea that Sadina was a girl who liked girls.

She looked over at Joya who was smiling at her, too, and made the connection. It didn’t change her attitude toward either of them a wit and she shrugged under the rain of compliments they were wetting her with. “You can haf it,” she told Joya in a state happier than the normal resignation with which she made such concessions. “At least someone weell gets to see it.”

“Sugar plum,” said Joya, “people are gonna see it and we’re gonna find you some clients who make big bangs.” Clarisse already felt better about enlisting in what she deemed an elaborate charade. The recent buffeting she’d undergone had inclined her toward postures of retreat and anger, but that was not how the great heroines in the books she admired acted. And now her mimicking the nobility of made-up people living in a very different world might well pay in spades. She was not going down or giving up or anything. She was going to persevere and this minor first step demonstrated to Clarisse just how important it is to keep fighting the good fight.

She had a little epiphany as she watched her friends prepare to make battle in a clash not winnable. “To keep fighting the good fight is the sole purpose of the fight,” (with accent) was the lesson and she promised herself to pass it onto Corey and his partner.

Yvonne came sashaying in shortly thereafter. Her outfit was a lean fitting blue business suit without a hint of exposed skin, for she had learned that the consecrated sex symbol no longer needs to flaunt her wares. As a caterer without any work, she took it upon herself to deal with the “benefit” aspect of the affair.

Seconds after her entry, two attractive college girls in French maid-style outfits walked in with some trays of food. Joya frowned. “Oh my, there go my sales,” and she permitted the girls, for the good of the cause, to begin piling finger sandwiches and pink/orange melon balls wrapped in prosciutto – among other culinary niceties – onto one of her glass display cases. That is, of course, once Sadina had put some appropriate looking material down over the top to prevent scratches.

But, back to Yvonne.

She looked fantastic, which is something that should never be taken for granted with anyone, for beauty is feckless toward its possessor. She was glittery with the attention about to be received and there was a moment of silence as the three ladies-in-waiting drooled up and down her before moving in for a rapacious session of hugging. Joya got something that looked like a kiss on the lips and Clarisse turned to see Sadina watching her response to it. Clarisse’s response was a smile and that was replicated by one from the Indian girl who then turned and shot a smile at one of the French maids.

“Oh, look at that table!” Yvonne declared and another round of attendant ego stroking on Clarisse’s behalf was quickly commenced and concluded. Then the girls kind of stood around wondering what to do, as it was the boys who controlled the actual agenda. “What’s next?” Joya said as she pulled out a broom and handed it to Sadina. “Well,” Yvonne answered, “Randall and Corey are going to bring all the cables for the press lighting. My girls have the food under control. The actresses should be here later than anyone else and, of course, the lawyer’s gonna tell us what we can and can’t say.”

“What’s the lawyer’s name, hon?” Joya asked as she flitted, devising the most ingenious modes of display for her jewelry, which (she felt) was as much on show as Yvonne, the actresses, bum philosophy or Clarisse’s table.

“I think his name is DeConcini,” said Yvonne.

“Oh hon, you didn’t get a Jew?”

Then Jordan walked in. He had been preoccupied. Nobody was quite sure with what, so that The Sidewalk Smokers Club (except for Randall) had almost forgotten about him in the excitement. He was dressed sensibly, but semi-formally, lest those bursting into their little world take The Sidewalk Smokers Club for some kind of shabby, two-bit outfit. It had not escaped him either, even with an interrogation planned in the Angel Without Mercy case, that this was something of a coming out for each particular member of the spontaneous formation, that never had any of them been quite so close to garnering this kind of attention before.

Oh hope (attention, attention, attention!).

“Jordan!” Joya effused with her normal high-octane enthusiasm, “come in shoogy,” and just like that he felt right at home. Yvonne winked at him, all subtlety now. He caught a glimpse of Sadina and worked his way up and down the little body to make her feel uncomfortable, for sport. He gobbled at a prosciutto-melon ball as Clarisse approached and gave him the biggest hug she ever had.

“Your new hair is cute.”

Jordan turned around surprised to discover the remark was Yvonne’s, but it was a pleasant imbalance that affected him and, rather than work to set things right, he reached for a cucumber and pesto-paste sandwich w/ garlic alioli and decided to walk around and savor the tipsy hormonal state into which the ladies had stirred him.
The reason for this blow-by-blow of pitter-patter is to demonstrate just how hard it was becoming to tell whether someone liked boys, girls, or both; just how much things had broken down and increased the sense of options, and confusion confronted by all.

Randall came in next, an important looking folio in his hands, horn-rimmed glasses and oversized tweed blazer lending the event a much-needed dose of dressed-down seriousness. It was entertainment (as all spectacle is), but it wasn’t. Corey was dressed similarly and carrying a wooden crate with thick cables and extensions and multi-socketed terminals to mount the media bordello required to make this thing work. It was a sartorial adjustment, a conscious decision the partners had made on their own, right down to the fake lens horn-rimmed glasses he also sported. Clarisse hardly recognized him and was knocked further off rail by the fact she found him more attractive than she had in a while.

“Okay, okay listen up man!” Yvonne’s media chief bellowed, “This is how it’s going to unfold.” And then Corey began going through the press conference script whilst simultaneously assisting Randall in the electrical complications that come with the medium-scale electronic happening.

The lawyer, DeConcini, arrived shortly thereafter. He was a handsome, blonde-haired and blue-eyed Italian with thick luscious hair and, why not, horn-rimmed glasses.

DeConcini looked like a fresh baseball boy on a summer field. His eyes burned with innocent ambition and held no reasons for complaint or unhappiness. His presence helped complete that balance of sexy frivolity (Joya, Sadina, Clarisse, Yvonne) with somber thought-laden post-academia (Randall, DeConcini, Corey) and just a dash of the everyman from Jordan’s updated, yet classical/contemporary dudewear.

He chatted with Randall and Corey, stiff, professional, without any fraternal sense of the task. Randall pointed outside at a thickening crowd drawn by what passed for hoopla, and DeConcini turned and grabbed Joya by the arm and pulled her aside.

Although they had never met, their mutual grasp of the plan secreted an air of things being well prepared. This pumped them up as it did each member of the club so that a supreme confidence began to pervade the store and environs.

Joya was trying to discretely cram some rings and things from the food-covered showcase to another display still available when Jordan approached and whispered in her ear: “The cops are on to me.”

She straightened up, shaking her silky strands in one sweeping motion over a single shoulder. “No!” she said conspiratorially.

“Yeah!” he matched her excited tone (without the excitement), “some detective named Dumburden is going to question me tomorrow.” She thought on it, perused the room and said, “Let’s get through this and we’ll come up with something.” He couldn’t imagine what she might come up with, but grew encouraged until she added, “if we can,” before bouncing off, cowboy boots clip-clopping over the sound of everything else going on in the busy hive her store had become.

Joya saw Clarisse standing by herself watching Jordan as he spoke with her. She turned around, retraced her steps, and told J. to try and make himself useful and he went out to the sidewalk in an effort to stay clear of the rising commotion. The Angel Without Mercy properly dispatched, Joya approached Clarisse and said, “Hon, why don’t you help your husband with all that wiring he’s tied up in?”

He looked so good that Clarisse’s response to the effect that, “he can manage by himself,” didn’t come out quite so aggressively as she had intended. Espying Jordan out on the sidewalk, she decided to join him. Leaving, she noticed how Corey failed to notice; his eyes focused all-too-obviously upon Yvonne and her ever-increasing mystique unattainable. Outside, Clarisse tapped Jordan on the shoulder and he reacted a little more violently than normal. “Yes she’s lesbian!”

“Who?” Clarisse asked, although she was pretty sure he was talking about Joya given her own reconnaissance. He offered her a ready-rolled Drumstick, but she declined. “Luckys or nuthin’ huh?” he said and she informed him that cigarettes were no longer a part of her repertoire. “You quit that easily?” Jordan followed up and Clarisse responded that, yes, she had. Then she asked him what was up after the press conference – if he had any plans. Jordan had already interpreted Corey’s interest in Joya and/or Yvonne as proof positive something irremediable had occurred between the couple and saw no harm in providing her with a little company. Besides, he needed some himself and told her this before adding, “Just don’t stand me up this time.”

She skirted the issue of her rudeness and informality by pointing out that, “de table in dare ees mine.”

“It’s beautiful,” he said, and meant it, the positive nature of Joya’s verbal generosities having infected him (and all of them) completely.

Inside, the Coloradan’s attempt to keep Corey occupied went belly-up and now he’d joined Yvonne for some chitty-chat focusing mostly upon her solid appearance and the sudden rush of optimism they were experiencing. The first television crew stormed in with an attractive, pushy blonde reporter in a faux Chanel skirt-suit leading the way. She scanned the room knowing what she wanted and honed-in on Yvonne. “That’s the girl,” she said without any attempt to mute her voice or intentions.

“The girl,” you see.

This was followed by an equally insufferable focusing of blinding camera light on a rather surprised Yvonne, followed by the intrusion of a microphone into her face space. She could come to grips with the fact her father had seen the magazine layout, that guys she was working with knew the contours of her physiognomy to the inch, that lesbians she was carrying a mild torch for had pored over the gems in her jewelbox. But she could not bare, um, bear the idea that perfect strangers whom rubbed her the wrong way at first sight had done the same.

Corey to the rescue. He stepped in front of his charge, blocking the camera’s view (its lifeline) entirely. “You can ask your questions during the press conference.
That’s what it’s for.” He pushed the camera lens down with a protective hand and then shoved the reporter out of the way with a brusqueness only a television journalist could not be offended by. “Randall will help you set up,” and just like that, his partner stepped into the breach and began positioning reporter and crew in a place marked by masking tape with their station affiliation scribbled in ink marker. Joya watched it all unfold and traipsed up to Randall. “Hey, you got this all wired don’t ya?” Randall pointed at the cables snaking across her shop floor and she got the little joke. “I’m impressed,” she said (and so was he).

It was clear that Randall and Corey were two bright lads who’d been waiting too long for their break, blokes put on the shelf to acquire the right seasoning. Their moment had come when they least expected, over the most unlikely of causes, and they were out ahead of the pack because they’d left the starting gate years ago.

Things began to move quickly. Another crew and yet another showed brandishing the same bombastic fanfare associated with the electronic media. Each reporter, the next more handsome than the last, made the attempt at mugging Yvonne and Corey repelled every unseemly advance, deflecting their energy toward Randall who enmeshed them in a vernacular so superior that it consistently brought the jackals to heel.

Three more crews showed and then individual reporter celebrities from the serious papers looking for a quirky tale speckled with local color. There was an attractive looking feminist Latina-styled gal from the Spanish-speaking daily and a tall, artsy gal with wire-rimmed glasses and attitude from the local edgy liberal/left bulletin.
Also a team from a Korean television channel wandered in, presumably drawn from another assignment by the assembly of rakes inside and out.

With those who spoke his language Randall employed years of wide reading and travel in dispensing tidbits that entertained with wit and aplomb, or humiliated with subtle yet vicious turns of phrase, depending on whether the reporter came armed or in peace. Corey looked over his shoulder during an attempt to shield Yvonne from one of the raptors The Club had so earnestly sought out, and smiled at his partner.

Randall hoped he wasn’t doing things too well. Shepherd to the mass media was not a job he’d meant to groom himself for. He was a genius and did not want the fact to be lost on anyone present.

One of the major actresses that had signed onto the effort arrived. She was an A-list performer, currently appearing in a racy, top-rated show, although she’d also had success on the big screen. With fame secure and her own offending pictures effectively buried by well-paid minions, joining this crusade was a perfect chance to embrace something mildly scandalous. Something that could layer her reputation with street credibility and proof there was a mind in there, a mind supple enough to grapple with matters of ethics and economics. As the star of her own show she was seen perpetually smoking, although in real life she was never much given to the behavior. Out in the public now, exercising the grand sweeping entrances so important to her craft, the cameras firing away at AK-47 pace, she pulled out a cigarette (brand name undetermined) and began to puff for the benefit of her legions. Joya might have preferred that nobody smoke inside so as to avoid the smell permeating the furnishings, area rugs and garments that made up the store’s “story” as Clarisse referred to decor. But she was way too smart a businesswoman and underground socialite to ever reproach so international a luminary as the one standing in Joya’s Joyas dispersing illicit driftings into the air. Instead she addressed the actress, introduced herself, and asked for a smoke.

Corey, Jordan and Randall saw, but did not hear, and thought to themselves, “Oh no!” But it was not what they thought. They had underestimated Joya’s natural ken for racing up and down rungs of the social ladder. As luck would have it the actress was nice. Smiles crackled between them. The star was, in fact, truly encouraged by Yvonne’s pluckiness in defending the rights of pretty young girls so long abused.

The less-than-starlets, let’s call them comets – those girls who’d posed in the magazines and made up the larger class of plaintiffs – were filling up the place fast. And with the Gypsies comes the dance. Some were classy and elegant and clearly engaged in pursuits that no longer required so obvious an exploitation of their bodies. Others were not quite so classy, and a little bit roughed-up, as if they were exploiting their sexuality as a last gasp and to little positive effect. And although they did not, all of them, add to the cutting edge sense of fashion and thought The Sidewalk Smokers were hoping to evince, these troubled women were exactly the ones the lawsuit, in its earnestness, had been drafted to protect. And it was they whom the attorney DeConcini seemed to spend the most time addressing, questioning and prodding to confession.

Jordan, still observing (still smoking), thought the lawyer a wonderful addiction, um addition, to the effort and had, what with all the fine people milling about, forgotten his personal nightmare.

Still other girls were stars from the adult film industry and the overall effect of their presence was to round out the selection so that it provided a very nice profile of urban American womanhood which, in turn, had reporters reaching for their cellular phones in search of back-up.

The second actress of note entered, the starlet, hoping to play the old, late-arrival card, but things were so electric, the crowd gathered so hepped-up on itself, that she almost went unnoticed. Jordan pointed her out to Clarisse who, characteristic of her mind state at this point, observed, “She doesn’t looks so hot,” and then, “she’s very skinny.”

Jordan would have begged to differ with the first part of this commentary, but the second was hard to contest. “You know,” he said in return, “sometimes it’s just a matter of them looking very good on camera, but not in real life.”

“Hmmph,” Clarisse answered, “and sumtimes eet’s just a matter of one pretty girl being luckier dan all de rest.” The positive strength of things was pulling Jordan out of Clarisse’s rather depressing orbit. He asked her to excuse him for a second and rushed back inside toward a cool, but very occupied Randall to whisper in his ear: “Sometimes it’s just a matter of one pretty girl being luckier than all the other pretty girls,” and Randall turned to him in mid-conversation.

“Would you repeat that?”

J. obliged. Randall nodded and returned to sparring with a reporter trying to bully his way into a front row spot that wasn’t really there. This left him ill-positioned to handle the lesbian city councilwoman’s sudden arrival. And sauntering in she came with an entourage of women young, old and betwixt. The lead vixen had a remote mini-microphone curved sexily around her neck, ending at the mouth, into which she whispered terribly important stratagems for moving her liege.

The councilwoman (councilperson) – was heavy-set, sporting a felt boater-style hat with a (fake) duck feather in its band, not attractive in any prescribed or popular sense. She fit the bill for a lesbian as Jordan and Corey and Randall understood it before Joya cloppity-clopped into their lives in those cowboy boots. Her level of achievement placed the woman in an age group somewhat older than that of Joya and Sadina, so nobody could be sure of what she’d looked like in the past. All of which was very important to those involved in and following the story.

Joya saw Jordan staring oddly at the overweight politician as all the attention in the room turned from the flowering girlhood present to this rather masculine specimen of the feminine and whispered things in his ear to set the record straight. “She’s a legend, hon. If you’re one of life’s throwaways, not pretty, middle-aged and fat, one-eyed, one-legged, a stray cat, battered broad, or queer, she’s a friend and that’s why she is where she is.”

Fair enough, Jordan thought.

In that special way the outrageous among us like to upend the demure, the savvy lesbian pol ditched the girl with remote wire and stratagems and waded toward the A-list actress and a wonderful photo-op. Randall was still trapped behind a bulky cameraman and groping after her. He stopped and held his breath before discerning exactly where the arch of her trajectory would land the influential one and came up with yet another spontaneous bum maxim: “Even at your own party you can’t control

The actress was melting someone with a smile and didn’t have much time to react as this coarse woman, whom she thankfully recognized as some minor star in the media constellation, bore down upon her with the force of a cannonball unleashed by friendly fire. She gathered herself up and absorbed a two-second-long kiss on the lips that was captured by all those who’d been enlisted to transmit whatever it was that took place. Randall exhaled with relief. The actress had played her part. “Sometimes it’s better not to control everything at your own party,” he amended his work-in-progress.

Soon the store was packed. The lady reporters, regardless of political ilk or status on the journalistic ladder, were unanimously interested in Joya’s jewelry and in Joya, too. The Sidewalk Smokers, a rare collective effort in a country obsessed with the individual mystique, was humming along as a well-oiled machine during what amounted to a maiden launch.

And it was just this moment when officers Thorpe and Diaz were strolling by, one of whom was in that part of town to break the old wallet over some bauble his wife had pointed out to him. As firemen it was only natural the sardine can Joya’s Joyas had become would catch their trained eyes so that as they passed the store, the sight of what they had just seen took a moment to sink in, and they went back for a second gander. Of course, it was not fire safety that had initially pricked their curiosity so much as something that had made their pricks curious. This was the overabundance of attractive women on hand and the vaguely familiar silhouette of someone smoking a cigarette whom they seemed to recognize from somewhere.

There were a number faces that struck chords of familiarity, but the actress of the hot television series with her oft-photographed, oft-disseminated image could not escape their keen inspectors’ instincts. Diaz (he was the one shopping for his wife) immediately thought how nice it would be to surprise her (his wife) with an autograph of the star along with the gift. In that way he would not be reduced to filling out an espousal purchase order and could enjoy the spoils of having proven himself to be thoughtful in the truest sense.

Then Thorpe said, “She’s smoking. We need to stop it.”

“But she’s a famous actress,’ Diaz sagely observed, “what do you want to do, get your picture all over television and the newspapers as the guy who told her to put it out?”

For men like Thorpe and Diaz, men of and for the corps, lessons are learned slowly but completely, and Diaz had learned to stay away from large groups of smoking, disobedient people sprinkled with stardust. “You have to pick your battles,” he added.

“Yes,” said Thorpe, sounding wiser still.

Diaz got the drift, though not sure he agreed entirely with his partner’s assuredness. Celebrities were touchy. It would not be their first run-in with a silver deity and things had gone both ways in the past. Sometimes their superiors lauded the inspectors for an even-handed application of the law. Other times their common sense had been questioned given that they’d put the department in a ridiculous light with an overzealous to-the-letter enforcement approach. The duo would usually point out the ambiguities in the law they were hired to apply; criticizing its drafting as unworkable, if not exactly in those words. It went like this (Diaz): “Lots of people are against public smoking. Not all of them think writing expensive tickets is the best way to stop it.” And he should have known, because he had to write those tickets.

Anyhow, it didn’t matter at present. Other were smoking, too, and trained to think on their feet, and given to favoring the law and their charge to enforce it in tricky situations with franzy people, the officers looked into one another’s eyes and saw the mutual hunger to enter the store and set things right. “Besides,” Thorpe read his partner’s mind, “they could all die tragically.”

Done. For nothing trumps public safety and/or national security. They sauntered in and the absence of stylisms, their standard-issue haircuts and unease at the tuggings and teasings of so many attractive women marked the two men as members of a distinct and probably unfriendly clan. People turned toward them in anticipation of some unpleasant business or other and that’s what they witnessed as the officers pulled out their badges, shoved them in the actress’s face and advised her she needed to put out her cigarette.

The star, of course, seemed pretty sure they couldn’t pull it off without making her just a little more famous and besides, there was a city councilwoman standing next to her. But the big woman remained mum on the matter, retreated into the background even; for while cavorting with sexy and rebellious artists might sharpen the public image (in some quarters) openly flouting laws she had supported was an altogether different matter. Joya abetted her escape by paving a wide way toward Yvonne’s catered finger foods.

The actress, meanwhile, despite the aforementioned fact that she did not smoke of her own free will, but rather in pro of her image, informed them of a disinclination to heed their order. Diaz and Thorpe may not have been up to speed on the mores and folkways of this particular flirt factory, but they were certainly no strangers to the obstinacy of celebrities. The investigators knew they enjoyed the state’s absolute monopoly on force somewhere (way) behind them and were glad of it. The press of personalities in the store stymied them and the men were convinced a stern application of the law that left no room for discourse, no give for some take, was in order.

“Who’s the proprietor?” Thorpe asked in an authoritative voice he practiced each morning on his unruly children. Reporters began to thrust microphones in the officers’ faces. Lights were trained upon the actress coolly puffing away, blowing second-hand smoke at her oppressors.

“That would be me, hon!” Joya worked her way through the parting crowd. The officers smiled immediately upon meeting eyes with hers. She was a number of good things, but damned if she didn’t come across as nice, too. “What is it I can do for you guys?”
Diaz waived his badge yet again.

“You’re cops?” she asked.

“No ma’am. FD. Fire Department. You can’t have people smoking in here. It’s a violation of the Smoke-Free Workplace Act.”

“Oh, I see. I’m so sorry. I thought that since it was kind of a party and I don’t have anybody, you know, to pay and well…” she lost her train of thought as the necessary prose grew thicker.

“It’s a press conference,” Diaz countered. “Press are working, for example. It’s a workplace. Just not the one you normally run.”

In the background, Randall and Corey writhed at this departure from the script and at their inability to do anything about it.

“Well then,” Joya said turning full circle in a sweeping move to address the entire pack. “Do you all object to putting out your cigarettes so that we can go ahead and have this press conference?” There was mild applause as folks dropped their butts to the floor and stamped them out, drawing a grimace from the proprietress who’d only just dispatched with Jordan’s bloodstains. She turned back to the investigators with that smile. “Is ‘at okay hons?”

“No ma’am,” Diaz pointed with his chin in the A-lister’s direction. “The young lady’s going to have to follow suit.” Both men smiled. They couldn’t help themselves, but it was clear that they were firm on the point and the actress smiled back and said, “Not a chance. Write me a ticket.”

Thorpe knew when someone was upping the ante on him and so he saw the actress and raised her one. “I’ll have to shut down the venue and have the proprietor arrested,” which wasn’t at all true or even possible. Joya suspected this, but when she scanned the proceedings looking for DeConcini, she located him outside talking up one of the comets. Citycouncilwoman, for her part, shrunk behind some cameras wanting no part of the mushrooming mess. Joya was in a bind. It was now hers to insist that the celebrity do something she did not want to, a task not unlike standing before a medieval queen of absolute dominion and calling her a whore.

And besides, it would have been ungrateful.

Randall came to the rescue. “Okay, let’s do it outside!”

Joya grabbed the line he was throwing her. “Great! Let’s do it outside. One big Sidewalk Smokers Club!” A tiny cheer rose up from the actual membership and through the force of their will and energy, Joya and Randall, with some authoritative prodding from the councilmember, managed to move the mass slowly out the door. “C’mon! A free cigarette for everybody,” Joya trilled as she gestured Sadina towards the backroom of her shop where, presumably, a carton of Dãrshãns was kept in case of an emergency not exactly like this, but an emergency just the same.

There was some grumbling from the press corps about the logistics of powering lighting and the like, but a general momentum toward the sidewalk had won the moment. Clarisse grimaced at the loss of protagonism her table was to suffer with the move, but folks who dream of being great learn to swallow such setbacks both with equanimity and frequency.

Outside people began to light up because when you talk a lot about something, you help bring it into existence. Some of the local media’s most attractive, up-and-coming hood ornaments allowed themselves to be photographed in the compromising activity.


A rare turn of ability these Sidewalk Smokers possessed; making or generating fun.

Cameramen and still-photographers reacted like water molecules over fire as things moseyed along to exactly where, nobody knew. The ending, unlike the endless parade of staged and stale events they were condemned to document, was completely in doubt and boy was this exciting!

Clarisse quickly overcame her initial disappointment and was now pushing Jordan – who as an off-duty barista had no real inclination to move furniture – for help in getting her table onto the sidewalk. “C’mon, c’mon,” she urged, “you do dees at de coffee chop don’t you?” These were not the best words for prodding him to action, but it seemed that the press conference’s soaring moment might suddenly falter without some focal point of attention for reporters and their helpers to train upon.

The thing (the table) weighed a ton and because it had a Plaster of Paris-kind of lumpy finish on top (practicality not being Clarisse’s strong suit) it was exceedingly difficult to grab at the edges. Struggling in fits and starts Clarisse and Jordan asked Randall to help as he alternated between outdoors and in, trying to get the whole thing going in the necessary direction. He huffed and twisted the features behind his glasses, but was of little help until he turned to Diaz and Thorpe and enlisted them in the effort. They assented. It was part of the job – written into the Smoke-Free Workplace Act in fact – to facilitate the configuration of safe surroundings and, what with the whole thing having been moved at their instigation, the two officers intended it as a tendered olive branch. The cameras whirred. The investigators sweated. As the quintet shimmied through the door, led by the bulky former firemen, the crowd cheered them.

“Bill,” the first reporteress squealed into her microphone while facing her hairy cameraman’s lens, “We’re here in front of Joya’s Joyas on a familiar and trendy stretch of commercial real estate where a most curious event is taking shape…”

And taking shape it was as Randall pushed both actresses, Yvonne, DeConcini, councilwoman, and one of the cuter magazine victims behind the most curious table.

The picture window filled with Joya’s jewels served as a nice backdrop – at least from the proprietress’s point of view.

“Listen up!” Randall managed to ratchet his voice above the crowd’s shambling volume, “Listen up man!” The din dulled a bit as everyone turned toward the table and the event suddenly took on the form of a traditional press conference. “We’re here,” and he had to say it again a little louder so as to beat the vocal stragglers into the herd of listeners and recorders he was aiming for. “We’re here today to announce the filing of a lawsuit by Yvonne,” and he raised an outstretched arm in his subject’s direction. She curtsied demurely and some of the rougher media backbenchers – mostly technicians and Teamsters – unleashed a series of catcalls that produced an abashed smile from Yvonne, which set off a chorus of delighted laughter in which everyone participated. Everyone, that is, save for DeConcini, whose job it was to project the severity of a juris doctor, and Thorpe and Diaz, for whom sobriety was also a job requirement.

Randall forged ahead, forgetting to laugh with the rest, intent upon making a point. “It’s a lawsuit which establishes her as the lead in a class of plaintiffs covering many of the young women you see here.” He then ill advisedly gestured to the actresses, comets, and gaggle of magazine girls he’d placed off to the side of the table so as to separate them from the media and growing collection of onlookers. Once again, a cheer went up. The gaggle giggled, excited at being celebrated and the crowed guffawed in return. It was at this moment when Randall realized exactly what dynamics he had unleashed and therefore decided that humor, informality, delay and other nontraditional techniques would be the most effective in guiding this happening to a proper climax and denouement.

“All of whom at different and difficult moments in their lives have posed naked for any number of the magazines contained in the list you have before you.” A fluttering of papers ensued and those who’d joined the street spectacle looked over the shoulders of reporters to see exactly what it was he was talking about. The air was, by now, thick with vanilla smoke from Joya’s freely dispensed carton, and the situation – the girls, the list of dirty magazines, the Dãrshãns – were all adding up to a heady aphrodisia that nearly scared the fire department investigators out of their pants. Given that such an event would be highly inappropriate for two members of a venerable and highly respected institution to be attending, Diaz and Thorpe decided to leave, glancing nervously over their shoulders at the growing amoeba of people they were largely responsible for having created.

And their timing couldn’t have been better for as they slunk away, a black limousine rolled up, forcing the crowd spilling off the curb either further into the street or onto the already congested sidewalk. A brash, fresh-faced white boy with a remote wire close to his lips leapt out saying very important things into it. A tall handsome black guy in a suit followed him and then a white guy in another suit who was obviously the Prince corresponding to the courtiers.

Jordan froze. The city councilwoman narrowed her eyes in distrust. “The city attorney,” Randall muttered to himself, and figured that news of another mayoral candidate’s presence at the event – the city councilwoman – had reached the earphone of a young aide and forced an imperative to crash the proceedings. “Ignore him,” the councilwoman hissed in his ear. Randall figured a deal was a deal and undertook to comply with her directive.

Jordan took off in the same direction as Thorpe and Diaz, unwilling to abet his own
capture and prosecution for a mercy killing the gods had deigned just.

“Before I turn over the press conference to those with a story to tell,” Randall soldiered, suddenly overcome with fatigue, “let me conclude by saying this case is about the exploitation of young women who oftentimes did not know any better or could not help themselves. The profits gained by those who traffic in photography of the flesh far outstrip those who provide the raw materials needed to do their business.” It was an unfortunate choice of words and Randall had carefully chosen them for just that reason. A silly, adolescent, “woowoo” went up from the gathered.

DeConcini leaned over and garbled into Randall’s ear, “Look, I’ll file the suit, but
I don’t really need this kind of screen time. It’s too much. Too dangerous.”

Dangerous! Randall, a rock thrower and traffic stopper if ever there were one, sensed a hot burst of triumph race from his solar plexus, through his heart to pierce the brain, and smiled.

“What do you say to the fact many former employers wouldn’t recommend you for a job?” came a rude outburst from the herd.

“I have no former employers,” Randall sought to set the record straight.

“How do you live then?” came the follow up.

“I’m still trying to answer that question,” Randall confessed and then switched. “Esquire Dennis DeConcini, who is generously lending his expertise on a free-of-charge basis, says it would be best not to bore you with legal mumbo-jumbo when Yvonne is the best person to articulate what it is these girls go through, blah-blah-BLAH-blah-blah,” he threw in for a touch of lackadaisical irreverence.

“Could you repeat the last part?” the girl from the liberal/left rag asked.

“Esquire Dennis DeConcini says it would –”

“No the part after that,” she said cutely and coyly.

“Oh. Blah-blah-BLAH-blah-blah.”

The print reporters earnestly recorded his every “blah.”

“Thank you,” she said, to sustained background chuckling and general gaiety. DeConcini rolled his eyes. Randall summoned Yvonne to center spot looking over the smoke-addled crowd that had begun disrupting traffic. Horns were blowing now and Yvonne, along with her interrogators, had to yell over them so as to be heard. “I just wanna say that, um, you know, it’s wrong for somebody to make these kinds of profits – profits that sometimes run thousands of times more than what was paid to the model who-”

“Did you sleep with the photographer?” one of the local entertainment reporters asked what was on everyone else’s mind.

“Um- ”

“I don’t see,” Randall interrupted, “what that has to do with the fact that an important economic lawsuit with potential ramifications in the area of intellectual property -” It was, again, a terrible choice of words, this time not planned and which led to a further lightening of what he’d envisioned as an epic affair.

“Quite frankly it is a -” and a car horn interrupted him for a moment, “STUPID,” he yelled out of necessity, “question.”

“Blah-blah-BLAH-blah-blah,” one of the media joshed him to more, greater, sustained laughter now rolling in waves between the yellow dividing lines out in the middle of the street and Clarisse’s curious table.

Randall moved from center stage aware that his last volley had gone out of bounds, but content that he was stoking the spectacle to maximum effect, sometimes knowingly, other times not. He pulled out a bandana and wiped his brow in a move that was interpreted by those who’d come for a show as theatrics, but which was simple relief to him.

Yvonne, for her part, was doing as well as might be expected for someone who ran a catering service and hadn’t spoken in public since her 11th grade English class required an oral presentation.

“Every time a single magazine issue sells,” she read from a prepared statement penned by Randall, “a hundred advertisements are launched and the positive results of those advertisements bring in more sales and revenues to the magazine. But the model sometimes only gets the shoot fee a freelance photographer pays her before signing a release that makes the pictures his property.” Despite the calculation behind the whole crazy thing, there was something plaintive in Yvonne’s voice that seemed to win her a better part of the crowd’s sympathy. And who with a heart could deny that there is merit in both her arguments and the equitable goal of the lawsuit itself?

“How did it feel to you when the pictures first came out?” asked a rival to the first entertainment reporter’s celebrity news magazine. Yvonne turned to Randall who again moved center. “Don’t any of the serious outlets have questions?”

He might as well have been looking for Ice-Aged fossils. “I mean, we have this brave woman up here bringing to light the kind of abuse young innocents are often subjected to when they arrive in the big city.” Like the best White House spin-doctor, Randall was taking advantage of every chance to define the suit’s raison d’être. As the cameras recorded and the scribes scribbled, he was confident the weightier points would eventually be expressed in spite of the circus atmosphere he’d cooked up.

“Man, the only things you people seem interested in are the more lurid-” Security being what it was – nonexistent – some clown sneaked in behind Yvonne with her magazine layout open to a provocative page and smilingly waved it over her head to the howls of tribal excitement and groans of moral disapproval. The liberal feminist reporter huffed, rolled her eyes at Randall (who smiled bashfully), and departed.

“How much did you get paid?” asked a reporter.

“Does it turn you on to see the pictures of yourself on the newsstands?” screeched another. A tear rolled down Yvonne’s cheek and she stepped off to the side and hugged Corey – a gesture that did not escape Clarisse’s or anyone else’s eye.

“Is that your boyfriend?” another reporter asked with an exquisitely bad taste and timing it had taken him years to cultivate and for which his bosses prized (and paid) him exceedingly well. The A-list actress was dripping with feeling and understanding for Yvonne who had clearly bitten off more than she could chew. With all the self-possession and power to dominate a gathering the acting craft had imbued her with, she assumed Yvonne’s place behind the crazy table. The motion, in and of itself, served to calm the raucous crowd somewhat. It was Bernhardt, it was Dunaway, Leigh. It was the ghost of a dozen icy silver-screen love goddesses rising up before the reverent – until she opened her mouth. “What’s wrong with you people?” she screamed, although it should be noted that it did come in a controlled fashion, rooted in her diaphragm as it was. “Are you all fucking idiots or what?”

Despite the obvious insult, the media pool gravitated closer to the table like cosmic debris to a black hole in space, for nothing trumps celebrity (except national security), however undeserved. In ten minutes they could all take the rest of the week off with the bounty this once seemingly harmless event was hurling at them. The A-lister, for her part, was buffeted with lurid queries in a free-for-all fashion.

“Have you ever filmed yourself making love?” “Would you perform oral sex before the camera for the right sum of money?” “What’s the right sum of money?” and so on so that the overall affect of her interjection was to discredit those whose fortunes she sought to enhance.

Sensing her moment, the lesbian citycouncilperson stepped to the fore and Randall returned to announce her, as the actress, fuming, stepped back and, yes, lit a cigarette – a vanilla one – to restore her calm. Two factors, the councilperson’s weight and her lack of beauty, lent the press conference an immediate gravitas none of the pretty girls whom preceded her could summons. She took up a goodly portion of the dais and seemed to reduce the media pool’s size just by standing there. “I think we need to focus on some of the important issues introduced into public debate by the filing of this important suit.” Her primary strategy was to use the word “important” a lot and see what happened.

The city attorney, there to steal his opponent’s moment in the limelight and simultaneously align himself with decency and family values, was instead being ignored, and that was not good. So he used his influence to pry a handful of reporters from the otherwise enthralled press pack. These were city beat hacks he knew and traded capital with in a symbiotic relationship between covered and coverers that assured neither did their job properly. When he suggested they listen to what he had to say, implicit was the promise that on some slow news day, or very eventful one for that matter, he could be counted on for news; but only if they might bail him out presently. Just as the city councilperson paused, he could be heard in the back sound-biting her moment saying, “I think the suit is incoherent and ill-conceived.”

Which, of course it was. The point of the thing was the girls, the publicity they were generating, and the use of it to ransom some concession out of the publishers in exchange for a little peace in their business of exploiting the young and vulnerable.

The lesbian legislator could hardly be expected to be outdone. As Joya had already informed Jordan, she was an advocate for the city’s throwaways, miscreants, and social maladroits, which was a job that required a lot of energy and a bullhorn the size of...the size of something very big. Her strategy in such an instances (it was not the first time bigger fish had made a bigger splash in a pond she considered her own) was to forge straight ahead with what she was saying at twice the volume she had been saying it prior. Of course, what with the presence of the city attorney, her political position needed to slide just a little bit over to the conservative side, but the councilwoman was swimming in a pond she knew well. “Now!” she bellowed, “I’m not here to say that what the ladies have done in the past is to serve as some kind of illuminated path for youth – far from it. What is important is to point out the importance of corporate greed here.”

The day had long passed when such an appeal to the lesser-class instinct drew a blood curdling response against the rich above, largely because everybody in attendance had a shabby scheme for moving up into those ranks themselves. But hers was a safe council seat and so she kept it up.

“We know who the magazine’s parent company is (a biennial contributor to her own campaigns) so we don’t have to name names.” Which of course she didn’t want to do.

“Immoral,” slipped in between the cracks of her discourse from over in the city attorney’s corner.

“It’s important that we understand that they have enough money to, to- ” and then she looked around for some kind of prop and Joya produced a pack of vanilla cigarettes. The citycouncilwoman was not particularly keen on the idea of using exotic and imported smokes as a public speaking aid, but was sage enough to consider her audience for a moment.

She took the pack, opened it, dumped the contents out onto Clarisse’s table and proceeded – quickly for obvious reasons – to use them in the construction of a ragged metaphor for just how much money the parent company had and how easy it would be to actually pay the girls a gainful wage (two Dãrshãns) and a small pension benefit (one Dãrshãn), too.

“So don’t tell me this is the only way to treat workers who are important to our society!” she thundered and waved her way through the thickening cloud of smoke over the sidewalk. This was her stock stump speech and she had twisted herself like a baseball stadium pretzel to weave the naked girls and The Smokers into it.

Anyway, that was the bulk of what Randall had scripted. There came, in that moment, a realization that he’d never developed an exit plan because he’d never thought the thing was going to reach such a (relatively) gosh darn successful conclusion.

If Jordan had stuck around for this not-quite-ending he would have noted accents of the beating he took at the hand of the Armenian Power gang in the air. Traffic was jammed, people were milling about as the star, starlets and comets began to break up and/or get picked off by the audience that had swelled the press pack’s size to five times the original list of invitees. The city attorney, for his part, wasn’t finished. He seemed to lose sensitivity in his political antennae; possessed by the drive to, in some way, mark the fact he was present. Perhaps his plan was to conjure as nefarious an image possible under the rather light-hearted circumstances and somehow connect them to the lesbiancitycouncilpersonwoman. She, by this time, had beaten a quiet retreat after mulling over sentiments best described as mixed where the wisdom of attending a press conference held by a Sidewalk Smokers Club she’d never heard of was concerned.

No matter. The shabby Randall would serve the city attorney’s purposes in a pinch. “So,” he bellowed prompting everyone present to turn in concert and see what had gotten up his nose, “the fine specimens here gathered are your class of plaintiffs and their loyal constituency?”

Randall appreciated the help in defining The Club’s mission. “Do you think sarcasm is becoming of so exalted a city official?”

“Don’t answer a question with a question,” the candidate parried, cameras engraving every glib utterance in some digital container or recorder.

Like all stagemasters, Randall thought his job done at this point and resented the insertion of new material.

“We’re a nation of mutts,” he said finally, coughing, “although we dress ourselves very well to hide the fact.”

The city attorney should have known better. For Bohemians reason, if they do at all, at different levels of consciousness and understanding than “serious” people. And yet they are just as smart: a fact that makes them deadly dangerous if and when they decide to engage the larger world around.

Maybe at a clearer place, after nursing a tumbler of scotch before a chimney fire, his eminence might have been able to respond in some long and circuitous way.

Instead, he let pass a long silence which left in evidence his search for words to all observers. The aide with the mouthpiece cringed. Finally, desperately, he blurted, “If mutts are what you consider yourselves, fine, but don’t paint the entire nation with the same brush.” Which wasn’t too bad a rejoinder, especially if you erase the time he took to come up with it and the fact he was a famous and semi-powerful man, while Randall was the mutt.

The aide with the headset decided to douse this brush fire before it spread, pushing his boss toward the limousine, which was parked illegally, but not subject to the surveillance cars belonging to mere mortals were. The candidate seemed more than willing to oblige, retreating with sentiments best described as mixed where the wisdom of attending a press conference held by a Sidewalk Smokers Club he’d never heard of was concerned.

“Good riddance,” Randall murmured as one city-attorney-leg stuck itself in the limo.

But Joya suddenly materialized out of what seemed thin air and immediately drew a smile from the candidate, who pulled the leg back onto the sidewalk. Randall could not imagine what it was Joya was up to, but he knew she was up to something as her long muscular arm snaked itself through the city attorney’s elbow and guided him inside.

Randall was snapped out of his observations by the A-list actress who announced her
departure, but left him with her publicist’s number and an invitation to a party at her place coming up very soon. He had enough presence of mind to say he’d check and see if the date was open when what he wanted was to drop to his knees and lick her wherever she asked.

Guys off the street grazed what was left of the catered food and the gutsy ones tried to wrangle dates out of the comets. Some left with them walking down the street sharing vanilla cigarettes. The roughest looking girls went away with the least appealing men and Randall wondered if they were rough because of the men they’d picked over the years, or if these were the men they were sentenced to entertain by the cruel court of declining charms. He saw Clarisse also exchange particulars with the secondary starlet who turned and left her after they kissed each other on both cheeks. He watched Clarisse watch Corey work with Yvonne for a second and then watched her watch Randall. Clarisse strode toward Randall who decided to stand tall and take whatever it was the sour face she was wearing had in store.

“So,” she said grudgingly, “you ware gret today.”

“You know what they say,” he said. “If you can’t actually be great, fake it.”

An utterly dishonest response in as much as Randall believed he was destined to greatness and felt he’d just taken a tremendous stride towards constructing such a perception, in his own eyes, and in those of the world as well.

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