Monday, November 14, 2005

The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapters 51, 52, and 53

Chapter Fifty-one

Jordan had pulled out of the telephony system to get below the radar, skip out of the matrix, ditch the man, as it were. So Joya came by to roust him up. “Hon, Yvonne’s gettin’ cold feet and there’s gonna be a meeting about the next step for us!” She seemed quite exercised about the whole thing. Joya’s treatment at the hands of the BID was very unkind and she was not used to it, because she had never truly been pushed outside of things before.

Jordan had the problems of a suspected murderer to deal with and would rather have stayed in and avoided any more trouble. But this was Joya and she had been there for him and so he committed. “The Argentine place – 10 p.m.”

Rolling out at the appointed hour, Jordan noticed an obvious-looking man in suit and tie reading a paper behind the steering wheel of a car, which was parked across the street from his place. He tailed J. for a while before disappearing almost imperceptibly.

At the restaurant there was not a seat to be had. It was hard to breath with all the smoking. The waiters ran about emptying ashtrays and there was a grainy film to the air.

The Argentine, of course, was in deep. He’d been fined by now; the price of his own notoriety. Letting people smoke had been part of a different business model, the kind that was slowly cultivated and easily managed. But with his place becoming an unofficial sanctuary for the persecuted tobacco inhalant, he too was into something he could not get out of. Things had gone beyond his control. Strange and new customers stepped in and fired up without so much as a nod to the house rules. They sneered at his accent.

But business was booming. What would come would come, for the small entrepreneur cannot permit the luxury of long-term planning. The seats were full and that was his particular mission in life.

The all-stars occupied their assumed and official table. The people around them were proper enough not to stare, but noted how only the core group had been convened. No city attorney or Vindaloo Baxley or Hat Midone. No Trixie Marie, whom we know only through her work (and would never have been there).

It is hoped the fever-pitch at which each of The Smokers’ lives was being experienced at this point is clear. If not, please take our expository word for it: They’re a light-hearted bunch, but things were sure getting heavy.

“Things are sure getting heavy,” Yvonne kvetched. As the focal point of the campaign, she lived in a kind of perpetual embarrassment over her naked layout, which sold and sold, engendering further debate and more sales after that. She was on the front line and had already made her discontent known.

“They sure are, hon,” said Joya, who was profiting in measures equal to the Argentine restaurant owner, so that her plaintive utterance was more surprising, less expected than Yvonne’s.

“Yeah,” said Jordan, “I mean, I think somebody is following me.”

They stared at him (save for Joya), rightly mystified because Jordan was mixing up problems of his own making with those of The Smokers who were, as yet, unworthy of surveillance (or at least they thought).

“I kinda wish I’d never met alla you,” Joya said to crushing effect on her smoke-mates. Of course she didn’t really mean it that way. Yes, her business relationships were disintegrating like an acid tab on a hippy’s tongue, but the business itself was hale and hardy and they thought she didn’t have grounds to say something so deflating. Randall, always two or more steps ahead of everyone else, knew that she felt personally responsible for The Club’s plight merely because she’d served as a kind of sexual glue in the early formative period, which wasn’t very long ago, but certainly seemed so. “Why dare are peeple following you?” Clarisse returned to Jordan.

“I think we should try to answer Yvonne’s concerns,” was the best he could do to switch the focus of things.

“Yeah,” Corey unwittingly assisted, “Yvonne’s the one who’s taking the brunt of this thing.” And he was genuine in this observation because he was having, perhaps, the best run of anyone and knew it. And because he had the hots for Yvonne he was rather attuned to her diminishing capacity for absorbing whatever vitamins Klieg lights emit.

“Why Yvonne?” asked Clarisse. “Who ees followeeng hare?” which was a good question to which Yvonne, had she less seasoning, could have answered “Everyone.”

Randall saw where all of this was going and decided to redirect. “It doesn’t matter,” he told Clarisse, before puffing long and blowing byproduct around the table as he stopped to look each of his compatriots in the eye.

“An you don’ looks so good,” Clarisse responded, echoing the sentiments of everyone present.

Randall sighed because he knew it was true, and because democracy is both slow and messy. “Well yeah, you know we’re using sickness as a strategy here. Once I’m down, they’re going to lift me up.”

That people were willing to listen and be lead around by a guy who cooked up such schemes should not come as surprise to anyone actually seeking direction and purpose in life. Inspiration is harder and harder to find in a world where purchase is the final fruit of any labor.

“Though you did not know it,” Randall continued, “you all wanted this, except maybe Yvonne. Clarisse is making money like she never dreamed. Corey and I are creating an audience and platform for bum philosophy. Yvonne – whatever her difficulties – is giving as good as she got. Joya is Joya to a whole city of people once unaware of her existence and Jordan…”

Well Jordan, occupied with serious matters only one of them could fathom, had been identified with, but was not of, the group for some time. He was not a part of these ongoing campaigns and media blasts, that was certain, but he was most definitely a militant (S)idewalk (S)moker. Whatever he lacked in organization discipline he gave back in street-(smoking) -cred.

Randall didn’t get into all of that. Rather he interrupted himself in order to get to the point because, in reality, he felt as bad as he looked. “Anyway, you’re surprised there are difficulties and complications that come along with the perks of notoriety. So am I man. And although I’m not sure we aren’t already too far along the path we’ve taken to turn back, far be it from me to tell you we can’t fold up the tent and go back to the quiet lives we were once living.”

“Extremely quiet,” they thought in concert, alternating between nostalgia and nausea at their prior, anonymous existences. A verbose group, nobody said a word and Randall took their silence as a decision to forge ahead…for a while.

“If not,” he went on, “there’s work to be done on a number of fronts. Yvonne has
additional legal concerns to be addressed. Her infamy isn’t going to help her one wit, just the opposite. The powers-that-be want to skewer her.”

“Well we haf dat lawyer,” Clarisse pointed out.

“Not any more,” Randall clarified to a silence that said The Smokers understood just how unsavory association with them had become. “You know, we’re winning the public relations battle and we’re losing it at the same time.”

“How’s ’at possible hon?”

“There are a lot of people watching man.”

This made them glad and Randall observed small, self-satisfied smiles break across everyone’s face except Yvonne’s.

“So we need more money,” Corey tried to invite some conciseness into the roundtable, but really, everyone already knew that. “We need a better legal team and we need some other kind of strategy that’s proactive and keeps our enemies on the defensive.”

This reintroduced some glumness to the table because, again, everyone was kind of exhausted by the length of the saga. Randall moved to pep folks up, but Joya beat him to the punch.

“Well, maybe who we’re becoming will bring someone else to us that ken help?” she asked/asserted in that inimitable Smokers’ style. Of course, we know what she’s up to, but the rest of them don’t, so they all just shrugged and hoped she was right.

Chapter Fifty-two

So, with little more than the last part of Chapter Fifty-one for guidance, each of The Sidewalk Smokers went back to their respective corners to see what it was they could do for themselves and for one another; living proof the universal finds itself in the particular and the other way around, too.

Driving home from the meeting, Jordan saw a man in a suit and tie tailing him. There could be no doubt that he was, in a subtle way, very much in jail. When he parked and headed down the walkway to his place, the fellow drove off, smiling. It gave him the chills. (“Fold up the tent and go back to the quiet lives we were once leading.”)

Acting upon the bum philosophy strategy for proactive, offensive action, J. walked into his place and picked up the phone to call Eilin. He made up his own tenet: “The worse she can do is say ‘no’.”

She picked up and spoke. It surprised Jordan who’d expected a voice mail. What she said does not matter. Only that her voice grew out of a safe and sweeter world than his and that he wanted that world. So, on second thought, what she said did matter, or at least how it was said.

He found her willing and open. His plan for a date was revenue neutral and still she signed on. A walk along the beach. That’s all he had for her and the response suggested it was more than she might have hoped for. So there it was. Things had been dark, but he’d let a little light back in and now they were only gray.

Soon thereafter, he got a call from the prosecutor handling his criminal charges against Armenian Power. She said there had been a postponement in the case, at the defendant’s request.

“Being the defendant sounds great,” he said wryly.

“For now,” she assured him.

There had been earlier postponements and the delay was killing Jordan. She’d advised him he should not file a civil suit for damages ($) until he had a guilty verdict in the criminal proceeding. And that was too bad, because litigation seemed the only path still available to fiduciary salvation.

Across town (and a few days later) Randall was ruminating on this very thing. It seemed to him that The Sidewalk Smokers Club’s rigorous use of the legal system offered proof the courts were the only way left for redistributing wealth, progressive taxation being discredited as it was.

For his part, Randall felt distracted from the development of bum philosophy. “It keeps going on and on,” Corey had complained, but the truth was that Randall could not get into a good groove of late. There were phone calls to be returned cluttering his schedule. Hat Midone showed up one night with a pair of easy marks and Randall had been too weak to resist. This, he felt, was a sure sign of his success; he knew that one’s productivity usually went up when fortune receded, because there was nothing else to do but work. Those who attain this understanding are artists. Those who don’t, aren’t.

The news he would soon get from Joya’s corner would not cheer the heart. A friendlier member of the BID informed her that the executive board had taken things a step further in addressing the problem of sidewalk smokers along their retail strip. Convinced by Thorpe and Diaz that using private security would be more expensive and legally treacherous they decided to let local law enforcement handle the matter so that the general public picked up the tab.

The Chief was thrilled with the inspectors’ performance. He had been worried they might birth a disaster and not believed them quite so capable of dumping the problem back into the police department’s lap.

Elephantine, the force found a malleable suburban city councilman, cornered by his own claims of being a “law and order” candidate, to carry their ordinance for a blanket prohibition on sidewalk smoking. Without it they could do nothing, with it, the sky was the limit.

And so the stakes had been raised.

The Smokers had been deemed (gulp!) subversive. The only answer to this, in a free society, is to eliminate the cancer at its source by suffocating all freedom. The move was tantamount to making illegal The Sidewalk Smokers themselves.


For the moment, the enemy was way ahead of The Club.

Chapter Fifty-three

Jordan saw a slice of blue in the blinds to the window over his bed. It was a sure sign that he was late for work. He slid some music in. The little machine on the floor began to put out a song he normally used to motivate himself for the onslaught of life at Java World, but failed to budge him. He could no longer tell if he was scared. The time of fluctuations was over. He permanently did not feel good and this made him reticent to move around. Jordan didn’t want to work at Java World. His recurring visions of the Armenian girl made him loathe to announce that he labored in the coffee service industry, for he suspected she would probably drop him like nobody’s business. The philosophy of romance holds that chemistry can indeed prevail; that when there is love, it doesn’t matter what you do for a living. But Jordan wasn’t buying. He was selling. Out. “Every man has his price, but the moral man keeps his affordable,” Randall had told him once. Jordan’s price was a calm, nice, anonymous life with a woman who had question marks over her eyes. That was good enough.So he turned over and went to sleep for another five minutes, which of course did not suffice, so he took a few more. The phone rang. He answered to the soothing sounds of his boss yelling a small employer’s mantra of threats, woes, and pleas. He knew the drill. He apologized, hung up, and pulled himself out of Terra Jordania and back into the world.

He chose not to look at the ocean. In it he would see Eilin and he didn’t want her around yet. The golden light of the little coffee bar burned warm. A sporty car was parked out front idling. As Jordan approached the door, the pretty blonde from the fitness club came out, both hands occupied with white clumps of packaging.

“Hey,” she said, “I missed you this morning!”

He found her lightheartedness enviable enough to kill him. “Sorry,” was all J. could muster. She smiled a little and waved goodbye. He reached for the door. “Hey,” her voice carried from a little farther away now. He turned. She got back out of her car and took a few steps closer. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Question?” Jordan widged. “Question? I’m great at answering questions. Go ahead.”
She sensed his edge, but with an angel’s mission pushed gently on. “What the hell are you doing working in this place?”

He sat there for a long time.

“I thought you were good at answering questions,” she prodded.

“I am.”

“Well what do you say?”

“Thank you.”

She nodded as if to signal he’d gotten it right, mounted her horsepower, and rode off into the blue morning gloom. The door to the barn screamed in its joints as he pulled it open. “Jesus!” he winced.

“Jesus,” the Boss mocked him. “Maybe if you oiled it once in a while…”

The place was empty and something of a tense standoff was going on between Carlos and The Big Man.

“I will ask you again: Did you close the register last Sunday?”

“I weel tell you agang, yes I close it.”

“What were the total receipts?” the Boss continued his persecution.

“I don know. Jou tink I remember tha? Maybe seben hundre, like every Sunday.”

“It was three-fifty Carlos, that is what you reported. There’s no way this place only made three hundred and fifty dollars on a Sunday.”

Jordan could see Carlos was not really in the mood, so he decided to further sabotage his own existence. “C’mon Chris,” he said, “this guy practically runs the fucking place.”

Carlos nodded in adamant agreement. Chris was speechless at the audacity.

“I’m serious,” Jordan said to fill in the silence which he guessed to be working against him. “This guy’s the coffee captain, the colonel of cappuccino. He picks up bagels on his way in, covers for incompetent college kids. You’re busting him for being Mexican. Anyone of these people working here, the ones that come and go, are more likely to clip you than Carlos.”

Implicit was the threat of some kind of nightmarish lawsuit based on race discrimination. Jordan’s affiliation to The Smokers and their apparent affinity for litigation left no doubt in The Boss’s mind that such a thing could be done. He reworked his attitude. “That’s a beautiful speech Jordan, but you’re fired anyway.”

Jordan heaved a great sigh of relief. Carlos beamed with appreciation. Chris said, “He’s the one that checks the cash register. There’s really no way around it.

If there was an imbalance between receipts and cash he should have reported it or found the source of the problem before signing off.”

“I guess that’s true,” Jordan said before extending his hand, “Thanks for the job,” he smiled graciously, “it was a pleasure and helped me out a lot, too. I wish you well.” They shook and he bounded out jaunty, free for a day.

“Well what are you waiting for?” Chris asked Carlos.

“What jou mean?”

“What are you standing there for? Get out of here.”

“Am I fire or no?”

“What do you think?"

“Say it.”

“You’re fired.”

Carlos, who might have been a lawyer had he been born under a different star, knew those two words were worth some hundreds of dollars a week in unemployment insurance for the next six months. He appreciated Jordan’s strengthening his hand in a crucial moment and he wasn’t going to forget it.

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