Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapters 70 and 71

Chapter Seventy

That they shared a well-developed past together made Corey’s and Clarisse’s (nobody had ever actually moved out) return to the fold a smooth event. There were problems, loose and dangling ends, but the comfortable familiarity they restored to each other’s lives served as antidote to so much of the disorder that had been going on all around them since Corey started smoking. And that’s what relationships are for.

The radicals and revolutionaries amongst us might criticize their tropism towards comfort as a sign of creeping burgher softness – a departure from their disciplined approach to the cause. And they would be right, but folks and circumstances change and consistency of commitment is a difficult thing to maintain. Those who can might, or might not, be worthy of our admiration. For although constancy is a desirable thing, so is mutability where universal phases of life begin and end for each of us.

Or as bum philosophy holds, “Most stupid acts come from people who think they’re smart.”

They had spent a few nights dining out at certain places money and their social adventurism had opened doors to. The couple had ended the latter portions of those evenings in bed together. The recent months of stress and dedication to their mutual and respective causes had altered each’s body map and confronted them with new configurations to adore and feel.

There was an element of rediscovery in the renewed nuptials. And they were both smarter, too, so that there was a sense each might relearn the other in a different light. A chance that this time they might get it right. There was, as well, gratitude at having recovered something lost, a sweetness that helped them through the awkward moments of unresolved debits rooted in the fact that each had hurt the other. All of which is well known to couples who thrive on a break-up and make-up cycle, a guild to which neither Clarisse or Corey had it in themselves to join.

They had agreed to meet Jordan and Eilin for a coffee at the former’s former place of work. The quartet sat outside on the plastic chairs, taking in the sun and the assorted clientele. J. liked returning to Java World and interacting on a personal level with those he’d once served. It was a kind of psychic account balancing he felt necessary given that he’d been mature when he worked there and did not quite fit the mold of your typical food server. Jordan was aching to dispel misconceptions about the true arc of his ambition and diminish his life as barista to the mere cul-de-sac (he hoped) it represented. Sitting there with a woman he knew to be the prettiest in the world, along with community notables like Corey and Clarisse, allowed him to erase the old looks of the young girls with question-mark-faces passing by.

Anyhow, where we normally say, “it didn’t matter,” we cannot now. There they sat, the slight interest that had once passed between J. and Clarisse an evaporated mist, an episode not uncommon to groups of friends passing time in couples not yet invulnerable to the temptations of another’s love-friend.

Even in the most liberal of social structures, it is not easy to find yourself alone with an eligible specimen from the other sex. There are too many strings and obstacles and interests attached to the certifiably suitable mate. But in collectives like The Smokers’, the requirement of working together in common cause, puts boy and girl together regardless of their sex-juices.

The conversation had worked its way around to Corey’s relationship with his father. He’d sent Dad a recliner chair as his way of saying thanks for everything he had done to help him get to this plateau. His Dad, they all agreed, was not entirely wrong in viewing the gesture as economic boisterousness on the part of a ne’er-do-well son who’d found himself flush thanks to a dubious venture.

“It’s anti-social behavior – smoking,” his father had chided, after calling to say thanks for the recliner.

“So is,” Corey had thought, “yelling,” but didn’t go into it because his father, as usual, had all the momentum in the conversation.

“A gift’s a gift,” Corey told his sidewalk friends. “It’s not blood money. Nobody died.”

Which was, of course, not at all an open-and-shut question, Jordan felt compelled to point out in a tone Eilin had never heard him use before.

Down-to-earth and understated, Eilin pointed out that, “Sometimes parents are not willing to be satisfied. They forget that once you grow up that you don’t need the judgement or the pushing from them, because now you’re out in the world where you get it all the time.”

It was her first time out with the tribe. Corey and Clarisse reflected, individually, that the girl had something of Joya’s positive sweetness to her yet did not command the kind of attention the Coloradoan did. She had a little personality that fit perfectly inside her diminutive body whereas Joya’s capacious corpus seemed unable to hold all of the Joya that there was inside it.

Clarisse turned to the great universal by asking J.’s gal about Armenian family life.

“Oh, we’re very close,” said Eilin. “We see each other all the time.”

Corey had a question for her about this, which Jordan never heard because he saw Andy Dumburton coming toward Java World. J. could not imagine what the hell it was the relentless detective wanted now, but had a few choice words saved up for him in any case.

Dumburton saw Jordan sitting there, averted his glance, and slipped into the coffee shop. J. rose from his seat and followed the detective inside.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked in a very aggressive manner.

“I learned to like the coffee and the charm of the place,” Dumburton responded. “C’mon, I’m off duty. Get out of my face.”

Later, Jordan would marvel at how the most benign of narcotics could alter one’s daily behavior patterns, but in that moment, he took a different tack. “I thought you were done with me. You were going to help me get some work at a marina or some bullshit like that.”

“Mind your manners,” said the detective. Dumburton, off-duty, stripped of his authority seemed inoffensive, scared even; a square in crazyman territory hoping no one noticed. With the veil of fear lifted Jordan saw for the first time how his fair face was speckled with age spots. “That’s right,” Dumburton moved to the heart of J.’s question, “I spoke with my brother. It’s yours if you want it. Whaddaya coming up to me like the Night Stalker for if what you want is a favor?”

“You know damn well I’m not here for a job.”

Dumburton looked into Jordan’s eyes and saw what this was about. The two men, different worlds that they inhabited were now linked by unspoken understandings. “Alright,” he admitted before having been accused. “So I gave it one more shot.”

“You said it was over and that you were going to leave me alone.”

“So I lied. But I lied retroactively. I meant my promise when I said it. In any case, we’re even now.” He turned to the luscious coed who’d replaced Jordan behind the counter at Java World and said, “Give me a latte will ya sweetheart.” He looked over his shoulder to Jordan with an expression that asked, “So what are you going to say to that?”

J. wasn’t going to say anything because he didn’t know what Dumburton meant by lying retroactively and had gotten caught up in trying to resolve it in his mind.
They both knew it was the first time in a dozen such exchanges that he had not issued forth his mantra-like denial. Maybe he was sick of it all, maybe he wasn’t. Neither cared.

“Ya gotta cute girl there…if she’s yours,” the detective teased. “Call me up, I’ll give you the contact number and little prep talk. You should do it.”

The girl handed Dumburton his latte and when he wafted a bill in front of her face, she waved it away. He turned to Jordan. “See? Cops don’t pay,” and stuck it in the tip jar before launching a saunter out. J. thought he noted some relief in the detective’s breathing and posture and realized that he’d gotten to him. The Smokers had grown tough, although that was hardly their purpose or reason for being.

He stepped back outside and saw that his girl was gone. “Where’s Eilin?” he asked understandably enough.

“We started to talk about dat Ceety Atturny and she got mad.”

“Oh,” Jordan said, “I know, she doesn’t like him for some reason.”

“I take it you’ve had that discussion?” Corey prodded.

Jordan nodded that they had.

“And she told you about the ‘Angel Without Mercy’?”

“Yeah, she thinks City Attorney bailed on the case out of political convenience.”

“But did she tell you about the old lady who died?” Corey forged ahead.

“I don’t know much of anything about the case,” Jordan kicked into gumshoe mode.

“It was her grandmother,” Corey told him.

Chapter Seventy-one

Thorpe and Diaz didn’t know what to think or do.

The city attorney had advised the cops to dump the whole mess back in their laps. The firemen had no choice but to accept because, in the end, the police force has the guns.

A day was coming when the smokers were going to have to be moved out and it was clear they would not do so without a fight. And the fire chief had once again put Thorpe and Diaz to the task of handling the matter with private security forces.

Clearly, with the addition of a second BID thrown into their semi-public meetings for concocting a plan to rid retail strips of sidewalk smokers, their importance (if not their actual talents) had grown.

Thorpe was suspicious, concerned. “What if the chief’s just sacrificing us, you know, killing our careers with a suicide mission?” he asked his partner.

“It’s only sacrificing or suicide if we don’t get it right,” Diaz responded.

And that was true, Thorpe reasoned internally. After all, at some point in his career the chief must have been saddled with an equally imponderable quandary (his mind did not employ this exact vocabulary) and come out of it with flying colors.

Opportunities like this are how you become chief, he decided. All of which was well and good, but now they were meeting with the lesbian city councilperson – the same lady who’d been part of that first imbroglio which had almost cost them so dearly.

Their prejudices made the whole thing more distasteful still.

“She’s a dyke and if we help her pull this off she’ll be the mayor,” said Thorpe, laying a silver lining into the case for intentional failure.

“It’s crazy, I know. How the hell did that happen?” asked Diaz.

“What, that we got stuck with this job or that she might become mayor?” Thorpe answered with a question.

“I know how we got stuck with the job,” Diaz frowned.

“Oh,” said Thorpe as they made their way, inconspicuously as possible, into an elevator and up the tower of City Hall, standing tall as a signature of justice and clean administration for all to take comfort in.

Diaz answered his own question. “It’s that fucked up city attorney joining these crazy smokers people. Why the hell would he do that?”

“Because he’s smarter than the rest of the people working in this building.”
Diaz had an innate understanding of what Thorpe was telling him, but required further explanation. Thanks to years of working in tandem, Thorpe picked up on his partner’s silence. “Don’t you see? He went with them because they’re fun. They’ve got the girls. We get promotions, more serious problems, and a meeting with a fat dyke.”

Diaz was quickly learning the true meaning of success American style. “So he follows his happiness, goes after pleasure, and enjoys the order and safety we provide?” Oscar had conveniently forgotten the pair’s handiwork at the benefit/press conference.

“And we,” Thorpe confirmed, “get stuck doing the dirty work with the other ‘serious people’.”

Just about the time the virtues of frivolity and self-indulgence were coming into focus for them, the inspectors arrived at the citycouncilperson’s door, which had her name painted in gold over a frosted-glass window in the art moderne style.

“You first,” said Thorpe and Diaz obliged.

Lesbian citycouncilperson took one look at the beefy, thick-necked samples of everything she had fought during her career and, in thought processes fast enough to cover all the ground Thorpe and Diaz had just plodded through verbally, realized what a swindle she’d been subjected to, what a pig-in-a-poke she’d been sold. “Damn those Sidewalk Smokers,” she hissed under her breath.

“Djou say sumthin’?” Thorpe interjected, dropping the quality of his dialect as he always did when faced with a superior in the hierarchy of order to which he’d so dumbly dedicated himself.

“I said,” she lied in preparation for her unlikely turn at the mayoralty, “let’s find an intelligent way of doing away with these jokers.”

Although not police, Thorpe and Diaz were in the business of enforcement and they knew there was probably no such thing as “an intelligent way” of undertaking the brute task of removing unwilling persons from a location forbidden to them. When you pushed someone a little bit, they took just as much offense as when you pushed them a lot. When you wanted to push a group of primarily young people trying to make a living off attitude and looks from a location, you had to do it with full force and that was a public relations battle impossible to win.

Which, of course, begged the question of what exactly the fire chief expected of them.

Of course, the duo had already engaged The Sidewalk Smokers Club down in the trenches. They thought there was a script to be followed and that the councilwoman was obligated by that script to say these things. Sure, she was earnest when she proclaimed that, “I don’t want a scene, I don’t want violence, I don’t want to see cute kids dragged by their collars or their hair in the streets of my district on television.” And they nodded as if they understood while quite convinced what she had described exactly what would happen. Although they’d at least be “looking into some possible alternatives” – a phrase public policymakers diaper their naked asses with in situations such as this.

She thought the message, for what it was worth, was getting through loud and clear given the way they absentmindedly, with good nature even, nodded in rhythm to the rising and dipping cadence of her nasal voice. After a few minutes of assurances on the part of Thorpe and Diaz, and veiled threats from her about their mutual future with the department, there were handshakes all around and the fire inspectors left.

The councilwoman sat back for a moment and then directed staff to allow her a meditative moment.

It was a prickly business to be sure (she meditated). Having taken refuge in the radical and impossible-to-deliver over the course of her career she suddenly found herself having to deliver on some rather practical dry-goods of governance. Having avoided (and insulted) the likes of men like Thorpe and Diaz for years, she found herself in the unenviable position of having to rely upon them. She took solace and comfort in the fact that it was the BID’s security people who would actually be carrying out the fire inspectors’ plan. She reasoned that these men, accustomed to riding bicycles all day and making eyes at the girls along the street, would be ill-equipped to undertake the hardcore business of real policing with its bodily force and billyclub menace. Why she thought this would prevent a disaster rather than provoke one is a secret of her own keeping.

The councilwoman fretted at how, now, every move made was crucial. This was in stark contrast to those (recent) days when she said whatever popped into her head because only a handful of people were listening and the vast majority discounting her seriousness, preparation, and motives (which were invariably linked to the fact she liked girls). She resented the pressure. She’d never asked for it. Her run for mayor, she mused, had been a chance to get on television, make some celebrity friends, and help frame the issues important to her rare constituency.

Now she already had to act like she was the mayor and crash a party which, just weeks ago, she’d been a party to.

Down the hall, CA sat with his feet up on the desk knowing exactly what the lesbiancitycouncilperson was thinking at the moment. Despite the fact he still had a few months on the job and a backlog of cases to handle on behalf of the municipality, his recent abdication of the mayoralty meant City Attorney was no longer where the action was. Staffers had abandoned him or were out roaming the halls in search of new locomotives they might hitch their cars to.

He smiled. By shooting himself in the foot, he’d crippled her instead and he wondered why more politicians over the centuries had not availed themselves of the exquisitries associated with relinquishing power and simultaneously sticking it up their enemies’ asses.

The answer, he knew, was that the principal drive of all politicians is to have power and to know that once it was lost, something up their own ass could not be far off. He shrugged. To play the game one must know the game before the opening whistle and CA’s meticulous preparation assured his solvency.

Anyhow, it didn’t matter. Lesbian city councilperson was screwed, he was certain, based upon his prior experience involving the removal, displacement and/or uprooting of people who don’t want to go. Like Thorpe and Diaz, he knew there were no two ways about it. Things invariably got ugly because it is in the wiring of those who enlist in police forces and security detachments to satisfy their adrenal passions for meting out pain under the guise of authority when the opportunity presents itself.

They read Soldier of Fortune magazine. Cut from the same cloth as Green Beret commandos, they are in the minor leagues of it all – a fact that renders them infinitely more dangerous.

As such, he was concentrating on keeping Randall, Corey, and his beloved (the rest of the time he was thinking of her rail of a body, so thin, yet tall enough to offer a mass of flesh enticing to his own sexual proclivities) apprised of the risk.

He could go down the hall and explain this to lesbiancitycouncilperson, but to what end? The machine had been set in motion. It was a predicament begging for violent resolution. It was public, economic, ideological, and woven together in a web of nicotine. There was no way the BIDs were going back on the idea that they’d once inhabited a smoke-free urban Arcadia which they now wanted restored. Similarly, there was no way a bunch of kids (and kids at heart) in the earliest stages of social development – fresh from elementary primers on democracy and freedom – were going to accept anything other than that which logic told them was both correct and just. They were persuaded beyond all doubt that the air surrounding was the possession of no government and no flower shop, that it did not belong to any police force – let alone a fake security detail and two dullard fire inspectors – and nothing was going to convince them of the contrary.

Only The Sidewalk Smokers Club stood a chance of convincing the sidewalk smokers that there was a better way or that it wasn’t worth getting your head bashed in over.

At that moment his secretary buzzed and announced the arrival of Corey and a young woman who, apparently, had a bone to pick with City Attorney. He gave the green light.

The alternately beautiful, yet plain, Eilin walked in followed by Corey. As did Jordan, City Attorney liked her right away and he had to hand it to The Smokers. They kept it sexy and they kept it interesting.

By way of background (which City Attorney didn’t know): Eilin and Jordan had just suffered the first argument of their young and ill-starred relationship. She’d asked him to use his influence with City Attorney and arrange a meeting. His gal, in obvious pain over the untimely (?) death of her grandmother, wanted to rake the man who’d once made the case a lynchpin to his run for mayor over coals of her own heating. And Jordan had refrained. Surprised, for one, that he was the possessor of “influence,” he had very good reasons to let sleeping old ladies lie. Eilin, tender and delicious in her rage had excited him at many levels, but failed to convince Jordan that such an arrangement was somehow in his best interest. His inability to tell her exactly why opened the rift between them.

So here they were. The details of the debate have been covered before. Eilin’s assault was moral and made of the same stuff The Sidewalk Smokers Club and sidewalk smokers used to defend their own peculiarities; a youthful demand that decency and fairness be realized to their fullest extent. Corey, not knowing that Jordan’s future lie in the balance, lent The Club’s imprimatur to the affair by accompanying Eilin’s impassioned plea the case be reopened with a gentle, persistent nodding of the head.

Listening to the young girl, City Attorney gave thanks to the heavens that everyone wasn’t idealistic and expecting of justice from life, because it would overwhelm his office.

But just then something overwhelming happened anyway. Joya walked in a little early for their date together. She liked to see offices, she explained, since she had never worked in one. She kissed Corey familiarly and was just “pleased as punch” to meet the girl Jordan had told her all about. And then she gave her a once up-and-down that made Eilin uncomfortable. Joya sat on a sofa about four feet behind the two chairs in front of the desk occupied by Corey and Eilin.

Clever and quick of mind, she gasped when the few pieces necessary to understanding what was at hand fell into place. Behind Eilin she shook her head emphatically enough to catch City Attorney’s eye, which caught Eilin’s eye, which caused her to look over her shoulder at Joya who smiled in a way that a kid caught doing something mildly wrong does.

Love was in the mix and City Attorney, without requiring any explanation from Joya, informed Eilin that his days in office were winding down, and that sorry as he was about what had happened to her grandmother, he saw no merit in reopening a case which, for all practical intents and purposes, had turned out to be something of a mystery to the detective handling it. His boldface lie complete, he got up to signal that the meeting was over.

Eilin was not pleased and she told City Attorney this. She added that something was fishy and shot Joya a look that nearly melted her. “I don’t know what kind of friend you’re supposed to be to The Sidewalk Smokers Club, but if this is any indication then they’d better watch out careful for themselves.”

“From the mouths of babes,” thought City Attorney. Corey, not having a single gripe against the politician, shrugged and followed the tempestuous Armenian girl out the door.

City Attorney turned to Joya who had risen to her feet and was literally sweating. “What the hell was that about?”

“Hon, you can’t open that case back up again.”

“I know that,” he rejoined, “I was just doing my job, letting her vent.”

A moment of truth began working its way into an otherwise humdrum day that was to have ended in a new restaurant City Attorney had used his waning influence to secure a reservation at.

A little something has been said about the fatigue afflicting The Smokers at this point in their story. Joya, with her store in trouble, her true sexuality (if it existed) repressed under a self-imposed martial law, her neighbors at work declaring war on her etc., was not at the top of her game and he could see it.

“What’s up with you?” City Attorney prodded.

“Listen City Attorney, I just don’t want Jordan ta get inta trouble is all.”

“Hey,” he was getting annoyed, “why are you so bent out of shape? Your friend’s not an angel you know. He had no right to do what he did. I dropped the thing because you asked and I saw a mess ahead for all of us. But you sound like you love this guy Jordan.”

Make that two moments of truth; this one specifically for Joya.

“Wull, unh, yeah I guess I do,” she informed herself as much as him. “He tried to help that old lady from suffering. He was sick himself – without money or anything – and he went down and took care of her when the law was against him. And then these guys pulled him out of his car and beat the shit outta him and, and,” she broke down at exactly the place of least meaning that always mystifies the male half of the heterosexual pairing.

“How is that different from the way you love me?” asked City Attorney, without much mercy himself, understandably wondering about the wisdom of having given his heart over to a woman whom, by nature, was drawn to woman.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“What do you know?” he said rather more like a city attorney than a lover.

“To be kind and help other people,” she answered. “To see someone in trouble and help them. To let them have the last glass of wine at dinner,” which he now recalled that she’d done for him a few times already, “even though ah wouldn’t mind it for myself. To sacrifice the welfare of my business, mah life’s work, when I see that someone who’s not botherin’ anybody, just livin’ their life, is getting’ a beatin’ they don’t deserve. I’m scared of the circumstances people get caught up in and I fight that fear by helpin’ them, if ah can, to overcome such things.”

City Attorney sensed her accent deepening in concert with her convictions, but made a snap decision not to be charmed at this very moment. “Did you engage me,” he asked, “to help save him?”
Joya was silent.

“Was there, or was there not, an unspoken quid pro quo?”

“Whaddya mean by that?” she asked, knowing full well what he meant by that.

“Would you be here now if I hadn’t agreed to drop the investigation?”

She thought that had been understood and, in truth, it had, but City Attorney’s vanity was hurt. “No I wouldn’t,” and she dropped her head like a little girl caught dressed in her mother’s best clothes.

And it’s a good thing she dropped her head, for it was a human act, a spontaneity that completely disarmed him. Most people would have stomped out, angry with Joya for having given profile in words to an ugly secret kept between them. But City Attorney was a politician used to doing what it takes to obtain things, to obtain power, and to obtain people. His life was one long act in horse-trading by which he gained prizes beyond the reach of those less cunning or less willing to bend.

“Do you love me?” he asked, not out of any desire to conclude the matter one way or the other, but rather to know where he stood in this game he’d committed to with the unsettling Coloradan.

Joya threw her hands up and fled the office crying which, as she herself has noted, is the fashion of passionate women the world over, and across cultures, in such instances of confusion and pressure.

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