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Living Out Loud: : The Citizen -- Blowing Smoke

Kelly and the cigarette

By Steven Paul Lansky · August 17th, 2005 · Living Out Loud

Kelly was an old acquaintance. I first met her some years ago when she was dating her husband.

Before Sitwell's Coffeehouse opened, the same basement space was called the Cove. The Cove was a low-lit room with head-high, small paned windows lining the street-side wall. The decoration theme was nautical, and the place was under Tudor Court Apartments, a sprawling, dark brick three-story complex that took up a block between Middleton Avenue and Whitfield Avenue. Dave, a husky, attractive young fellow bartended for the owner, and Kelly was sweet on him. Dave had a pierced tongue and moonlighted at a tattoo and piercing parlor. He rode a motorcycle and came from a large, tight knit family of musicians, saloon and tavern workers.

I lived just a couple of blocks away from the Cove down Middleton in a red brick house with a tile front porch. I had even started going there more than a decade ago, when I lived in urban Over-the-Rhine. I think my first attraction to the place was with a theater group I joined to workshop Hard Nosed. I ended up producing the play in the early '90s just as I was moving up to Clifton. The Cove had slow service, a variety of coffee drinks, a full bar, sandwiches and desserts. It was clearly a basement space, and not without cockroaches.

Kelly was a little stocky, with a pleasant face, an upturned nose, and I was attracted to her. She had the dark eyes of a deeply emotional young woman, and also talked while she smoked filtered cigarettes.

One time in the Cove, Neil Aquino, an assistant to a city councilman, heard me complaining about a pothole. He said he could get it filled if I told him where it was. So, over a period of months I received official mail from City Hall's Public Works Department about filling potholes. The letters were always addressed "Dear Citizen Lansky." I started Neil with an easy one, and sure enough it was filled in a matter of days. The second task was to remove a set of railroad tracks on Elsinore Avenue that went nowhere. I complained they were uneven, unused and were doing damage to the suspension systems of cars.

The next time I went to the Cove, Neil was there and so was Kelly, who was hanging out on a barstool, smoking and chatting. I thanked Neil and kidded with Dave about being called "Citizen." Dave and Kelly called me Citizen from then forward.

Later Dave opened the Comet, a two-room bar in Northside that had a great jukebox, which featured local bands, including ones that played there regularly -- the Fairmount Girls, Ass Ponys, the Comet Bluegrass All Stars, to name a few.

The kitchen was open till 1 a.m. nightly, serving fabulous San Francisco style burritos with an especially good salsa of the month and jerk tofu. The Comet had simple steel furniture, some corner booths and a good beer selection.

Kelly partnered up with two other women and opened No Anchovies on Ludlow, next to the Esquire Theatre. This pizza place had the craziest looking pierced and tattooed employees, featured a mural of Ludlow's streetscape (which was later altered because it had some political implications to some of the businesses on the avenue) and fabulous calzones. The pizza dough was tasty, the vegetarian menu desirable and it did a steady business selling slices and whole pizza pies.

The three women ran it for five years, then sold the place. Meanwhile, over at the Cove, a new owner took over and changed the name to Sitwell's.

The decor changed to honor the British poet Edith Sitwell. The floor was painted yellow and the tables and chairs were replaced with ones of a mix of different heights, sizes and construction, giving the place instant atmosphere. The cockroach problem was somehow solved, and leafy green plants hung in the street-side windows. After a few years and after an upscale restaurant had failed in the old No Anchovies location, Sitwell's moved its coffeehouse there.

Moving ahead a few years, I was finishing my creative thesis for Miami University, working my way through a list of novels in preparation for my exam. Every morning I visited Sitwell's with book in hand. Usually I would sit on the window seat on the blue cushion and have a breakfast of oatmeal with fruit. It had taken awhile to get through The Naked and the Dead. When I got to Native Son, the struggle about censorship in Cincinnati had reached another new milestone.

The Esquire Cinema owner had edited a film while I was in Trenton State Hospital. When I returned, having seen the film's Web site, I wrote a letter that CityBeat published. In the meantime, CityBeat's film critic had been banned from the Esquire and many people stood in a queue to see movies while others leafleted the customers. The protesters were passing out nametags with the name of the banned critic. The line stretched past Sitwell's to the corner of Telford Avenue, across from the ice cream parlor. This corner was where I had started performing on harmonica with Jake Speed and the Freddies.

One night, when the line was long and Jake wasn't around, I borrowed a chair from the ice cream shop and sat on the corner reading Native Son.

I don't know exactly what my motivation was. It just happened. As I sat there people stopped to watch, giggled, shuffled past. Some commented, "Should we tip you?" "Something about education?" "A strange protest."

After 40 minutes or so, Kelly came by. She was smoking a cigarette and puffed close to me. "The Clifton Business Association is all up in arms about --"

In an aggressive moment, I (a diehard non-smoker) asked her, "Could I have a hit off that?" She handed me the cigarette, then I tossed it on the sidewalk past me.

"Bad Citizen," she said. "How could you do that?"

She picked up the smoke, and strode off, cursing me.

The next morning I was in Sitwell's seated at the non-smoking counter when she came in.

"Citizen, are you taking your medication?"

"OK. I know you are angry at me but you were blowing smoke in my face."

"You asked me to come over."

"You came over and started blathering about the Business Council."

"Citizen, what you did was wrong."

I don't remember exactly where things went from there.

"Just because people get angry and disagree doesn't mean there's anything wrong with their medication. I don't think you should be medicated."

Kelly huffed away. Then, later she apologized. I now think I was wrong in my action. But, at that moment, I felt a big glow of heat in my head. My chest was tight with righteousness. Kelly had been the victim of my psychology. I don't know now if I've reported this accurately. As the tensions in my life increased, my ability to report events became flawed. I took no notes of this particular incident. When I was quitting smoking, years ago, others often offered me cigarettes and I learned to break them in half and hand them back. This cured the others of offering me smokes. With Kelly, I had done nearly the rudest thing a person could do to a smoker. I took the smoke from her and tossed it away as she needed and wanted it most.

Smokers are very, very tricky about being deprived of their smokes. I was surprised by her reaction. At the time I felt she was overreacting. Now I know I crossed a boundary then that I had crossed in different ways earlier that summer, and I would cross it again. I had become socially indignant.

Weekly chapters of The Citizen can be found at queencityforum.com. Mr. Lansky teaches creative writing at Miami University and lives in Clifton.



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