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Living Out Loud: : Smoking Is Only Allowed in the Back

The Citizen and his kids go to Sitwell's

By Steven Paul Lansky · April 5th, 2006 · Living Out Loud
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It's early August, early afternoon. Sitting comfortably in a tall, dark, wooden high-backed stool, I'm in air conditioned Sitwell's drinking orange juice mixed with cranberry juice and lots of ice.

Lisa, her blond curls curling with the humidity, is training a new employee. This is the front bar area of the coffeehouse -- a single large rectangular room, where smoking is only allowed in the back, darker, partially curtained off, designated with a sign: Smoking Lounge.

The postcard racks display artsy cards featuring Man Ray, Mae West, Betty Page, Jackie Onassis and all manner of odd bits of S&M, quirky nudes, pulp fiction covers, strange movie images and carnival freaks. There are books about the Sitwell family on the counter, alongside a paneled pillar with photos of former baristas, regulars and ne'er-do-wells. Among the books is a house copy of An Evening with Edith, a collection of creative writings by denizens of the place. The books are tucked behind a red gumball dispenser that offers seven chocolate-coated espresso beans for a quarter.

I've just purchased a used racing bicycle in parts and I spent the morning a mile up Clifton Avenue working on it at a bicycle shop owned by a high school friend. I have known Lisa since high school, too. I've been enjoying coming to Sitwell's early in the morning for oatmeal and fruit after a vigorous walk. Then I ask Lisa for quarters and buy copies of The Cincinnati Enquirer, The New York Times and USA Today. I sit at the counter and with a pen, critique the editorial content, layout and design of these three papers, often exclaiming out loud when an article or advertisement is blatantly pushing a conservative agenda.

I'm especially following stories about violence by Cincinnati Police against black citizens. Lisa has been clipping articles for me when I'm away and I've been working on angry satire about blacks being sodomized by white Cincinnati policemen. When new stories break, I often use the computer terminal in the nook across from the counter to research the latest local news. The stories seem to change rapidly as I come and go throughout the summer days.

In my more lucid moments I have been discussing, or rather, holding forth (with anyone who will listen) on the idea of starting an alternative newspaper that would take a social justice perspective, employ young people as vendors and writers and expound on local values and individuals. Some of the ideas are to address the police equipment down to the shoes of the different kinds of officers (mounted, desk, motorcycle, bicycle, foot patrol and automobile). I want to know the maintenance schedules and performance requirements for the police cruisers. And I want to share human-interest stories on local amateur cyclists. The newspaper idea keeps me happy and edgy.

I feel particularly good this day. A young blond fellow well built but more compact than I am walks in and takes a seat at the bar. He orders a beer.

"I've never seen you in here before. What's your name?" I ask, adding, "I'm Steve."

"Jason."

"Are you from Cincinnati?"

"I grew up in Indiana."

The barista brings him a bottle of dark beer.

"What do you do?"

"I'm a musician. I travel with a band."

"What instrument?"

"Percussion."

Jason was smiling and drinking heartily. He had large, deep green eyes, full features and a warm smile.

"Really? A wandering gypsy? What sort of band?"

"We're called Homunculus."

"I've heard of you."

I had read about the band in CityBeat. "I don't think I've heard you play. Do you play a drum set? Do you have a CD?"

"We have two and a third of one, a live one, coming out soon. I play hand drums, congas, other percussion instruments."

"Where do you play?"

"We're playing the Mad Frog this weekend. We've played York Street."

"Cool."

Jason is wearing a copper and brass bracelet. From where I'm sitting, I can read the inscription. It reads: "Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha."

I ask, "Where did you get the bracelet?"

"My mom gave it to me."

"How old are you?"

"24."

My mind leapt in a whirl. There had been an Indiana farm girl in Los Trancos Woods, Cal. 25 years ago. We had shared meditation, marijuana and a passion for sex. I didn't want to deny the possibility. A flood of emotion pulsed through my temples. Was it possible that this young man was my son and he had come here to meet me?

He finished his beer in a long swallow.

"Want another?"

"Yes. Sure."

"A beer for Jason," I said to the barista. "Drowning your sorrows?"

"There's a girl," he said.

"There are plenty of girls," I said.

The barista found the beer cooler in the corner.

He nodded and sipped the second beer.

I had been thinking about the rights and wrongs of buying drinks for friends, searching my morals because I no longer drank. I never knew if Julie was pregnant. But surely I couldn't rule it out completely. She might not have told me. She had been 26 when I was 18. I left California. She could have returned to Indiana.

"How long have you been with Homunculus?"

"Two years."

"I'm thinking about putting together a band to tour in Florida."

"What do you play?"

"Harmonica and guitar."

Julie had worked in a bookstore.

"Is your mom into eastern religion?"

"She's cool."

He looked wistful, stared at the liquor bottles and various drawings and photos of Edith Sitwell on the shelves behind the bar.

She had loved music. We had seen Tanya Tucker open for Willie Nelson at the Circle Star in Redwood City. Tanya was only 17. The stage rotated in the center of the huge round hall. The audience had been equally mixed between cowboys, boots and hats, string ties and all and hippies with beads, long ponytails and girls in loose skirts. Julie drove a 60s blue VW bug. I remembered the authority she had in her hands, putting the car through the gears. I had missed the last half of the concert with a marijuana headache, sitting in the car out in the dark parking lot. I thought in a flash about Julie, remembered how well our young bodies had fit together. It had been a wild fling until her boyfriend came back into town.

But Jason let on nothing. Maybe I was imagining the whole thing. Just because of the mantra, I was leaping away into all kinds of imagined stuff. Sure, she knew that mantra then. So did anyone who read mystical texts. She knew I went on Thursday morning walks in Golden Gate Park with the Theosophical Society. We had never walked together on one of those occasions. I must have just been getting further from my own center.

A young blonde walked in. She was wearing tight, dark blue jeans and a white top that revealed her midriff, a pierced belly button and shapely curved tummy. She stood at the bar for a minute, asked the barista for the manager. I overheard her telling Lisa about a film she was interning on.

"It's going to be shot in the Cincinnati area, and it stars Linda Carter -- you know, Wonder Woman?"

Lisa listened.

"So?" she asked.

"Well, we're looking for restaurants to donate food for the production."

"Oh. I don't know. When will this be? How much food?" Lisa led the blonde away from the bar. They sat in the middle of the coffeehouse.

I turned back to Jason.

"If I had a motor home in Florida, and some other musicians, would you have any interest in traveling to play music? Maybe we'd fly down to Orlando."

He sipped his beer.

"You're putting together a band to tour Florida?"

"Well, I'm just thinking someone has to go down there and find out what's going on, with this presidential election farce."

Jason smiled again.

"I've just started researching on the Web, trying to find out what it would cost to rent a motor home for about five people."

He nodded.

"I might be interested. I've been thinking about branching out with some other bands."

"Once you're on the road, you'll forget about that girl."

"She came to my last show, but she left early. It's weird seeing her from on stage. Now she doesn't answer my calls. I wish she hadn't come to the show at all."

The blonde had finished talking with Lisa. She came over to the counter.

"What are you having?" I asked.

"That's okay," she said.

"Really, have a beer or a glass of wine. I'm buying."

"Well. I guess I'm done working for today. Just one."

She sat down next to Jason.

"What's your name?"

"Stephanie," she said. She pulled her hair back from her face. Her eyes were brown, she had freckles, and her nose was turned up a bit.

"I'm Steve, and this is Jason. We're musicians. We're talking about touring in Florida."

"I'll have a dark cider," she said. The barista brought her a green bottle.

"Put hers on my tab, too," I said.

"Thank you, Steve."

"You're welcome, Stephanie. You're old enough to drink?"

"I'm 24."

"Where are you from?"

"California. But, my mom was from New Jersey."

I had another moment. Jean, a girl I had met just before Julie, at a small street side restaurant in Palo Alto, Cal. had been from New Jersey. Jean and her thinner sister had worked at this Mexican joint, and I had fallen for Jean. One crazy night the three of us met at a party on Middlefield Road, where piles of green sensimilla lay in porcelain bowls and cigar boxes next to pewter trays holding cigarette papers. A belly dancer performed at the party and Jean drank longneck Lonestar beer. I remember that she nearly goaded me into a fight with a tall Texan in shit-kicking snakeskin boots by saying to me, "Are you calling my friend a liar?" when I critiqued an exaggeration of the other fellow. I said, "I'm not calling anyone a liar." She took me home to her waterbed after the cowboy tipped his hat and apologized to her. (The whole scene didn't make much sense to me at the time, as I was very stoned. I was thankful to have avoided a fistfight by grace.) We screwed each other into the night, and then I had left her abruptly; she cried and I lied and it was over. Now I was freaking quietly. This girl could be my daughter.

"I knew a Jersey girl in California many years ago," I said.

Stephanie looked over, raised her glass, and said, "To Jersey girls."

Jason lifted his bottle; I raised my juice glass. We drank, saying together, "To Jersey girls."

"So you're making a film?"

"I'm an intern. I just graduated from college and this is my third shoot. It's a big film. Part of it will be shot in Toronto. Wonder Woman is in it."

"Do you have a camera?" I twirled my mustache.

"A still camera?"

"Yeah."

"Sure. I have a digital camera." She turned her head away for a moment.

"Did you go to film school?"

"Film was my major. I went to IU."

"Do you still live in Bloomington?" Jason rolled his shoulder.

"Do you want to go with us to Florida to document our tour?"

Jason laughed. I reflected a minute and watched the two of them begin to talk. I wondered what would happen if they liked one another. It could be a problem if they were half brother and sister. Maybe they already knew and had planned this meeting?

Jason was finishing his second beer and trying to decide if he wanted another.

"That's it from me," I said.

I smelled cigarette smoke. I turned in my seat and saw the back of a thin woman sitting with Lock, one of the off-duty baristas. (Lock was a persona at Sitwell's. He was gay, always dressed in black with a black, short-brimmed cap, sideburns and eye make-up. Often he had sparkles on his cheeks and he wore a perfume that was pleasantly familiar. Once he had displayed his artwork--dolls that resembled him in every detail, including studded necklaces, black leather wristbands and belts with steel rings dangling.) The young woman sat at a round table in the front of the coffeehouse.

"Excuse me a moment," I said to Jason.

I stepped down from my bar seat and walked over to the table. These two were obviously eavesdropping on my conversation. The girl was wearing a top with thin shoulder straps. I put my hand on the bare part of her shoulder and said, "Ma'am, this is a non-smoking area. You are violating the law. I'm sure your friend knows this, because he works here." She turned to meet my gaze with innocent eyes, and a rambunctious expression crossed her face.

I stared at Lock. I went right back to my seat. Lock and the woman got up and moved to the back. I was angry. I think angry out of proportion to the gravity of the offense. In recent evenings I had been regularly confronting smokers in the non-smoking part of Sitwell's. It had occurred to me that some people were lighting up just to get my goat. If I had thought about this, the karma of it would have given me pause. When I was a smoker, I often smoked in non-smoking areas and flaunted it.

Stephanie and Jason were talking and didn't seem to have noticed my absence.

"How did you get hooked up with this 'Wonder Woman' picture?" I asked.

She smiled. "She doesn't play Wonder Woman in the film."

"Oh," I said pretending to be surprised.

"I worked on production for a couple of other films here in the area and I was listed with an agency."

"Do you know who is doing the music for the film?" Jason asked.

"No. I'm not involved in that part of the production. I could ask the director."

"Who's the director?" I asked.

"I'm not supposed to say," Stephanie said.

"A famous director?" I asked.

"Well." She sat silent, sipped her cider, and tossed her hair with her head.

"You ought to come see us play this weekend," Jason said.

"What's your band?"

"It's called Homunculus. We're playing the Mad Frog this weekend."

"What do you play?"

"I play percussion."

I listened for a moment and my mind drifted. I felt incredible wealth. I had grown children who wanted to see their dad. Then the girl whom I had sent to smoking came back to pay her check at the counter. As she approached behind me, she said, "Hey, I want you to know I'm sorry ..."

I cut her off.

"You're not sorry. You would do anything you could to interrupt my conversation with these pleasant young people."

Jason and Stephanie turned and stared.

"You don't have any idea how selfish you are with your damn cigarette and your nasty attitude. It's like product placement the way you do that."

She held her pack of Marlboro Lights right in front of me.

"You are the nasty one," she said, "and you had no right to touch me."

"Hey, if you come in here you ought to wear clothes that don't show your tits. Wear a bra. You know better than to pick a fight with someone better than you."

I was shouting at her and she shouted back, and suddenly Lisa was there between us. I jumped out of my seat, stepped into Lisa's face as she said, "Steve, get out. Get out now. You can't be putting your hands on my customers. You're making a scene!"

I could see Lisa's mascara and her wide blue eyes; her pointy face looked up at me in fear as big as the room. I thought to myself, "Yeah and everybody needs a scene for his or her stupid film."

"Well here's my money, I'm down," I said, pulling my money clip from my pocket, peeling off $10. I placed it on the bar and walked out.

"Don't come back," shouted Lisa.

I could feel the heat of anger shaking through me as I walked home. And suddenly my right foot hurt like hell. I had been banned from Sitwell's. I wondered if I would ever see those two young people again. I was proud that I had taken such a strong stand against smoking; but by losing my temper, I had set a poor example. Things had turned in a flash.

 
 
 
 

 

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