A reflection on nicotine and its devotees.
Come with me now as I drift with the wind through the winter city. Through the bleak and gray streets we tumble, stumbling with the dried leaves and yesterday's newspapers in haphazard dance of eddy and spin, down through the canyons of frozen concrete, the asphalt streams of crushed and dirtied snow, in and out and around the hunched and hurrying, heedless humanity. Around their shuffling feet we play, laughing with the wind at their cold discomfort, their hunted look and gritted intent, their multitude seething with meaningless destination, all silent in their grim haste, their various directions, their steeled faces alive with only one determination, their goal the escape from our harrying play.
Onward we dance, our fate with the wind, onward and onward till caught by a hydrant, wrapped with a WalMart bag to that cold, silent sentinel. Here captive we stay for a time, pressed about that humble form, assuming its rounded shape and gripping its short, stumpy arms. Now we can see things differently, without the hustle of constant movement, the frozen images of instants lost, the blurred landscape of moving color, all drab and dark. Here our vision coalesces into order and meaning, a view of a street, in winter, a doorway, a huddled group, breath frosting in the bitter air. They stand, not still, feet pumping against the concrete earth, but immobile yet, going nowhere, just waiting. The world hurries by, no attention given.
Outward they look, yet with unseeing eyes. Bundled and wrapped in overcoat, boot and hat, they stand their stolid ground.
"Woohaah, it's cold." The large one, black coat and gloved hands, he breathes the words in pain and bitterness.
The woman next to him, small and stamping, blue hat and coat, pinched white face, through thin dark lips: "Unnnh."
As one, they take another drag.
In another second the smoke clouds forth, hangs in the air, draws to one side and disappears down the wind. Gloved hands hold cigarettes awkwardly, clenching against the cold, yet dainty with the paper tube glowing at its end. Shuffling, the smokers move this way and that but always in the same spot; they exchange their places only in search of a little more warmth, perhaps a better chance to escape the wind.
"I don't care. At least it gets me out the office." A brave young suit in buttoned coat, all brazen in defiance. A nod here, a grunt there, they stand with him in union.
"Bastards." A woman this, proud to swear, bold to flaunt her independence. No shame in her opinion of the insane, unfair and ignorant rules. She stands undaunted by the flow. All mumble in sympathy.
A man walks by, hat pulled down and face averted. They stare and glower.
"Damn three weeks. Big deal, George." A voice speaks for all at the retreating figure. They return to their misery.
"I gave up once. For a month." This is allowed, this admission of defeat. The pride is in the failure, the daring to return from near desertion. Solidarity resides in continuing, a slip or lapse is overlooked. Those who leave to become new acolytes, devotees of the unstained faith, these are the ones detested.
And with good reason. All know the pain and guilt attendant upon the confrontation with a new convert; that haughty look, the heartless statement "I'm better than you", the lecture, the demonstration, how easy it is, see how much better I feel. This is pure betrayal. The bastard knows full well our incarceration, the steel trap that holds us fast. We know how he struggled at first, longing eyes staring as we marched from the room, hearts aglow with anticipation of that first puff, that joyous reunion with the smoke coursing through our starving bodies. Oh, he knew. No need now to throw it in our faces as though we were spoiled children, sent to him for correction and instruction. Bastard.
A cigarette falls to the ground, a boot lifts and crushes it. He lights another, hands to his face, cupping the flame as it spotlights his features, the eyes narrowed in concentration, the skin yellow with reflection. "Not going in yet." He dares the fickle diktats of authority.
Another shuffle, the group moves round. Three depart. "See you up there," the truncated farewell. "Later," the muttered reply.
Two left, one the braggart rebel, the other, cigarette gone, but delaying the renewal of abstinence. "It's okay in the summer." The laggard, trying for sympathy from the undefeated one. But there is no answer, the vacant statement too trite to be heeded. The lingerer waits, uncertain.
Then he departs, muttering excuses and cursing at the weather. The lone ranger, still unmoved, smoke drifting from his opened mouth, watches with disdain. He stands alone, the rock upon which the world breaks. Not for him the cowardly entrance, all in a group, safety in numbers, we're back again. No, he'll stroll in when he decides and not care for disapproving looks and disgusted asides. He smokes, what of it?
This lonely band, this dwindling brotherhood, this secret sisterhood too, in doorways and back streets, in yards and garbage areas, throughout the city they stand and endure the weather. No matter the cold, the snow, the rain, the frost, they are there, breathing their final smokey statement to the air, huddling once more for mutual protection from the icy blast of storm and public disapproval. What noble heroes, their fate unheeded, careless of consequence, they brave the inconsiderate world.
The wind catches us, jerks and pulls us free. With a bound we resume our vagrant career, up and over our friend in the doorway, over the parked cars, snowed to the hubcaps, back to freedom unfettered and the drift in our host, the north wind. Over by the water, the river, we catch a glimpse of the smokestacks of powerhouses, white with the gases of industry. Oh, towering emblems of our prosperity.
Word Count: 995