SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
April 19, 2020

Smokeless in the End Times

 

“HELLO SIR!” A strident female voice barked from a few yards away when I reached the corner. “I’M A CROSSING GUARD WITH THE NYPD, AND I’M GOING TO HELP YOU ACROSS THE STREET!”

            “Oh,” I replied, my voice muffled by the surgical mask. “Okay. Um, thanks.” I didn’t really need any help crossing that particular street, but it sounded like she meant business, and I was in no mood to be tasered or shot.

            “HOW ARE YOU TODAY, SIR?” She asked as we began crossing the street together. She spoke in the same brash, no bullshit manner you hear in young soldiers. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn she had a military background.

            “Oh, I’m doing just fine. And yourself?”

            “VERY WELL, SIR! THANK YOU! YOU’RE APPROACHING THE CURB NOW!”

            When we had safely reached the other side of the street, I thanked her and paused. ”Can I ask you two questions?”

            “OF COURSE, SIR!”

            This was all very strange.

            “Sooo . . . ” I began. “Why are you out here? Schools are closed, there are no kids. Is it just to protect us from all these people who are driving like lunatics these days?”

            “WE’RE OUT HERE EVERY DAY, SIR! I’VE BEEN POSTED AT THIS INTERSECTION SINCE DECEMBER! I HELPED YOU ACROSS THE STREET YESTERDAY!”

            “Yes, I remember. But that was the first time I saw you here.”

            “AS I SAID, I’VE BEEN HERE SINCE DECEMBER, SIR! AND SHE’S BEEN HERE SINCE NOVEMBER!” (The “she” in question was another crossing guard patrolling the intersection one block to the south.)

            None of this was answering my question, but whatever. “Okay, the second question is, do you happen to know of any delis or bodegas in the area that are open right now?”

            “WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR, SIR?”

            “I just need some milk and cigarettes.” I knew even before I said it that it was a mistake to mention an ugly vice like cigarettes, what with the state of emergency and all. I was only supposed to venture outside for absolute essentials (like milk), but to my mind smokes were as essential as soap and beer. Sure enough, the moment I mentioned cigarettes, her voice dropped a notch in disapproval.

            “Oh,” she said. “I really don’t know where you can find cigarettes.”

            “It seems everything’s closed.”

            “YES!” She barked, snapping back into authoritarian mode. “IT’S FOR THE PUBLIC SAFETY IN THIS TIME OF NATIONAL EMERGENCY”

            “I understand. Well, thanks for the help, and be careful. The drivers around here are nuts.”

            I’ve always liked crossing guards. Crossing guards have always been very good to me. In fact when I was a kid, my mom was a crossing guard. As I continued on my lonely quest, I thought that since there were no other pedestrians out at that time (and with my being a cripple to boot), I’d given that NYPD crossing guard a sense of purpose, if only for a minute or two. It also struck me that she’d lied.

            She hadn’t been there since December. I moved to the neighborhood in January, and had crossed that intersection at least two or three times a week since then, usually around that same hour, on my way to the store. Why would she lie about such a thing? Yes, I’d run into her the previous day, but that was the very first time. It was also—and could this be a mere coincidence?—the day nearly all the delis and bodegas shut down. Everything else had closed a week earlier, but the delis had remained open. I could get everything I needed within a block of the apartment. Until now, anyway. The two delis that remained open didn’t sell smokes. Again, could it be a mere coincidence?

            A couple of days earlier, on Saturday, I tried to stop into my regular bodega by the subway station to pick up a few more packs. It was the only bodega I found that sold Pall Malls, and the Middle Eastern guy behind the counter always gave me a blindo discount. But when I got there, the gate was down.

            After my initial confusion and denial, I began to concoct all sorts of viable explanations. All the open businesses in the area had changed or shortened their hours, so maybe I was just too early. Nobody was taking the subway anymore, so maybe it wasn’t worth opening on Saturdays. Maybe the Middle Eastern proprietor was infected.

            Well, I figured, I’d try them a couple of hours later, but when I did they were still closed.

            Okay, I told myself, trying to remain calm. If they were closed Saturday, they’d likely be closed Sunday too. I still had enough smokes to carry me a couple of days, so I’d try them again on Monday. They’d have to be open then, and if for some reason they weren’t, if that Middle Easterner was on his death bed in some local hospital, I’d walk the extra five blocks to another bodega. They didn’t carry Pall Malls at the other place, but at least I could get something, some Marlboros or Winstons to hold me over until the madness passed. Fuck it, if Virginia Slims was all they had, then that’s what I’d be smoking, and likely lots of them. I was an increasingly desperate man.

            Well, come Monday, my Pall Mall source was still closed. Okay, that was disturbing. I began heading south, which is when I ran into that crossing guard for the very first time. I didn’t know what the story was with the closures then, so didn’t stop to chat.

            When I reached the other bodega, I found their gate was down, too. Oh, but this was a cruel turn of events. They’d already taken everything else away from us bit by bit, but this was just nasty, convincing me further it really was a sick social experiment. Taking away direct human contact was one thing, but taking away my cigarettes was simply uncalled for.

            As I stood there tapping the iron gate in disbelief—I mean, this can’t be, right?—someone passing by told me they were closed, and that furthermore everyone who hadn’t been ordered to close already had decided to close.

            For some reason I drew my own conclusion with no evidence, deciding it was just a Monday thing, that everyone would be open again the next day. I mean, I knew we were in the midst of a plague and everything, but come on. I still had two packs left, more than enough to hold me until everyone re-opened again on Tuesday.

            Tuesday came, and my regular bodega was still closed. I ran into that crossing guard for the second time, and she lied to me. The fallback bodega was closed, too, as was everything else. It looked like they were going to be closed forever, or at least until the lockdown was lifted, which might never happen. I felt a growing tightness in my head, and it had nothing to do with the Corona virus. I was going to be out of smokes by day’s end, and if I didn’t find a new supply chain before that, there was going to be trouble. What the fuck was I going to do? Why had no one warned me this was going to happen? If I’d known, I could’ve stocked up the same way assholes had hoarded toilet paper and rice and Lysol.

            I know it’s petty, and as several people told me, it was probably for the best I stop smoking anyway. There was a worldwide crisis afoot, something that threatened to kill hundreds of thousands of people, and all I could think about was maintaining a reliable cigarette supply chain? Shame on me!

            Yeah, whatever—go hug your toilet paper, I needed smokes, and fast. I know it’s pathetic, but the idea of running out of cigarettes with no clear way of replacing them left me far more terrified than any run of the mill pandemic. I’d been smoking for thirty-five years, and the only days I’d gone without were those four days I spent in Lutheran Hospital after blowing my lower back. Now Lutheran, like pretty much every other hospital in the city, had freezer trucks parked out back to hold the overflow of corpses. Still, I’ll be goddamned if I was about to march into the apocalypse without a ready supply of Pall Malls.

            I rushed home and immediately got online, undertaking a desperate search for any place in the neighborhood that: 1, sold cigarettes; and 2, was open.

            I compiled a list of possibilities, and began making phone calls. No one picked up the phone at any of them, and in a few cases I got a recording telling me the line had been disconnected. Shit! They were all at home hiding from the virus, the fucking assholes.

            The tightness growing in my head and my hands trembling slightly, I sent out emails to friends in other neighborhoods to see if they were running into the same situation there. Oh, I wished I knew how to get in touch with anybody in Bay Ridge. They’d be able to tell me if the bodega across the street from my old apartment was still open, the one with the ornery old Egyptian. If it was, I was going to hop on a fucking train, virus be damned, and head over there to buy up his entire stock of bootleg smokes.

            As I waited to hear back from anyone at all with good news, I went back on the internet and started looking into places where I could order cartons online. Even that was iffy, as they likely wouldn’t get here for a week or longer, if they were filling orders at all.

            When she noticed what I was doing, Morgan warned me that all those places looked pretty skeevy, and it would be best to avoid them.

            “The place where I get coffee on my way in to work sells cigarettes,” she said. “I could pick some up on the way home tomorrow. They’re always open, and there are always people in there. They’re not going to close.”

            “But what if they do?” I asked, the panic in my voice a little too clear. “What if they do?!”

            “They won’t,” she assured me. “Can you make what you have left last until then?”

            I began working out a plan in which I could ration out what I had left. If I seriously cut back, I could possibly stretch them out until the following afternoon. But if this place was closed, as I expected it would be, what then? I didn’t even want to consider that possibility.

            I went back to that list of local outlets I’d pulled together. There were a few I hadn’t called yet, simply because I’d given up. The first eight or ten calls left me convinced everyplace was closed, so why scrape my head against the wall? Still, I had to try what I could. I picked up the phone again and dialed another number at the very bottom of the list.

            “Yes,” a gruff Indian voice answered after three rings. I wasn’t expecting that.

            “Oh, hello,” I said. “Is this Greg’s Deli?”

            “Yes.”

            “And . . . do you sell cigarettes?”

            “Yes.”

            My heart gave a little spasm. “And . . . are you open today?”

            “Yes.”

            “Thank you,” I hung up the phone, pulled the surgical mask over my face, put on my coat and headed out. Yes I knew I had been out for a long time earlier that morning and we were supposed to avoid going out at all, but dammit, this was an essential trip if ever there was one.

            Greg’s Deli was about ten blocks away, but that was fine. I didn’t care. I figured finding it would be no problem, as it would be the only fucking store on that block that was open.

            Two blocks shy of my destination, I heard a man shrieking on the sidewalk ahead of me. He was clearly on his cellphone, and so as a matter of course was wandering back and forth and in circles like a goddamn miniature golf obstacle, but with a twist.

            “I was waiting outside the Seven-Eleven like you said!” He screamed into the phone. “I went in to get a coffee, and when I fucking come out, the money was gone! All of it! Now I need to fucking know how I’m gonna get that fucking money back! . . . No, I am NOT out of my head—I need to know how I’m gonna get that fucking money back, and I need to know NOW! . . . NO! You listen to me. Listen very . . . carefully . . . to every . . . word . . . I’m saying. I come out, the fucking money’s gone! Everyone saw me put it down! That fucking driver must have been in on it!”

            As I grew closer, edging to the right of the sidewalk but not wanting to miss any of it, he screamed, “I could fucking slice anyone’s throat right now! Anyone at all! Just slice their fucking throat open! How am I gonna get that fucking money back?”

            As far as I could tell, I was the only other person on the sidewalk at the time. I paused a moment, thinking he must have just found out nobody was selling smokes anymore, too. I was thinking of inviting him along with me, then thought better. Let him find his own goddamn cigarettes. I snuck past him before he could slash my throat, and tapped across the street. A block and a half later, I could still hear him screaming behind me. Poor guy was never going to see that money again.

            There was one person in front of me at the deli counter. He was buying cigarettes too. It was clear this place was now the only game in town, and the Indian at the checkout knew it. Suddenly a pack of cigarettes cost three dollars more than it had just a couple of days ago. I didn’t care.

            Walking home a few minutes later carrying a paper sack with enough Pall Malls to hold me for a week, I could feel the pressure in my head loosen. Things would be okay.

            Well, with that crisis averted, the pandemic could now resume. At least until Greg’s Deli closes down, too.

 

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