. 7 .


“Streets of Tobacco”


Shannon watched the clock as it struck 3:30, and saw that Lisa was sitting in her office staring intently at the computer, showing no sign of an immediate rendezvous.  There was no sign of Bryan either, which helped to remind her that it was just a fantasy, but her day had been so full that she couldn’t remember exactly how much was fantasized.

It was of no concern because the task at hand was not completed.  It will take at least another half-hour to type these summaries up, she thought.  Perhaps now is a good time to take a break.  3:30 will now be break time, but how to fill it?

She slowly stood up from her desk and looked around.  Coffee?  Somebody just started brewing a new pot.  Snacks?  No, still full of bread.  Smoke?  Don’t.  Never did.  Perhaps it’s a good time to start?

She casually strode to the elevator while the rest of the office kept on humming.  She pushed the button, and the doors opened surprisingly fast.  Usually, it would take a few minutes for the elevator to arrive, but at that moment it was idle, ready to be her personal service.  Nobody was inside, so she walked straight to the back.  She turned around and saw that still nobody was watching her.  She took a big step forward and pushed the ground floor button and watched the doors close.  The elevator made no stops before reaching the ground, instead it ran in one smooth motion, making Shannon feel the change in altitude in her bread-filled stomach.

The lobby was sparse, but not dead.  A few people were waiting on the chairs around the reception area.  Security guards paced around, but none of them noticed Shannon as she walked straight out the door and onto the sidewalk.

And there they were: the smokers, huddled together in the chilly city breeze, getting their nicotine fixes.  A few were talking with each other, while others just stood in place, staring at the ground while taking long drags.  None of the activity looked very interesting to Shannon, so she walked past them.  She could see similar groupings outside other buildings in the neighborhood, and now even outside the bars and restaurants.  From this appearance, it would seem that everyone in New York smoked, but she looked up and saw the dozens of stories above her in all directions and realized that many more were just going about their day in a happily smoke-free environment.

A couple years ago, she could have walked straight through the World Trade Center and over to Battery Park City, where she could hang out at the marina or the winter garden.  Now there were fences blocking her way, and she wasn’t about to take a long enough break to walk around them.  With nothing else she could think of to do, she simply walked around the block. On one corner there was a hot dog cart, where Bryan must have had his lunch.  With no hunger for any boiled franks, she passed the cart by, but stopped quickly, thinking about something to drink.

Backtracking a few steps, she looked at the selection.  There were several varieties of Snapple and bottled water, but she just wanted a Coke.  A real one, too, not diet.  This was her break and she was entitled to just one can of real soda during the day.  It was just as fizzy and sweet as she had hoped it would be.  Damn those advertisers, but it is the real thing.

With her new beverage in hand, she continued around the block, actually looking around, unlike the cool New Yorker she pretends to be during the week.  The architecture was mostly late-20th-Century bland, but it was immense.  Thousands of offices stacked on top of each other, the money of the world passing through their halls.

She imagined dollar bills blowing through the corridors like tumbleweeds, gathering more monetary debris until the wads of cash were too big to roll freely.  Then an accountant would break the ball apart and separate the bills by denomination and mark down the quantities in a ledger.  The accountant would finger a bill for an extra moment after every thousand or so, and he would think about pocketing it, knowing it probably wouldn’t be missed, but out of shame he puts it in the neat pile and continues on.  She wondered if euros blew around DeutscheBank.

Of course they didn’t, she thought.  It was just a metaphor.  The money’s all in electronic bits.  There probably isn’t a single vault of cash in most of these so-called banks.  Certainly not in her building.  The actual branch where she did her regular banking was actually in another building downtown.  All they had at the office was a series of ATMs, the bank preferring to keep the corporate personnel separate from the service personnel.

She rounded the third corner of her office’s block and saw more of the same: smokers.  Either a 3:30 break was not a novelty or some people just stand around and smoke all day.  Not a bad job, even if it does send you to an early grave.  The health benefits must have high co-payments, though.  And forget about life insurance.  Is there some special kind of insurance for full-time smokers?  Maybe that’s what that duck thing on TV is for.

The fourth corner came quickly, and Shannon saw the same group of smokers outside her building.  They haven’t moved much, but there did seem to be some new ones in their midst.  The smokers are multiplying!  They’re like jackrabbits, or something.  Or pod people.  Maybe tomorrow there will really be a new Shannon, down there smoking with the rest of them.  This Shannon will have no emotion and no other drive except to smoke.

No, they aren’t pod people, she told herself.  She will not become one of them.  She can’t even stand smoke.  She even tried in earnest to smoke pot in college, but she just couldn’t deal with the inhaling and the heat on the throat.  Too unpleasant for such a small high.  She got more looped putting her head between her legs and sitting up quickly.  Maybe if she had actually inhaled properly, it would have been different, but she didn’t care anymore.  She doesn’t even know anybody who still smokes pot, or where she would even get it.

She passed by the smokers one last time and went back into the lobby.  It was much the same as she had left it as well, with only a few different people waiting around.  One was using a laptop now while simultaneously talking on a cell phone.  He seemed quite busy for some guy in a waiting area.

Shannon nodded at the receptionist on her way into the elevator, which was waiting on the ground floor.  The ascent to her floor had a couple stops on the way, giving her momentary glimpses into other offices, including one that was leased to another company.  They were probably some boiler-room brokerage for all she knew.  A lot of young men in nice suits huddled around different desks.  They seemed superficially attractive, but she didn’t care about actually meeting any of them.  She just thought about seeing Bryan again, and she wondered if he was coming in the next day.  She didn’t know of any packages that were expected.  Lisa was generally on top of that.  It was still only Monday, and she figured that he’d have to deliver something in the next couple of days.

The doors finally opened and the office was just as she left it, with Lisa still in her office, and the highlighted reports still on Shannon’s desk, waiting to have their summaries typed.  Again, nobody noticed her as she walked to her desk, the office humming just as loudly at 3:45 as it did fifteen minutes earlier.  For some reason, her little walk seemed like it took longer than a quarter hour, but she was thankful it did.  She’d probably be working on the summaries until 4:30, she figured, and staying past 5:00 was going to be avoided if possible.  Even after she finished the summaries, she knew, there would be at least a half hour of tying up everything else before she could leave, not to mention the actual submission of the summaries.  Lisa likes to look over them with Shannon in the room, if she could.  She would pretend to know the contents of the full reports verbatim, and make some passing judgements on the quality of the summaries.  She was usually pleased, but would regardless have a few notes to give.

Shannon typed away without stopping, just putting the lines she highlighted into the summary.  She was typing faster than usual, which she attributed to her new regimen.  The new Shannon is a better worker, she thought.  Maybe this will gain some notice.  But if it doesn’t, it’s no matter.  This job is just one small part of the rest of her life.