Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Vietato Fumare.

I went to a breakfast this morning to benefit a health advocacy group that I work with, and they brought Anna Devere Smith in to entertain us, to give us our money's worth. I had never heard her perform before. She adopted the voice and persona of people she interviewed, and told their stories in their own voices, which I thought was interesting considering my own attempts at writing.

She started with Studs Terkel, who had told her about an experience he had on the monorail at Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport, how a couple had held up the train, prompting the disembodied voice to announce that the train would be delayed for 30 seconds because of this late entry. No one on the train said anything, Studs Terkel/Anna Devere Smith said, they just glowered. They just let it happen, while a woman impersonating a robot did all the necessary admonishing. The couple was sheepish. I remember something similar that happened to me on that very monorail at Hartsfield.

People were coming from Disney World, heading to Paris, or Dallas, or Chicago--everyone looked so prepared and expectant. A man came on, very ruddy, all in denim, disheveled. And he took out a cigarette and started smoking in. He stared straight ahead, not at anyone, but fixated. His eyes were blue and glassy, and he seemed to dare anyone one of us earnest travelers to say something. He was standing right underneath the No Smoking sign. I am telling you, I could not have been more shocked if he had come on the train and killed three people, a whole family back from Orlando. At least they had gotten to see Disney World before they died.

My God. I thought. He is smoking on a train! In a public place! Beneath a No Smoking sign, flourishing, flaunting his dastardly act in all of our faces! And he knew, not one of us would say a word. If he smokes on a train, we all thought, think of what else he could be capable of. Think of what he could do to us if we spoke up and asked him to put it out. I shuddered to think.

But then, was he really bothering anyone? Would the smell even stick to our traveling clothes during our five minutes with this madman? Yet you could see eyes darting around, hoping share a look of shock and fear with another doomed passenger. The ride seemed to last forever. Will he ever get off? He did. There was a nervous laugh, and the hostage crisis was over.

I guess this is what we're like, Americans, I thought. Easily shocked, easily ruffled. Sticklers for the rules, too polite to take action, to engage in a spectacle. Newspaper violence wraps oily fish without a second thought, but smoking in a public place can shake our cores.

Then it happened again. In New York. On the F train in Brooklyn on my way to work. We were elevated in an arc of track above the Gowanus Canal, the Statue of Liberty far to the left. The steeples on the Slope behind us, murk below. Smith and 9th Street. This was before Smith and 9th was fashionable and if there was ever a stop for dubious characters, this was it. A man got on and sat on the two-seater bench next to the door, at the end of the car. He pulled out a cigarette. He smoked. The stare was the same as the Atlanta man's. Middle-distance, he bored a hole in the floor with his eyes. But this time, the eyes were like black holes.

The Gen-Xers coughed nervously, looking to share their surprise with tiny glances. Will I smell like smoke now when I get to my dot-com job? What do I do? Will Jay Street never come? But one lady, bless her, was not having it.

"Ex-ca-use me."
She said something to him! She's a madwoman!
She said it again.
And again.
No response, the stare just got more and more determined.
She made a move. Her hand went into her purse. We all watched, we gasped.
She took out a bottle of perfume. She GOT OUT OF HER SEAT, went over to the guy. Still no response from him. She sprayed the perfume in his fame.
Maniacal laugh! He still didn't look at anyone.
She sat down again. She was the most courageous person we had ever seen.
We went back underground. He stubbed out the smoke on the floor and got off at Carroll Street.
That's New York for you.
Not so different from other places, but there's always a few gutsy nuts in the crowd.

Next week, I'm going to Italy. There, the sign "Vietato Fumare" is practically an invitation to smoke. Nonne, signore, everyone, at the airport baggage claim, in a hospital, on a train. That's telling them. That's living.