Another departure from my comfort zone this week: a story written in the first person. I can’t remember doing this before; it felt a little strange. I’ll leave it up to you to tell me if it sounds a little strange. Or not.
The story was prompted by New York’s smoking ban in public parks which began recently. I’m quite aware that smokers are being squeezed out of many places in which to indulge, but even I was surprised to see the signs posted around Central Park. The ex-smoker in me who can’t stomach cigarette smoke should rejoice at such moves; and yet, and yet……
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Liberty’s Last Laugh
I couldn’t decide what to wear today; it’s a special occasion after all. In the end, I decided to go with comfortable but now I’m here I wish I’d dressed up a bit. There’s people in suits; some even in black-tie. I see women in fancy dresses and I’m pretty sure that the person in the queue ahead of me is wearing a real fur. And nothing else. Her coat must have concealed pockets for her cigarettes; she wouldn’t be here without those, would she?
The line’s moving at last: they’re letting us through. I double check my pocket for my ticket.
I couldn’t believe my luck when I won a place in the lottery; every smoker in Manhattan must have taken part, unless of course they’d got lucky like Charlie Bucket and found one of the few packs sold with a ticket inside.
Now I’m here in Battery Park waiting with the other winners for what they’re calling ‘The Last Big Smoke’.
‘Can I see your ticket and I.D please?’
Some guy checks my details and scans my ticket.
‘Thank you, Miss Smith, lottery winners to the left. Next in line!’
I walk through the turnstile and follow his directions. I think I spot the auction winners over to the right: the papers say that some of them paid over ten thousand dollars to be here. According to the gossip pages, every famous smoker in the city is here, but I don’t recognise anyone. I expect we’ll be segregated from them anyway; they wouldn’t want to mix with shabby one dollar dreamers like me, would they?
I join another line in front of one of the ferries which has been decorated with bunting. The crowd’s restless; we’re all eager to get to the island. Today’s been circled in red on my calendar ever since the ban was announced.
They’ve discussed it on the talk shows, in the papers and at mass rallies; it’s been the hot topic at the office, on the subway and in the coffee shop; writers, actors and rock stars have all pitched in with their opinion on the big debate: public health vs. civil liberty.
No prizes for guessing who won.
The ban came into effect at midnight but some bright spark had the idea to make an event of it. City Hall granted an afternoon’s exemption for one location; in return, no doubt, for a substantial donation to the Mayor’s favourite charity.
A voice blares out of the public address.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, your ferries are now ready for boarding. Please remember, there is no smoking on the boats. Once on the island, all cigarettes must be extinguished this evening at eight o’clock. On behalf of the mayor’s office, the city of New York and Pharmaceuticals International, we wish you all a very happy Last Big Smoke.’
I should’ve guessed. They’ll be handing out patches and gum next.
I make my way to the bow of the boat and find a bench. An elderly woman is sitting on the other end, wrapped in a shawl. She’s looking out across the water and doesn’t notice me at first.
‘It’s quite a sight,’ I say.
‘Indeed it is,’ she says, turning to face me. ‘Did you win the lottery?’
The ferry begins to pull away from its mooring.
She holds out her hand, which I shake gently.
‘Amanda. You don’t look much like a smoker.’
‘What does a ninety year old smoker look like, I wonder?’ She has a gleam in her eye. ‘I’ve smoked one cigarette a day since I can remember. Just one, always in the afternoon and always outside; in the garden, when I still had one, and in the park since I moved.’
‘Which park is that?’
She smiles and closes her eyes for a moment.
‘Bryant Park. You know, behind the Public Library. I spend the morning reading; then find a seat in the park for my cigarette. My two, last, great pleasures.’
‘How many lottery tickets did you buy?’
‘I didn’t. I bought one of the lucky packs. I didn’t even know this event was happening. Perhaps I should have given it away.’ She laughs. ‘Or sold it. I understand some people made a small fortune.’
‘Why did you decide to come?’
By way of an answer Stella looks back out across the river and points to Ellis Island.
‘I was just a baby when my father brought us here.’
I nod, but can’t connect this woman with those grainy films of blanket-wrapped immigrants.
‘The first thing my father did on American soil was smoke. He always said every cigarette after that tasted of freedom.’
I pause for a second.
‘I think that taste might be about to turn sour.’
Now it’s Stella’s turn to pause.
‘Freedom’s relative I suppose,’ she says finally. ‘Others might have felt shackled by our poverty; father called it liberty.’
As if on cue, the grand old lady herself looms above us as we approach the island.
‘I wonder what she’s making of all this.’
‘I would imagine, my dear, that the irony is not lost on her. The joke is almost certainly on us.’
‘But we still came.’
Stella pulls her shawl tighter against a sudden breeze.
‘Yes,’ she sighs, ‘we still came.’
I stand up to step ashore.
‘What would your father have said, about all this?’
Stella thinks for a moment.
‘That he hadn’t escaped persecution in one country to find it in another. Then he’d have lit a cigarette.’
I offer my hand to help her up
‘No,’ she says, ‘I’m going back. I only have one cigarette with me and this is not where I wish to smoke it.’
I look at the crowd disembarking and then out to Ellis Island.
‘So, where are we going?’
‘Forty-second and fifth.’
‘Yes,’ she says, ‘our park.’
© flyingscribbler 2011