The next time I saw him, it was about six in the morning. He was sitting on the bench in the smoking section with his jaw slack, his eyes nearly shut, and his hair sticking straight up from his head — a state I must have matched point for point. Smokers rarely primp themselves for the day’s salutatory cigarette.
Without facing me, he spoke first. “I can’t believe I slept twelve hours last night. My body just crashed.”
It sounded like the opening I’d been waiting for. “You know, there’s something I’ve been meaning to say. And I want you to understand, this is strictly for the sake of my own conscience…” Letting the sentence hang, I looked at him for some sign of acquiescence. He grunted, and, as I’d rehearsed, I told him I’d noticed he’d been drinking an awful lot lately and asked whether he was okay. Something told me to let the question of Mass attendance go for the time being.
“I take care of my responsibilities,” he said firmly. His tone wasn’t resentful, exactly, but it made me scramble for disclaimers. “Oh, naturally,” I said. “Like I said, I’m just doing this for the sake of my own conscience. I used to drink quite a bit myself. I mean, God forbid, I’m not shilling for any 12-step program…”
He cut me off. “But I’m already in 12-step.”
“For an eating disorder.”
I tried to sound casual. “No kidding? Which one?”
“Manorexia?” I joked, and he shot me a look that told me clever neologisms for life-adjustment issues were like the n-word: their use is restricted to those who have worn the skin for a while.
After a long couple of minutes, I said, “Well, for what it’s worth, you look great.” It was true. He even had the beginning of a beer gut.
“Yeah?” he said. “Well, I’m working on it.” Standing up, he tossed his spent butt into the stone ashtray and marched off in the direction of his unit.
It was a Saturday, and I’d given over my weekends to studying for my certification in TESOL, or Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. My class met on the ASU campus — for me, a three-mile hike — at nine, sharp. The business of showering, dressing, and packing my knapsack with notes left me no time to meditate on the taste of my own foot.
I reached campus half an hour early, which would once have been a good thing. After earning one-and-a-half degrees there, and spending a small fortune at the food court in the Memorial Union, I’ve bonded with the place in a way that feels almost mystical. Pristine and sun-soaked, canopied by palm and olive trees, touched — in the form of the Gammage Center — by the vision of Frank Lloyd Wright, ASU’s main campus is an easy place to bond with. Someone once called it “the campus Walt Disney might have built,” and, in fact, it does exude the same simple, exuberant sense of welcome as the Magic Kingdom itself.
Or rather it did. Lately, the place seems to have undergone a kind of lockdown. The dormitories have sprouted walls. Even my old parish church, its adminstrative buildings and main chapel razed and rebuilt into something romanesque and imposing, stands behind a spiked, 10-foot fence. (In a stroke of unintentional irony, a paper flyer posted at one of the gates reads: “CASTING OUT FEAR.”) The effect is now less like the Magic Kingdom than a five-star resort in a slightly louche equatorial nation. If that weren’t enough to dampen its appeal, it recently declared itself tobacco-free.
I halted at the Chili’s on the corner of Mill and University. Though the lot may belong to the university, there is an ashtray on the sidewalk by the front door. Barely had I sat down when the door opened and a muscular black guy in a Chili’s t-shirt stepped out. He looked at me and opened his mouth. Then he looked again and closed it.
“Say, buddy,” he said finally. “You got any rolling papers?”
“Nah,” I said. “But you can have a regular cigarette if you want.” He started to protest, but I cut him off. “Never mind. Consider it a smoker’s favor.” I pressed a Pall Mall 100 into his hand until, with a shrug and a smile, he accepted it and lit up.
An awkward silence settled in. Finally, the guy broke it. “You hear about that kid the police shot right out there?” He pointed to a spot on the sidewalk. I shook my head. “Yeah, he had a box cutter. He’d already cut himself. When the cops surrounded him, he freaked out and cut himself again. Then one of the cops drilled him. Bullet went right through the front window. There were four or five of us cleaning up then. We saw everything. That night I got home and got good and hammered.”
I stared at the spot and swore.
The guy nodded. “You know, it’s funny. We’ve got orders to run homeless people off of that bench. I was about to do that to you, but you looked pretty normal. So I ended up getting a break and a cigarette out of it.” He shook his head and laughed at the serendipity of it all.
On the surface, this culture of encounter Pope Francis is plugging sounds simple: Strangers meet, find something to say or do, and go away not hating each other. But in this world of walls and deadly force and barely-containable pain, that’s becoming a rare and wonderful thing. I’m just getting my own feet wet, but so far the two cardinal rules seem to be: 1) don’t go about it like a complete knucklehead; and 2) bring enough cigarettes for everyone.