The Smoking Lady

I can’t remember her name. I feel like she had an old-timey name like Edith, Mabel or June. But it was more sophisticated, like Dorothy, but not Dorothy. Anyway, I worked with her. It was the perfect job for a retired person looking to make extra cash and the student looking to make extra cash. The thing is, though, she wasn’t retired. She was old enough to be retired, probably anywhere from 55-60, but I don’t think she was part of the society that was collecting enough Social Security, 401K, dead husband’s pension, and then worked for cash to give to the grandkids. I think she was still in her earning phase. I don’t think there was a cushion to sit on. I think she was actively surviving in her older years. Earning because she had to.

Fuck, I wish I could remember her name. What was it? Blanche? I can only think of the names of the Golden Girls. It definitely wasn’t Sophia or Rose though. Closer to Rose than any of the others. Lucy?

I worked with her in Boston at a makeshift box office in the basement of a hotel, down the hall from the banquet room which was acting as a dinner theatre while some sort of audience-interaction, mystery-comedy show had it’s run. The show did suprisingly well, mainly with people in, what’s-her-name’s age range.

I worked for I think $7 an hour, answering the phone at the “desk” and writing down people’s names for reservations. It gave me about an extra $70 a week, enough to buy shittely made rugs at Urban Outfitters for my dorm room. There was no credit card machine or anything like that. I mean, they had been invented, but it was a cash only operation. I spent my time when I worked alone reading magazines, doing homework. This was before the internet or laptops. I was usually alone with my thoughts, unless I worked with her.

The first day that I came to work and saw her, this old person, sitting there, I thought that some senile fan of the show had arrived extra early, for fear of being shut out of a sold-out show. I felt a feeling of dread, finding out that she worked with me. Just two folding chairs, facing in the same direction at a makeshift desk. Sort of a long card table with a “mantlepiece.”

And then she pulled out a Pall Mall cigarette. They weren’t even filtered. I didn’t even know that we were allowed to smoke down here. But I was so glad that I had my Camel Lights on me, so that she would think I was cool too. But I was afraid to ask her if I could smoke too. Like she had “called it” and no one else could do what she did.

I loved the way she held the lighter in her hand, the same hand she smoked with. She’d let the ash get really long, and would only flick into the tray about two times maximum before the cigarette ended. She inhaled through her mouth, told a story and then exhale, through her nose. The smoke from her cigarette seemed like milk, way thicker than my stringy, gray, smoke.

We talked in ways that I wished I could talk with my parents and as our time went on at the box office, I noticed how it affected my friendships. I found my friends in the cafeteria who were talking about boys or tests or being hungover to be trite. Because the Smoking Lady and I talked about “life.” I don’t even know what I mean by that.

The Smoking Lady had deep wrinkles, that looked like they could hold liquid, like you could make a little river in her face. I know most 50+ women have wrinkles, but they are tiny little fish bone, wispy wrinkles around their mouths from years of frowning and smoking in their twenties. Smoking Ladies were clearly from smoking, but smoking while doing something cultural or smoking while having good conversation. Her voice sounded like rocks being tossed in a blender. It didn’t sound like smoke damage to me, but more just a mature voice. The voice of someone who has no time for bullshit.

She mentioned to me one time that she often went to New York City, by herself, to see the theatre. I asked her if she was afraid of getting killed. She looked at me like I had made her very sad. She looked at me like, “Who did this to you?”

I had no knowledge of New York City, except that I had been accepted at SUNY Purchase and my parents wouldn’t allow me to attend because it was just outside of NYC. I know that in high school, on a lark, my friends drove to NYC after school to have coffee in a diner. They got there by 3pm and were back home by 8pm. I was so worried for them, just picturing bullets whiz over their head as they added their sugar.

The Smoking Lady brought me tour guide books of the city. Guides to the theatres, restaurants, etc. She taught me the historic spots to hit and told me what the Algonquin Round Table was. Smoking Lady took a bus to New York two weekends a month to see shows. She stayed in a Youth Hostile. I was very literal and would ask her. “Are you allowed to stay there?” She’d say, “It’s a hotel. A cheap one.” I’d stare very wide-eyed, “Ohhh.” So she stayed in Youth Hostels on weekends and saw Broadway shows at discount prices.

She never married. She never had kids. And she worked to stay afloat. I felt like she was a fancy as someone like Helen Gurly Brown or Nan Kempner. She had this older, magazine, fashion thing about her. She was totally skinny. Like a very glamorous skeleton in a nice wool suit, pantyhose and t-strap shoes with smoke pouring out of her head.

Her life seemed so full to me, so impressive. On the weekend when I worked at the makeshift box office without her, because she was in New York, I looked at my guidebooks trying to imagine where she was at any given moment. I felt like “I got it.” And would look with contempt at my Bostonian patrons who were happy seeing dinner theatre in neither a restaurant nor a theatre. Why were they so unsophisticatd? Didn’t they know that Broadway, which isn’t dangerous at all, was only four hours away?

I shuddered thinking how dismal this woman’s life would have been if she’d had kids dragging her down, stretching her body out so that she wouldn’t fit into her suits, taking up her time so that she could never just leave for New York City. So glad she didn’t have a husband to say, “I don’t wanna see any Broadway shows. Come on. And you’re not going to New York alone.”

She has to be dead now. That was over ten years ago. That was almost 14 years ago. I’m sure her lungs were just ash. And luck was keeping her alive.

I live in a studio apartment now across the street from Youth Hostile. And I know the grim reality that it’s a lot less than a “cheap hotel.” It’s shared bathrooms and single beds without amenities. You have to love the theatre to stay in those conditions. Or you have to have no choice. I don’t have a retirement plan. I did, years ago, but I cashed it in, in exchange for not working for a while. Was it worth it? No. At the time, maybe. I haven’t started one again. I get my Social Security updates in the mail, and it doesn’t seem like I’ll last a year on what I’m going to get paid. I always assume and work towards having lots more and it’s not a question that I won’t someday. But I wonder if Smoking Lady thought that as well? And then the years just went by and she kept on with the pursuit of happiness, which doesn’t always go hand in hand with obtaining wealth and she just found herself, at 60, living as she had at age 20. I think the proper reaction is to be sad. But I’m not. It would be fine if I ended up as her. I don’t know if I’d have the patience to talk to a dumb-ass 18 year old about “life” but I’d be happy to be happy seeing shows. And maybe by then they’ll have found a way to make smoking healthy and I can exhale through my nose, thick clouds of smoke.

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