Waiting to Inhale

THE OTHER DAY I REMEMBERED what I missed most about smoking. It had nothing to do with nicotine lift, smokers' camaraderie or fire rituals. What I really liked about cigarettes was they gave me an excuse to sit in a restaurant or parked car a few extra minutes, to stay put while others obeyed the world's finger snap. The cigarette offered a temporary license to do nothing. Not to be lazy, but to flush the white noise of expectation and resentment from my mind so that surrender to the senses was possible. This realization hit while I was driving to work down Hollywood Boulevard and saw all the broke and broken-down people on the sidewalk who were smoking because, frankly, they had nothing else to do. Suddenly I wanted to be sitting on a bus bench smoking -- but to still have the car, job and home.

I shuddered because this epiphany was exactly the kind of escapist longing that middle-class, middle-aged men were always experiencing in the supernatural fiction or Twilight Zone episodes I devoured as a kid. You could say I'd been awaiting the terrors of middle age from grade school, warned by all the writers who suffered midlife crises in the 1960s. They filled American pop culture with cautionary fables about men from Wall Street and Madison Avenue trapped in unhappy jobs and sterile suburbs because they had forgotten the art of doing nothing and especially, the art of spontaneously doing nothing.

Typically, in the more fantasy-flavored tales of the genre, ulcerated stockbrokers and ad execs escaped brutal bosses or nagging wives through an abrupt detour in routine or trick of time travel, after which they found themselves pleasantly marooned in the last century or some uncomplicated hick town that offered them the simplicity of their own barefoot and freckled boyhoods.

"Next stop, Willoughby!" a train conductor called, and a generation of gray-flanneled commuters vicariously disembarked to a harmonica'd America of swimming holes, brass bands and ice cream parlors. Or, in the case of John Cheever's jauntily spontaneous Ned Merrill, the swimming hole became a series of backyard pools in Connecticut taking him from recollections of a golden past to a wintry reality.

THESE FANTASIES OF AN IDYLLIC Main Street, along with Bob Dylan albums and lots of pot and LSD, helped create, for many in the 1960s, an irresistible magnetic field around the idea of dropping out from society. Most who heeded the call, however, weren't martini-irrigated suburbanites, but their kids who had never run in any kind of rat race; most eventually dropped back in to society relatively unscathed, or managed to somewhat prosper in the countercultural margins. But some simply burned out and became the sun-scorched casualties I saw on Hollywood Boulevard.

It is the homeless or near-homeless -- the surviving dropouts or inheritors of the dropout ideal -- who have become the new warning buoys in society. Drop out and you'll end up like us. Many, of course, are on those benches because of mental illness or various addictions, but they still serve as advertisements against the '60s and radical escape, human reminders of what happens when Americans abandon the commute and the suburb. We see them from trolley-car windows in San Francisco as we head home up Market Street at rush hour, or watch them on TV when they are occasionally paraded out like POWs on L.A.'s skid row and served Korean barbecue, as they were last weekend along a stretch of Towne Street.

A few months ago my wife and I were soaking in an outdoor whirlpool in the desert. The sky was a calm blue lake, and a hot wind blew through a canyon. It was the perfect moment for a cigarette -- I hadn't smoked one in years.

"Would you like a cigarette?" Sandra asked.

How had she known, I wondered.

"I knew," she said, lighting the Marlboro for me.

I drew in my first breath, but it was like forcing smoke through marble -- my lungs could not take it. It didn't matter, because for an hour we'd be doing precisely nothing. All it took was a week of planning and sitting in some water that had no right to be churning in the middle of the desert.

"Trade you a cigarette for this doughnut," one homeless man said to another just outside the Korean barbecue perimeter last Saturday. He had split early, just after Mayor Hahn had spoken, and took his dessert with him. The doughnut would be sweet, but a cigarette was a license to clear his mind of expectation and resentment -- while the world snapped its fingers far away.


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