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Mr Menthol

As I rode the escalator up from BART into downtown Oakland, a remnant of food or smog snagged something in my throat and I needed to cough.

Being me and in a what-the-hell frame of mind, I exaggerated the coughing until it sounded like death with phlegm. It's something to do for fun, like overdoing a sneeze or a belch, just to bother strangers so's I could chuckle inside at their expressions of disgust.

After I'd wracked my body with one real and eight phony coughs, a messy-looking bum on the sidewalk said to me, "You OK, sir?"

I am rarely in a mood to talk, especially to some homeless guy, so I said, "Fish, fish," same as I say all day at the fish stand, though Berkeley was miles away and I was fishless.

"Here," he said, reaching into the pocket of his once-bluejeans, now grimy, ripped, and stained. I heard a few coins jingling in his pocket and wondered, was this guy gonna give me some spare change, like he thinks I'm worse off than he is? Briefly, I evaluated what I was wearing, and indeed I looked sloppy like I always do, but c'mon, not homeless-level sloppy. 

Instead of a quarter, though, he handed me a Hall's cough drop. I stopped, unwrapped, it, popped it into my mouth. Who'd expect a glimpse of kindness on the hard streets of downtown? "Mmm, menthol," I said, and I hate menthol cough drops, but I added, "Thanks, mister."

"Hey, sir, before you go," he said, and here it comes, I thought. The pitch — he's gonna ask for spare change.

"Yeah?" I said, gruff.

"Can you do me a favor?" 

"Depends," I answered, but the cough drop was doing me good, and I knew I'd give him something if he asked nicely. But also, Get on with it already. I was going to see a movie, and this guy was slowing me down.

"Just keep smiling," he said. "The world needs more smiles."

I hadn't been smiling, so I couldn't "keep smiling." His line made me smile, though, so I gave him two dimes, but kept two quarters.

Studying his ugly bedraggled face, I wondered for a moment what multiple hells that man had been through to land him on Broadway in rags. Then I walked away, and my smile vanished, because I could see a long line at the theater.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Way, way too many people were clumped under the Paramount's brilliant colorful flashing neon marquee. The crowd was flowing in, but the line of ticket-holders stretched down the street, around the corner, and around the next corner. 

I never do first-run opening night at the movies, so I can't remember ever being turned away at the ticket window, but the sign said, "Sold out, sorry." The attraction was Billy Wilder's Sabrina, for one night only.

Well, that's disappointing, but not a great tragedy. I've seen Sabrina before, and it's excellent, but seeing anything in a packed theater is a drag. You're scrunched up next to strangers, many of whom talk and crinkle their candy wrappers and cough like I'd coughed, only for reals.

Selling out the Paramount is remarkable, though. It's a beautiful, meticulously restored and maintained movie palace, and it's huge — more than 3,000 seats. And they sold every one of them, with hundreds turned away, for a movie that's older than I am, and easily available on video and laserdisc.

People are willing to pay good money, to see a very good movie in a very nice theater, so why does Hollywood keep making shitty movies, and screening them in plasterboard shoebox auditoriums? 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Walking back toward BART, that homeless guy, Mr Menthol, was leaning on a wall looking miserable and holding his hand out, palm up. Someone gave him a coin, and he said, "Thank you, sir." 

Hearing that, it occurred to me is that the homeless are the only people left who habitually say 'sir' and 'ma'am'. Bums are America's last bastion of good manners. Go shopping at Safeway, and no matter how much you spend, you can't buy a 'thank you' at the register.

Well, I appreciate good manners, and I was still sucking the cough drop he'd given me, and I'd brought five bucks to buy my ticket, so why not help the distilled beverage industry? I put my five ones into his open hand, and he smiled so big I counted all his teeth — seven.

"Thank you, Sir," he said, frightfully loud, and offered to buy me a beer. I declined, of course, and walked on. I'd come for a movie, not to make friends.

From Pathetic Life #20
Friday, January 19, 1996

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.

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