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Living in Interesting


The Christmas Myth

Remembering 9/11

In Defense

    of Meandering

A Minor Distraction

Giving the Computer

    the Boot

The Depth of These


Musings on the Plaza,

    and a World at War

The Tale of the

    All-Seeing Bob

Fruit Stands

    in October

Morning Drive

    on the First Day

Moving Day,

    Oscar Night

Collected written works  |  Gary Marx

“Kansas fields, Kansas night-cows in the secret wides,

crackerbox towns with a sea for the end of every street ...

East Kansas grasses become West Kansas rangelands that

climb up to the hill of the Western night.”

—  JACK KEROUAC  (1922-1969),  On The Road

In Death’s Waiting Room

Roger, the old blind guy, sits in the corner sipping tepid coffee through a straw. He’s silent but for his cough, patient for the waitress.

He flips the flap on the pocket of his flannel shirt and deftly retrieves another Merit from his pack. It’s his third cigarette since he sat down half an hour ago.

It’s about 8:30  on a Monday morning in Dagwood’s cafe in the old Rosedale neighborhood of Kansas City, Kan. This is one of the last smoking establishments in the metro, and the sign on the door proudly proclaims it as such.

But things might be changing soon, as another domino fell in the anti-smoking crusade last week.

With its neighbor cities across the state line already outlawing smoking in restaurants and bars, Kansas City, Kan., reluctantly joined the chorus of snuff birds and passed a similar ordinance.  But the city council did so half-heartedly, giving businesses an opportunity to apply for a three-year exemption. So, smoke ’em if you got ’em for the next 36 months, boys.

The waitress, a middle-aged woman with her thin hair pulled back and a harried tone to her voice, finally comes over to Roger’s table.

“Another cup, Roger?”

“Sure. Who’s this?”

“It’s Ruby. Season’ll be in any minute.”

Season, a young waitress with a name that works year-round, is  Roger’s favorite. He feels a connection. And maybe there is one.

“Oh, that’s good,” he says, tapping the cigarette before lighting it.

He has a slow rock in his set-a-spell, or maybe it’s a tremor. He weighs about 110 pounds and appears to be in his 70s. Slip-on loafers make it easy to get in and out of, and he wears them no matter the weather. A hearing aid is popped into his left ear, and short gray tufts of hair protrude from under his green seed cap. 

Dagwood’s has two dining rooms. There’s the little one inside the front door — where we’ll all gathered this morning and there’s a larger room down the hall. That dining room tends to be smokier and louder, and I’ve never taken a table there. I prefer the counter and the proximity to the kitchen and the door, which brings a welcomed rush of fresh air from time to time.

That door also sweeps in a parade of characters, most of them smokers who must feel like cattle being herded into smaller and smaller corrals as their restaurant options narrow.

This morning there are construction workers, an old guy with a walker, and a couple of cops, both overweight, teetering on the stools next to me at the counter. 

A man comes in with a bluster and a hail of hellos to Ruby and the cops, and then he pushes his way down the hall, past the restrooms and into the bigger dining room. As he heads that way, I notice he’s carrying a duffle bag with an oxygen machine, the tubes running out from the zippered opening, under his coat and up and out the opening at his neck to his nose.

I was in here one morning this past fall when a young guy in surgical scrubs walked in, took a table, ordered eggs-over and lit up. Who knows? He could have a doctor-patient relationship with the guy with the oxygen bag later today. 

Frankly, it’s a little hard for me to come in here some days. More than once, I’ve walked in, sampled the air and left. And with all of these sick people in here, as well as a surgeon, it has the stink of death’s waiting room.

But I don’t begrudge others who like to have an after-omelet Marlboro. I remember how good a fresh cigarette tasted with a cup of coffee. So although the smoke bothers me now, I keep my mouth shut and I just leave if it gets too thick.

The way I look at it, a person has a right to choose the manner of his or her own death. And a business ought to be able to choose  what kind of clientele it wants.  By allowing cigarette smoking, it attracts a singular crowd and risks running others, including me, out of their stools.

It’s all about choice.

Season comes in behind the guy with the oxygen bag. She’s a thin waif of a woman with sharp features. She is not unattractive. Her long hair is pulled into a braid that reaches down her spine all the way to Memphis, which is where her accent comes from.

“Sorry I’m late, Ruby,”  she says.

“That’s OK. Everything all right?”

There’s the scent of some slight and not-too-distant tragedy in the air, and the two women fall into confidential whispers while Season slips an order book and pen into her apron pocket.  Then with a shrug that tells Ruby — “Whatever, this  is what my life has become” — she grabs a coffee pot and gets to work.

“Anybody get your order?” she asks me.

“I’m just here for coffee today,” I say.

She heads off to make the rounds. She’s spotted Roger in the corner but leaves him for last.

“Hello, Season.” His voice is bright. “How are you?”

“Just fine, Roger,” she says. “Sure is chilly outside today. Here’s your coffee, now you be careful. You having breakfast this morning?”

“I believe I will.”

Roger orders two eggs over easy with cheese, some potatoes, rye toast and tomato juice.

“The usual.”

“I guess,” he says. “So you like cars, eh?”

“Oh, yeah,” she says, picking up the string of this conversation as if it had been dangling all morning. Maybe it’s an ongoing conversation for weeks.

“I used to have a nice little stock car when I was a young man.”

“They don’t make ’em like the used to, do they?”  she says.

It’s hard to tell whether she’s humoring him, baiting him, or if she’s seriously into gears.

“I don’t know about that,” he says. “It’s surprising how many people are still driving 10-year-old cars. They still run good. They improved on the manufacturing end of it.” 

“Uh, huh,” she says, taking a step away from the table.  “I ought to drop this order off, Roger.”

“All right, then,”  he says.

There’s a clip to his voice now, as if a little injury has been inflicted. But she has orders to fill, things to do, worries to push to the back of her mind. 

“I’ll be back,” she says, slipping further away.

“OK,” he says, his voice fading.

She heads to the kitchen window to drop off the order, trailing bits of their conversation in her wake.

Roger leans forward until his lips find the straw.  Then he reaches into his shirt for another Merit. He taps it on the table top. But he doesn’t strike a match.

—   30  —