Coming out of my son-in-law’s Dunkin' Donut shop in downtown Chicago after having a crisp hot butternut donut and steaming, stimulating coffee, I lit a cigarette and faced the icy-cold wind. I began to walk towards the Chicago Art Institute where I was scheduled to meet a local artist, one of those seedy artists who had graduated from pavement paintings to canvas, and interview him. As I took a few steps, I sensed a shadow following me. The shadow materialized, smiled and said, ‘Hey, buddy, can I have a fag?’
He was dressed in an old worn out jacket and crumbled jeans. There was stubble on his unwashed, oily face and his teeth, as he tried to smile, had nicotine stains. He had a massive growth of curly, unkempt hair on his head. Surely he was one of those homeless guys, living on streets or in tunnels near downtown Chicago.
I offered him my pack of cigarettes so he could pick one. He raised his greasy fingers, took out one and smudged a few more inside. He seemed like he hadn't had a dose of nicotine in ages. Having quickly and eagerly lit his cigarette, and inhaling a few deep puffs, he remarked,
"Ah, so nice to enjoy the smoke in this chilly weather!" He coughed and added, "But it is only the first few puffs that you really enjoy. After that you feel lousy. Do you know why?"
"No, tell me why," I said.
He came nearer and said, "Heard from an inside source that after a few puffs the chemical mixture in the cigarette starts giving a bad odor. You are likely to throw it away and light a fresh one, as you are still unsatisfied. They want you to be a chain-smoker, and play your role in increasing the sale of cigarettes."
I almost choked on the smoke coming out of my mouth. "You don’t mean that, do you really?"
He nodded vigorously. "Sure I do. The first few puffs are full of nicotine which soothes you but makes your lungs whistle. Wait till I reveal some more facts."
This guy was just out of his mind, I thought. I had no intention to listen further, but he continued, "To give the tobacco elasticity they season it with secret, injurious ingredients."
Had there been an executive of a tobacco company listening to what this homeless guy was uttering, he would have trembled like a tuning fork, fearing that a class action suit was on its way to the court.
I simply gasped. "Stop it. I don’t want to hear any more so-called facts."
He laughed aloud, and almost danced a few steps before muttering, "And you must know that there are more than thirty harmful, at times fatal, chemicals in these smoke-producers."
"Then why do you smoke?" I asked, already getting a very bad taste in my mouth.
"That is a good question. I smoke only when I am in a company of nice people like you who smoke, but shouldn’t."
I could only shrug my shoulders as I threw away the cigarette I was smoking. "Well, thanks for the info. I’ll remember it," I said and moved away, sure that I had seen the last of this figure. But no, he was following me.
"One minute, dude," he said. "Could I have a few more of those lung-destroyers?"
I took out my pack. "Sure, have one, have two, have the whole pack."
He bowed and thanked me, pocketing the pack. "It was no nice meeting you. I feel the pleasure was mutual. If you want to see me again, I am always here in the mornings outside this doughnut shop, having a chit-chat with very nice people who come out. Some give me quarters, others fags and we do have nice conversations."
"Tell me," I asked, curious, "Is this the way you get things and make a living?"
He laughed, coughed and said, "Oh, no! I used to do that, but now it is just a relaxing exercise. My main income comes from playing with the desires of men."
"What does that mean?"
"Say or do something that has the potential of fulfilling a human desire."
"How do you do that?"
He lit another cigarette, smiled and said, "Five nights in a week I go to Elgin and stand near the entrance of the casino, selling good luck charms, those aluminum ones available for a dime in gift stores. I sell each one for two dollars to my victims who are about to enter the casino, telling them that this charm would definitely sharpen their luck to win a jackpot. Gamblers readily buy my merchandise and go in with a sure hope of winning."
I gaped in amazement, and he added, "I earn around a hundred to two hundred dollars a night, spend most of it on beers, fags and food, and the remaining cash goes into my bank account. I sleep in a tunnel in downtown with two quilts and a pillow. Once a week I go to a salon for a shave, shower and change of clothes. What time is it now?"
I told him that it was almost noon. "Time for my lunch," he said. "Care to have some hot dogs?"
Before I could reply, he said, "Want to know what ingredients are there in a hot dog?"
"No!" I yelled, not willing to be informed about hideous and obnoxious ingredients he would mention.
"Okay then. Hope to see you again. As I said before, I am here every morning except on Sundays," he pointed out. "On Sundays I go to the nearby church, and sometimes when the preacher fails to come, I am given an opportunity to preach."
Novelist and free-lance writer, Rafiq Ebrahim lives in Chicago, USA.