Sunday, November 7

The Last Cigarette

A True Story

If I hadn't smoked so many cigarettes last night, I wouldn't have got beat up over the last one. But I wouldn't have made so many friends, either.

Around noon yesterday I went to downtown Geneva. I was just going to catch a couple short movies at the international film festival and then a biker movie at small theatre near there, then call it a night. At the film festival I saw a disturbing short about the seamy underbelly of a small Norwegan town. The second short seemed to be the first episode of a low-budget Russian gangster TV show. It started with credits, like "Vladmir Pokonov as Sasha" and ended with a bare-knuckle fight between the leaders of two rag-tag gangs, but nothing got resolved.

Then I had a couple hours to kill before a 1960s American biker movie, "Wild Angels." I went to a bar and restaurant called Central Perk—yes, like in the show "Friends." I snagged a table in the back, the second to last open, and went to the bar and ordered a hamburger and milkshake. They didn't take long to come, and I was hungry so I ate them in a flash. I still had a while to kill before the movie. I sat reading this really good story, in McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, about how a British detective goes to Munich in the 1930s to investigate a murder and manages to topple the budding Nazi regime.

After a while the barman came and cleared my plates. I thought I shouldn't hog the table because there weren't any open. I got up and moved my backpack and book to an overstuffed chair at a coffee table opposite two cute girls around my age. Then I went to the bar and got a beer and sat down. In the meantime there was some confusion. A trio had come by looking for a place to sit. The girls were saying something in French to the people as I walked back, and I wasn't sure what was going on. I had no idea how to say "I can move" in French so I blurted it out in English. In a weird, but flawless, hybrid British-American English, one of the girls said, "No, no it's OK. Sit down."

So I did. I started reading again, taking a few sips of beer. I couldn't wait to finish the detective story. But I didn't want to miss the biker movie. I listened to the girls across the table from me and waited for a break in their hurricane of conversation so I could ask the English-speaking girl what time it was. Seven thirty, she said. I still had over an hour to kill. I read a sentence or so and then she said, "Where are you from?"

"The United States. California," I said, then added, "San Francisco. How about you?"

"Germany," she said. "And my friend here is Swiss." I ended up talking to Anna, the German girl, who spoke better English and was cuter too, for the next hour and half about everything from American politics and her stay in Ohio as an exchange student, to what I think of Geneva and difficult-to-understand English accents. I repeated my friend Jon Santer's story about traveling around New Zealand with a Scottish guy. The Kiwis can't understand the Scot, so Jon translates for him.

Chris is Scottish and no one in NZ can understand him, so I act as his interpreter.
check in at the hostels usually goes like this.
Hostel: "What's you're name."
Chris: "Chris"
Hostel: "I'm sorry?"
Me: "His name's Chris."
Chris: "He's my interpreter."
Hostel: "I'm sorry?"
Me: "He said I'm his interpreter."
Chris: "He's from fuckin California mate."
Hostel: "I'm sorry?"

The girls thought that was hilarious. (Thanks, Jon!)

I chain smoked, partly out nervous energy, partly because Anna was smoking just as much as I. I told her about my snowboarding trip last weekend and see asked if people were snooty up in Saas Fee. I told her how I had trouble on the T-bar and knocked people over a couple times, but the people were really nice about it. Anna laughed at that too. "You're really funny," she said.

I asked if they wanted to go see the biker movie with me. Anna said they were planning to watch a documentary on the African dictator Mobutu.

"Sounds like a good movie for a Saturday night," I said. She explained, with a shrug, that she and her friend are in international studies. The movie was a screening put on by students back at the school.

"It's only in French," Anna said. "I hope I understand it." Earlier she'd told me about how her French was really bad. I asked how much she'd taken in school, and she said five years. That kind of thing kills my hope of learning much French during my short stay here.

"Well, you'll understand more than I would," I said. I asked her for the time again.

"Three minutes til nine," she said.

"Oh, crap. The movie starts at nine. I gotta go."

I gathered up my stuff and asked her, "Could I give you a call sometime?"

She said, "Yeah. Do you have something to write with?"

"Yeah, just a second." Good thing I brought all that shit in my backpack, my man purse. I wrote down the digits, and then she said, "Do you want to read it back to me?" I did. Cool, I thought, she really wants me to call. Meanwhile she had put my cigarette lighter in my pack of cigarettes and pushed them across the table to me. I shook her hand and said goodbye. Her friend had left us alone a while before and went to a nearby computer to check her email. I said bye to her too and left in a hurry.

As soon as I started walking I realized the theatre was a lot farther away than I thought. I tried to take a shortcut but got kind of lost and then realized I'd gone too far and had to double back. I thought about giving up and going back to the bar to talk to Anna more. But I decided I'd give a shot. When I arrived the ticket seller was headed up to the projection booth at the back of this tiny thirty-seat theatre. He came back and sold me a ticket and then went up to the booth. As he walked by, I noticed he was wearing a short houndstooth skirt, like the bottom of a woman's business suit.

As I sat waiting for the movie to come on, I started thinking about how expensive the movie was. That's when I realized I'd forgotten to pay my tab at Central Perk. But I wasn't going to walk out on the movie to pay it, so I sat back and tried to forget about it. As soon ass the movie ended, I headed back to the bar.

The guy who'd served me was at the bar. I figured he'd recognize me as soon as I walked in, but he didn't. If I knew how to say "forget" in French I'd forgotten. I asked him, "Do you speak English?"

"A little bit," he said with a heavy accent and little frown-shrug.

I said slowly, "I forgot to pay," and then he recognized me.

"Ahh," he said and shook his finger at me. He turned to his co-worker and said something that included "hamburger." ("Hamburger" in French is "hamburger.") The man turned to me and, with a smile, said something that included "police." ("Police" in French is "police," too.) He gave me the bill and I paid him and left a big tip, which here means anything over five percent.

I was going to leave right away but this guy at the bar next to me said, "Where are you from?" He was undoubtedly American. I big, loud-talking guy with a broad accent. Midwestern? I told him and asked him the same. Indiana. He introduced me to his friend, a shorter, slightly pudgy guy wearing a Notre Dame baseball cap. I talked to them for a couple minutes and tall guy said, "We're thinking about going to an Irish bar, Flanagan's, that's in the old town."

"I'd go check it out," I said right away. He didn't say anything at first, and I thought he hadn't meant to invite me. But then why had he brought it up? The three of us talked for a while longer and then he said to his friend, "You want to head over there?" To me: "If you want to tag along to the bar, that's fine." Gee, thanks. I said, "Sure, I'll go check it out." They weren't sure where it was, though. I had my Switzerland guidebook with me, so I whipped it out and said, "Let me see here." I found it and steered us right there.

The bar was really crowded but we squeezed in anyway. I bought myself a Guiness while the guys took a piss, and then we hung out and smoked and drank for a while. When they finished their beers and I had half mine left, they went and bought another round of Guinesses. I was surprised, and said thanks, and set down the new beer and kept working on my first. When they finished their beers and I had a decent amount of my second left, they decided to go for another round because it was last call. They'd already asked for Jagermeister and the bar didn't have it. So they decided on Red Bull Vodka.

"Don't get me one," I said.

"Why not?" they said.

"I'm a lightweight," I said.

The tall guy looked at me and said, "Yeah, you are. So are we," and they both started laughing. They each outweighed my skinny ass by at least 75 pounds.

But then when the Notre Dame guy came back from the bar, he had a Red Bull Vodka. What the fuck? I said, "OK, thanks. Cheers," and we clinked glasses. I taught them the French toast, "A la tienne."

"What does that mean?" the tall guy said.

"I have no idea."

Then I went back to my beer, finished that, then started on the Red Bull Vodka. Not long after the bartender came by and said, "Would you like a plastic cup?" (This was in English; it was an Irish bar, after all.) Without waiting for an answer, she poured my drink into the cup.

"Yes, that's much better. Thank you," I said sarcastically.

A minute later she came by and announced, "OK, time to go. Everyone out. You can take your drinks with you." So she had actually done me a favor with the plastic cup, a take-out cup, since you can drink in public here.

I finished the drink quickly, though, and we left. The guys from Indiana wanted to try my Lucky Strike cigarettes. Though the box calls them "An American Original," they'd never smoked these before. Neither had I before I came to Switzerland.

The Notre Dame guy asked the other Indianan, "Do you think he could stay at your sister's place?" I had told them about how I lived in France and would have to take the bus to the border, then ride my bike home.

"No, no I'm fine," I told them. "Anyway, it's fun to ride the bus with all the drunk people. Crazy shit happens."

When we got to the bus stop I said bye and wished the guys a good stay. The tall guy said, "What were you going to do tonight before you met us?"

"I don't know. Probably just go home," I said.

He said, "It was awesome meeting you," and we said our goodbyes.

I left with a glow. This is what I thought going abroad would be about. Meeting random people—especially cute girls—cruising around without plans, seeing what came up. Up til last night, though, the number of people I'd randomly met and hung out with was zilch. And then last night I racked up four people and one phone number.

I walked over to the bus stop and looked at the schedule. I was positive the bus left at 2:30, but I checked again anyway. Yep. I looked at the huge clockface on a tower nearby. Half an hour to wait. I'd forgotten to recharge my iPod and it ran out of batteries about a half an hour after I arrived downtown, 14 hours ago. A line of benches twenty feet away were full of people waiting, too. I just stood around. This was going to be boring. I didn't really feel like reading, though I only had a couple pages left in the anti-Nazi detective story.

A guy came over from the nearby bus bunches and asked, in French, for a cigarette. I said, "What?" He said it again, and I caught cigarette. OK, I said, and pulled out my pack. I had only two left. "Ah, the last ones," I said in English. I usually give up on trying French when I'm tired. I gave him one and he walked back to the bench. I lit up the other, then went and tossed the empty box in the garbage.

A couple minutes later the guy was back, saying something about a cigarette for his cousin. s"Cousin" in French is "cousin," by the way. And "cigarette" is "cigarette." But still I didn't understand, exactly. I gestured with my cigarette. "C'est tout," I said. "This is all."

He kept talking, repeatedly saying fifty. This was in English: "Fifty." I just shrugged, and said back, "Fifty?"

He kept saying "fifty," "for my cousin," and pointing at my cigarette.

Finally I said, "Fifty centimes?" He wants to pay me for a cigarette? He said oui.

I'd already told him I didn't have any. "La derniere cigarette," I told him. The last cigarette. "Pour moi."

Then he suddenly sprung into action. He grabbed the half-smoked cigarette out of my hand and headed back toward the bench. I normally have fast reflexes but I didn't see that coming at all. It took me a second to register what was happening. I lunged after him and grabbed his jacket and yanked on him so we were facing each other.

"What the fuck? That's my cigarette!" I yelled in his face. As he tried to brush off my hands, I accidentally knocked the cigarette out of his hand. I don't know if that's what triggered it, but that's when he went ballistic. He swung and hit me in the left cheek with a hook. I wasn't expecting this either, but I probably should have been since he'd just stolen my cigarette. Maybe the alcohol had gotten to me, too.

I stepped back and put up my hands. Peace, I tried to signal. I'm not fighting over a cigarette. The guy threw an arcing punch over my hands and hit the top of my head. It didn't hurt. As he tried to punch me for the third, fourth time, I saw behind him a gaggle of guys running from the bus bench toward us. Was this his posse? Was I going to get my ass kicked because I grabbed this guy's jacket?

At the same time I started to turn around and walk away, I guess to show the guy I wasn't going to get involved in that bullshit. It was just obvious that this wasn't worth a fight. But how to get this guy to chill out? He punched me again in the back of the head.

Luckily the guys from the bench were on my side. They grabbed the cigarette thief and held him back. They didn't do the best job, though. He got free for a few seconds and came and kicked me in the leg. Again, not a very good shot. They got a hold of him again and I kept my eyes on him now. He kept trying to come at me, but now there were about 30 guys in a big mass surrounding the cigarette thief and me on the edge, watching.

The thief seemed to cool down a bit and people started asking me questions in French. "Je ne parle pas Francais," I said. "I don't speak French."

"What do you speak?" one said in English.

"Oh, I speak English," I said. I suppose it would be more helpful to say what I do speak than what I don't.

I had confusing mongrel conversations with a bunch of the guys. My legs shook from the cold and the post-fight adrenaline comedown. I told them I was OK. "That guy didn't hit very hard. He didn't hurt me," I told people several times. Even though I didn't feel very drunk, I was glad the guys from Indiana had bought me those drinks. I'm sure it took the edge off.

A short Asian guy walked off with the cigarette thief, their arms around each other. Apparently the Asian guy was taking the thief aside and trying to cool him down. A couple other guys next to me started yelling and shoving each other. I moved away from them, but they only kept at it a minute. All the other guys were milling around, trying to figure out what happened, what was going to happen next. And I thought the wait for the bus would be boring.

A short Asian guy said, "I'm on your side." Another guy said, "It's just the alcohol." A lanky Italian-looking guy put his arm around me, so I put mine around him. "Stay with us. We'll take care of you," he said. At least three guys asked me what happened and I tried to explain the whole thing briefly in my slow, simple international English.

One guy said, with hardly any accent, "I speak English." I started talking to him more than the others.

"Where are you from?" he asked. California, I said.

"Oh, I want to go to California," he said.

"It's very nice. I like it there," I told him.

"I've seen it on TV," he said, and paused for a second, reflecting. "There are so many hot chicks." Or maybe he was just remembering his slang.

Then he stared peppering me with questions. "Do you have children?"

Wait, what? I'm quite sure no one has asked me that question before. No, I told him. Then he asked, "Did you live with your parents, back in the states?"

"No, I moved out of my parents' house about 10 years ago."

"Oh," he said. "How old are you?"

"I'm almost twenty-eight," I told him. I don't know why, but lately I've been wanting to seem older rather than younger, so I keep saying I'm almost twenty-eight instead of just saying I am twenty-seven.

I kept looking around for the cigarette thief. He paced back and forth in front of the bus stop. He still looked pissed. I was chatting with the other guys while a few guys surrounded the cigarette thief and they were yelling back and forth. "He's still mad about it?" I said, laughing in disbelief.

The bus finally came and I got on and sat down near the guys who had come to my rescue. I didn't feel like talking though. Part of it was I'd already started writing this blog entry in my head. Is that sick or what? When something dramatic happens, good or bad, then one of my first thoughts is, "That's good material for my blog." Part of it, too, was I wanted to keep an eye open for that guy. Would someone try to start some shit on the bus? Or jump me when I got off?

I tried to reconstruct what had led me to this point. If I hadn't changed seats after eating my hamburger, I wouldn't have met Anna at Central Perk. If I hadn't met her, I wouldn't have smoked so much and forgotten to pay my bill. If I hadn't forgotten to pay, I wouldn't have gone back and met the Americans. If I hadn't met the Americans, then I wouldn't have smoked more and stayed out late. If I hadn't stayed out so late, I wouldn't have been waiting for the bus with the drunks. And if I hadn't waited for the late bus, I wouldn't have gotten in a fight and I wouldn't have a sore cheek now. Or I could say simply none of this would have happened if I hadn't smoked so much.

The random attack was disturbing, yes. But any bad feelings I might've had were overwhelmed by the support and comraderie I got from all the guys who backed me up. It actually makes me feel better about Geneva. Plus now I've got another good story.

Today I'm going to call Anna and tell her, "If you liked my snowboarding story, I've got an even better one for ya."


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