We last saw our hero Arnold Schnabel in the entranceway of Bob’s Bowery Bar, accompanied by his new acquaintance the Buddha, who has assumed the form of a “small Oriental-looking man” in a white suit and a straw boater hat...
(Please go here to read last week’s exciting episode; if you would like to begin at the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 57-volume epic you may click here to order Railroad Train to Heaven: Volume One of the Memoirs of Arnold Schnabel, available both as a Kindle™ e-book or as palpable “book” printed on FSC certified, lead-free, acid-free, buffered paper made from wood-based pulp.)
“Now that the first volume of Arnold Schnabel’s chef-d'œuvre is at last available for purchase, is there really any question as to what book should be number one on any book lover's list of ‘summer beach reads’?” – Harold Bloom, in the Reader’s Digest ‘Summer Fun’ Supplement.
“Very well done, my friend – very well done indeed!”
The little man smiled broadly, revealing perfectly white and gleaming teeth, and he looked past me into the entrance of the bar.
“My, this does look a jolly place! I can’t tell you how long it’s been since I’ve been in a tavern or an alehouse – are we going in?”
“Well, I was intending to go in, yes,” I said.
“And get a little – as you Americans say – ‘load on’?”
“Well,” I said, “I’m afraid that’s what usually happens in these places, but actually I’m hoping to find some friends of mine.”
“You have friends?”
“Believe it or not, yes.”
“Ha ha, no offense, old bean.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “In fact, there was a time when I had no friends.”
“You do strike me as the loner type. The brooding poet in his garret, that sort of thing. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a brooding poet in a garret.”
Little did he know that I actually did sleep in a small attic room, which I think is the same thing as a garret.
He had hooked the bamboo crook of his umbrella over his left forearm, and now he reached into the right side pocket of his suit coat, brought out a golden jewel-encrusted cigarette case, held it out to me and clicked it open.
“Player’s Navy Cut?”
I raised my hand to take one, but stopped myself.
“Go on,” he said. “Take one, I’ve got plenty as you see.”
“Well, I know this will sound hard to believe,” I said, “but I’ve given up smoking.”
“You have?” he said. “My goodness, I hope you won’t take offense if I should humbly ask why, in the name of all the gods, if I may be so bold as to pretend to speak for them?”
“Why did I quit smoking?”
“In the proverbial nutshell, yes, why would you possibly want to quit so pleasurable an activity as smoking?”
“Well, okay, the immediate cause for my, uh, quitting was that yesterday morning – although it feels like nine years ago – I woke up coughing my lungs out, just as I usually did, which was the opposite of pleasurable, then or ever, and I was tired of it. The other reason was that I didn’t want to die of cancer. Or emphysema. Or both.”
“So you’re that invested in your corporeal existence?”
“Yes,” I said. “Also, I dislike pain.”
“Okay. I get that. Far be it from me to judge. But you don’t mind if I smoke?”
“Not at all,” I said.
“Or.” He cocked his head. “Or, we could fire up a marijuana cigarette. A ‘reefer’ in your parlance.”
“Um, uh –”
“Come, come, dear sir, I know you appreciate the sacred weed. You certainly held your own with Wiggly Jones, ‘the little hippie lad’, and that’s saying something!”
“Well, yeah, but –”
“The reefer-smoking equivalent of ‘going the distance’ with the great Jack Dempsey!”
“Heh heh –”
He snapped shut the cigarette case, dropped it back into the side pocket of his suit coat, then reached into its inside pocket and brought out a Player’s Navy Cut cigarette tin.
“Call me pretentious, but I like to keep my Navy Cuts in my nice Cartier case, but I find that these Player’s tins are excellent for carrying tubes of the sacred herb.”
He clicked the tin open, and there must have been at least a dozen fat and obviously hand-rolled cigarettes in it.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, “why not just keep them in my Cartier with the regular cigarettes? And I’ll tell you why, because if I see a flatfoot or what looks like a plainclothes bull about to brace me and shake me down I can quick just toss the Player’s tin of sacred smokeables down the nearest sewer, which I would hate to do with my nice Cartier case, I don’t even want to tell you how much they would charge over the counter for it, not that I had to pay retail, but still.”
It occurred to me that he really didn’t need to smoke any reefer, but I said nothing.
“So what do you say we fire one of these little ecstasy-sticks up?” he said.
“Listen,” I said, “Mr. Buddha –”
“Arnold,” I said, I don’t know why I bothered.
“Arnold,” he said. “What did I tell you about this ‘Mr. Buddha’ business? Call me Sid. I mean if you prefer to be more formal you can call me Siddhārtha – Siddhārtha Gautama is my full name, not that I expect you to remember that – but, look, I like to think we can be friends, so, please, call me Sid.”
“Okay, Sid –”
“Just jesting,” he said. “Arnold. I remember your last name, too. Arnold Sch-, Scha-, Schu–”
“Schnabel,” I said.
“Schnabel?” he said.
“Yes,” I said, probably in a way that my favorite authors would describe as “wearily”.
“’Arnold Schnabel.’ Good, I’ll remember it now.”
He took out one of the handrolled cigarettes and put it in his lips. He snapped the tin shut, slipped it back into his inside pocket, then reached into his side pocket again and brought out a box of Tiger brand matches. He slid it open, took out a match, struck it on the side of the box, and lighted himself up. He tossed the match out into the rain, it sizzled out and was dashed to the sidewalk to be washed away into the gutter and then into a sewer and finally out to the ocean where it would drift forlornly till the end of time. He dropped the matches back into his pocket and then, holding in the smoke, his eyes bulging behind his round glasses, the Buddha proffered the reefer to me.
“Listen, uh, Mister –” his thin eyebrows popped up, so I immediately corrected myself, “I mean, Sid, maybe it’s not such a great idea to smoke that in public –”
He exhaled marijuana smoke up into my face.
“Arnold,” he said, with a small smile, “just take a look around at where you are.”
“I don’t have to look around, I know where we are.”
“Do you see any policemen around here? Do you think they’re out walking their beat in this torrential downpour? And, yes, I know, maybe a patrol car might cruise by, but even if it did, what are they going to see? Just two chaps taking the fresh air outside of a taproom, sharing a convivial cigarette. And as for the good people inside the taproom – just cast an eye.”
Involuntarily I turned and looked through the doorway at that crowd of drunken, dancing, shouting people, with the music blaring over them through the thick swirling smoke, a lady’s voice singing,
Roll another muggles, daddy,“You see what I mean?” said the Buddha, or Sid, as I suppose I should get used to calling him, “You think anyone in there cares? Now come on, you’re wasting the precious weed.”
roll it up thick and tight.
Now fire that muggles up, big daddy,
‘cause we gonna get real high tonight…
I suppose I’d like to be able to say I took the reefer just to shut him up, and this was true as far as it went, but I also took it because I wanted to, indeed I even felt I needed to. At any rate I took the reefer.
“Thanks,” I said.
“It’s me who should be thanking you,” said Sid.
“For what?”, I said, taking a series of quick inhalations like the expert I was apparently becoming.
“For what?” said Sid. “Why, for enabling me to assume the corporeal form of a human being again!”
“I did that?” I croaked, in a constricted voice, as I was still in the process of “toking”.
“You certainly did, old chap. I told you you were enlightened, did I not?”
“Yes,” I said, finally letting out a great cloud of smoke from my lungs. “But I didn’t know –”
“Didn’t know I had these sorts of –”
I was staring at the reefer. It seemed unusually strong in its effect, and I was compos mentis enough to formulate the thought that I probably shouldn’t smoke any more of it.
“One powerfully enlightened being,” said Sid, “that’s what you are, my friend.”
“I don’t feel very enlightened,” I said, “I feel more like the opposite –”
Sid took the reefer from my fingers.
“There you go,” he said. “Not only enlightened, but humble, too!”
“Well, if you were me you would be humble, too.”
“Spoken like a true guru of the old school!”
He drew on the reefer, he had his own method, a few very deep, very slow draws. He took his time, and then exhaled another cloud of smoke in the direction of my face.
“You know something, Arnold, If I didn’t want to get the knees of my trousers wet and soiled I would verily kneel before you in obeisance.”
“No need for that,” I said.
“So modest,” he said. “I wish all enlightened people were so humble and modest. But you know how it is. Chaps get a little enlightened, assume guru-hood, and then next thing you know they get a swollen head. Don’t let that happen to you, Arnold.”
He pointed the lit end of the reefer at me.
“I doubt it will,” I said.
“Unless,” he said, “– and I’m not saying this would happen, but still it’s something any guru needs to watch out for – unless you start becoming proud of your very modesty.”
“Oh. Uh –”
“Or –” he took another smaller slow draw on the reefer, paused and then took another; at last he exhaled and resumed his sentence – “and I’ve seen this happen, more times than I would like to say – unless you start getting all full of yourself once you have all sorts of students and followers hanging on your every word of wisdom –”
“I don’t see that happening,” I said.
“Getting full of yourself?”
“Having students and followers,” I said. “And since I’ll never have students and followers I won’t be able to get full of myself about it.”
“Well, all I can say, Arnold, is, just, as you Americans say, like, wow.”
“Heh heh,” I said.
“Almost mirthlessly, though,” I said.
“But why are you laughing, albeit almost mirthlessly.”
“You think I’m joking.”
“Well, no –”
“Someday,” he said, “just you wait, there they’ll be, your students, disciples, sitting all around you, hanging on your every word, your every slight change of facial expression, or the tiniest gesture with a finger –”
He held up his left hand and made a microscopically small gesture with his little finger, which I noticed had a fancy gold ring on it.
“See? Like that,” he said. “Just the tiniest wiggle.”
He tinily wiggled the finger again.
“Ha ha,” I said.
“Seriously. I’m not joking,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “and besides, I think that reefer is really strong.”
“Of course it is. Grown on the southern slopes of a certain verdant valley of my native Nepal. A little slice of heaven we like to call Shangri-La. Have some more.”
“No thanks,” I said. “I think I’d better not.”
“Save it for later.”
He pinched the light out of the end of the reefer with his finger and thumb.
“Here, stick it in your pocket.”
He held up the reefer. I took it and stuck it in my shirt pocket. I had sunk pretty low, I realize that.
“Excellent,” said Sid, “now let’s get in there and get that aforementioned load on, shall we?”
“Wait, hold on, Sid,” I said. “I have to tell you something.”
“Great. Unmuzzle your wisdom, as your bawdy bard once wrote.”
“I’m not going in here just to get a load on.”
“No? Then whatever for?”
“I just want to say goodbye to my friends I told you about. And then I want to try to return to the real world.”
“All right,” he said, after just a moment’s pause.
He took his cigarette case out again, clicked it open, offered its contents to me. I shook my head, he shrugged, took out a cigarette and put it in his lips.
“Sure,” he said. “Whatever.”
He clicked the case shut, dropped it back in his suit coat pocket, brought out the box of matches again.
“I’d like to meet these friends of yours,” he said.
He took out a match, struck it, lighted up his cigarette, exhaled a great slow cloud of smoke up into my face. Again he flicked the match out into the downpour where it was extinguished and washed away to follow its fellow on an endless voyage into oblivion.
“I mean,” said Sid, he took the cigarette from his lips, holding it between his thumb and forefinger, looking at it, and then at me, “if you don’t mind introducing me –”
“Sure, I don’t mind,” I said.
“Do you think I’ll like them?”
“Uh, yeah – one old guy is kind of crusty –”
“I love crusty old men!”
“Well, I guess you’ll like him, then.”
“But will your friends like me?”
“I, uh –”
“What? You don’t think they will?”
“I don’t know –”
“You don’t know?”
“I mean I’m not sure.”
“Wow, that’s harsh.”
“I’m just trying to be honest, Sid.”
“As you should be. But wow. Am I that unlikable?”
“No, not really –”
“But I am a little.”
“A little unlikable.”
“Not unlikable so much,” I said, “but –” and I would never have said this normally, but, again, that reefer had been very strong – “you come on a little strong, Sid.”
“No, it’s true,” he said. “Can I tell you something?”
“Do you know why I was just a cigarette lighter before you helped me assume a human corporeal host again?”
“Because of my tendency to come on too strong. That’s why.”
He took a drag on the cigarette, looked out at the rain, and then back at me.
“I fucked myself. And one fine day I woke up and found that I was a cheap mass-produced table lighter. Well, not super cheap, I was produced at the Ronson factory in Newark, at least I wasn’t some Soviet-made knock-off, but, still. Anyway, I will do my best not to come on too strong with your buddies. And I mean that.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “They’re not perfect either. Except, well –”
“Well, one of them might be perfect.”
“My goodness, a super guru. What’s his name?”
“Well, he’s Jesus Christ,” I said.
“The Jesus Christ.”
“I am a huge admirer,” he said.
(Continued next week, in this same time and space...)