Breath of Fresh Air

Photo by bixentro.
Photo by bixentro.

Remy and I looked into the cookie shop as three, very intoxicated twenty-­something year old girls helped themselves to the stereo and began dropping burnt cookies all around them. We had asked them to watch the shop for us so we could sit and smoke on the bench just outside­ and they were all too eager to help out. A brisk, dark night like so many before, we sat and watched the throngs of college kids swarm through the narrow and crowded streets­ each one clutching or yelling into a phone. The girls inside wore our aprons and oven mitts as they pulled open the doors to the 400 degree oven­ more cookies falling from the trays to the floor. Laughing and screaming as such drunken 20 somethings do, all in very plain sight of the security camera. Like the bulk of our customers who came staggering in after midnight for hot, cheap cookies, both Remy and I ended up at the shop­ with no real intention of finding ourselves at an all-­night cookie shack. People don’t plan these things­ or at least they shouldn’t. Somehow, they just end up happening.

This was my second year in New York, a good 3,000 miles from anyone I had ever known. What I had expected to be a glorious time of autumn leaves and old brick buildings and small writing nooks with the love of my life, high-school girlfriend, who I had followed here­ had turned out to be a devastatingly lonesome and anxious time of working two shitty food service gigs and drinking myself to sleep sometime in between. In high school, my girlfriend was a lot of things that made sense to an 18 year old. Cheerleader, choir, student council, and always horny right after school and just before tennis practice. But in just the first few minutes of landing on this strange land, my sole companion was thoroughly tied up in parties, a capella, and a sorority. Three things I am not entirely comfortable verbalizing in one sentence. But still I held on, like a desperate drug fiend for, at best, a distraction between work and school. Sure­ we had a solid relationship, don’t get me wrong, her texting me one last sober text before heading into a frat party as I prepared for at least one large, sweaty man to vomit in the shack. No, in my endless deluge of thumping house music and loud drunks, I ended up spending my nights with tall, lanky, bearded Remy. And together we smoked on that bench for the better part of a year. Mostly bullshitting­ trying to outdo one another’s bullshit. We spoke of where we came from and we wanted to go­ both silently accepting that nothing more than talk would ever come to fruition. This marvelous college town, which promised any and all limitless opportunity­ ensnared us into its pit of self­-doubt and insecurity.

Which is exactly how we found ourselves replying to an ad on Craigslist Gigs­ the drifter’s job board. I nursed instant coffee and hand rolled cigarettes every morning before class, skimming through weekend opportunities for Remy and I to get out of town. The ad was for a Phish Music Festival over the Fourth of July weekend­ selling novelty iced cream bars. Before even calling the ad, I phoned Remy to confirm our plans. He couldn’t be more excited.

The festival was hot, huge, and full of more drugs than I had ever seen in one weekend. Our bosses gave us an ice cream cart to wheel around, an umbrella, and a fanny pack full of cash which was checked every hour­ all of this without a single drug test or background check. They politely asked to drink out of unlabeled containers and to not smoke pot directly in front of the cops­ which turned out to be a bit much to ask for some of our co workers. Remy and I stationed ourselves a few hundred feet away from each other along the dirt path that led to the arena. The festival was held within a Nascar race track, with what looked like a refugee camp surrounding the perimeter. Thousands of sunburnt, blazed, “Phish people” made their way in and out of the arena for each music set­ as we slung iced cream half­-heartedly in the heat.

It soon came to our attention that so many of these people were in need of cigarettes. Obviously booze and drugs traded hands more efficiently than the Nasdaq, but so many had not come prepared for a smoke shortage. And with hours of drinking and hard drug use under their belt­ none of these animals were going anywhere. It was around our second hour­ we knew what we had to do. Like the dozens of staggering drunks in collegetown who had asked us for a smoke as we sat on that bench, these folks were willing to pay anything for their fix. After screaming down the highway to pick up a few cartons at the convenience store in town, we came back for our second shift standing on our carts bellowing, “Ice cream and cigarettes­ breakfast of champions!” “Choco tacos and smokes­ their cheaper than drugs!” We sold through four cartons in minutes. The next morning, we loaded up a dozen cartons each and we were off to the races­ at the racetrack. Slinging smokes for double­, triple the price, we had lines at our carts no matter the cost. Our bosses didn’t care­–who do you think sold the most ice cream that weekend? Working double shifts and begging to work overnight, Remy and I manned our busy carts­ now with two fanny packs,­ haggling, bartering, shaking down. We had stoned regulars, cops, other vendors trading food for smokes. I traded beer and weed­ which I promptly sold. After four solid days of brutal sun, our lungs full of dust and hoarse from cat­calling, we walked away selling 41 cartons of cigarettes. That’s 8, 200 cigarettes. And at $2 a cigarette­ that’s a 600% markup. And that was just the beginning.

My girlfriend would never hear of this. She had hardly noticed I was gone the weekend and I had conveniently forgot to bring it up. My focus, however, was on the great state of Virginia. The Old Dominion is home to Remy’s family and, as it so happens, the nation’s lowest cigarette tax rate. As we were paying top dollar in the bright blue Empire State, just a 10 hour drive south brought a profit margin beyond our naive and youthful first weekend slinging cigarettes. Filling our car with styrofoam coolers, Remy’s grandpa would ask what we were doing with so many of these.

“We’re going to another music festival this weekend, Pa.”

“Oh, that sounds nice.” Yes, yes it did.

Soon, any smoker north of the Mason-­Dixon line was smoking from us if we could help it. Upstate New York, with it’s concerts and festivals and weddings and bar mitzvahs, became our bitch. Every weekend for months we packed that four-door with enough cigarettes to make Don Draper cough.

But we couldn’t stop there­ requesting more time off from work and school, we were determined to find the world’s cheapest cigarette. We would roll our own­ if they looked as perfect as fresh Marlboro Red. Dodging voicemails from our girlfriends, we had no choice but seek the holy land. The land of opportunity­ that promised all who ventured there a world of possibility. A little place called Mexico.

Juarez is still considered the single bloodiest city outside of a war zone in the entire world. Enough cartel business dirties the streets that federales line the border of El Paso, TX twenty-four hours a day­ with their AK­-47s and seething dogs to boot. The streets are lined with ruined buildings from a time before, sickening poverty is everywhere, and a looming church keeps heed over the bustling street market. As us two honkeys walked through the chaos that afternoon, vendors sold everything from Levi’s to bootlegs of Zoolander. Hundreds of commuters cross the border daily to make a pittance at McDonald’s and Wal-Mart and Jiffy Lube.

It didn’t take long for us to find the cigarette booth. Nervously approaching, Remy and I promised ourselves we would not get in over our heads. Thinking back now, we were so over our heads just fucking being there­ but every step was acceptance. If we made it this far, a little farther couldn’t be any trouble Relying on each other’s bullshit confidence, we asked the booth attendant for as many cigarettes as he was willing to sell.

He asked us why we needed so many. We murmured, “We, um, smoke a lot.”

He laughed loudly and said, “Yea, me too.” And gestured to the wall to wall cartons of every cigarette brand imaginable.

After we talked some numbers, the guy flipped open his phone and began shouting to someone. Remy and I stepped out into the heat and lit what I was sure was our last cigarette. Any minute now, the cartel would pull up and perform things I had only seen in Blow with Johnny Depp. Great movie­–if you never plan on orchestrating an illegal smuggling operation.

A dirty, maroon minivan pulled up and sweating driver walked around to shake hands with the cigarette man. I thought the van could easily fit our two dead bodies, but I guess it’s better to over­compensate in these matters.

We loaded it quietly. 75% Marlboro Red and the rest Camel Blue­ for those people. Doors came apart, hollow seat cushions unzipped, and boy, did that driver know how to pack efficiently. It was as if he had done this before!

Waiting in the long line to cross the border, Remy and I tried to outdo each other’s serenity. But it was no use, we both saw the terror in each other’s eyes. The look that said even more than not wanting to get caught:­ we each loved the other schmuck enough we couldn’t bear the idea of him getting caught.

And it was during that moment of quiet, with the driver waving to a friend in line, that the federales surrounded us. A dozen or so severe looking soldiers with guns up, ordered us to a holding facility just to the side of the line. Our driver cursed, and we knew more than any other moment in our lives that we were fucked. Mexican prison fucked. There was no running or bullshititing like any other time you talk yourself out of something. This was it.

Locked in a room together, Remy and I were allowed to smoke. I fought back tears of unending terror as I lit what I was now sure was our last cigarette. The guards looked through our passport and licenses. Me from Washington and Remy from NY must have looked great. But it wasn’t these that caught their eye. It was our passports. Or rather, our passport cards. You see, Remy and I had found that they issue passport cards for frequent commuters to Canada and Mexico. We had got them because they were more convenient than books and fit in our wallets. The other cool thing is that they read, “U.S. State Department” across the front with no mention of passport anywhere. We often whipped these out to buy booze and tried to convince the clerk we were with the government. And while collegetown liquor store attendants can tell a government official infallibly,­ federales on the other hand were not as quick to the chase. They brought us out of the holding area and laughed and tried to speak English as they, “Ha­ha. We are not so easily fooled. Nothing gets by us!”

Oh jesus. Oh sweet jesus, I thought. These aren’t fakes, they know everything. Nothing does get by them­ especially a van that must have been identified by dozens of smuggles. How could we be so stupid?
But instead of leading us to our final resting place, we were led to the very front of the line to the red, white, and blue. They laughed again, told us to come back anytime and assured once more, that nothing got by them.”

The border agent laughed at their gaiety.

“They aren’t used to these yet. Probably think you’re more important than your really are. They escort anyone with these to the front. Here ya go. Welcome home” she said and rushed us through.

And as rapidly as we packed a minivan full of thousands of illegal cigarettes to be smuggled­ we were back in America­ free and panting from the rush of fear that had come on so fast and fled just as quickly.

As we sat shaking in the car of the parking lot of the 7­-11, we rambled through the theories of what had just happened. Trying to make sense of anything. Apparently, when the dogs had sniffed our smokes, the federales were eager to catch young, stupid smugglers. But after looking over our U.S. State Department employee badges, they were quick to assure us that our undercover sting was properly foiled­ proving to their northern allies that nothing gets past them. Not even young, stupid smugglers.

Hands still shaking, I called my girlfriend. Desperate to hear a voice of the rational world, where breaking a deadline was as close as anyone got to serious trouble. She was furious of course. I hadn’t talked to her more than fifteen minutes within a week. She went on and on about how busy she was and how I didn’t need to add to her stress.

“Paige, hold one sec,” I told her. “Maybe you should focus more on school and your friends and maybe I’m not cut out for these things.”

“What are you saying? You’re just going to break up with me over the phone­ after 2 years together? Just come over, we can talk this over. Are you home?”

“Um, no.”

“At work? Where are you?”

“I’m in El Paso. Texas.”

“What!? Why?”

As she went off in my ear I looked over to Remy who was drinking a three-day old bottle of very warm chocolate milk from the shack and consulting a dirty old road map.

“I’m not coming back to New York,” I finally told her.

She was confused and angry and dissatisfied it was ending this way. But what choice did I have? Never before, as I looked at life in prison had I felt so free. No longer did I need to attend the frat parties or godawful a cappella shows or sit on that bench as everyone else in life kept walking past­ continuing on.

I hung up the phone and looked over to Remy who handed me a smoke without asking if I wanted one. He started the car, and rolled down the windows.

“You need anything from my place?” I had left my few boxes of books at Remy’s parents house in New York.

“No, I do not need anything.” A bit more philosophically than practically. But, hey, I had just split up with a girl, goddamnit.

“Ever been to California?” Remy asked.

“Once, for a band trip in high school.”

“Well, if it’s cool with you I was thinking we should head that way. Check it out. I’m sure some drunk bitch has the shop covered for a few days.”

And, with lighting the cigarettes that were certainly not our last, Remy and I drove away from New York, and its tax rates, forever.

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