Manny, Joe & Me
BY RUSSELL UNDERWOOD
So I'm in this bar -- a typical bar, the kind you might see in a beer commercial, with dusty hardwood floors and slow-turning ceiling fans. Lean, serious men in plain white t-shirts hunch over worn-out Brunswick pool tables while available-looking models sit at tables by themselves, watching the men and sipping from tall mugs of Coors Light.
Beside me is a guy named Manny. Manny sports a cowboy hat, an alarmingly dark tan and some serious five o'clock shadow. He looks like Tom Selleck in one of those TNT westerns, just back from a rough cattle drive. He's getting a lot of glances from the models but doesn't seem to notice. He coughs a lot.
Manny's bumming because he just lost his job. I know this because I've read the newspaper accounts of the settlement between various state attorneys general and the five major American tobacco companies, one of whom -- Philip Morris -- used to employ Manny to sell its product.
"Feels like I been rode hard and put up wet," Manny tells me, nursing his sixth beer of the night.
"You don't say," I reply, lighting up a Camel. I'm hoping Manny doesn't notice the brand. He does anyway, but all he gives me is a wry smile that soon dissolves into an ugly retch. He holds his left hand in front of his mouth, and I can hear a wet, liquid smack as a hunk of phlegm hits his palm.
"S'alright," Manny says, regaining his composure. "What do I care? It's funny, though. Me and Joe, we duked it out all these years, an' now both of us get the old heave-ho."
At that point, right on cue, the saloon doors swing open, and there's Joe his own self, in his shiny leather jacket and Wayfarer shades, his saxophone strapped across his back like an assault rifle. A half-burnt butt's dangling from his mouth, as usual, beneath that preposterously phallic snout of his.
He eases up next to us. Manny, noticing the name on Joe's cigarette, is already laughing.
"Jesus, Joe, you're smoking Dorals now?"
Joe shrugs without embarrassment. "Yeah. They're nasty, but what are you gonna do? I'm not giving those Reynolds jerks another dime."
"I hear you," Manny says.
He takes another swig of his beer, and I'm more self-conscious than ever puffing away on my Camel.
"It's a pleasure to meet you," I tell Joe, knowing I sound like some dopey fan club member but apparently unable to stop myself. "You know, not so long ago, I was practically a Camel Cash millionaire."
Joe takes a deep, unsatisfying drag on his current Doral and glares at me. "That's sad, man."
"But you were cool," I say, not letting it go. "Those pictures of you as George Washington, with your face on those little dollar bills. . . ."
Manny's nudging me, gently but insistently, and I'm starting to get the message. I say, "I'm sorry. It's too bad how it all came down with the settlement. But you'll get other work."
"Oh, right," Joe spits. "I'm a friggin' dromedary, for God's sake! Exactly what career opportunities did you have in mind?"
"Well... you're good with kids," I say lamely, and for a second it really looks like Joe's going to punch my lights out, but Manny restrains him.
"It's all right, Joe. He don't know no better. Just got suckered like the rest of us."
Joe is staring intently now into the filthy ashtray set before him at the bar.
"Yeah, I guess. I dunno, Manny. I can't believe those fat bastards sold us out."
"It had to happen eventually," Manny says reasonably. "It was just a matter of time before somebody realized they had to do something about all those billions in health care costs from smoking. If not the Congress, then the states. I mean, we're talking about the only product you can buy that kills you when you use it as directed."
"Listen, Manny, you think them gettin' rid of me and you and is gonna make a damn bit of difference to Philip Morris's bottom line? Or R.J. Reynolds'? Or Liggett's? Hell, no." Joe stubs his Doral out in the ashtray on the bar and grimaces before lighting another. A veil of blue smoke hangs in front of his snout for a moment, and I have to admit, he still looks pretty cool.
"They're just gonna ship the crap overseas," Joe continues. "Focus on the Asian market where you don't have to put up with any advertising restrictions. By 2000, they'll have every 12-year-old kid in Thailand smoking butts."
"They already do," Manny says.
"Then you see my point. America's a dying market -- no pun intended. Tobacco use has been going down here since 1964, when the surgeon general came out against it. This whole settlement thing, they're just cutting their losses, making sure they can put a stop to those lawsuits the smokers keep filing.
"They figure, pay some money up front, when you can negotiate it, get a handle on it, and eliminate any nasty comebacks down the road. They're slick little weasels, Manny. And they're gonna get their profits no matter what."
"So where does that leave us?" Manny asks morosely.
"Broke," Joe says. "Unemployed. Farting around bars with the lung capacity of a stinkin' gerbil."
Manny's laughing now and swallowing air so that he sounds like he's got the hiccups. For the first time, Joe smiles, grimly. "Who do you think's gonna hire a sax player that can't even blow out a match?" Joe shakes his head.
"I say we strike our own little deal with the Ad Council or the Lung Association or whoever. You know, you and me, Manny and Joe, back in the spotlight. We'll say, 'Hey kids, still wanna be like us -- a broken down pack animal and a wheezy old cowpoke?'" Manny's laughing so hard now that it seems he will never stop. The sound is harsh, like a dog barking, and then he starts coughing again and his eyes water because he can't catch his breath. He's still smiling, though.
He says, "Stop it, Joe. You're killin' me."
Russell Underwood lives in Atlanta. He isn't giving those Reynolds jerks another dime, either.