Most of us were only semi-employed; we knew what little work we could we had could be taken from us at any moment. As friends often did, we pooled our resources: food from our gardens, items some of us needed and others had too many of, trades at which we were useful, and in addition to this, we shared our time and companionship, resources which never ran dry in hard times.
For years, we’d lived as privately as we could, opting out of visible participation in a society obsessed with social and commercial networking. Ours was the age in which everything about us was knowable, from personal banking to computerized medical records, from communication firms that read our electronic mail to insurance companies that bought information on what we ate and how we lived. While others in American society sought the antidote of hiding-in-plain-sight assimilation, this was not a solution for the many like us who could not hide if we tried. Many believed that blending in would protect them and keep their lives hidden below the radar; theirs was a steadfast faith in the safety in numbers. To our way of thinking, one that prized the freedom of privacy at a premium higher than any exchangeable reward, there was nothing more dangerous. Nonconformity became a precious commodity and, outside of one another, our only sanctuary.
Someone somewhere had coined the term: “off the grid” and news of its grand possibilities had spread like the intoxicating promises of a cult religion. Just who had first uttered it was a mystery. Was it a group of ham radio bikers dwelling in the deserts of Southwestern America as rumor had it, or was it international techno-terrorists with bottomless bank accounts and liberated minds? Was it the now mature first generation of open source software engineers? Was it holy roller Jesus freaks or privileged nouveau Krishnas? Did it come from prison culture or migrant workers?
The phrase was not jealously guarded but it was uttered so infrequently as if to suggest reverence among those who felt the its meaning. There seemed to be a general consensus, from those who employed it, that it ought to be guarded from becoming a fad expression, as such a fate which would destroy its fragile powers altogether.
Elena insisted that it was a direct translation from the Spanish and that as a concept it was centuries old. “Una Vida Cerradados de las Grittas”. This phrase did not strike me as a likely candidate for a “direct” translation. Still, I granted her that surely the nomadic solution to the dominating culture of city-states was ages old, such as with Roma cultures.
“I am not talking about the gypsies,” she sniffed contemptuously. Elena and I sat alone at a small table near the back windows of Pat’s Diner. We liked sitting far from the kitchen. It was typically only we out of our group who came to the diner on Mondays. Lately, Henry and some of the others had picked up substitute teaching posts and on Mondays they were most frequently called in to work at the schools. Elena worked online and I pretended to work on my composition studies, pouring over music theory books as slowly I ate away at my dwindling inheritance. I liked Elena because she never pried into my life, and she, I suppose, liked me well enough for her own reasons.
So efficient was Elena at her job that Monday was the day that she did the least work. Her employees avoided her at all costs and scrambled like mad behind the scenes to complete what they were supposed to have done over the weekend. As no one sought her out at the start of the week, she and I enjoyed leisurely talks together most Monday mornings.
In one flowing gesture, Elena dipped into her hand-sewn exotic leather handbag, produced a shining silver cigarette case and popped it open with the press of a button. I beheld the crisply papered cigarettes, white and neat as a row of fine teeth.
“Would you like?” she asked me slyly, well aware that I had quit over a year before. I thanked her but refused. “As you like,” she muttered, a fresh cigarette now hanging between her voluptuous lips. She lit her smoke with a lighter embedded in the side of her case. Elena took such a long, luxuriously deep drag that unthinkingly I looked away, as though I’d viewed something indecent. She replaced the items in her purse and tapped her cigarette onto the side of her plate. As Elena resumed her daydreams I blew at my black coffee.
Quickly a waitress appeared and deposited an ashtray at Elena’s elbow saying, “Next week, Elena. The law change.” It was a friendly reminder, and though I was trying to kick the habit, I felt a pang of regret that I would no longer even be able to smell the slow burning of cigarettes at restaurants.
Elena cast her bedroom eyes heavenward. “In that case,” she said, again retrieving her cigarette case, “I will smoke a second for you, my friend.” She tossed another smoke onto the table just out of my reach.
“More coffee, please,” I murmured to a passing server, and was obliged.
“I was amazed when Italy did not make a stink about the smoking ban,” Elena commented once our waitress had taken our orders and departed. “After that…” she made a gesture of futility. Meekly she tapped her ash into the glass tray provided.
It was my personal theory that the smoking ban in the United States was nothing but a red herring. It had passed in Congress to mask the real culprits who endangered public health. I shared this belief with my friend who listened patiently. It was the car companies’ backward emission standards, I said, that polluted our air and mass-scale factories and off-the-leash corporations that dumped waste into our rapidly vanishing fresh water supplies and their chemicals that poisoned our food. Oil companies were more powerful than tobacco farmers these days, I pointed out, and in an oligarchical system like ours, the big guns called the shots with our elected officials.
Elena considered this. “I have no illusions about smoking,” she said, “But yes, a single car pollutes far more than I do. And I puff away like the chimney.”
The words of my late grandmother came to mind: “Dolores,” she had said to me one day over the pages of the merged Detroit Free Press/Detroit News daily paper, “I miss the jokers and the smokers and the drinkers and the thinkers.”
Elena and I each took a section of the city newspaper, now printed three times a week, read for a while and then traded. We took our meal in silence, enjoying the lulling drone of mid-day diner chatter and clatter as it swirled into a dissonant symphony.