Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Barroom Philosopher

This is a narrative I put together a few weeks ago, and I've been considering using the character of Sender Jameson to explore political and philosophical questions in the context of this blog, now and again. I just figured a bit of background was necessary before I started.

--It was 1996 when I met him; he called himself Sender, though I would call him my barroom philosopher in the end. He was tall, thin and his face had the weathered look of old leather (as the cliché goes). His left hand held a cigarette and his right a chilled glass of beer.

I won’t say he was right about much, as far as the philosophy is concerned, but he always made me think and rarely spoke unless he had something to say. That or he was joking.

The tobacco and alcohol were fixtures, too; I knew him a full decade and often spent entire evenings in his company. I swear to you, dear reader, that in that time I never once saw his hands empty of those two little vices (though the qualifier seems inapt, in this case).

So it was with mild surprise and amusement that our first meeting carried us into conversation; “Do you always greet new faces with a cloud of smoke and the stale smell of cheap beer?”

The question followed our introduction and carried more than a hint of disdain – probably more than I’d intended. He reacted by taking a long drag from his king-size and blowing smoke into my face with a grin, “Old faces, too. Sometimes I even do it to the face in the mirror. You’re responsible for your own exposure, so why are you berating me?” His smile told me he meant to continue, so I obliged him, “Admittedly, I’m not entirely innocent in the matter, but the question of responsibility is an interesting one.”

His pause gave me leave to talk; that was how our conversations would continue, over the course of our friendship – with him leading, “How do you mean?” I asked, “You’re responsible for your own actions. How is that complicated?”

It was the opening he wanted, “The question of consequence complicates matters,” he cut off my knee-jerk response with a gesture and continued, “You are, of course – in a perfectly ideal world – responsible for the consequences of your actions and decisions as well, but in the web of consequence, responsibility becomes a little,” he smiled and drained his glass, letting the last two golden droplets explode against the polished-wood surface of the table, “Fluid. It becomes a little more ambiguous.”

I signalled a waitress, then raised an eyebrow at my interlocutor, “Explain,” I said, genuinely interested.

He stopped and accepted his new beer from the waitress and tipped her generously before turning to face me again, “Take our situation, for example,” he blew more smoke, for emphasis, “It is obviously my responsibility that I’m addicted to tobacco and unwilling to quit – and the consequences of that, i.e. second hand smoke, the smell, the cost this incurs to myself and too the health system, etc. Those are, all of them, my fault and ideally I would be able to assume the burden and cost on my own – but here comes the first complication,” I caught myself nodding agreement, urging him on. His voice was excited, passionate; he wasn’t lecturing – following the Socratic, dialectical method of reasoning he was talking it out, teasing out the meanings and implications.

So I held out his lighter to start his next smoke going and, once again, let him continue, “The owner of this pub, here, has made a decision to allow smoking on the premises – why? Because he wants my custom and that of people like me; we’re his bread and butter. Whatever. To this conversation it is immaterial. Reasons are great for satisfying curiosity, but pure shit as far as getting to the truth is concerned,” the glowing ember on the end of his cigarette waved back and forth more frantically; it reminded me of an eager physics student’s frantic pen-scratching, getting faster and ever more frantic as the answer drew near.

“So what is useful, then? For getting to the truth, I mean.” It was more of a challenge than a query.

He ordered another beer and told me not to bother with trivial details; he told me that method in philosophy was contingent on the question being asked and picked up where he left off.

“So the bar owner’s decision to allow smoking inside exposes his clientele to smoking – people like me, who understand that his decision is just as important as our own, take him up on it – the responsibility is now shared two ways. If only it ended there!”

I nodded, “And people like me? Or his employees? Will he take responsibility for poisoning them? Us? Will you?” I admit that I am slightly ashamed of my arrogant self-righteousness, in retrospect.

“So we divide it some more. You knew who I was when you sat down,” it came across as a statement, not a question, “So you’ve been here before; you know that Jerry allows smoking here and you know that people smoke here; blaming me for the collateral damage, in this case – or at least, heaping all the blame on me – makes about as much sense as blaming a bear for eating a salmon that has jumped straight into its jaws.”

“Likewise, blaming me,” I poked my chest with a stuck-out thumb, “At least blaming it all on me, is just as illogical.”

He conceded the point, taking a thoughtful drag on his smoke, “Of course,” he said, exhaling, “But it got us talking, didn’t it?”

I had to smile.

It has been two years since I lost my friend - he disappeared from my life a few weeks after the provincial law banning smoking in public places came into effect. Ironically, the healthier, happier Sender Jameson, having finally quit his favourite vice and out for a walk in a bid to get back into shape, was killed by a driver berating his passenger for smoking in the car. --

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