(or: "Beef Jerky Face")
June 16, 2001; dedicated to Ms. Edna Pearl 

 I worked today. Ordinarily I'm off on weekends, but once a season the Smithsonian Associates do a big theater outing for their membership, taking them to see a show at Arena Stage, and I have to pitch in and help with the post-show reception. It's a fairly wealthy, lah-di-dah, lots-of-disposable-income type of crowd that shows up for these things. Ruddy, country club-looking guys; elegantly coiffed, pampered-looking women. Lots of manicured mitts and bejeweled claws reaching across the counter to snag the booze. No one's wearing less than $1,500 worth of clothing or three times that amount in jewelry.

So, I go on down to the theater and help set the Fichandler lobby up for the soiree after the play. Dragging tables and chairs out, setting up the buffet, coordinating with the caterers, laying out the food, stocking the bar, etc.... The show ends, the crowd comes pouring into the lobby and attacks the buffet like crazed jackals on a zebra carcass. I'm tending bar, and pouring wine and mineral water and sodas and beer, and keeping up with demand pretty well. Rich folks love free drinks, I'm telling you...

There's a lull in the activity, and I turn away to pour myself a drink. I hear a deep, rumbling voice say "Do you have Chardonnay?" and as I turn around to answer, three things happen:
1.) I realize that the voice-- which sounds for all the world like a wino retching through a kazoo-- is emanating from this tiny, shriveled woman.
2.) I register that she is perhaps the ugliest, most frightening looking human I have ever seen up close.
3.) The wave of stench hits me like a wet slap-- the acrid stink of stale cigarette smoke. I mean, it doesn't just cling to her, it seems to envelop her completely. She's almost...gummy with it. Maybe it's what's holding all four and a half feet of her together... that and the Chanel suit.

She has a face that looks like it was sewn from old footballs--wrinkled, puckered, deeply grooved and hideously dark. Tanned way beyond normal limits. And let me hasten to add that this was definitely a Caucasian female. My first thought was something completely incoherent, along the lines of "AAARRRGGH! BLAAAAHHH! EWWWWWWW!" and then I recall thinking "She's been smoke cured, like a ham; she God-- it''s....beef jerky face!!" She had the appearance and aroma of someone who's spent the last 25 years chain smoking inside a telephone booth...

It's very difficult to convey exactly how frighteningly grotesque this woman was. Her age could have been anywhere from 60 to 120-- it was impossible to tell without carbon dating, or maybe sawing thru her and counting the rings. I am being kind, here. Maybe at one time she was a cute baby, or a pretty young girl. Time had not been gentle with her. Time had actually used her as the butt of some horrid joke, frankly. Smoking had contributed to the overall picture in at least a couple of ways. You don't get that sort of voice without decades of pounding down the butts, and your skin doesn't take on that awful, sickly-- whatever the opposite of "luster" is-- without constant exposure to smoke.

Her hair did not move. It was not a wig; I could clearly see where it was attached to her scalp. It was just....rigid. Completely inflexible, despite the Washington humidity. An engineering marvel or a triumph of chemistry, I'm not sure which. And she stank. Oh, God, did she reek! It was like someone had animated a cigarette butt, slapped a plastic wig on it, installed a mechanical voicebox and set it toddling into the lobby to ask me for wine. "Uh... yes, ma'am; Chardonnay", I replied, trying desperately not to show how horrified I was by her appearance.

"Thanks. Where can I smoke?" was her next question. I directed her to the balcony off the lobby which overhangs the parking lot, and she ambled out there and spent the remainder of the afternoon chain smoking, while perched like some wizened little sparrow on a chair by the railing. She never ate anything, just drank and smoked. She came back inside to refill her wine glass 4 times, and to treat the rest of us to her 150 decibel, hacking, barking, phlegmy-rich cough, replete with hawking and snorting and throat sounded like an agitated Rottweiler trying to cough up chunks of some mailman's ass...

Now, it's obvious not everyone ages gracefully. Nor is everyone gifted with fabulous genes and a supermodel physiognomy. We're all (hopefully) going to get old and wrinkly--but sweet Jesus! We don't have to actively promote this sort of freakshow by continuing to smoke! If I needed another reminder of what an unglamorous, stinking, appallingly disgusting habit smoking is, I couldn't have asked for a more dramatic one than manifested itself at work this afternoon. God bless you, smelly, scary, mummified-looking lady; may you inspire others to refrain from tobacco wherever you go next.

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