The Privacy of Smoke
It’s a crisp winter’s night and I’m strolling though Union Square in Lower Manhattan. I’m supposed to be meeting a friend for dinner but when she texts to say she’s running late I suddenly discover I’ve got forty-five minutes to kill. So I duck into a cigar shop, select a Punch Maduro Rothschild from the humidor, snip off the end and walk back into the park. Finding a quiet corner I get the stogie going with a wooden match and settle back to enjoy my favorite pastime – people watching. Unfortunately, people are also watching me.
“That’s disgusting,” a smartly dressed young woman says as she walks past me.
“I beg your pardon?” I reply.
“You look obnoxious smoking that cigar,” she says.
I look at the woman balefully. She’s your prototypical New York babe – cute, dressed in black from head to toe, holding a cup of Starbucks coffee with an iPod plugged into her head.
“I may look obnoxious, dear,” I reply. “But you sound obnoxious.”
“What did you say?” the woman says, popping her headphones out of her ears. I repeat myself.
“What the…” she stammers.
“Have a nice night, Miss.”
The woman looks at me flabbergasted. She tries coming up with a witty comeback, fails, and walks briskly away. I shake my head. It takes all kinds.
Smoking’s bad for you. Don’t ever take it up. Quit if you can. But for me tobacco is like a dysfunctional ex-girlfriend you can’t let go off. Even though you know seeing her is bad for you, when times are tough you find yourself calling her at three in the morning anyway. One day I won’t need these things, but right now my flesh is mighty weak.
I walk over to a construction site and prop myself up against a concrete wall. I get in a whole five minutes of quiet time when a man and woman pushing a baby stroller stop alongside me.
“Can you move somewhere else with that thing?” the man says.
“Excuse me?” I say.
“The smoke,” he says, smiling passive aggressively, “It’s not good for the baby.”
“You don’t say.”
“I’d appreciate if you moved.”
New Yorkers are obsessed with real estate. I once knew a man whose father died from a massive heart attack. The next day, when he went to his father’s place on the West Side to sort though the paperwork, he discovered the landlord had already rented the place and changed the locks. Unfortunately for the landlord the son was a lawyer – and a grieving, pissed off lawyer at that. So Manhattanites turning feral to claim a square meter of asphalt in a public place doesn’t surprise me.
“I was standing here first,” I reply, calmly. “You came up to me.”
“If you were here first,” I continue, “I wouldn’t dream of smoking next to your child.”
The man stares at me lamely. I feel like busting him about his “man bag” but decide against it. Could be for diapers. No use escalating things.
“C’mon honey,” the man says to his wife. “Let’s go.”
“You’re a jerk,” the wife hisses as she walks away. Calm down babe. All that negative energy can’t be good for junior. I look at my watch. I’ve been smoking this thing for six minutes and have been insulted twice. From the reactions I’m getting you’d think I brought an assault rifle to an Obama rally.
I stay on station and puff away. Another woman walks by and breaks into a paroxysm of exaggerated coughing. I ignore her. She coughs some more. I just look at her and smile.
“Those things will kill you,” she says.
“Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” I ask.
“Would you like to pray with me?
The woman rushes off in terror.. My mom grew up in Spanish Harlem and the Bronx and gave me an invaluable piece of advice for dealing with people in New York – if someone’s bugging you just act crazy. I’ve modified her approach somewhat. Public displays of religiosity work just as well as feigning psychosis.
I expel a mouth full of smoke and contemplate what a weird town New York is. People will walk past a naked bum shivering in the streets or a woman sobbing on a street corner but they’ll take time out to castigate a man smoking a cigar. A helluva town. I hope I can finish my smoke before I get stoned to death.
I start shivering so I decide to walk. The sidewalks are thronged with people. Not being totally inconsiderate of my cigar’s effects I walk alongside the curb. But when I notice that people are swerving to avoid me I decide to perform a little experiment. I move into the middle of the sidewalk with my cigar firmly planted in my mouth. The dirty looks I get are legion but the flow of people part ahead of me like the Red Sea before Moses’ staff.
For the next half hour no one else bothers me. Happy and content I continue my walk around the square, cocooned in the opprobrious privacy of smoke.