Monthly Archives: August 2008

Like That Little Dog

While I’m sitting on the front stoop of my apartment building, smoking a cigarette and watching everybody walk by me on the sidewalk one weekday morning, a man shuffles forward and sits on the empty step next to me.

He’s got a few days of growth on his chin and a few days of dirt on his clothes. But he doesn’t bother me much at first, as I hear the pop of a freshly-opened beer can from the paper bag in his hand. He slips a plastic straw into the bag and takes a sip, as if just starting his day with an iced coffee or something.

After sitting in silence for a few sips, he turns to me and asks for a cigarette. And a light. He spends as much time watching a woman walk past as he does trying to light his cigarette in the wind.

Eventually, after scanning the sidewalk for more girls — some in skirts, others in short shorts, still more in business clothes — the crusty little man notices one approaching with her little Yorkshire terrier. He stoops to pet the dog, and gives the girl a smile and a nod. She keeps walking.

“Man, I’ll bet she treats that little fella good,” he says. Those are the first words he’s spoken since taking his seat next me. I can almost see the loneliness in his eyes, and think that he probably wishes he were being taken care of, too.

“You know what I’d like to do?” he asks as he watches her walk away. “I’d like to bend her over like that dog, show her how good to treat me. Oh, boy! That’s it. Bend her over and fuck her just like a little dog!”

He giggles to himself, then looks at me for some sort of approval. I nod. But I’m finished my cigarette, so I decide to get up and start walking.

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Smoking Quote #2: Cease a Thousand Times

To cease smoking is the easiest thing I ever did.  I ought to know because I’ve done it a thousand times.

Mark Twain

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Assault With a Deadly Cigarette

"Put down the cigarette, and nobody gets hurt."

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Enterprise Mission

I used to work in the Flatiron District, in a building that had a winding labyrinth of fire escapes hidden away from the street. We called one section of that fire escape the “smoking lounge.”

There were but a few smokers in the three-floor office building, and we would often run into each other at the “lounge.” There was really one room for one or two, or maybe three, people at a time. But that was fine with me, because I usually preferred to be alone on that fire escape anyway, just to get a break from the all-day small talk at work.

Dave, however, liked to talk. Dave was a heavyset middle-aged man who worked on the third floor, for a company that makes time clocks — punch in, punch out, you know the drill. Above his grey mustache and thick gray hair, he wore his magnifying goggles on his head all day, even though I’m not exactly sure what he did with them.

Dave also loved to talk about sci-fi and conspiracy theories. If I happened to step outside and find him there, smoking his cigarette, he’d ask me how’s it going and say:

“You know how Saturn has all those moons? Turns out one of them isn’t a moon. They just got pictures back from one of those Hubble telescopes. It looks like a normal moon on one side, but then on the other side, the one that we can’t see from Earth, it’s something different. It has sharp angles, a bunch of little squares or triangles or something like a geometric design — not natural like a planet — and we can only see it now because it looks like it’s oxidized. You know what means?”

He gives me a look as if to say, This is significant. Pay attention.

“That means it’s made of carbon. Or metal. Like it’s man-made. Whatever dust and dirt was covering it is eroding away, so what’s left is what’s underneath.”

Where did you hear about this?

“A website called Enterprise Mission dot com. You should check it out. It’s got all the stuff they don’t want you to know.”

Enterprise Mission? Enterprise, like the spaceship in Star Trek? Sure, sounds legit.

“Yeah, yeah, exactly.”

The conversation would always end when our cigarettes were smoked down to the filters, but would resume the next time we were both on the fire escape. Whether it was hours, days, or weeks in between sessions, we would always pick up right where things left off. (That is, except for a month-long stretch in which I didn’t see Dave at all. He had to have double bypass heart surgery — which only resulted in cutting down a pack-a-day habit to about half a pack, so he was right back on that fire escape in no time.)

The story about Enterprise Mission and Death Star-type manufactured moons would lead to a conspiracy theory about aliens, which would become a story about secret mid-20th century innovations in time travel and teleportation, which would turn into one series of “Did you know?” questions after another.

I don’t know how many of Dave’s stories are true; I was never able to verify any of them. It could just be the cynic in me, but most of his “proof” could easily be disregarded as an optical illusion or a good Photoshop trick. That doesn’t mean he didn’t believe each and every one of them to be fact, though, and that almost made me believe too.

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Smokers in Greenwich Village

Mike Kirchoff, 26, (left) and Paul Gardella, 20, take a smoke break on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village.

Mike Kirchoff (left) and Paul Gardella take a smoke break on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village.

Isiah Johnson (right) talks with two fellow smokers, on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village.

Isiah Johnson (right) talks with two fellow smokers on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village.

Outdoor ashtrays keep the streets clean when smokers go outside.

Outdoor ashtrays keep the streets clean when smokers go outside.

All photos by Eric Markowitz.

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Tom Chiarella Learns to Smoke

In the March 2008 issue of Esquire, writer Tom Chiarella wrote about his first cigarette — as a 46-year-old non-smoker.

From “Learning to Smoke“:

It’s not permitted. It pisses people off. It makes you puke. It confuses you, and it brings clarity. It makes you an outcast, and it helps you meet wonderful strangers…

I went forty-six years before my first cigarette — oh, maybe I pretended here and there, but I never took a real drag. Then I made myself a smoker in thirty days.

This story isn’t about quitting smoking. It’s about starting.

Although Chiarella’s story is not exactly about the people he met while smoking (partly because smoking bans have yet to enacted in certain parts of the country, allowing patrons to smoke at their restaurant tables or bar stools), his observations as a new smoker are enlightening, and occasionally even surprising. Chiarella looks at each cigarette, and each time he inhales a burning drag and exhales a plume of silver smoke, as a new and exciting experience.

Chiarella recalls a particularly satisfying cigarette, two weeks after he started smoking:

We were eating out. I’d ordered a light beer, a rib eye, and something called snazzy peas. My girlfriend was across from me, the two of us in one of our back-and-forths, laughing, delighting each other, speaking as characters, teasing out familiar jokes. We never need company. The steak was nicely cooked, the peas — snazzy. And as I pushed back the plate, I was struck for the first time in my life by a faint pinging sound in the center of my chest. It was a kind of tug, as if someone had wrapped a string around my rib, a string gently pulling me somewhere. I laid a hand flat on my chest, and my girlfriend looked at me, vaguely alarmed. “You okay?”

“I’m okay,” I said. “It’s just, I feel like, I don’t know. . . .” I paused and swallowed to be sure this wasn’t some weird new need for more food. “I think I need a cigarette.” She smiled and stood, held out her hand, and we went to the exit, stood on the handicap ramp, and smoked two American Spirits. She didn’t like my smoking any better now, but she accepted it and even allowed herself to enjoy it in moments like these. Up and down the street, now blanketed by darkness, the streetlamps formed friendly circles of light, so it looked like a kind of orchard. People stood, one and two per light, out there smoking cigarettes, looking up quietly at the stars or the cars or the windows of houses and stores.

“Wow,” I said.

“Cold.”

“That’s a lot of smokers.” I flicked a finger up and down. “A smoke for every light.” There were others out there, I supposed, standing in the dark.

“Yeah,” she said. “There are a lot. There always are.”

Read the full story here.

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You Know I’d Have Your Back

At a party in Battery Park City one night, I take the liberty of stepping out onto the host’s fire escape to light a cigarette. (Even though the long arm of the New York City smoking ban law might not extend to private residences, most people — especially nonsmokers — appreciate the courtesy. Besides, I don’t like sitting in a cloud of my own smoke anyway.)

Shortly after I light up out in the windy darkness, a head pops out the window and looks up at me. “Hey man, mind if I join you? You have an extra cigarette?”

After standing together in silence for a few drags, my fellow partygoer suddenly says,

“You won’t believe what happened to me the other night. So I went to the bodega to get a pack of cigarettes while my friend was picking up Chinese food around the corner. I’m standing in line, right, and I can clearly feel this dude behind me reach into my pocket and grab my wallet. I turn around and start to flip out at the guy, some cracked out asshole motherfucker just staring at me like, ‘Who, me?’ The guy behind the counter started to get involved, started yelling and screaming and pointing for this guy to get the fuck out of his store. So he finally sidles outta there, like he didn’t do nothing wrong and we’re the crazy ones, I buy my cigarettes, and I’m on my way.”

Nine dollars for a pack of cigarettes, you might as well have let the guy rob you.

“Yeah, but that’s not all. So my friend’s got the Chinese food, I’ve got my cigarettes, everything’s hunky dory and we’re walking home, and the same dude walks up to us. And he asks us for change! And then he asks me for a cigarette! And I’m like, ‘Dude, go fuck yourself. You just tried to rob me 10 seconds ago!’ And you know what he says? ‘Come on dog, you know I’d have your back.’ I mean, are you fucking kidding me? You’d have my back? You just tried to fucking take my wallet!”

My new friend shakes his head in disgust. “This city is fucking ridiculous sometimes.”

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