It usually starts the same way:
They’ll ask: “Hey man, you got an extra cigarette?”
Sometimes, standing outside and taking a puff, I’ll say no (and sometimes, it’s not a lie). But there are other times after I’ve just opened a new pack, or am about to finish an old one, when I will hand over a cigarette and ask if they need a light. And in those moments, after taking the first drag of a burning cigarette, my new acquaintance will sometimes start to talk.
Just like listening to your ipod or talking on your cell phone can make people deaf to the rhythm of life around them, a smoker will miss a lot if he always says “No” when asked for a cigarette.
From the homeless people and gutter punks begging for a drag, to the office workers letting off steam with a smoke break or two; from the waiters and waitresses sneaking out between the lunch and dinner rush, to the tourists asking for a cigarette and a good place to grab a drink; from the bars, restaurants and coffee shops to subway exits and airport terminals, smokers seek their relief.
Some of them step outside to escape some stress or annoyance. Others schedule their smoke breaks to meet up with friends. Most just want a cigarette. And every one of them has a story to tell.
* * *
Until New York City introduced a city-wide smoking ban in bars, restaurants, offices and other public places on March 20, 2003, I might never have met any of those random passersby (The state of New York enacted a similar ban later that year). Such laws, which are now in place in some form in nearly every state of the country, protect the health of bartenders, waitresses and patrons, and also bring in customers who are reluctant to socialize where smoking is allowed. The new ban meant the end of designated “smoking” and “non-smoking” seating. It meant you could go to a bar for a few drinks and not wake up the next morning smelling like an ash tray — whether you smoked or not. It meant you could safely wear one jacket, all the time, without the worry of carrying that stale second-hand smoke smell from the club to the office.
But it also meant that all the New Yorkers who had been enjoying their cigarettes wherever they damn well pleased were suddenly forced to light up on cold and windy street corners, rather than in warm and cozy restaurant booths.
In the days preceding the smoking ban, New Yorkers predicted the worst. The city’s famed nightlife would wither, they said. Countess bars and restaurants would close their doors for good. Tourists would go elsewhere. Tensions would rise between bar owners and their neighboring residents, when smokers would begin to congregate under bedroom windows or on apartment building steps if they couldn’t keep their conversations inside. How would bartenders sell drinks to people standing on the sidewalk? Why would customers go out to restaurants if they knew there would be no more mid-meal smokes at the table? The apocalypse was near.
Of course, as we all know now, the stories of the city’s death were greatly exaggerated. Business have not only survived; according to research and census data, they thrived. But the more amazing result of the ban might be that so many New Yorkers — who typically keep their eyes fixed on the sidewalk and their ears plugged with headphones — are actually talking to each other. For some reason, a lot of them are talking to me.
But for every person’s story I remember, there are dozens more I wish I could. Therefore, this blog is not about me. It’s about all of the other smokers out there who have told me their stories.
* * *
The smoking bans have created a new way of socializing outside public spaces in New York and other cities. Whether sharing their misery in the freezing winter or sweltering summer months, or enjoying fresh (smoky) air outside in the spring and fall, I see smokers joining each other and sharing their thoughts outside in a way they could never open up in a buttoned-up office or a noisy bar. Would I have even started smoking if I was allowed to smoke inside — by myself? Or is it the social life of a New York City smoker that appeals to me? Did the smoking ban, in effect, actually make me a smoker?
I am certainly not encouraging anyone to start smoking, but I’m not going to try to convince a smoker to quit, either. That would be hypocritical. I just know that my addiction to cigarettes is more psychological than physical. If I stopped smoking, where else would I meet all of those fascinating people? When else would I hear their stories and ideas? Sure, I’ll often go to the sidewalk to be alone with my cigarette and my thoughts, or I might join a few friends outside and we’ll collectively ignore anyone who approaches. But it’s the times when I open myself up to the city around me and it’s people that they really open up to me. These are their smoking stories.