Category Archives: Office Buildings

You Don’t Wanna Be Like Us

As the city gets colder and fall inches toward winter, standing outside to smoke a cigarette becomes a lot less relaxing. Instead of enjoying the nice weather as a break from my office building’s stale air conditioning, now I can’t wait to finish my cigarette and retreat into the warm heat of the lobby.

And when the air gets frigid, a smoker sometimes can’t even tell if the smoke in front of his eyes is an exhaled puff or just his hot breathe.

A little girl walks past the building and sees a row of smokers huddled inside their jackets, breathing puffs of grey smoke into the air. As if in imitation, she purses her lips and forces her own cloud of “smoke” into the air to mingle with ours.

A fellow smoker standing next to me shakes his head and says, “You don’t wanna be like us, honey.” Then he takes another pull from his cigarette.

The little girl looks at us, frowns, then skips away to join the rest of her family at the corner.

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Your Woman Is Like Your Car

There’s a homeless man who walks back and forth in front of my office building all day, pausing only to comb through a pair of outdoor ash trays for salvageable cigarette butts. He drapes a ratty wool blanket over his shoulders, no matter the season, and shoves tissues up both his nostrils while muttering to himself or pulling on his long (yet curiously well-groomed) beard and afro.

Frankly, he acts like a crazy person. But he usually seems content to talk to himself, without bothering anyone or making eye contact, or even asking for a fresh cigarette instead of the garbage he finds in the ash trays.

One afternoon, while I’m taking a smoke break outside the office, the homeless man runs his fingers through the ash tray’s gravel. Nothing. His hands come up empty. He looks around, and sees a town car waiting at the curb.

Then he sees me, standing against the building.

“Your car is like your woman,” he says. He nods and gestures to the car, then to the air above his head.

It takes me a moment to notice that he’s talking to me, and I realize that this is the first time I’ve actually heard him speak, after several months of watching him pace back and forth in front of me.

“If the car is yours, you take of it. You wash it, you pay for it, you clean it. If it’s not your car” — he points to the sleek town car and hired driver — “you don’t have any responsibility for it. You use it, but you don’t own it. So you don’t care. It’s like your woman.”

His shoulders bob up and down while he speaks, and his wide grin reveals (in addition to a few missing teeth) that he is proud of his insight. It might be a crude comparison, but it’s also suprisingly lucid coming from this man.

“If your woman is yours, you make a commitment to her, and you take care of her. But if the car isn’t yours, somebody else has to take care of it for you.”

He keeps talking about the similarity between car ownership and relationships. Just as I am about to smile and nod for the last time before stomping out my cigarette, he asks if he can bum a smoke.

Maybe the whole monologue has been a ruse to wrangle a cigarette from me; if it was, it works. He gives me a smile, adjusts his blanket around his shoulders, and winks at the town car before resuming his muttering and pacing in front of the building.

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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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You’re Not Just Fluent, You’re a Poet

The society of smokers that forms outside public buildings can be a fascinating study in human behavior. Some are too busy at their desks to take more than one or two breaks per day, and prefer to stand alone and relax when they can. Others perfectly synchronize their hourly smokes to the minute, so they can be sure that their usual crowd will be there waiting for them near the ashtrays outside.

And more come and go as they please, happy to have some quiet time to themselves but also open to conversation — if the time is right.

“Shit, I forgot my cigarettes upstairs. Those elevators are ridiculous. You got any extras?” He’s a young man, maybe 30, with a toothy smile and a bit of wickedness in his eyes.

I hand the man a cigarette from my pack, and tell him I notice a slight accent in his voice. But I can’t figure it out.

“I moved here from Russia when I was eight years old,” he says with the cigarette clenched between his lips. “Lived in the city with my family since then. You ever been?”

No, but I did travel around Europe a bit in college. I lived in Florence, Italy for a few months as part of a study abroad program.

“Italy, huh? You speak Italian?”

No, not really. I barely remember any of it anymore.

“Yeah, I know what you mean. I speak Spanish, but not really. Except when you get drunk, all of a sudden you’re fluent. And if you add drugs to the mix, not only are you fluent, you’re a poet! A fucking poet.”

The Russian man practices some Spanish and teaches me some Russian (which I promptly forget), then thanks me again for the cigarette before he goes to wait for that elevator and get back to work.

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