Miss(ed) Manners

July 16, 2004

Miss(ed) Manners: Bummer

Filed under: Column — missedmanners @ 8:18 pm

Miss(ed) Manners: Bummer

I’ve been smoking for just under ten years. Ten years is a long time to do anything. If smoking was a job, I’d have a pension plan by now. I certainly have a growing 401k of phlegm and paid vacations of ash mouth.

The culture of smoking ranges from one made up of silent, solitary Marlboro men to a raspy cackle filled cacaphony of Virginia Slims-smoking housewives. What most non-smokers don’t realize that we masochists love the very device that landed us this habit in the first place, peer pressure.

There’s this sort of unspoken language that binds all smokers together. A brotherhood of self massacre, a fraternity of hacks, coughs and sailor talk. When someone walks towards you with an unlit cigarette in their mouth, you know they’re not coming to ask you about that unfortunate colonoscopy accident. No, you’re in your pockets looking for a match like if you don’t find one fast enough, they’re going to die.

Ironic, I know.

Like all secret societies, there’s an initiation, a code of ethics and a secret handshake. For obvious reasons, I can’t get into the details of the handshake, but let’s just say that it involves finger sniffing.

The initiation is simple, anyone who’s ever smoked has had one of those after school special-type scenes where you’re in some alley in downtown Bangkok, running from the state police and your younger, loose cannon rookie partner, who got you into this mess in the first place, offers you a cigarette. What are you going to do? Say no?

The code of ethics, on the other hand, is as varying and malleable as Goldie Hawn’s upper lip. There are a few rules:

1) If a friend of yours asks you for a smoke, you must give them a one. Regardless of whether or not they are trying to quit, it’s your honor bound duty to get them off that wagon like a heroin addict having a bad hair day.

2) You must, must, MUST light anyone’s cigarette if they ask you. If you find yourself without flame, shame on you, you underprepared smoker. Just flick on the MacGyver theme in your head and find a length of garden hose, some KY Jelly and a bucket of golf balls and then ask someone else for a match.

3) You have the right to refuse non-friends and aquaintences when they ask you to bum a cigarette.

To illustrate, an ever popular anectdote:

This past Tuesday evening I was doing my laundry. In general, I work up the motivation to clean my apartment, my clothes and myself at least once every two months. This of course, leads to me balancing a duffel bag the size of a corpse on my shoulder, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to walk a whole block to the laundromat more than once a lunar cycle. Fuck that.

Around 10pm I had finished folding my myriad collection of evening wear (jeans and half-shirts) and that one pair of underwear that I never wear, but somehow always ends up in the wash, and was walking back to my place.

Along the way, I notice someone walking towards me shift his course and begin heading right at me. Any smoker will tell you right now what that guy was coming to ask for, he wanted to bum a smoke. Sure, fine, no problem. But there are a few other important details to keep in mind about my situation:

1) I had a giant bag of laundry hanging over my shoulder.

2) I had my head phones in.

3) I had a cigarette in my mouth.


Normally, any of these conditions is a clear indicator that I am NOT willing to engage in any sort of person to person conversation, let alone hand out a cigarette. However, the situation was so ridiculous that I stopped and put down my bag of laundry, smack dab in the middle Bed-Stuy on Broadway.

At first, all I could hear was a muffled string of fuzzy vowells, and as I went to take off my head phones I could see him pushing a quarter into my face. That’s right, he was going to use the old faithful, “Can I buy a cigarette off you?” line.

To me, the quarter for cigarette sales pitch is one of the most insulting of all methods for acquiring free tobacco. It’s like saying, “Hey, I’m not broke, I’m just too embarrassed to count up all my fucking change and get myself a pack of smokes. However, asking random strangers in the middle of street to give me one of theirs isn’t a problem.”

I said “Free Tobacco” earlier because who in their right mind takes a quarter for a cigarette? What the hell am I going to do with one quarter? Put a down payment on a red bull? He knew I wasn’t going to take his quarter. So what did I do?

As cars whizzed by me, threatening to splatter me and my palate-less wardrobe all over the intersection, I looked him straight in the face, took a drag off my cigarette and told him, “Sorry, this is my last one,” threw my clothes over my shoulder and walked home.

Jeez, have some common sense, New York!


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