Flashback

The Week of Smoking Dangerously: March 1995

Buddy, can you spare me a match? 

By From the March 1995 issue

Send to Kindle

One recent afternoon, I lit a Marlboro and slipped into a Times Square strip joint. I sidled into a peep-show booth, inserted a dollar bill, and when the glass partition had risen to reveal the exotic dancer inside, exhaled.

“Whew!!!” hissed the girl inside the booth, disdainfully, waving the smoke away with her hands. When the stench had dissipated, she leaned down and said gruffly, “We work on tips: three dollars to strip, five dollars to touch.”

“Do you mind if I smoke?” I inquired.

“Do what you want,” she sneered. “It’s your show.”

I handed her a five, evaluated her “dancing” for 30 seconds, and left. I was immensely discomfited. Here was a woman with more tattoos than the 7th Fleet working as a stripper in the sleaziest dive in Manhattan, yet even she looked down on me as a smoker. At that moment, I realized that the anti-smoking movement was a thundering juggernaut that had penetrated even the lowest substratum of American society, and that smokers, as a class, were doomed.

My epiphany in the strip joint was the culmination of a long, psychologically draining week spent smoking in various public and private places throughout the Greater New York area. I had given up smoking cigarettes ages ago, and in recent times my only nicotine-related activity was the occasional cigar puffed in the presence of people who had annoyed me. Now, years later, I decided to revisit the old habit as a way of gauging how much the mores of smoking had changed.

My week as a smoker got off to an odd start when I popped inside a Citibank at the corner of 64th and Madison to get some cash. Although a “No Smoking” sign was clearly posted right next to one of the four ATMs, I lit up a Marlboro and took my place in line. There were three women using the machines, though the fourth was vacant. A stubby, Hispanic blue-collar type, who looked a lot like a smoker, was standing in line ahead of me, but he ignored the empty ATM. Nipping past him, I inserted my cash card, while puffing away furiously, flicking the ashes directly at the “No Smoking” sign.

The machine said it could not read my card. Scary. Did the machine know I was a smoker? Had Citibank, caving in to pressure from its anti-smoking clientele, equipped its ATMs with anti-carcinogenic sensors that would prevent smokers from getting more cash to feed their habit? I didn’t know.

What I did know was that the machine didn’t work. But that was okay because one of the other machines was now vacant. I zipped into it, aware that I had now committed two anti-social acts: smoking and line-jumping. I stubbed out my smoke on the floor, lit another. When I’d finished, I made eye contact with the Hispanic man as he took my place. He had every right to be ticked off because I’d jumped ahead of him, but he wasn’t mad at all. A conspiratorial glance passed between us. He had taken my cue. Now he was smoking.

It is the fear that a single renegade puffer may inspire others to ape him that makes anti-smokers so aggressive in their attitudes towards illicit smoking. I discovered this as I made my way up Madison Avenue, ambling into various fashionable boutiques with a cigarette dangling from my lips, knowing that I was going to be asked to put it out or leave. What fascinated me was not whether I would be asked to leave, but how I would be asked to leave. Would I politely be asked to get rid of my cigarette? Or would I be treated like a subhuman and told to stay out?

My first encounter was surprisingly congenial. At the Metropolitan Opera Gift Shop on Madison Avenue, I strolled in, smoking a Marlboro, and began spewing poison all over the Ravel CDs. Within seconds, a fiftyish, well-dressed man came over and whispered, “I’m sorry, you can’t smoke here.”

He said this with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, not wanting to scare off a reasonably well-dressed man who, however vile his personal habits, looked like he might be willing to overpay for a huge stack of CDs. Nor did the smile leave his face when I remarked, “Mario Lanza smoked!,” an assertion that may or may not have been true.

There was certainly no twinkle in the eye of the tennis ladies at Canard & Company at 92nd and Madison when I strolled in with a Winston protruding from my lips. Wheezing carcinogens all over the Vine Ripe Belgium Tomatoes ($1.79 a pound), I was immediately singled out as persona non grata. No sooner had I opened the door with the sign reading

Our Pledge to Our Customers
To Our Cows
We do not use BST, BGH, or any bovine growth hormone of any kind. Never did. Never will.
Ronnybrook Farm Dairies

than a harridan with a politically correct tote bag hissed: “You can’t smoke in here. And you should know it.”

I should have known it, I should. I had been tactless, insensitive, uncouth, uncaring. On the other hand, I had not behaved like John Wayne Gacy, Son of Sam, Charles Manson, or Pol Pot. I had not devised a homemade sub-nuclear device, or put an entire African nation to the sword. Yet she treated me like the scum of the earth.

This encounter set the tone for the rest of the week. 

Two patterns emerged. One, it was the patrons in upscale establishments, not the personnel, who were most likely to tell me off. And two, women were far more likely to upbraid me than men. At Godiva Chocolatier, Dean & Deluca, and several upscale gourmet shops, the employees could have cared less if I smoked; they’re all actors anyway, so they probably smoke themselves, and at five bucks an hour who’s going to tangle with the weirdo with the cigarette? No, it was the customers, mostly females, who wafted their hands about and pointed to the No Smoking signs.

There are several explanations for this behavior. One, patrons of these shops are almost exclusively yuppies who believe that all human activity can be codified according to a rigid moral template. Yuppies either are lawyers or are married to lawyers, and have persuaded themselves that it is possible to establish hermetically sealed universes in which all human activity can be classified as licit or illicit. Boutiques thus become mini-cosmoses that yuppies can control through a Hammurabi’s Code of acceptable behavior.

Yuppies also arrange their daily lives so that they always occupy the moral high ground. A boutique presents them with a perfect social setting in which, in an atmosphere relatively devoid of personal danger, they can make another human being feel totally worthless. You’ll notice that yuppies do not, as a rule, go out into the streets to tell grown men to stop using walls as urinals, to tell black teenagers to turn down their radios, or to tell thieves to stop pulling radios out of cars. Yuppies are all like Molly Ivins: they like to sermonize, but they only want to do it on the Mount. If they did it on the street, they’d get a punch in the nose.

One day I started walking north on Madison Avenue, stopping into every business establishment that had a French name. I had a revolting Gauloises Caporal hanging from my lips, Jean Gabin-style, but I figured people would cut me some slack if I pretended to be French, because French people smoke like chimneys: Hey, give me a break; it’s a cultural thing. No such luck. At Au Chat Botte, they didn’t want me hissing fumes all over the forty-dollar baby bonnets. Yves St. Laurent didn’t want cigarette smoke up by the cravats. At Godiva Chocolatier, a patron pointed to the No Smoking sign with a gesture that signified in any language that I was a hopeless jerk. At Pierre Deux, a fabric store, the cashier studied the unlit French coffin-nail dangling from my lips with a look that said, “Just try it, mon vieux.” Not until I hit a food emporium called the Madison Marché at 75th & Madison did I find a place I could light up without being told off. Of course, the Madison Marché is run by Koreans.

Consider how different things were over at 46th and 8th, where I spent fifteen minutes one day smoking my way through all the businesses on the west side of the Street. Did anybody care if I smoked at the Palace peep show? They did not. Did they care if I smoked at the 8th Avenue Grocery? They did not. Did they care if I chain-smoked at Nilupal Video, the Full Moon Saloon, the Big Apple Gift Shop, Le Rendez-Vous Café, the Caravan Restaurant, Scruffy Duffy’s, the Adult Video Store, the Friendship Hotel, the Subway, or the Acropolis Restaurant? They most certainly did not.

Smoking forces you to bond involuntarily with your social inferiors. Bums. The homeless. Drunks. Teenagers. Four of the twenty cigarettes from my first pack of Marlboros went to beggars: a bag person and three kids who surrounded me on 94th Street demanding smokes. But most people, including most smokers, don’t want to think of themselves as people whose personal idiosyncrasies will be tolerated only in a grubby, dangerous neighborhood. That’s what’s really discouraging. Go over and smoke in some whorehouse on Eighth Avenue—don’t smoke here in this upscale boutique we named after a French cat.

The sad fact is that, while anti-smokers almost all think of themselves as allies in a moral and ecological crusade, smokers do not feel a similar rapport with other smokers. Smokers may engage in rehearsed solidarity—at bars, at tailgate parties, in men’s rooms—but deep down inside they do not feel instinctive solidarity with one another. I realized this when I spotted a frowzy, fiftyish woman chain-smoking Winstons at a corner of 65th and Madison, and muttering, “There aren’t many of us left, are there?”

She simply walked away.

One extremely interesting development in the world of nicotinophobia is the burgeoning anti-smoking bias one detects in places where you are actually allowed to smoke. Let me give you an example. One night I arrange to have drinks with a friend at Harry Cipriani, the cigar-box lounge in the Sherry Netherlander Hotel. You are allowed to smoke in the bar. But it doesn’t matter. I can sense that the waiters want me out of there. I smoke a Gitane. I smoke a second. A third. A cloud of Gallic smoke is starting to waft across the room to the cheesecake. A waiter comes up and yanks away a chair from the table. “We need this,” he says, not terribly politely. A few seconds later, a second chair is removed. The waiter is perhaps terrified that I am planning to network with a vast constellation of Gitane enthusiasts. Finally, the maître d’ comes over and says, “We’re setting up for dinner now.” He doesn’t ask me if I want to stay for dinner. He doesn’t ask if I want another drink. He doesn’t ask if everything was to my satisfaction. He just tells me in a polite, courteous way to take a hike.

The five most devastating words in the anti-smoker’s vast lexicon of derision are these: “I didn’t know you smoked.” Whether the speaker is a waitress in my favorite diner, a friend at my outdoor swim/tennis club, or a colleague who knows that I am working on a story about smoking, the contempt inherent in those five words is almost nuclear. The phrase isn’t a euphemism for “I feel sorry for anyone foolish enough to endanger his health by putting a cancer stick in my mouth.” It’s a euphemism for “I didn’t know you dismembered tiny dogs.”

Burdened by my sense of being a social menace, I spend the entire week deliberately eluding my normal, non-carcinogenic friends and spending all my free time with people who are going to die of cancer. One of them tells me that I hold the cigarette the wrong way. Another asks why I am smoking Russian Sobranies (because bag people are puzzled by black cigarettes with gold foil, and usually won’t accept them). Inevitably, we spend all our time talking about how awful anti-smokers are. One friend tells me about a music lover who was smoking at an open-air Pavarotti concert in Central Park when a woman flew into a fit and demanded that a cop arrest him. (The cop told her to get lost.)

By the fourth day of my experiment, I am starting to get a big combative. I visit a tobacco shop in mid-town Manhattan and load up on some elegant Sobranies, another pack of Gauloises, a tin of Schimmelpenninck slim cigars, and a couple of Monte Cruzes. Then I make an odd request.

“Could you please recommend the most repugnant cigar you carry?”

“It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish,” he says. “Are you trying to draw attention, or are you trying to clear the area?”

“I want to really offend a bunch of people who’ve been getting on my nerves lately.”

“Then I highly recommend De Nobilis,” he responds, passing me a tiny box, containing five dwarflike, dangerous-looking cigars. “This is what I smoke when I’m out fishing. You light up one of these and it’s just you and the fish.”

“Do you catch a lot of fish?”

“I catch a lot of fish.”

I study the box. Even the low-rent packaging (“Made in Scranton, Pa.”) suggests that the cigars are profoundly offensive. They look like Mesozoic tootsie rolls.

“Are these like Toscanis?” I inquire, recalling the diminutive tree stumps a French friend of mine uses to clear a large area of the Riviera for himself every July.

“Same principle, less money,” he replies. “These will get the job done.”

“There are also the Amaretto-soaked ones,” a colleague volunteers. Intriguing: Amaretto-soaked logs. But the tobacconist waves him off. “Why spend seven dollars when you can get the same effect for a dollar-ninety?”

I load up my arsenal and walk up to the Central Park Reservoir, which is used almost exclusively as a jogging track. Lighting up one of my De Nobilis, I begin strolling around the track in a generally counterclockwise direction, blowing smoke directly in the faces of the mostly twenty-something and thirty-something joggers who pass me.

No sooner do I get that sucker lit than a short man in an Italian T-shirt sporting a stopwatch the size of Naples jogs past me, coughing theatrically. (Theatrical coughing will become a leitmotif in my stroll around the reservoir.) I am keeping a running tab of reactions to my offensive behavior. There are 79 women and 21 men, of whom roughly 80 percent are under 30. Of the 100 only five, three men and two women, look threatening. Four people cough to express displeasure. One whispers “A—hole” as she passes, and I call after, “Give me a break. It’s a boy.” A second says, “People are jogging here, and I mutter, “I’m sorry, I’m French.” One woman, a true reservoir dog, actually says, “Can’t you find any better place to smoke that thing?” I fired back, “Yes, but I missed the last plane to L.A.” But the most impressive reaction of all comes from the three people who physically leave the track to run on the dirt off to the side.

As the week drags on, my sense of being a social leper increases. In a French bistro called Le Ferrier, several people at the next table make faces about my smoking, even though we are seated outdoors and there are ashtrays on the table. When I go to have a cocktail with a British friend in the private lounge of the Ritz-Carlton, everybody else clears out.

Even when I am not smoking, I feel like a pariah. One area that has not been sufficiently examined is the right to exude a smoky odor in a non-smoking environment, even though you are not actually smoking at the time. When I visit my local YMCA and climb on an exercise bike, the man sitting on the bike to my left promptly snorts and leaves. As the anti-smoking juggernaut gains momentum I am certain that No Smoking signs will be replaced by No Having Smoked signs.

I’ll tell you another thing we can look forward to. Kids who grew up in the 1950s were taught that Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone and Buffalo Bill were genuine American heroes: brave, courageous, and free. Then, along came the Native American movement of the 1960s and we all realized that these guys were a bunch of racist infanticides and fakes. Something like that is surely going to happen with Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis and all the great chain-smoking movie stars of the past. As the anti-smoking movement gains momentum, those scenes where Bogart smokes cigarettes in Casablanca will be colorized out and the smokes will be replaced by mints. By the time the millennium rolls around, schoolchildren will be taught that even though cigar aficionado Winston Churchill was the Lion of England, we might all have been better off submitting to the Nazi boot.

The entire week that I masquerade as a smoker, only a handful of strangers are nice to me: two foreigners asking for directions and a quartet of tourists who crowd around me in the lobby of the David Letterman show, asking how to get standby tickets. (My gargantuan Dominican cigar must have beguiled them into thinking that I am a friend of Dave’s.)

As my sense of cultural ostracism grows, I am driven to increasingly idiotic gesture of rebellion. During a phone interview with Don Imus, I light up a cigar and then sneeringly apologize to his millions of listeners for subjecting them to trans-telephonic secondary smoke. I furtively smoke a cigarette in the lobby of Avery Fisher Hall and the Metropolitan Opera. I smoke in the backs of taxi cabs, which is illegal, and am twice told to put it out or get out. Once I descend indignantly after two blocks and the driver becomes incensed when I demand a $1.75 receipt. But even in cabs where the driver lets me smoke, I can’t enjoy it because the ashtrays have all been removed. I start to get a clear idea of how insurmountable the anti-smoking opposition is when I stride into an Eighth Avenue pawn shop with a cigarette in my mouth and am told to get the hell out.

Incidentally, how do the anti-smoking forces know that these acts are deliberate? Couldn’t it be an accident? A couple of times I said that I’d simply forgotten the cigarette was in my mouth. Several times I said I had believed that people could still smoke in places that sold coffee. Twice I said that I was a French citizen having a nicotine fit. Each time I was greeted with the same look: You are scum. You revolt me. You deserve to die.

I got a vivid sense of how loathsome the vice of smoking is now considered when I walked up to a few women on upper Madison Avenue, in the museum district. All of the individuals I approached were fantastically dressed women of leisure who looked like they had husbands with good jobs—perhaps running tobacco companies. When I approached them with a cigarette between my fingers and asked for a light, they looked insulted. How could I possibly think that they smoked? Do I look like white trash? Do I look like a hooker?

The last day of my experiment, I have double epiphanies. First I get the cold (tattooed) shoulder from the stripper. Then, later that day I meet a friend for lunch. We are seated in a pasta joint on Eighth Avenue, she having meatless lasagna, me the manicotti. There is no smoking in this eatery. We are chatting amiably when I detect a familiar, fetid smell wafting up through my nostrils. For once, it’s not coming from me. It’s coming from a young man who’s sitting a few feet away, eating a tuna sandwich while puffing on a cigarette. I don’t say anything for the longest time. I just nosh. But as my companion leaves, I double back (first having sized him up as a bit of a wimp), and say, “Excuse me, but there’s no smoking in here.”

He apologizes and starts to put the cigarette out. But I cannot resist a final parry.

“…and you should know that.”

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Joe Queenan is the author of If You're Talking To Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble (Hyperion).