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Monday, December 21, 2009

Cigarettes And Comraderie

I was walking home from the local drug store this evening when I was panhandled. Unfortunately, in these hard economic times, there's more and more panhandling on the streets of our cities. In a very rare instance, these people asking for money sincerely need help in the form of change for a meal or a place to sleep. More often than not, however, they're druggies or alcoholics, using their money to score their next fix. This is why I don't carry cash on me. Then I'm not forced to lie or be awkward. Tonight, I told the guy, "I'm just getting a pack of smokes. I'm putting it on my plastic. When I come out, I'll bum you one."

It's amazing how well a cigarette can break the ice between two complete strangers. I've discovered in a lot of instances, when I'm being asked for a smoke, it's an opportunity for me to stand outside, alone, with one or two other people. While we're committing our slow, slow suicide, we get to know a little bit about each other, like our names, our social situations, our personalities. It's amazing what one little stick of cancer can do.

In my conversation tonight, I got to know a man who married a crack head and now lives in his friend's van. I'm assuming he has no job, or he does and he spends all of his money on drugs, too. His right eye was blind and lame. He had lesions on the backs of his hand. He didn't smell of booze, and his speech wasn't slurred or awkward. On the contrary, he almost seemed educated and used some big words.

Other nights, I've met doctors, accountants, actresses, other hobos, hippies, hard working blue-collar men and women, and suburban kids out on the town partying it up. These damn things, these cigarettes, seem to be a social plague.

I must make it clear while I write that I am IN NO WAY advocating FOR cigarettes. I think deciding to smoke is a horrible choice for those with poor coping mechanisms for dealing with any sort of strife in their life. The reason I smoke is because I don't have those good mechanisms for addressing what I'm assuming psychologists would call depression or anxiety. For as bad as they are and as much as my lungs hate me on the bad days, the smokes make things a little more bearable.

Being the people person I am, I know it would be hard for me to give up a key to helping myself into other people's lives. I get a rush every time I'm thrown into a group of new people, new surroundings, new lives to learn from and grow on. It's this very strange dichotomy for me in that smoking is probably the worst thing I've voluntarily done to myself. But I have and will go on doing it, at least for a little while. And I will continue to meet the interesting characters that I've been meeting.

I heard a story on National Public Radio a few weeks ago, told by a young woman who had a violent relationship. She and her verbally abusive boyfriend would argue constantly, and one night, they were driving through some suburban street on the other side of town, and he slowed down enough, and she bailed out of the car. Alone in a dark neighborhood, she fumbled around in her clothes for anything... no wallet, no cash, no phone, no lighter, but she did have a pack of smokes.

She found her way to a park. The sprinkers were on, and she sat at a park bench to sort of regain her senses. A figure approached her out of the dark. The closer this figure got, the more the woman could identify. This other figure, too, was a young woman, maybe an old teenager, barefoot, and trying to stop crying. When the situation realized itself, the first woman got up and approached her in a helpful sort of way, and the first thing the second woman said was "Oh, my God, do you have a smoke?!" and the second lady said, "Oh, my God, do you have a light?" She did. The two sat there in the park and bonded, finding all of the commanalities in their equally sub-par lives.

At the end of this woman's story on the radio, she said she left her boyfriend after that, and later, quit smoking. Sometimes, though, she still misses the cigarettes...

Weird how much something less than desirable can be such a bonding thing for people.