The Tobacco Tribe

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By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, June 8, 2008

NO SMOKING UNDER CANOPY," the sign says, so we have moved a few yards to the left. I'm leaning on the window of a Subway sandwich shop, wondering about the sidewalk, the boundaries, the difference between the smokers from Subway and the smokers from the office building with the canopy.

This is my second consecutive day living as a smoker in a post-smoking America. I am not actually doing the smoking, just hosting an out-of-town guest who is in constant need of the outdoors so he can light up. It is inconvenient. It is all desperation and shame. At least that's what I have observed. This morning we were in the smoking area behind the office building, where we're working on a project, by the dumpsters. A rat walked by, so we left.

"Does it bother you to find yourself hanging out with rats and dumpsters?" I asked my friend.

He laughed. Like every other smoker I know, he said, "Yeah, I should quit."

So, now we are in the front of the building by the Subway. The sun is out, a pretty day. An overhanging pot of petunias threatens to clunk us on the head. People on cellphones zoom by, and, if they look our way, I feel, or imagine, scorn. "No!" I want to say, "it's not me! I'm not smoking!" Putting aside obvious questions of health, nicotine addiction and secondhand smoke, I'm getting a crash course in what it feels like to be an outcast.

Last I left off with smoking, back in the 1980s, it was an integrated thing. I don't remember ever having to go anywhere to smoke. I remember grad school professors who let you smoke in class, and I remember lighting up on airplanes. Smoking was fun. Everyone had a cigarette burn somewhere on the seat of his or her car. We smoked out of boredom and because it seemed to go with drinking beer. It wasn't very complicated.

Out here by the Subway, everyone in our little smoking group is silent. I want to ask them questions. I want to know if it's worth the inconvenience, how they justify the habit. I want to know what they do in the rain, how they manage umbrellas, matches. I want to know if they smoke in front of their children, or if they hide somewhere out by the garage. We have marginalized these people. I have to wonder if it's a good thing. I know, we should probably wag our fingers at them, tell them they have marginalized themselves. Outcasts! Do they find some appeal in the role?

A woman in a business suit has joined us from the office building, and a kid in shorts with a sun tattoo on his calf has come out of Subway and lit up. "Thought it was supposed to rain today," the woman says. "I hope so, because I finally got my grass seed down." Soon, we are all talking grass seed. Shade. Fescue. Kentucky Blue. The woman says she has a patch of exposed dirt on account of her dog. We talk dogs. The kid with the tattoo has not entered the conversation. My friend is right in there. An older guy with a gut and suspenders is listening, tapping ashes, listening, and finally says: "Well, I wish I still had a yard. My wife moved us into a retirement place. Do I look like I'm retired?" No, we tell him, he doesn't. He says the retirement place isn't really that bad. Except he had to give his dog away. No pets allowed.

"That sucks," the kid with the tattoo says. "Man, that really sucks."

"It's all right," the older guy says, lighting another cigarette. "It's all workable."

We stand in the silence, as you do in the aftermath of a lie.

A skinny woman in heels walks up. "It says, 'No smoking under canopy,'?" she says, pointing to the sign.

The smokers look at her. Is anyone going to say anything? Apparently not. "The canopy is over there," I say, feeling like Jesus defending the lepers. "And we're over here."

"The smoke is getting sucked in under the canopy," the woman says, pointing up. We all look up. I don't see anything. I give her a glare like, Come on, lady. Like, Your sanctimony is most unbecoming. The smokers simply slide, as if this is nothing new, farther toward Subway. I stay in my spot, out of some principle I don't quite understand since I am not smoking.

The small shove from the self-righteous one opens all the smokers to more talking. And more cigarettes. My friend is laughing and going on and on about what he thinks of our fair city. We learn that the tattoo kid is studying economics. A plump woman beside him lost her "sucky" job yesterday and refuses to cry. One guy is a lawyer; and one guy works at the Jiffy Lube down the road, and his wife wants him to go on a diet. We tell him he doesn't look fat.

A guy cradling a laptop walks up. "It says, 'No smoking under canopy,'?" he says. I can't believe this. I look at the guy, then at all my new friends, and feel a thousand complicated apologies.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.


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