Back in the day, when the tolerance of cigarette smoke was astounding, I smoked in college classrooms, in restaurants, in movie theaters, in the waiting rooms of hospitals, in hotel lobbies and in the hallways outside courtrooms.
In the open air, smokers were unabashedly present. So much so that a poor college student smoker could “bum” (“borrow” in polite parlance) a lot of cigarettes from people lighting up on the street.
The route back to my dormitory ran through Washington Square Park to East 10th St. and my goal each evening was to bum at least 10 cigarettes on the way home, enough to get me through till morning. I carried a flip-top box in my pocket to carry my loot.
The flip-top box would fill with different brands of cigarettes, with a variety of filter colors and stripes. The distinctive cigarette pack of a cigarette bum.
There are a million techniques for bumming a cigarette. Like dating, success usually hinges on appearance, an aura of non-desperation and timing. Even in the days when smokers didn’t feel the cynical solidarity of a despised group, rude turndowns were rare.
The hard part was refusing the light.
Because if you’re bumming cigarettes to smoke later, you can’t let the borrowee intuit your quest. There should be an air of “just left my pack at home” or “didn’t have time to stop for a pack.”
You could always accept the light, thank the donor, walk away and tamp out the cigarette as soon as possible, although that was inelegant. I, instead, would refuse the light, brandish a lighter or a pack of matches, walk ten paces away and stop. With my back to the borrowee, I adopted the hunched back, lowered head and cupped hands of person lighting up. I just didn’t succeed. Ten steps further, I again tried, unsuccessfully, and repeated until I had moved far enough away to stash the smoke in the flip-top box.
One night heading across the park I was accosted by a man in raggy old clothes, of indeterminate age, smelling of alcohol. He asked to “borrow” a cigarette.
Normally, I turned such guys down. But I was feeling good. So I opened my flip-top box and the man noticed the different colors of filters and stripes of the smokes inside.
He showed his surprisingly not-so-so-bad teeth as I pulled a cigarette out and handed it to him. Then he reached below his outermost layer and opened a flip-top box filled with cigarettes whose variety of filters and stripes matched mine.
Baldly, without comment, he slipped my smoke into his pack and the pack disappeared beneath the clothes.
I considered his baldness a complement to me, his lack of artifice an acknowledgement of me, a fellow cigarette bum.