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Monday, 12 June
Well Met

On Friday evening, around 7:00, I was standing in the alley behind the theater smoking my three hundredth cigarette of the day. I cop to getting butterflies on most opening nights, but the compressed rehearsal schedule for this show--sixteen total, including tech rehearsals--had made for a grueling few weeks, and I was manically going over my lines in my head while I steamed like a nuclear cooling tower.

(Look, we're going to be done with this theater stuff soon, okay? It was opening weekend. I literally had nothing else on my mind or going on. It was all theater, smoking and then, thank God, drinking.)

In addition to smoking like a condemned man when mentally reviewing my lines, I also tend to pace restlessly. So if I could shoehorn in just one more irritating thing, I'd have a trifecta of obnoxious behavior going on. But anyway, there I was, pacing and smoking, occasionally muttering, and just in general managing to freak myself out, when I heard:

"Hey, man, can I buy one of those off of you?"

I looked over at a thin black man around my age. He was, from what I could tell, brushing off the brick wall of the neighboring building for some reason. Just sort of flicking at the wall with the edge of his palm, as if dusting.

"I'll pay you, man. I'm not an asshole." He grinned at me disarmingly and continued brushing away.

"I don't think you're an asshole," I replied. "It's just, my smokes are inside. This one is all I've got on me."

"Hey, I'll pay you, man." He paused. "Oh, but you don't got 'em on you. That's cool. I wouldn't ask you to go inside. Maybe I can get a shorty." This last given out offhandedly. He studied the ever-brightening-by-centimeters brick wall. I noticed he held a single unlit cigarette loosely in his free hand.

An aside here for my nonsmoking readers. Any smoker, and I mean any smoker who has ever lived, has encountered the People Who Bum. They come in all stripes: the "social smokers" who only smoke at parties, or so they say. I like to think of them as "people too cheap to buy their own fucking cigarettes." These people are like fleas, and should be gassed to death, much like . . . well, us smokers. And then there's the rest: the people who genuinely have somehow, stricken, found themselves suddenly without cigarettes, possibly because some parasitic "social smoker" has depleted their supply, or just possibly because they're broke. Most smokers will give comfort to these people, often citing some lame sort of karma. Me, I just figure that if I refuse some desperate soul his smoke, he might just eat my neck and take them off my twitching carcass anyway.

Oh, and "shorty"? That's a sad euphemism for a nearly, but not quite, depleted cigarette. This is the saddest sort of smoker's plea. It is asking, "Can I have the last few puffs of that right down to the filter?"

I grunted, a little discomfited. After all, can't a guy in a tuxedo (my costume for the show) smoke peacefully in a fetid, stinking alley without being hassled for the last few finger-burning puffs on his cigarette? Can't I stand unmolested amongst the stinking dumpsters and lonely pallets? It seemed I could not. The fellow had stopped brushing at the wall and began examining a discarded, dilapidated chair with a clinical eye.

"I started buying these menthols," he said suddenly in a conciliatory tone.

I abandoned my efforts at going over my lines. "So people would stop asking to bum them?" I asked. "I smoke menthols" is a common gambit of smokers who are sick of doling out free cigarettes, since menthols are hideous.

"They're a dollar cheaper than my Carltons!" he crowed. He brandished his lone cigarette in the air. I had no idea what to say. I looked down at the depleted cigarette in my hand. It probably had four good puffs left on it before it became a malodorous smoldering filter.

"You want this?" I asked, holding it out to him.

"Yeah, man. Thanks." He smoked it hungrily. "I ain't no asshole."

"I don't think you're an asshole, man. Cut it out." He crouched pensively in the alley, and didn't seem to hear me.

"I'm just cleaning up the alley for some people," he said. He stood up and rattled a nearby recycling bin with some authority. He seemed to be adjusting it so as to fit into some higher design that only he could see. "I think this looks all right." He finished the last of my cigarette and pitched it away.

"I've gotta go back in," I said. I was becoming more and more aware of the upcoming curtain, and my fears resurfaced anew about my lines. My stomach jumped at the thought.

"Awright," he said. "Listen, you got a cigarette? I'll pay you. I can pay you. I'm not an asshole." He was brushing the brick wall again, not looking at me. "I'm not an asshole," he repeated yet again. "I'm a pimp!" Brushing, brushing, not looking at me.

"Hang on a second," I said. "I'll go get you a cigarette." I did. When I came back out, he was surveying the alley, with all its dumpsters and recycling bins and discarded crates and detritus. He thanked me for the cigarette, and offered again to pay me, which I declined.

He looked at his handiwork of minutely shifted garbage containers and picked-over junk. "I think that's gonna do it for today. That's all right," he said doubtfully. And he walked down the alley until he was gone.

I can't believe that this guy cost me like fifteen minutes of going over my lines, I thought. I turned my tuxedoed self away from the alley and walked inside to the hot lights and the cold drinks and I didn't miss one step that night onstage, as far as I could tell. I wasn't an asshole.


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Comments

Funny story, that guy? Actually Annie Wagner. Totally. I've met her in the get-up before. And you are in for one positive review, my friend.

Comment number: 007604   Posted by: JJ on June 13, 2006 08:05 AM from IP: 67.168.63.153

I have a friend who used to bring two packs of cigarettes to every party.

"One for me, one for all the people who don't smoke."

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