Don’t Blow Your Secondhand Smoke on Me!

How cigarettes in public spaces unleashed my inner Grumpy.

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Photo: flickr

No more Mr. Nice Guy — not that I’ve ever really qualified for that title.

I was already hyper-sensitive and easily annoyed as a kid, but my mother’s brand of tough-love discipline usually kept my grumpy outbursts in check. Over the course of my adulthood, however, my inner grouch has been increasingly more liberated. “Curmudgeon” may not be my middle name, but it probably should be (and it would be an improvement on the one I’ve been saddled with for a half century now).

Years ago while I was sipping a vodka tonic at The Works, a gay bar on New York City’s Upper West Side, a well-dressed man who appeared to be in his mid 40s sidled up to me and launched into his pick-up routine. It consisted of the usual litany of icebreakers — What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do? — and one observation: “You scowl a lot.”

Then one final question: “Why are you in such a bad mood?”

“It’s not me, it’s them,” I wanted to say. “Why do people have to be so annoying, brushing up against me when they pass by, puffing secondhand cigarette smoke in my face, and always insisting on choosing the non-space between the next person over and me to place their order when I’m standing at the bar?”

Instead, I probably said something defensive like “I’m not in a bad mood” before cracking a fake smile. I should have asked why he had been lured by my scowl — or in spite of it. My bitchy resting face couldn’t have been a particularly attractive look.

I should have asked why he had been lured by my scowl — or in spite of it. My bitchy resting face couldn’t have been a particularly attractive look.

Handsome as he was (in a bespectacled, Clark Kent-ish professor kind of way), I was relieved when he wrote down his phone number and announced he had to leave. Forcing myself to appear cheerful in such an etiquette-challenged crowd was hard work. After his departure, I’d be free to be openly annoyed again via my body language because, well, that’s what I do.

Did. Since then, my inner crank has cranked up, making me a more vocal grouch than ever. Yes, I’m now that guy. I’ve traded the not-so-subtle innuendo — a weary sigh, an exasperated expression — for the more direct approach. If you’re bugging me, expect to hear about it.

Blame it on the secondhand smoke

If I had to pinpoint the exact moment of my transition, I couldn’t. But it was probably sometime during the year I spent living in Cape Town. It’s not that the people there were rude (they were no less friendly than the locals in Buenos Aires, Melbourne, and Bangkok, my three previous bases during my expat era). It was likely an after-effect of four and a half years dealing with rip-off artists and a frustratingly byzantine bureaucracy of Buenos Aires.

First target: People who casually pollute the air that I breathe. Littering aside, is there a more disgusting habit on the planet than smoking? I once got into it with a fellow patron at an outdoor cafe in Buenos Aires after he objected to my waving away the cigarette smoke he was blowing in my direction.

I once got into it with a fellow patron at an outdoor cafe in Buenos Aires after he objected to my waving away the cigarette smoke he was blowing in my direction.

I didn’t say anything and wouldn’t have if he hadn’t complained to the Argentine friend I was dining with in Spanish. I spoke up (in Spanish) to let him know I’d understood every word he said. It was a very Felicity season two, episode five moment. Jeremy: 1, Smoker: 0.

Despite the empowering effect of that exchange, a man at Cafe Mojito on Long Street in Cape Town deserves credit for my full transformation from passive anti-smoker into a vocal one. When I first encountered him, he was puffing on a cigar at a table on the sidewalk on the other side of an open window, allowing the smoke to waft over to my inside table by the open window where I was writing — or rather, trying to.

“Um, sir. Would you mind pointing your cigar in another direction?” I asked, attempting to make my voice sound as low and authoritative as possible. Somehow, it went in the opposite direction, rising an octave or two.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the man said, looking at his cigarette before throwing it on the floor and stomping on it with his foot. “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”

I returned to my work, feeling vindicated, triumphant, and free to breathe easily.

“Do you know that’s the owner of the place?”

The guy at the table beside me was looking at me with a mix of incredulity and admiration. He’d overheard everything.

“Oh, really?” I wanted to crawl under my table and hide. “Seriously?”

I couldn’t believe I had been so bold with the owner. While I was thinking of possible explanations for his overly obsequious response — maybe he recognized me as a regular customer and wanted to retain my business, maybe he knew it was a filthy habit that he had to quit, maybe he was just a sweet, considerate guy — he showed up at my table.

“Is everything okay? I just wanted to apologize again for the cigar smoke. It’s pretty strong, isn’t it?”

He smiled broadly and extended his hand. I’d made a new friend. After that, every time I went to Cafe Mojito, he’d come over to where I was sitting and greet me like a returning hero.

His graciousness may have helped to create the guy in Cape Town — and later, in Sydney, in Melbourne, and throughout Europe, where nonsmokers are seriously outnumbered— who was most likely to complain to someone blowing contaminated air in my direction. Holding my tongue and my breath was no longer an option.

A firm admonishment generally did its job, but sometimes a wicked glare would do. One woman at Fatcactus, a popular burger joint near Cafe Mojito, actually changed seats when she caught me giving her cigarette a dirty look. I didn’t have to say a thing.

The power of “Pardon me”

Just one look was all it took for the woman at the deli counter at the Gardens Centre Pick and Pay to know she was up to no good. As I stood there waiting for my order, she stuck her head into the small space between me and the woman in front of me in order to get a closer look at what was behind the glass.

I bent my upper torso back to a 115-degree angle to stop her head from making contact with my chest and glared at her in my “What the hell is she doing?” way.

She looked like a kid who had just been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Channeling my mom (a normally mild-mannered woman who probably taught me everything I know about putting strangers in their places), I opened my mouth and let her have it.

Channeling my mom (a normally mild-mannered woman who probably taught me everything I know about putting strangers in their places), I opened my mouth and let her have it.

“What you are doing is very rude. If you want to get a closer look, the polite thing to do is to say, ‘Excuse me,’ and acknowledge that you are not the only person here and that you are invading someone else’s personal space. You don’t just stick your head in front of me like I’m not even there. That’s so rude.”

She stared at me in shock, as if she was having a grand epiphany, thanks to me, as if I’d just revealed the answer to something that had been puzzling her for years.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You’re right. I’m sorry.”

I couldn’t tell if she was mocking me or being sincere, but I settled on the latter. Then I felt guilty for making such a fuss. It was a feeling that would return about a week later when I opened the front door to my new apartment and scolded the two workers in the hallway who were interrupting my solitary reverie by talking too loudly. Their hammering was bad enough, but why the shouting?

“Do you mind keeping it down?” I asked, speaking in the low tone that I expected them to emulate.

“Oh, yes, we’re so sorry.”

I never heard another word from them.

Keep it down now, voices carry

Alas, my neighbors across the hall in Cape Town never got the “Indoor voices, please” memo. One day, like so many before it, noise on the other side of the front door interrupted my quiet solitude at home. I went outside to see what it was and noticed that the front door to the apartment across the hall was open, allowing me to see past the white metal security gate.

At least this time, unlike the last time they left their front door open, the people who lived there weren’t cooking, allowing the fumes from their meal to escape into the hallway and into my apartment. And unlike the day before, they hadn’t left a bag of rubbish on the floor beside the front door as if they expected room service to stop by and pick it up.

A shirtless guy was perched on a stool inside, talking on his cell phone and listening to music. I considered asking him to keep it down and close the door while he was at it.

Then I reconsidered: Maybe I’ll submit a formal complaint to the building management. There’s no law against talking in your own home, but surely there must be some edict about leaving your front door open, or placing a bag of trash in the hallway. This is, after all, neither a college dorm nor a hotel.

In the end, I decided to let it go. The last thing I wanted to do was antagonize my neighbors. You never know when they might come in handy. I went back inside, turned on the TV and set the volume at 10. At least no-one was smoking. And if I couldn’t beat them, at least I could drown them out.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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