A Cigarette for Your Life Story

It’s just too bad that, even while cigarettes are offering me such a wide view, they’re killing me inside.

I am standing outside a bar in the East Village with my cigarette clenched between my lips. A young man walks out the door.

“Hey buddy, do you have another cigarette? I’ll give you half a joint for it.”

I have nearly a full pack in my pocket, so why not? He shows me the joint, but I shake my head.

“Thanks. You got a light?”

You might think this would be the end of our encounter. But it is only the beginning.

Tonight, as so many other nights, in front of this bar as so many other bars, a cigarette is exchanged for a life story, crammed into the five to seven minutes between lighting up and stomping out.

This man is in his mid-twenties, with greasy brown dreadlocks, piercing eyes and an unkempt beard that obscures most of his face. He extends his hand and tells me his name is Noah, nice to meet you.

Noah says he is an artist and that all of his work is created with materials he finds on the city streets, in trash cans, and in the subway. Broken subway tiles and defunct tokens are repurposed as a belt buckle. Discarded ketchup and mustard packets become a painting. Colorful bits of shattered glass find their way into a mosaic. The city is, quite literally, his palette.

His newest project is MetroCard art. “I’m having a lot of fun with that right now,” he says.

“It’s great because I can do it all with what I find on the street. People throw out so much stuff that they don’t even think about. And then I go and sell it right back to them.”

I stomp out my cigarette and promise that I will look out for some good trash for him.

I’ve met innumerable people like Noah — although no one else, of course, at all like him. I have talked to homeless people, drunken partiers, bouncers, bartenders, confused tourists, delivery boys and bike messengers. A few entrepreneurs have tried to sell me vinyl records and light-up yo-yos. All as I stood outside taking a few drags of that slow-burning cigarette.

Restaurants and nightclub smoking bans now protect the health of employees and patrons in nearly half the United States. But they’ve also pushed people out into the streets. The unexpected side effect: the bans force us to talk to one another.

A downtown bouncer tells me about his two loves — a Danish woman who lives in Amsterdam with their son, and a Chinese woman who moved back to Beijing after the birth of their daughter.

A West Village waiter taking his smoke break is incredulous that a foolish friend has been paying alimony and child support in cash. “Man, I just know he’s gonna end up paying that woman twice!”

Outside an Off Track Betting outlet an old man smoking a cigar says he’s lived in this neighborhood since he and his wife emigrated from Poland almost six decades before.

They had to move, on two days notice, when the city condemned and demolished their apartment building years ago. They used to own a clothing store on this block, but that too is gone. He barely recognizes the neighborhood, now. But he refuses to ever move again.

Then he goes back inside to place his bets.

I leave Grand Central Station and light up. A man steps in front of me and asks could I spare some change, or maybe a cigarette? His gaunt face is almost hidden under a stained gray beanie, and his bright red windbreaker is full of holes.

“That’s Jake,” he says, taking a long drag from the cigarette I hand him, and pointing to an old Labrador retriever crouched at his side. “My name’s Carl. And those guys” — he points to a group of three men huddled around a shopping cart — “they’re my buddies. We’re all ex-marines. Now we live here on the street.”

They take care of each other, he says. “And I take care of Jake.”

Carl says he is 44, but he looks much older.

“I have cancer,” he says matter-of-factly. I’ve already given him my change and a cigarette, so I assume he is telling the truth.

“And I mean, I don’t really care about it anymore, because what can I do? But I’m all he’s got.” He tells how he rescued Jake from a friend’s apartment, where the dog had been chained in a closet, often unfed.

“I had to punch the guy a few times, ended up breaking a chair over his head. When I left with Jake, I wasn’t sure whether the dude was alive or dead.” The ex-owner and Carl no longer speak.

Maybe the reason these encounters are so exciting is that I know they’ll end when my cigarette does. I listen to people’s stories, or at least the bits and pieces they choose to share, and feel I’ve learned something about the city and its people. It’s just too bad that, even while cigarettes are offering me such a wide view, they’re killing me inside.

Philadelphia native Daniel Lehman is a senior at New York University, where he studies journalism and cinema studies. This article was first published on NYU Livewire, a biweekly service supplying newspapers and magazines with feature stories about and for young people in college and their twenties.