Thursday, February 28, 2008

"Mind if I smoke?" - a blast from the past

A complaint to the customer relations department at TransLink was intriguing in its timing. The woman was uptight about people smoking at bus stops, near bus bays -- basically anyplace where she happened to be standing while waiting for a bus or SkyTrain. She wanted us to do something about it.

The timing was intriguing, because I was also noticing how it's hard to step outside for a breath of fresh air. Step outside - fine ... breathe - fine ... fresh air? Well, 2 out of 3 ain't bad.

Walking across the plaza at Metropolis at Metrotown is like running a slalom around pockets of cigarette smoke. Personally, I loathe cigarette smoke - as a 6-year-old, I started campaigning to get my parents to quit (eventually, they did) and keep my friends from starting. (Smoking was the Great Act Of Rebellion in the 60s, and a couple of my friends shocked us all by openly admitting they smoked ... and firing one up as soon as they got off the school grounds -- elementary school, no less! None of us was terribly impressed.)

I even campaigned to get a girl I was engaged to to quit smoking. Eventually she did -- for the wrong reason: she decided to quit "for Drew", and probably felt that I was putting undue pressure on her. Of course, I was: I hated the smell around her and hated the taste when we kissed (my mom actually said to me, "I can't believe you're marrying a smoker!"); and I was too immature to recognize which hills you should be prepared to die on and which you shouldn't. As part of her quit-smoking campaign, she substituted coffee for the "hand-mouth" reflex motion ... on top of the coffee she drank in the morning ... and then wondered why she was hyperventilating at 11 am. Needless to say, she cursed me ... and eventually (for a number of other reasons), we went separate ways.

Last year, a couple of friends and I were out for dinner, and while waiting for our table, decided to take a walk around outside. But there again, there was noplace to escape the cigarette smoke while outside, because of all the people who were firing up while waiting for their table, too.

In other words, our zeal to protect ourselves from one another has led to two unintended consequences: you can't get a breath of fresh air, and you don't get the opportunity to choose to be courteous.

(There's also a debate over whether forcing workers to go outside to smoke is leading to an increase in down-time because they're catching colds, but we'll let that pass.)

Now there's a concept for you! One person being courteous in asking if the other minds if they smoke, and the other person being courteous in responding from the heart.

I remember a visitor at my parents' house asking, "may I smoke?" And my mother saying, "by all means". She could easily have said, "I'd rather you didn't", and the visitor would (presumably) have accepted that response. Even though I can't stand cigarette smoke (and I used to work as a DJ in a downtown east side bar about 30 years ago, back when there were no smoking regulations and I'd come home with my clothes saturated in it), I generally say "go ahead": the person is polite enough to ask, and almost out of appreciation for that, I'm willing to accommodate (with some exceptions).

But legislation takes away that option of civility, and in fact, deepens the rift between smokers and non-smokers. If someone -- wittingly or unwittingly -- lights a cigarette in a "no smoking" area, the assumption is that he or she is an arrogant jerk with no sense of decorum. Friends get separated: "I'm going to pop out for a smoke", said to a non-smoker, generally means, "I gotta have a cigarette, and if you want to have my company, you have to step outside with 30 other smokers". Another social barrier between people that we really don't need.

The woman at the bus stop should have every right to say to those smoking around her, "please: could you smoke someplace else?" or "I'd rather you didn't smoke here" (or, like the character in the Neil Simon play, "can you smoke towards New Jersey? I can't see my cards!"), but legislation has made that impossible, because the smoker(s) would come back with, "yeah, well, where else am I gonna go for my smoke?" And then she launches into a tirade about the health effects of smoking and then he tells her to mind her own business and if she doesn't like it, she can move and he'll yell at her when the bus comes if he remembers ...

But our babysitter state has decided that it's more important to act "for our own good" than for us to learn to accommodate one another ... and in so doing, creates new problems it hadn't anticipated ... and new expectations that "There Oughta Be A Law!"

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