As my last year at Columbia begins, I’ve been thinking back on the tiny chance encounters I had early on that came to define my time here. The random classmate who, after noticing my interest in our Latin coursework, suggested I check out a major I’d never heard of—linguistics—which is now what I study (and the only thing I talk about). I made my very best friend on the first day of school in Literature Humanities. A fortuitous roll of the registrar’s dice put us in the same Pupin classroom that Tuesday, and now I cannot picture my life without him.
Small moments, single intersections of time and luck and opportunity as fleeting as seconds themselves sow the seeds of the richest things in our lives. One kind in particular sticks out to me, though: the countless different social interactions I’ve had because of smoking cigarettes.
Before I continue, let me be explicit: this is not a promotion of tobacco, nor is it a celebration of smoking. It’s a gross, expensive, and deadly addiction, and I am not trying to glamorize it in any way. That said, over the few years that I’ve smoked, the instances of being outside a building or walking down the street and having a chance interaction with a stranger solely because of smoking—needing a lighter, for instance, or trying to buy a cigarette off someone, folded dollar bill in hand—have been uncountable. These exchanges sometimes only last a few words, a utilitarian swap of resources or information. But other times, they may stretch into conversation, five or fifteen or fifty minutes on a stoop or a park bench, connections that stick with you long after you have parted.
Any smoker will tell you that smoking cigarettes grants you membership to an invisible club of all the people in the world who smoke. You might not resemble each other in the slightest but you have this deeply personal thing in common: the fact that, at that moment, you both needed a cigarette. So you share a match, you find a streetlight to lurch under, and then there you are, together. Sharing, chatting, connecting. It happens in Morningside Heights just as it does on every city street around the world.
At a school charged with social isolation, these moments of community seem like a great thing. I’ve made friends from lectures after happening to keep pace with a classmate down the Hamilton stairs and going for a smoke by the bench in tandem; otherwise, I would not have spoken to anyone. During finals, a pack of cigarettes can turn a Butler bench into a bona fide watering hole: a loose circle of people talking about exams and upcoming deadlines while sharing lighters, study guides, and tips on which libraries are open late. Whether we admit it or not, smoking is one of the social glues of our school.
There is something both dark and delightful—something so wonderfully Columbia—about how this prevalent source of community stems from such a human vice. A lit cigarette ironically becomes a humanizing signal to passersby that you’ve momentarily succumbed to stress and life—that you admit you’re not perfect, either, at least for a few minutes.
Even as I work to give up smoking, it is hard not to consider what it has given me: the patience to do a single thing for ten or fifteen minutes, for one; comfort in being alone and a more observant idle eye; new friends; and moments of kindness, wisdom, and understanding from strangers. None of this seems so crucifiably bad to me.
One striking instance comes to mind. I was smoking a few doors down from my dorm last spring, on a stoop I had taken to recently, late one night during finals. An older man walked by and, after noticing me there, asked if I had a lighter; I handed him mine. After lighting his cigarette and staring a moment, he asked me, “Is this your stoop?” I laughed at the thought. I said I lived next door and that, yeah, I guess it sorta was my stoop; it felt like it was at times that misty spring. He nodded and said, “I’ve been off the street for ten years and drug-free for three, but when I was homeless, this was my stoop.” My eyes widened. He smiled. “I work nearby, and I walk by here as often as I can so I don’t forget where I came from.”
I’m not saying smoking is cool, or that the only way to meet people is by developing a nicotine addiction, but I know for certain I would not have met that man at 3 a.m. on 113th Street under many—if any—other circumstances. And what he happened to share is so humbling and trusting, a flash of vulnerability in the middle of a campus (and world) so on-guard, I’m almost afraid to think about the odds of it never having happened. I’m just glad he didn’t have a lighter with him.
Harmony is a Columbia College senior who can’t find her lighter. She regrets excluding Juulers from this column and acknowledges that equal representation matters. If reading this lit a spark under your ass, let her know all about it at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Bitching Hour runs alternate Wednesdays.
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