10 JULY 1997
outside

CIGARETTES

The other night I went for a walk around the neighborhood about 11:30 at night. I'd only meant to buy a pack of cigarettes and go back but on my way out the front door of the building I nearly ran into my landlady as she was struggling to get out of her car. She's not very observant or else she doesn't see well so she didn't see me and since I owe her rent I didn't want her to. I bought a pack of Camel Filters at the newsstand on 1st Avenue that has them discounted and decided to dawdle and give her time to go upstairs before going back. I unwrapped the pack of cigarettes, lit one and continued north on 1st.

Heading west on Saint Marks Place between 1st and 2nd Avenues a voice called out for a cigarette. I turned and automatically started to prepare the pack by pulling out one enough so whomever it was wouldn't touch the rest. He was a young man, blond with a few days growth of patchy beard and glazed eyes.

"You look like you've been in the military," he said to me as he pulled the cigarette I offered out of the pack. I don't, particularly, except I was wearing an old khaki-colored T-shirt I'd bought at the Gap and I suppose that has a certain identifiability about it.

I started to walk away and he followed. "Man, I just had a joint and I'm so blown away," he said as he fumbled with his lighter. I wasn't listening because when I'd looked at my T-shirt I'd noticed it had a big stain on it from something I'd spilled on myself, probably ice cream. I was thinking about browsing in a bookstore that's open late but the stain made me feel self-conscious. Looking at books is a solitary invisible activity with its own set of rituals that if they are broken the experience is ruined. The invisiblity allows you to thumb through the trashy pseudo-pornography and celebrity gossip books you never buy because you can look through them for free and feel no commitment or guilt. The stain made me visible and that changes the ritual. I would feel judged not only for my low literary habits but for my sloppy laundering.

The young man continued to attempt to light his cigarette and carry on a conversation. I wished him well, told him to take care of himself, and sped up my step. He smiled sweetly then drifted away, distracted by something else. I decided not to go to the bookstore but bought a Snickers bar at the Gem Spa instead. I went back home and hurried past my landlady's door on the second floor taking two steps at a time to my apartment on the fifth floor.