I had an appointment in Rockland which required hanging out in a waiting room with no magazines. I sometimes bring a small book for moments like these, but not this day; I should have brought War and Peace and a pail of trail mix.

I thought of looking at my iPhone, but everybody else in the room had their smartphones open. They were texting or likely solving Wordle. I didn’t want to look like everybody else.

I glanced outside of the large plate-glass window and saw several contractors with hardhats and Carhart pants nearby. They were in a huddle, reviewing what looked like building plans, gesturing at the sheets, then pointing to a nearby landmark. Just as I was about to succumb to boredom and open my iPhone, one worker stepped back. He turned and walked casually, with furtive glances, back at his coworkers. He disappeared behind a tall fence.

It was his glancing-back that caught my attention. Why did he scoot behind the fence? Did he need to take an urgent whiz?

When he finally poked his head around the fence to look at the others, I could see he had a cigarette in his hand. Ah, he was an embarrassed smoker. Thinking he was safe from prying eyes, he sucked in the fumes quickly, held his breath, and exhaled with short coughs. He kept looking back at his coworkers from time to time, though.

I have a tortured history with cigarettes. My father, a decades long smoker, warned me, a goofy teenager, about smoking.

“If I catch you with a cigarette, I’ll break your arm,” he warned me. He was one of the most non-violent people I knew, but I sensed he meant business about the no-smoking rule.

As a sixteen-year-old, I once went to Old Orchard Beach with my friend, Steve, and his family. Steve smoked; he was a two pack a day kid on weekends and holidays. After a night in the video arcade and on the infamous wooden pier, we were walking behind two teenage girls who held cigarettes between their fingers.

“Mind if I borrow a cigarette?” I asked the closest girl. She, a couple of years older than me, turned and without a word, held out her unlit cigarette. Steve took it, used his cigarette to light it, and handed it back to me. I took my first puff of a cigarette, trying to imitate a cool renegade by then letting the butt hang down loosely from my lips.

I remember a couple of things about the next fifteen minutes. She, the cigarette-giver, looked at me like an older sister scowling at a younger brother. My cool desperado look disappeared in a swirl of smoke. She then put her hand in her sweater pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes.

“Here. You can have them. I don’t smoke, anyway.”

She walked around with a pack of cigarettes as a non-smoker, yet she stared at me as if I were the dork?

My good friend, Mr. Suave Steve, talking more hopefully to the other girl, kept up his banter too long, forcing me to smoke the dreadful cigarette.

By the time our disastrous attempt to impress the girls ended, I felt sick. This was the first and last time I smoked a cigarette.

Decades later, I worked for a large medical center which built a new complex a few miles away from the older facility. There were many issues that had to be worked out, but one of the most vexing was this: How do you tell hundreds of employees smoking in and around the new hospital was to be prohibited?

Questions from the most addicted of staff had to be addressed.

“Is it okay to smoke just outside of hospital grounds?”

“Can I smoke in my car?”

“Hey, you going to pay me to quit?”

Realizing the practical challenges of enforcing a no-smoking-on-hospital-grounds policy, the architect had an idea.

“Build several kiosk-like structures on the hospital grounds for the smokers, but far removed from patient entryways,” he suggested. What a great idea!

The smokers appreciated the large open-fronted huts with their plexiglass walls at first. But once cold weather arrived, the huts became packed with employees on break, dense smoke curling out and up the sides and fogging the plexiglass. The scene gave the impression of exiled passengers waiting for a rickety train to some third world country.

Many of us nonsmokers had holier-than-thou attitudes and were less charitable.

“Serves them right. Maybe now they will stop smoking. They look like outcasts.” I chuckled at their miserable conditions.

It took me another decade to become wiser and a lot less judgmental about the tragedy and heartbreak of addiction. Watching the scene of the hard-hat contractor slink away and hide his smoking addiction made me think about how my reaction has changed. I realized, of course, he wasn’t sneaking so he could smoke; he wandered away so his colleagues wouldn’t judge him.

Like I judged my hospital colleagues years ago. Shame on me.

filed under: