Day 5. Circa 2010.
He holds the cigarette in his hand, a stream of smoke ascending from the lit tip. It’s halfway done, even though he has only taken two draws from it. It burns between his fingers more than it burns between his lips and, at this moment, I wish I smoked so I could take a few hits on it to both taste the wetness he leaves on the paper and to ease my angst about the wastefulness of the thing.
Why do I care? I think to myself. After all, no one wants anyone to smoke these days with ubiquitous posters and billboards screaming: “YOUR CIGARETTE KILLS THE AIR AND UNBORN BABIES!” Perhaps I too should preach about the atrocities of burning up an American Spirit and blowing its smoke out your mouth. That’s not my thing, though—I leave that for the environment freaks and fault-finding Christians.
I inhale the secondhand smoke that mingles with the scent of his body which smells of sandalwood or patchouli, likely a fragrance oil that he purchased from some Muslim guy who sells them on a North Philly street or in an underground subway car.
Who can resist an aromatic roll of scented oil from the strange hand extended to you on your commute from City Hall to Cecil B. Moore? You know this guy in the long robe and short pants makes a living from these miniature vials and if you have a five dollar bill, you hand it to him—still crumpled from your pants pocket—and watch a smile appear somewhere between the bushy beard on his chin and the knit kufi pulled over his brow. With this, he uses both hands to place the small bottles in your palm, gives a hearty thanks and then glides over to the other passengers, occasionally bidding “Salaam-ailakum” to the burka-covered woman or other bearded brother dressed just like him.
I am thankful for those pious palm-holding, vial-selling, subway peddlers when I am in his presence. I am even thankful for menthol Newports, Marlboro soft packs, and Camel Lights when he’s around. If he ever asks if the smoke bothers me, I would tell him how hopeful I am that the scent of his cigarette stays with me until I arrive home and get in bed—just let the smell of smoke ascend above my head and form a halo around me as I sleep.
Or I would just say to him, “No, it doesn’t bother me at all.”