Caught in the Grey Area

My dad started smoking when he was thirteen and didn’t quit until he was sixty-three. I spent one and a half of those decades involuntarily inhaling smoke from the back seat of whatever used car he happened to be driving at the time. Despite our asthma, my younger brothers and I didn’t notice the affect second hand smoking had on us and neither did my father; he grew up on a small island in Greece with no electricity or grasp on Western medicine.

“Papooh all his life had the same sort of chronic cough. You know where it came from? A cat hair in his lungs.”

“Didn’t Papooh used to smoke too?” I asked from the back seat.

“We saw the cat hair in an x-ray they took in Greece. You ask a doctor here to take an x-ray, he says nothing’s there. Bull shit nothing’s there, I saw it in the x-ray myself!”

When my mom complained he’d just take his pack of Marlboro Reds into the garage. But this didn’t keep us away. My dad barely spent any time home and when he did we were determined to follow him everywhere. Besides, he was usually doing something interesting that we didn’t want to miss like scaling a fish or gutting a freshly caught squid. It bewildered me how skillfully he could accomplish such tasks with a cigarette poised between his lips. I couldn’t even blow a bubble without getting gum stuck in my braces.

Ten years later, my best friend Katie and I perused a street festival in our Eastern Long Island hometown. Still amazed by a smoker’s ability to so skillfully multitask, I watched as she fished a pack of cigarettes out of her bag with one hand while balancing a cocktail in the other. It was sunny out and in search of a shady spot we came across Mitchell Park. Situated on the waterfront, it offered a view of the neighboring island and put us in the path of a pleasant cross breeze. But there were children running around and police officers lurking nearby, surely we would be scorned by the kids’ parents or fined by a man in uniform.

Katie stared at me dumbly as I voiced my concerns. It wasn’t until I looked around that I realized why. Most of their parents were smoking right in front of them, on the grass, in a public park. The police officers were talking among themselves, engrossed in conversation.

“Oh yeah, it’s legal here,” I said.

Six months after I moved to New York, Bloomberg signed a law banning smoking in city parks, beaches, and boardwalks. The smoking ban is a problem for my nicotine dependent friends and, consequently, affects me. Chelsea Piers used to be a popular hangout when I was in college, now it’s just a place I rollerblade alone. This summer my friends and I went to the beach twice. They claimed the walk outside of the boardwalk area was too long to do in the heat, and with the hourly rate at which they smoked cigarettes, we spent more time on the sidewalk than in the sand.  Since February 2011, I have been visiting the city’s more nature abundant areas less and less. These places I once retreated to with friends when feeling homesick have sunk to the bottom of our list of most visited locales.

I accompany people outside for cigarette breaks and keep quiet when smoke blows in my face. If it is cold and I am driving my passenger need not open their window after lighting up even though the smell of tar will not leave my hair for several days regardless of how many times I wash it. I make sacrifices and put up with something that has a negative impact on my health out of consideration for those around me. But no one else seems willing to do the same.

. . .

My dad and I went for a walk in Astoria Park prior to Bloomberg’s ban but after he had quit. An ice cream truck pulled up. My father eyed the white van, wondering if I was still young enough to enjoy frozen dairy.

“Can I have a vanilla milkshake?” I told the man through the window.

“Sure, that’ll be five bucks.”

“Five dollars?!” my dad guffawed. “How big is the cup?”

My dad’s fishing binoculars hung from his neck in a case. He took them out and we investigated the Queens Borough Bridge through their lens. A man in his 30’s passed us with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. Its fumes momentarily fogged up the glassy circles.

“Apathy,” my father muttered wiping the binoculars with a cleaning cloth.

“What makes you think he’s apathetic?” He doesn’t hear my question. Folding the handkerchief into a small square and sliding it into his worn denim pocket, my dad glares angrily at the man who had passed us by.

“Go ahead, poison yourself you bastard, die a young man, but keep the hell away from me and my daughter.”

I wonder what he would have said to himself nine years younger, driving and smoking and singing to Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime,” half a world away from his kids sitting in the backseat behind him.