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November 11, 2008

Of smoking, and asking, and empathy, on the balcony

November 11. Day 134.

Mr. A's building has four balconies.

Those of you who know me might imagine I greatly delight in this fact. Those of you who don't, allow me to explain: I am writing my dissertation about balconies.

But I do not delight in these four balconies.

Because they attract smokers.

And smokers repel me.

It's only fair. I grew up with tobacco. My father smoked until this summer, and I'm ecstatic he has finally really and truly quit this time. One of my favorite t-shirts of his was yellow, with a "Smokenders" logo and a broken cigarette. I liked it even before I understood what it meant. Viscerally attracted to the bright color maybe, as a kindergartner.

All but two of my aunts smoke, which means foggy family dinners and hazy holidays. Love the aunts, hate the smoking. The worst of the pack is the one who drives with a cigarette and a manual transmission. She tries to exhale out the window, while shifting gears or steering, and the the smoke always gets sucked back inside. As a kid, I ended up accompanying her on a lot of errands for some reason. Cough.

Occasionally, cigarettes excite me. Mixed with certain perfumes, their scent reminds me of that sweet, petite grand mere who died eight years ago at 85. It's a hypnotic combination. Catapults me back to her apartment, her couch, the cocoon of childhood. She puffed happily until her final hours. And when I was euphorically drunk in Europe, I'd bum a cigarette off of corrupting confidantes and drink it in. Curiosity and revenge, mostly.

Outdoors, don't mind either. But inside, my nose just gets stuffy and I can't think of anything except "Finished, yet?"

For the past few weeks, the scent of cigarettes has drifted more and more often into Mr. A's apartment through the door and window seams of this old building. I could smell it as I was trying to fall asleep. I could smell it in the middle of the afternoon, eating lunch. I wondered: Has someone new moved in? Grad student or unemployed? Why is there suddenly a smoker on the balcony at all hours?

One evening, I poked my head into the hallway and saw a small group of friends, laughing. Didn't recognize anyone, so I smiled and closed the door.

I thought about putting up a sign on the bulletin board downstairs. "If possible, please try to smoke on the sidewalk" or "Some of your neighbors may not like the smell of cigarettes. Please be considerate." But that seemed awful.

I considered posting an article from the Sunday Times about a noise conflict among neighbors, but that seemed too oblique.

I asked Mr. A about the lease rules, but before he could check he left to Prague.

Tonight, the smell slinked in again.

I opened the door. It was a neighbor from few doors down, holding her cat.

"Hi," I whispered.


"Were you smoking?" I asked this casually, like I might have come out to join her next.

"Yeah. I kept the door closed. Was it bothering you?" She started walking to her apartment.

"Oh, no! Just wondering. Good night."

"Good night."

I smiled, again, and closed the door.

And then, yes, then I opened it again!!!

"Hi." She turned around. "Would you... do you think you could, if it doesn't make a huge difference to you... use the other balcony? ...I can actually smell it when you smoke... it comes inside the apartment."

"Of course. I'll just use the other one. I'm sorry!"

"No, I'm sorry. I don't want to be the crazy lady who comes out in the middle of the night with complaints. You have every right to use this balcony if you like it. I just didn't know if you don't care either way."

"I don't. It's no problem at all."

"Really!? Thank you so much. I really appreciate it."

"Of course! It's all about consideration."

We traded names, I asked her about her feisty black cat, which had started wriggling in her arms, and I offered to feed it if she's ever out of town. Anything to return the good will and say thanks.

Gained: A nice neighbor. The satisfaction of addressing a delicate issue personally. And the relief of having empathy for both sides, the smoker and the smokee, but still speaking up.

If I was timid in this whole encounter, it's because I'm a firm believer in the LALL school. I could perfectly relate to her pleasure in smoking on that balcony, having a corner to herself, a ritual. And I know how much smokers cherish their Camels. I didn't have any greater claim on that space, or the air in the hallway, than she did. Balconies, after all, are transitional spaces - inside/outside, public/private. In this case, communal as well. And if I'm the only one it bothers, why should she change her ways to accommodate me? And yet, the smoke was seeping into a private area... so thanks to this experiment, I decided I would just try to ask, just try to check with her. Perhaps both balconies were equally appealing to her -- her door is halfway between them, in fact. So asking, I'm thinking now, isn't about suspending empathy. On the contrary. But it does mean that after you consider the other perspective, you don't let yourself necessarily be seduced by it. Instead, you open a dialogue.You give yourself as much consideration, as much value, as the other party. Something that can be hard to do judiciously. And hard to do, period.
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