Smokers: Gird your stash. Cigarette bumming by complete strangers is reportedly at an all-time high, plus it achieves peak frequency during the holidays with increased imbibing at parties and get-togethers. A note to bummers: Just because you're a terrible, fraudulent mooch doesn't mean you can't also show a little class.
Everyone who smokes knows how this goes. You spend your own money securing an ample supply of cigarettes for the night, making sure said supply never dwindles to a precarious low. Then you hit the town only to find that everywhere you go, some sonofabitch expects you to generously cover their indulgence.
For the record, I don't smoke—at least, not anymore, not really. I used to, all the time. Camel Lights, then Parliaments. Then I quit, and now, when I go out for drinks I will sometimes still crave the pleasurable rush of a cigarette or three. This means I've now been on both sides of the secondhand smoke, and it has given me the perspective of both the real smoker and the fake one—the person who bore the full burden of smoking and got mooched on constantly, and the person who hopes a real smoker will now throw me a calcium-depleted bone on occasion, just because I seem nice enough.
For a while, I dodged real bumming altogether by mostly hitting the town with real smoker friends, from whom you can usually bum with impunity, and repay in drinks. But that wasn't always a good option, and soon I found myself bumming off others. Right away, I hated it. I didn't want to talk to these randos, much less do the dance of asking for a cigarette. I didn't want to be a mooch. And I felt the need to show my bonafides, to prove I too had once blown a ludicrous amount of money on smokes and had bummed cigarettes out to others for decades. I had earned this! I was one of them! But they don't give you an ID card for having smoked a bunch.
What other option was there? Well, I could always actually buy cigarettes. Yikes. This is why bumming exists. Some bummers don't really ever smoke except when they are bumming from you. And every reformed smoker knows that there are certain symbolic returns to the habit that must be avoided. Hanging around other people smoking (even if you suck the secondhand smoke into your lungs with glee) is not the same as being a smoker. Having a cigarette on occasion which you did not purchase nor seek out—it was just handed to you—is also not actually smoking again. And vaping? Vaping is playing house. Buying an entire pack of cigarettes that you intend to mete out for smoking-when-you-drink only? That is one slippery, carcinogenic slope.
But I could not bear the guilt of mooching. So I got over my fear, bought a pack of cigarettes, and smoked from it only when I went out—which was sometimes once a week, sometimes every few weeks, and sometimes every few months. It was heavenly. I'd found the best of both worlds. A way to smoke on occasion without having to be a total asshole.
Then I noticed something. Every time I went outside of a bar to smoke, someone approached me for a cigarette. Once, it happened three times in one night. The approach was usually the same, too: A kind of nervous approach, and then a faux jokey cutesy niceness from women, Hahaha mind if I bum a smoke sorry hahaha oh thanks. From men, more direct: Hey, mind if a bum a smoke? Thanks. ::wanders off::.
Matthew Kassel, in a piece at the New York Observer on the bumming culture in New York City these days, calls them "puff predators," and "mercenaries," and I was heartened to learn that this bumming thing really is at peak annoyance on both coasts. Kassel writes:
It is a scenario familiar to most habitual smokers in New York. Step outside, light up and wait, with no small amount of trepidation, for the swarm of cigarette scroungers to come circling in, attempting to cadge a smoke. They may be brandishing a dollar bill to pay you for your troubles, as though you are a human vending machine, or they may simply expect you to dish out a loosie for free.
Whatever the case may be, it seems you can't light up anywhere in the city these days without one stranger or another bothering you for a cigarette.
What follows are anecdotal laments from other New York writer types on the misery of the bum. The Awl's Choire Sicha, pack-a-day smoker of Winstons, tells Kassel he has never once bummed cigarettes, but distributes them to strangers several times a week.
"My credit at the Bank of Smokestown is astronomical," he claims. If only it were easier to invoke that credit!
But the art of the bum is not so mysterious. To wit:
Don't play cute. Don't act nervous or weird. Don't overdo it. Don't act like you're about to hit on someone. Don't go aggro. Just be genuine.
You're asking for a favor, dig? So act like you would to interrupt someone for directions. Better yet, act like you would when you are asking someone to literally give you something they bought for themselves to you, for free. You know, polite. Humble. Grateful? And unassuming.
To be clear: It doesn't mean you'll get the cigarette. For instance, NYT media reporter David Carr admits to Kassel that he's pretty stingy with his stash:
"I understand that we are a—literally—dying breed and that we need to bond together, but the stakes for sharing are way up," David Carr, a media columnist and culture reporter for The New York Times who smokes 15 Camel Lights per day—"more when I have a lot of writing to do"—said in an email. "I rarely comply and the more aggressive the ask, the less likely I am to come through."
Just get to the point, will you? If you make small talk first, the person has to figure out if you are about to hit on them or if you possibly went to college together. That's way too confusing when someone has just four to six minutes outside before rejoining friends. Don't smother them with flattery either. If you go in with an obvious compliment—"Oh I love your shoes! Mind if I bum a cigarette?"—you seem like a sociopath or someone in marketing. I don't want to give cigarettes to either of those people. And don't be super aggressive. "Hey, give me a cigarette" doesn't work. Um, no? I'm not your bud.
Also, don't refer to the cigarette as "extra," as illustrated by this gem of a quote in Kassel's Observer piece, or you will seem like a dick:
"I love when they say, 'Do you have an extra cigarette?' " said Tom McGeveran, co-founder and co-editor of Capital New York, who smokes between a half a pack and a pack of Marlboro Reds a day ("depending on nerves"). "There's no such thing. Every cigarette is a cigarette you're going to smoke if they don't take it from you."
Just walk up and say, with your best, humblest, nicest smile, the one that reads, Hey, I get that you actually pay for cigarettes and totally shoulder the burden of smoking in a way I refuse to, but I would like to partake in your vice without doing any such work, and say:
Hey, excuse me, do you mind if I bum a smoke?
Or, try, Excuse me, can you spare a cigarette?
Whatever you do, don't ask for MORE THAN ONE CIGARETTE. This isn't the time for greed, mooch. And don't bum a vape cartridge for chrissakes, that's like two packs of cigarettes.
One last point on the ask: Be aware that, at least among people I polled, offering money in exchange for the cigarette can go either way in terms of currying favor. Kassel notes in his piece that it's akin to being treated like a human vending machine. Another former smoker friend said it's an obviously disingenuous move, like the fake reach for the wallet at the dinner you have no intention of splitting.
"If you took them up on it, they probably wouldn't have any money anyway," he said. Then it would be awkward for everyone involved. To which I say, if you can't stand the heat of negotiating a single fucking cigarette, stay out of every place I might ever attend.
I always tried to offer money when I bummed as a way of showing that I know cigarettes cost a lot, and I want to make it clear I'm willing to overpay for one that I didn't have to pay full price for by the pack. Anyone offended by that doesn't deserve to partake in the toxic joy of smoking.
You've gotten your cigarette: Now say thank you and please go. Immediately. Oh, you want to keep making small talk? AWESOME. It's bad enough you've asked for and received my last cigarette—don't force me to also know you. What's that? You need a light too? Terrific. Let me give you my last match, and while we're at it, a free gas card.
Keep in mind there's also an art to how smokers grant their "extra" cigarettes. One writer in Kassel's piece said he enjoys giving cigs to young women in seeming distress from a bad breakup or recent firing. Another writer said every homeless request for a smoke is honored. Or anyone who intimidates him. Another said it's case by case—yes to all women, for chivalry (lol), or yes to all men who look beaten down by the world. Maybe they give out the first cigarette asked of them but no more. Or:
"I don't mind bestowing cigarettes on obviously like-minded and right-thinking persons no matter how clumsy or wheedling their approach," Lewis Lapham, the editor of Lapham's Quarterly who burns through three packs of Parliaments a day, said in an email message. "I feel their pain, know them as fellow citizens, don't wish them further trouble with the inspectors of the nation's souls."
If such odds trouble you, you could do something really radical and just buy the cigarettes. True, it would make you a semi-real smoker, but it would also make you a reformed bummer. And we can never have too many of those.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.