People are always saying things on the Internet all the time. But they are such teases. We like details. So we have to ask.
Only in NY: Broke down & asked to bum my yearly cig from some suits outside a hotel, turns out they're e-cig marketers at a convention.
— Rachel Syme (@rachsyme) October 3, 2013
Rachel! So what happened here?
First of all, I blame this balmy Indian summer that we have been having in New York—I mean, 75 degrees after dark in October? END TIMES—but it was just such a glorious, clear night out and I was having one of those solo walks through midtown where suddenly Times Square looks not like the pit of despair that it usually is but more Magic-Kingdom-Center-of-the-Universe, and suddenly all things merge into one and it just feels like a cigarette should run though it? Anyways, I had just been at one of those Paley Festival panels where the cast of a television show comes together with a moderator to get very Stanislavski about process and share secrets about the next season—in this case the panel was for "Orange is the New Black," which I have streamed so many times it is practically in my veins at this point, so I was very happy to be there (I mean, Taystee/Danielle Brooks’ jumpsuit alone would’ve been worth the ticket). I will say that Jason Biggs kept interjecting jokes about pie sex that felt very… vintage and not germane? But other than that, delightful evening. So I was basking in that kind of afterglow that one sometimes gets after attending a charming cultural event in New York and it lulls you for another day into thinking that the rent and the scissor stabbings and the constant shoe repair are all worth it. Where else would I get to hear Kate Mulgrew crack jokes about dropping the soap in full Russian accent? DELIGHTFUL.
So I had to walk downtown to meet my friend for a drink (and for 16 Handles, if I’m being fully honest?) and it was around 9:45, and I was walking right near the Ed Sullivan theater, on one of those pedestrian malls where you can walk straight down on Broadway towards the lights of Times Square without any traffic, and it is bright as noon because of all the neon, and even though there are crowds around you it is possible to feel like the last person on earth, or at least in some kind of deep communion with the city. Sometimes I think about leaving New York—not a lot, but a bit more recently, and so every time I feel that way lately it seems a bit elegiac? So I thought, I have to celebrate this feeling somehow… and I went looking for a cigarette.
I am not a smoker (hello doctor parents, thank you for reading this!), but I am one of those bad New Yorkers who learned in her twenties to punctuate great moments in being out late with a cig (or as my friends call them, swizzles)—it’s something physical to do to enhance a moment, or to revel in it. It’s ritualistic. My own little sage stick? I don’t know. I only smoke a few times a year now (saying yearly was a bit monastic, I’ll admit), and I have to feel very compelled to do it. I don’t really buy them, unless I am throwing a party, in which case I might put out a little bowl of Nat Sherman Celebrations (the multi-colored, gold-tipped ones that look like birthday candles). So when I am feeling it, I have to bum one, and that comes with its own urban humiliations and adventures.
On this particular night, I asked two women smoking and gossiping about their boss outside an office building in standard stretch-black-twill-pants-and-Talbots-blouse work attire with badges still attached—I assumed they must have been on the night shift somewhere. One of them, holding a full pack of Marlboros, lied and said she was on her last one. I do admire the moxie it takes to just lie like that to swat someone away, like nope, these are expensive, go away stranger! It was fine! I am the one asking for something I don’t really need or deserve; rejection is part of that. The next person I asked was a guy sitting in one of those fancy throughways that runs between big office buildings and features a fountain and some benches—he was in his twenties, wearing a suit, and simultaneously smoking and eating a giant Chipotle burrito. I think he truly was on his last one. I was going to give up when I saw a crowd of people outside a hotel across the street, and where there is a crowd outside a hotel, there is usually some sloppiness and generosity to be had.
When I got closer, I saw that everyone in the group, which was about six or seven middle-aged guys in grey suits wearing nametags and one woman in a sheath dress and kitten heels, was smoking e-cigarettes—they looked real from far away because they glow orange at the end. I was pretty sure I would strike out, but I decided since I had crossed already I’d ask them about this thing they all clearly shared (I think my words were something like, “So are those actually any good?” or something inelegant). All of a sudden, one of the men pulls out a plastic-wrapped NJoy pack from his pocket and says, “Try it for yourself!”
So then I thanked him and said something to the effect of “It’s almost like you guys are selling these or something!”
Turns out, they were! NJoy’s entire marketing team was at a conference at this hotel. They started giving me a spiel about how there is less tar, less carbon imprint, they help you quit (I tried to explain that I don’t really smoke but the man was very insistent on this virtue and kept looking me straight in the eye like I was some crazed addict and he was here to save me), you can smoke in bars, etc. I have to say, the marketing pitch they gave to a stranger on the street was really intense—I wonder if they had just come out of some kind of seminar and were workshopping their buzz words.
So what's your take on e-cigarettes (and those who sell them for a living) after this experience?
I had never tried one until that night! They had to show me how to do it—pretty easy, you just take it out of the pack and suck on it until the end glows, and then blow out the vapor. After trying it a few times in front of this crowd, and feeling not unlike a circus monkey doing it, I started to feel really lightheaded and nauseated and needed to gracefully walk away. I do like the idea in general of smoking that is less cancerous (maybe? Verdict is out, Googling tells me) and less noxious to those around, but I also smoke so infrequently that I’m not really after the nicotine hit—part of what I like about it is the match, and the flame, and the ephemeral, finite, film-noirish quality to it all. These guys kept repeating that one NJoy is worth three packs of cigarettes (buzzwords!), and I thought, that’s just crazy, how would I know how to moderate that? Given how woozy and weird I felt for the next hour, clearly I do not know. I haven’t touched the thing since, actually. But I do have a bunch of samples left, if anyone wants them.
About those who sell them for a living, I’m sure they are great people! The conference didn’t look like it was so fun—fluorescent midtown conference room lighting and business attire and all that, but the people I spoke with were really jovial and forthcoming. I helped one of them hail a cab on Broadway afterwards (a middle-aged man who had never hailed a cab before! Adorable!). I will say that they were extremely down on traditional smoking and vehement that this way was a far less “disgusting” and “vile” activity. What if I had been Fran Lebowitz? There might have been an altercation.
Lesson learned (if any?)
I learned that I don’t love Njoy? (Sorry, people who were nice to me!). It’s just not for me. But I also feel like after incidents like that—when you are looking for the city to give you something and then it opens up and does just that, and in a cosmically silly and extreme way—that I can never leave. I have too many stories like that here, and they keep piling up. I’m sure moments like that where everything converges into weird coincidence happen to people all over, in all cities, but most of my Alice down the rabbit hole stories tend to happen after dark, in New York.
There is a part of a Lorrie Moore story called “Vissi d’Arte” that describes this feeling better than I ever could: “There is a way of walking in New York… that causes the heart to open up and the entire city to rush in and make a small town there. The city stops its painful tantalizing then, its elusiveness and tease suspended, it takes off its clothes and nestles wakefully, generously next to you. It is there, it is yours, no longer outwitting you. And it is not scary at all, because you love it very much.”
So, on nights like that, I still love it very much here. It was like needing a cup of sugar from a neighbor and they give you the whole bag, if that makes sense? But I am such a gross romantic and it cannot be cured.
Just one more thing.
Um… Smoking is terrible for you! Maybe e-smoking is better. I am no surgeon general. But if you must do it, there really is no better time to do so than on an unseasonably warm autumn evening.
And talk to strangers more. Most of them don’t bite, and some have free samples.
Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor in New York City.