My first box of cigarrettes

October 30, 2010
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I think I’m crazy. Sane people don’t do something that could potentially kill them unless they’re crazy. To put myself out there and to talk to strangers was almost like asking for a death sentence. I wasn’t one to talk to strangers. I mean, it’s the first rule you learn as a child. I honestly loved working with the American Cancer Society. I liked raising money for breast cancer, making posters informing people of the consequences of smoking, and even doing paperwork. This was what I’d always done. This is what I’d signed up for. This was what I was good at and the only way I knew to help. But now I was being asked to go up to strangers and tell them not to smoke. Seriously? I was only a 17-year-old girl, who was brought up to respect my elders and mind my own business. I couldn’t make a difference or interfere in anyone’s life. I wanted to turn back the clock and make it so that I had told Christy no. But, it was too late. I was already on Main street, walking the down an unfamiliar road to an unknown destination.


“Dam be pi ji ma se yo!” I shouted the words “Don’t Smoke” in agony, hoping that this austere phrase would somehow transform the minds of the smokers of Main Street. The feel of this Korean phrase felt utterly strange to my tongue, almost as if it were a foreign taste in my mouth. But it was the only way to communicate with everyone around me. Koreans, Chinese and Japanese people scrambled around on the bustling Main Street in Flushing. The calescent air was a mixture of fried noodles, fumes from city buses, and smoke. Cigarette smoke. Good Samaritans shoved fliers to passer Byers. Vendors vociferated about the juiciness of their fruit and pointed to their green-hued vegetables. I placed my hands over my eyes and surveyed the crowd in hopes of pinpointing the people taken over by this pestiferous disease.

My eyes drifted over to the two men on the corner of Maple Avenue and Main Street. One man wore an ebony shirt with Beatles written across it in platinum. His hair was swept across his forehead, and he walked with his eyes on the ground, almost as if he were trying to find something. The older man looked to be around his mid fifties and was approximately six feet tall. He had a ponderous, lumbering gait, almost as if the simple act of walking was tiring or straining. It was this man who intrigued me. As he trudged forward, he brought a cigarette close to his mouth, inhaled the toxins, made an o-shape with his mouth and slowly exhaled, releasing the smoke.

“Hey guys! We’re with the American Cancer Society, and today we’re holding a Smoke free day in Flushing. So, would you like to trade that cigarette in your hand for a pack of gum or a temporary tattoo and sign a smoke-free pledge?” The two guys looked at each other, smirking at what stood in front of them; Six teenage girls all with matching white t-shirts with colorful writing, demanding from them their cigarettes in exchange for gum.

“Hahaha ehh no English?” Of, course. Although it was true that a majority of the people on the street were not fluent in English, I had a feeling that these guys were lying. I looked at them longingly, pointing to the banner, repeating the words that had been constantly echoing in my head all day.

“Dam be pi ji ma se yo?” At that they both began to laugh hysterically, as if we had told them the funniest joke in the world and backed away.

“Thank you! Eh, I mean, Komapsumnida?” I stood there, watching those men walk away. I was about to turn around and find someone else, when something caught my eye. The younger man put his hands in to his jacket and pulled out a box of Marlboros. He turned around and looked at us as if he were seeing us for the first time. Then, he did what I never thought in a million years he would do. He jogged back to us and gave us the box of cigarettes. With the simple nod of the head, he turned and strolled back to his buddy. As I stood there, holding the box of cigarettes in my hand, I realized I wasn’t crazy. Instead, I felt strong, invincible, and significant. I was proud of myself for having helped someone and for having stepped out of my boundaries. I had done the unimaginable by saving a man. But, more importantly, he saved me. That man may have just given me the best gift I’d ever received. He had given me a new confidence that I could try new things. Who knew I would be thanking the man who gave me my first box of cigarettes. I placed the tiny pack in my bag. A keepsake. Intimate, eternal and immutable.





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