You may not know this but I actually run a small cancer charity in the Soho area. I stand outside round the corner from work and passers-by come up to me and ask me to donate cigarettes to them. It’s a noble endeavour, I receive no government funding; in fact quite the opposite. with the government taking about 80% from each pack of cigarettes I buy, it’s an expensive philanthropy but worth it for the smile on their little choked-up faces.
I’m just having a bit of a wheeze of course, this is not an official charity. The Charity Commission rejected my application, just as they did with my other idea, CuntAid – providing help and rehabilitation for people who just can’t help the way they behave. But sometimes it does feel that way. I give out so many cigarettes to weary travellers in the area that Westminster Council have officially designated me an off-licence. I am thinking of expanding, and offering passers-by free Oyster top-ups, lottery tickets, week-old pasties and vodka miniatures as well.
I definitely have “one of those faces” that people find approachable. And when they approach me they usually want something. It is rarely sex. My experience is it is one of two things. They either want to know where No. 6 is, or they want to sponge a cigarette. No. 6 is a phantom address on the street by work where I smoke. It is made of glass and only appears during a half-moon. It drives couriers crazy.
My record for cigarette requests in one day stands at four. Four in one day is a lot. As I politely explained to number four, that’s £50 a month. People really should know that walking round Soho trying desperately to raise a few fags could have unexpected consequences. I don’t know if I’m just unlucky, or I give off this impression I am a tobacco oligarch, or I seem like a generous guy, or maybe they think I have a malleable will which is easily intimidated. Possibly the last one as I’m generally too polite to say no, and this has prompted me to come up with my ingenious solution to the problem, which I’ll come to later.
“Stop looking at me like I’m gratuitous.”
Sometimes I’m happy to give a stranger a cigarette – an extremely hot girl for example, in fact I’ve been known to say “No please, have two, how about the whole pack, keep the lighter, come back when you run out, I’ll be right here. By the way, you’ve got really nice breasts.” Sometimes I’m just in a good mood and feeling charitable.
Generally though, when I do hand over one, it is begrudgingly, and like so many of my day-to-day actions it is borne out of social awkwardness. I then usually fume about it for the rest of the day, or until the next time. But I’m not the only one who feels compelled to comply. A few years ago, a colleague was smoking on her own outside, and a guy came up to her and said “do you have a spare cigarette?”. She said she didn’t and only brought one out with her (a clever strategy). He then said to her, as she was mid-puff, “can I have that one then?”. Dazed and giddy from the sheer fucking cheek of this bellend, she handed it over, and headed back into work.
I’ve also had the group of youths come by, barely old enough to legally smoke, and one asks for a ciggie. On this occasion I weighed up the odds, and there was a 90% likelihood that these youths were so full of pent-up anger over the fact their overworked parents hadn’t yet provided them with the absolute latest version of the iPhone, that they would happily stab or kill at a moment’s provocation. So I handed over a cigarette. As I was swearing under my breath at my ever-decreasing pack, I realised a fucking queue had formed, with each of the little runts expecting one. “Fuck off, share that one!” I said, surprisingly bravely. I’ll be stabbed before I hand over more than one cigarette in a single transaction.
One per group, that’s one of the rules. The other rule is, you’ve got to ask when I’m actually smoking. You can’t run after me after I’ve finished my own cigarette and left the area, calling “Mate, mate, MATE, you got a spare cigarette!” That actually happened to me once. Unbelievable.
I think the strangest was a no-necked tree trunk of a man, who dragged his knuckles on the ground as he approached me and asked, then decided to talk at me for five minutes as he smoked it. Right, so I’m supposed to give him a smoke, light it, and then stand and listen to this oaf’s smalltalk? He looked like he spent 23 hours a day in the gym, and the other hour pouring steroids into every orifice, and he was constantly checking himself out in the window opposite. I kept my distance afraid one of his nipples was going to give me a black eye, as he started giving me information I did not want about his life.
He grunted “Cheers mate, you ever have one of those days, you know, when you just need a cigarette?”
What the fuck was I, a smoker, supposed to say to that. Um no ‘mate’, never. The only reason I smoke is for the lower life expectancy, it’s basically a procrastinator’s way of committing suicide.
He checked himself out in the mirror a few more times, rotating his torso like a spring-waisted action figure, “I’m really stressed at the moment.” I could see that from the way the veins were bulging out of his skin. He looked like he was trying to shit out the Isle of Man. “I’m on my way to a job interview somewhere here. Covent Garden. It’s a phone interview.”
“Covent Garden?” I said, “That’s a bit of a walk away still, better get a move on, what time’s your … hang on. PHONE INTERVIEW? You’re going to a phone interview?”
“Yeah mate, security job, really stressful I hate interviews. I mean I’ve got the experience and the build you know, but we’ll see what happens.”
Yeah I was curious myself to see what happened when he got to this “phone interview”. Isn’t a phone interview in person a … you know, interview. Unless he was visiting the interviewer in prison maybe? I asked him “What time is it?”
He checked his watch, “Twenty to three.”
“No, what time is your interview?”
“Three o’clock. Should get there just in time.”
“Well at least if you’re going to be a bit late, you can always, you know, phone them to say.”
“…could probably do the interview at the same time.”
He didn’t really get my jibes, I mean my “subtle interrogation” regarding this phone interview he was attending in person. If anything he seemed generally confused when it wasn’t his turn to talk. I listened to him talk about himself for a while more as I frantically ingested my cigarette. I did wonder, if maybe the whole time he wasn’t talking to me at all, but was talking to the reflection of himself in the window opposite. I wished him luck and darted off.
So, having had to listen to this pile of stodge give me his life story, along with the mounting financial burden of dishing out all these smokes, I needed a solution. But it wasn’t enough to do as my colleague had done and just take a single cigarette out with me. What if I actually wanted to give someone the cigarette, I needed that option. For example, there’s a rare breed of person who will come up to me cash-in-hand and ask to buy one, sometimes for as much as £1 (although I think I need to give 80p of that to the government). I always give to those who have the decency to offer to pay, although I never take the money – I think soon that will be the new scam, and everyone who asks will have a pound coin on an elastic band.
The solution also had to be foolproof, with no social awkwardness. And so my solution was this: I now carry around with me … an empty cigarette pack, in addition to my actual smokes. If a worthy cause approaches me, a cigarette can be given, if not, I just say “Sure mate, happy to help, here you go … oh WHAT! I don’t have any left. Oh well darn, now I’m screwed too. Neither of us has cigarettes; don’t suppose you know where the nearest shop is, because I definitely need to go there soon, HA HA HA HA HA!” I’ve tried it now several times, and it’s working a treat – I come across like the good guy who tried to help but they still don’t get a cigarette. I’m often surprised just how many I have left in my actual packet at the end of the day (before the government comes and takes 80% of them away).
But it’s not without it’s dangers. Recently, I was just finishing a smoke on my way into work, and one of Soho’s finest honeys came up to me with her best puppy eyes and pleaded with me. In my rush to please, I mistakenly pulled out my empty pack. I laughed, “Ha ha, don’t worry this is just a trick to foil sponging parasites.” I reached into my other pocket and pulled out my actual cigarettes. It was also empty. Fuck! The girl was confused, how many empty packs of cigarettes did I have in these jeans.
She said “it’s OK, it’s OK thanks for trying anyway.”
…a phrase I hear all too often in the bedroom, and so now my resolve hardened. I knew I had another pack somewhere. “Wait. Wait.” I rummaged around in my rucksack for a few minutes, as she became increasingly restless (and ironically, more in need of some nicotine). Finally, I found them, unwrapped them, whilst also holding two empty packs and a lighter in my hands. I’ve never seen such a happy customer, she was elated to finally get the cigarette, it had been a suspenseful triumph with a stunning climax.
And so now, I carry two empty packs around with me…