No, I don't smoke (or as the tired punchline goes, only when I'm on fire) and never have. I find the thought of inhaling burning leaves ludicrous and the scent abominable. Still, this is a wish which makes itself manifest on a fairly regular basis - at least once every couple of days.

Where does this strange desire come from? A latent death-wish? Years of wishing I was cooler than I actually was? One too many Tarantino flicks? No. When I wish I was carrying cigarettes, I don't wish that I could have them in my possession for my use, but for that of others.

I live on, for lack of a better term, the wrong side of the tracks. If Canadian cities can be said to have ghettos, this is the national worst. People live here because it's cheap, because they don't feel they're worth any better surroundings, because there is nowhere else for them but the unacceptable alternatives of bad family situations, trading that fast destruction for this lingering one. Even if they're penniless and starving, for the most part they still have sufficient pride not to beg in their own neighbourhood and sufficient wits to realize that here is a place where there is truly no spare change, every penny earmarked for one more skinpop, evening of numb forgetting, second-hand too-big shirt for your hungry kids or covert fondle from a scab-faced single mother in a back alley. There is no spare currency in this economic microcosm of slow societally-sanctionned suicide. You cannot get anything here that you wouldn't hope your doctor could cure with a couple of injections.

But altered states can result in profound changes in behavior, and chemical addiction works in subtle and extreme ways. In sunnier streets people have been observed crossing the street to avoid sharing pavement with me (granted, usually when I'm wearing my I LOVE CANADIAN BOYS baby t-shirt) but here it is not uncommon to be blindly approached as a possible succour to an incessant hunger. Survival instinct compels one to move out of the way when peripheral vision reveals someone altering their trajectory to meet yours, but course corrections accounting for the seemingly chance collision are explained in the "Can I buy a smoke off you?"

If you're so far gone that you'll not only ask strangers but ones as scary-looking as I for this commerce, the least my compassion will permit is giving you one for free. But I don't smoke - I don't carry cigarettes. What do I say? A glib "No" insults, implicit the pompous refusal I would not engage in commerce, not even resultant in profit for myself, with one such as you. So I took to saying, "Sorry." I'm sorry that you're a smoker, I'm sorry that you've been driven to smoke, that you've been driven to live in this neighbourhood. It's not an answer, though, so I've taken to fully qualifying it: "Sorry, I don't smoke." I'll get a look of incredulity - if I don't smoke, what the hell am I doing here? Not smoking for health reasons? The oppressive aura of depression permeating the neighbourhood will do more to shorten expected lifespan than any dozen carcinogenic additives. They probably figure that cigs are too soft-core for me, that I'm a tweaker or unusually robust junkie. ("Rowan," Kedrick told me, "not smoking marijuana completely defies the whole point of looking the way you do.") How do I respond? What do I tell them, that I'm bucking the trend by coming here to start my adult life rather than to end it? That I'm slumming, that I'm (wave of self-loathing washes over self) a force of gentrification, a moneyed-but-stingy youthful thrillseeker edging out the desperate and needy? That unlike them I plan to be alive at age 50 outside the cancer ward?

No answer is adequate. I give my head a rueful shake, grimace soulfully and move on down towards my destination, eyes on the ground, as my interceptor moves on to satiate their oral fixation.

Women! Strange women, professional women approach me on unpopulated, unlit street corners asking for smokes. Isn't your job dangerous enough?, I think at this unexpected solicitation. I wish I had a pack on me, I wish I could dispense it with tips - don't use this near your newborn, you should be working this corner with a partner for safety, stay firm and don't put it in you without protection even if he offers a little bit extra, even if you could really use a little bit extra to make ends meet. But I don't smoke, I'm not carrying cigarettes and it's not my place to patronize prostitutes.

Anything to ease your pain, to make your life a little easier, and, failing that, to ease the suffering and make it a little shorter.

Meanwhile, Philip Morris executives reap record profits while Dr. Jack Kevorkian rots in a prison cell...

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