I was standing outside the office having a quick smoke before walking the half-block to the deli, same as every day. For the most part I’m completely (and thankfully) ignored by the hundreds of people who pass by, but this time a man wearing a set of large headphones looked at me and muttered something as he passed.
“Pardon?” I asked. It was a stupid, meaningless reflex on my part.
He stopped and turned around. He was a small man with a soft face.
Aww, Christ, buddy, don’t stop, I thought. I don’t care what you said. Really. Just keep walking.
“Have you tried to quit but couldn’t do it?” he asked as his eyes cut to the cigarette in my left hand.
“Nope,” I told him.
“Ever thought of quitting?”
“That’s very sad.”
“Not particularly,” I told him. He smiled, and I thought that would be that-he’d continue on his pleasant, self-righteous way. I looked away and took another drag. When I looked back, he was standing next to me, staring at my face.
“God gave you your soul,” he said.
Oh, here we go, I thought.
“You know, your mommy and daddy made your flesh, but God made your soul.”
Oh Jesus. He reminded me of one of my neighbors-the one who gives me the crazy God spiel every time he’s able to corner me on the street or on the subway.
Personally, I have no trouble with people who choose to take comfort in believing in whatever kind of God suits them best, so long as they aren’t intent on inflicting their crackpot notions of what God is and what he wants on anyone fool enough to give them an opening.
Problem is I’m damn near always fool enough to give them an opening.
“Your soul,” he went on, “existed in the universe long before your body existed. God made it. And he’s the one who put it in your body.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. My voice was flat.
“He’s the one who takes care of you and gives you life. If you die without admitting that, without saying that he’s your savior, then you’ll wake up on the other side in the darkness. He’ll either be there or he won’t. And if he isn’t, you’re lost. You’re soul will just be out there, floating in the darkness.”
I was beginning to wonder what all this had to do with smoking, exactly. Even the guy in my neighborhood made more sense. He regularly claimed to be Jesus and the like, but he was more coherent about it. He had an argument of sorts. But this guy seemed to be on kind of a disconnected roll-and I knew if I broke his rhythm now, I might very well be trapped there for another hour. I could feel my face begin to sag.
“-And you need to take care of your body,” he was saying. “If God is in your body, if he lives in your body, then you must accept him and his ways. You can do things you say you can’t. People say they can’t do things, but they can. You smoke because everyone smokes, so you think you have to.”
“Nobody smokes anymore,” I finally interjected.
He stopped and pulled the headphones away from his ears briefly. “Huh?”
“I said nobody smokes anymore.” The headphones were the giveaway. Evidently he wasn’t interested in responses or counterclaims, the open give and take of free debate. He has his spiel, and that’s all that mattered.
“Yes they do-everybody smokes. And that’s why you smoke.”
“Smokers are an accursed, despised minority.”
“No-everybody smokes. Look around you-”
He looked around at all the dozens of people passing by us, but soon saw that I was the only one who was smoking. It didn’t matter.
“The smoke is a lie,” he said, changing direction slightly.
“It’s a lie of the devil. See…”
Oh, goddamn it. Shouldda kept my mouth shut. The contempt was beginning to bubble up. It always does when people like this-people with all the fucking answers-target innocent heathens like myself who are just minding our own business.
“God is there or he isn’t. He doesn’t give and take away like the devil. That’s the way the devil works. That’s why those cigarettes are a lie and the work of the devil.”
“I see,” I said. This man was making less sense as time went on.
“If you smoke those, you understand, God won’t live in you.”
Why? I thought, doesn’t he smoke menthols?
I kept my mouth shut, though. It wouldn’t do any good, cracking wise with him. He seemed to finally be reaching his big point-the one he was headed for all this time, sort of. But who would choose to believe in a God with respiratory problems?
“That’s why it’s the devil’s work,” he continued. “That’s why it’s a lie. And I don’t want that to be the case. I want you to wake up in the darkness with God right there beside you.”
“That’s very generous of you, I think,” I said, even though I wasn’t exactly sure how I should take his comment.
“That’s all I want you to know. That when you quit, God can live in you again. But not until then.”
He reached out and patted my shoulder. “Thank you. And have a beautiful day,” he told me.
“Sure,” I replied.
Before he had completely turned away, I was already on my way to the deli, reaching for another smoke. I’m too goddamn polite to people sometimes.
Jim Knipfel, 41, lives and writes in New York City. He is the author of one novel, The Buzzing, and three memoirs – Slackjaw, Quitting the Nairobi Trio, and Ruining it for Everybody. His books are available at Amazon.com and current essays can be read at www.electronpress.com.