Lessons From the Smoke Shop

(Originally published in the NY Times)

MY 30-year-long subscription to The New Yorker ran out a few months ago — pure absent-mindedness on my part — and since then I buy a copy each week at the smoke shop around the corner from my apartment.

It makes no sense financially. I could save 73 percent off the cover price if I renewed for just a year; even more for two. But I’ve found I enjoy the benefits that come with my $6.99 a week, beginning with Ali, the shop’s manager.

Ali had formerly known me as a customer who occasionally came in late at night for a single vanilla Häagen-Dazs bar and asked for a book of matches. The asking part is important. He once told me about a customer who reached over the counter for a book of matches from the box next to the register:

“ ‘No, you don’t do that,’ I tell him,” Ali recounted. “ ‘That is wrong. You don’t go reaching across like that, without permission. You ask, I will give you a book of matches.’ ” He paused. “Not everyone gets one.”

Maybe they look like nothing special, Ali’s matches. They’re a generic white, and have “Thank You” printed on them.

I half-reached for one, just to mess with him. He held up a warning finger and tried to look stern, then selected a book of matches as if making a chess move.

“Here! Go, with your matches and your ice cream.”

Here’s another thing about Ali’s shop: There’s no haggling here. This may seem obvious, but apparently it’s not. I went in last Friday night to buy my New Yorker and saw an imposingly built young man try to haggle over the price of a single cigarillo.

He fished in his pockets and spilled pennies on the counter. “C’mon, man!”

You might have thought he’d insulted Ali’s grandmother. Ali sent that young man on his way.

“What, they think I’m going to bargain with them just because I have an accent?” he said to no one in particular, in his best indignant voice. Then he laughed. I did, too.

The store is called a smoke shop but, let’s face it, it’s a head shop: Hundreds of pipes and bongs line the shelves. There are rolling papers, booze, condoms, lube, pseudo-poppers, Lotto tickets, junk food. It’s so full of vices that, paradoxically, it’s a vice-free zone. I hardly ever indulged in potato chips before, but that’s changed since I started buying my New Yorkers there. I threw in a bag of salt-and-vinegar ones this time — what the heck. But that’s as far as I would go.

“Eight dollars, my friend,” Ali said.

I pulled the bills from my wallet. Suddenly it hit me: “It’s always right on the dollar, isn’t it? Eight, not $7.98. Or $3, not $2.95 with tax, or whatever?”

Ali smiled. “I round it off. Less change; it’s good.”

Ali kept the shop open during Hurricane Sandy, as unfazed by the storm as he is by the crazies he sometimes contends with on weekends. I went in with my friend Oliver on the second night of no power, lights or water. The counter was lit like an altar with a few well-placed candles; Ali looked like an oracle. In the semidarkness, one would never have known there’s a ton of porn for sale in the back: gay, straight and everything in between, and at every extreme.

We bought water and a flashlight and chatted for a while. He told us when to come back if we needed more — he had a bottled-water connection of some sort.

It felt nice to emerge from our dark, trapped apartments and connect with the formerly normal. We then stepped into the bar next door and had a warm beer by candlelight and toasted with fellow neighborhood drinkers, “To surviving Sandy and to being New Yorkers.”

Even under normal circumstances, one would never find Ali in there, having a drink at the end of a night. In fact, Ali would never partake of almost anything for sale in the shop.

“I don’t touch any of it,” he has told me. “I don’t do any of it. I drink Sprite. I go home to my family in Queens.”

Even so, he doesn’t seem to pass judgment on those who partake, or if he does, he’s got quite a poker face. I think he gets that some of us may need a little something extra to take the edge off, to gamble on the remote chance that we might win big in the lottery and get to leave this place.

I’ve lived in New York for five years, long enough to understand why some people hate it here: the crowds, the noise, the traffic, the expense, the rents, the messed-up sidewalks, the weather that brings hurricanes named after girls that break your heart.

It requires a certain kind of unconditional love to love living here. But New York repays you in time in memorable encounters. Just remember: Ask first, don’t grab, be fair, say please and thank you, always say thank you — even if you don’t get something back right away. You will.

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