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Smokey the Driver

Smokey the Driver

I do not smoke cigarettes and I always try to keep my distance from those who are smoking. Yet, for some unexplained reason, no matter where I position myself, smoke always seems to work its way to my face, at which point I unwillingly inhale it into my lungs, which then causes me to feel a distinctly unpleasant pressure on my chest. 

Now I realize that New York City doesn’t corner the market on fresh air, but it’s all I have. So, when I’m walking down the street and I find myself behind a smoker, it triggers a response in which I scurry past the poisonous clouds of offending smoke. Annoying to say the least, yet it’s New York City, right? Surely it’ll be different along the Appalachian Trail, where I’ll experience small town hospitality and breathe fresh, clean air that has been filtered by vast forests of vigilant trees. 

I… can’t… wait!

When the train arrives at Gainesville, Georgia, I call a cab for a ride to Amicalola Falls State Park. There I will hike the 8.8 mile approach to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail at the summit of Springer Mountain.

As I enter the cab, the driver asks, in a less than cheerful manner, “Mind if I smoke?” 

Well, this question catches me completely off guard because in New York City, no one smokes in a cab, including the drivers. So, of course, I lose my bearings, I shrug my shoulders as if it isn’t a concern and say, “Sure, go ahead.” 

Apparently the part of my brain that stores my instinct for self-preservation and my will to live automatically self-destructs when I’m faced with an unexpected situation. I’m not sure why he bothered to ask, since his cigarette was lit and filling the inside of the car with smoke before the word sure was completely out of my mouth. This is one of those times when a little mental sarcasm in lieu of actually saying what I mean helps me to cope with this type of predicament, so I think, Oh, sure, how kind of you to share your second hand smoke with me. Oh no, really, I’m sure I have far too many lung cells… I can spare a few. 

I resolve that with the windows rolled down, there shouldn’t be much smoke to inhale. I start rolling the window down, but it stops halfway. 

Huh, childproof windows? 

A little toddler is safe from falling into oncoming traffic, just so he/she can grow up and one day be diagnosed with lung cancer. I wonder if Smokey the Driver thought of that? 

It appears that the little sarcastic voice in my head was not finished yet and I suspect there is more to come.

I also notice, that my driver has no intention of cracking his window, which I thought would be part of the deal when I agreed he could smoke.

“Can you roll your window up?” says the now ticked-off driver.

By this time we’re on the move and he actually turns around in his seat, for what seems to be an inappropriately long amount of time, to ask me this question. The little sarcastic voice reminds me that his concern for my comfort and safety are touching to say the least, while the voice that is terrified screams, Dude, please keep your eyes on the road! I quickly recover and politely say, “Oh, well the smoke was a bit much.” 

His manner makes me feel as if I have done something wrong and I’m confused as to why he’s making the request.

“The breeze makes my bad shoulder hurt,” he says, not trying to hide his annoyance. 

“Oh, okay, I thought…” I start to say, but I get the sense that he isn’t listening or even care what I think. 

He reaches over to an ashtray and puts out a half-inch cigarette that was lit and puffed on several times before. The sight of his recycled cigarette reminds me of my loco uncle, who for a while thought he was Jesus Christ resurrected. Uncle Moses (yes, a biblical name) would walk the streets of Brooklyn wearing an orange Home Depot apron; the pockets stuffed with gospel pamphlets that he handed out to anyone who would make eye contact with him. With the same zeal he demonstrated while preaching to condemned souls, he would search the ground for a discarded, partially smoked cigarette. When he found a smokable one, he would place the stub in his mouth and light it. The butt was so small that the lit end looked as if it would burn his holy rolling lips. The sight of him placing something in his mouth that, not only had a stranger’s lips on it, but was also on a dirty, urine-covered sidewalk, disturbed me more than his false claim of being the Messiah. 

“I didn’t know Jesus smoked.” I would tease.

“It’s 2,000 AD, kid,” he would say as if those were the wisest words ever spoken. 

Then with a triumphant smile, he would look up to the sky, take a drag of his nasty cigarette, turn to me and ask, “Can you spare some change? I need bus fare.”

Uncle Moses would be a welcome sight right now, but instead, I’m confronted with Smokey the Bandit here. 

A few minutes later the cab driver lights the same mini-cigarette, but this time he’s thoughtful enough to lower his window a few inches. I lower my window a crack as well, although I know that it’s not enough to vent out the cloud of smoke I find myself in. Within minutes, my chest begins to hurt and it becomes difficult to breathe. This isn’t the way I wanted to start my long-distance adventure. This must be what it feels like to inhale fumes from a hose that is running from an exhaust pipe and into a car with its windows rolled up. Funny, I don’t recall asking him to assist me with attempted suicide, but I’m sure he’s just trying to be helpful. It’s good to know there’s someone I can count on if I decide to end it all.

I don’t want to do this to him, but it would seem that my will to live has returned, so I roll my window down further, hoping his desire to relieve the pain in his shoulder outweighs his desire to inhale the chemical cocktail in his tobacco smoke. Without saying a word he puts out his cancer stick. 

Okay, great, that’s settled, we have an unspoken understanding; if he lights that thing again, I’ll just use the same tactic. 

This would be an ideal way to cure people of their addictions. Instead of pleasure, the habit in question would cause pain. I imagine taking a whack at a patient’s knee with a stick each time they exhibited an unwanted behavior. Once cured, they would thank me and limp off to their addiction free future. 

By now, I’m feeling a distinctly negative vibe from my driver. 

What did I do wrong? My mental sarcasm is only meant to ease the situation for me.

Although I’m fairly sure he’s not a telepath, I still feel the need to apologize. He then glances at me in the rear view mirror. 

Is that a look of disgust? 

I’m not even on the trail yet and I already feel like I’m out of place. I begin to suspect that he doesn’t like that I’m in his cab. I try to show my enthusiasm about being in Georgia at the beginning of what I hope will be a memorable experience, but I don’t receive a reaction from him. I understand that we will never be close friends; I won’t be asking him to visit me on the trail. Still, I’m determined to get Smokey the Driver to at least crack a smile or something that resembles one. Although he continues to give me the silent treatment, I keep a friendly demeanor. Eventually I somehow do manage to extract information from the crabby cabbie as to how long it will take us to reach the park. 

Seemly, it will be about a 30-minute nicotine bath for me.

The small amount of air that comes through the window opening begins to clear the smog enough that I’m able to observe my surroundings and the man behind the wheel. He’s small and grumpy-looking. He appears dwarfed by the steering wheel; his neck is stretched to the max from trying to see over it. He looks to be in his sixties and in poor health, which he made evident by the disturbing cough and a wheezing sound I initially thought was coming from the car’s engine. Smoking is the last thing this poor guy should be doing. His skin is rough, reddish and thick, similar to pottery clay. I begin to doubt my ability to transform his hardened features into a smile. His lips seem only to move for the tug of a cigarette; all traces of joy long since gone and forgotten. I start to feel sorry for the guy and a part of me wants to help him somehow. I observe his still, grey eyes in the rearview mirror. Not so much as a twinkle is revealed. 

Is it my imagination, or has he not blinked once? Is that possible? 

While I’m pondering his bizarreness, he notices my transfixed stare. He glances at the road and then darts his eyes back to me, tightening them into a suspicious look. I quickly avert my attention to the sooty seats and the sticky armrest. 

“RAWHCA, RAWHCA!” I jump, startled by what I think is a barking dog, but then I see the driver squeezing his face into his hand. The cough is accompanied by a convulsion that gets my full attention. And no matter how horrible this sight is, I can’t tear my eyes away from it, like watching the proverbial train wreck. In fact, I’m now concerned that we may end up in a wreck of our own. Before I can ask if he’s okay, he reaches over for his remedy. Which is? You guessed it… a cigarette. This time it’s much harder for him to light the fingernail size butt. 

But wait… dang… he’s got it lit. 

Impressive and how convenient; the cause is also the cure. 

Will wonders never cease?

We finally arrive. Yellow faced and nauseated, I step out of the cab in a cloud of smoke. I must look like a rock star in a music video. 

I don’t… feel… so good… I hope my hair doesn’t smell like an ashtray. 

I sniff one of my dreadlocks and jerk my head away from the reek it’s giving off. However, I was wrong, it doesn’t smell like the usual ashtray, it smells more like the ones you see outside that are full of butts and have been soaked in rainwater for several days. My stomach does one more turn.

I grab my gear and mentally thank him for welcoming me so warmly to Georgia and for solidifying my aversion to smoking. As I head to the visitor’s center, I hear a dog bark, I turn back to see the gaunt driver straining to see over the steering wheel while angrily puffing away at the last of his cigarette as he heads off to pick up his next victim… I mean fare. 

If you’re interested in reading more about my wacky, yet adventurous AT experience, check out my memoir, The Unlikely Thru-Hiker.


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