Monday, October 15, 2007

Public transit story # 21: Punky's Dilemma

The City of Berkeley has an ordinance which prohibits smoking in various public locations, including bus stops. Being the comprehensive city that Berkeley is, there is another chapter of the same ordinance detailing exactly how this information is to be posted. The penalty, supposedly, is fine and/or imprisonment.

Unfortunately, the Berkeley police have their hands full with such weightier issues as drug dealing, vandalism, the occasional assault or homicide, speeding, expired parking meters, and kids who ride their bikes on the sidewalk; and so I have yet to see a single officer of the peace confront any of the hardened criminals known as bus-stop smokers. Thus, enforcement is left to such health-conscious and/or respiratorally challenged citizens such as myself. And, except for one memorable incident, I have found bus-stop smokers to be quite willing to light up elsewhere if asked politely.

Several days ago, while waiting for the bus in downtown Berkeley, I was suddenly accosted by the smell of cigarette smoke. I turned around and realized, with horror, that I knew the offender. He had once been a client of mine--one toward whom I'd had some pretty intense, negative countertransferential feelings. He did not appear to recognize me. It had been well over a year since I'd encountered him in a clinical setting; we weren't acquainted for very long; and plus I'd since chopped off my (formerly ridiculously long) hair.

I really wanted to remind him, for the sake of my lungs and the gerb, that smoking is prohibited at the bus stop. But I did not want to risk him recognizing me--and possibly striking up a conversation with me (see countertransferential feelings above). In addition, I didn't think I'd be able to be perfectly polite in my request (again, see countertransferential feelings above), and I feared I might accidentally address him by name and find myself in awkward conversation. On the other hand, my bus was already late, and if I didn't say anything, I would continue to breathe his secondhand smoke until my bus finally showed up.

Finally, I decided just to get up and move to another bench. This was a fine solution until his bus pulled up near me, whereupon he ambled over, continued to puff away until it was his turn to board, and tossed his still-lit cigarette by the curb. He still showed no sign of having any idea who I was.

I briefly debated stomping on the discarded butt, but then my bus arrived.

Was avoiding interaction altogether the right thing to do? I don't know. My rule of thumb on greeting present or former clients in public is to let them greet me first. On rare occasions will I be the first to say hi; but I only do this when I'm out alone. But this situation was not about saying hi--and therein lies the rub.

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