First Person: Not a Time to Be a Smoker

By Al Winslow
Thursday July 31, 2008 - 10:06:00 AM

I’ve smoked cigarettes for 52 years, which is pushing my luck. Statistically, I should have been dead six years ago.  

Almost everybody has a developed opinion about this strange habit, which has been deemed a health code violation in Berkeley business districts since May, subject to citation by the Health Department. 

Some people have several opinions at the same time. 

“It’s a filthy, horrible habit,” said Michael Sherman, who nevertheless smokes. But he doesn’t allow it in his apartment or car because he—and friends and visitors—don’t like the lingering smell. 

Sherman, a member of the city’s Police Review Commission, said, “I was an anti-smoking fascist the first time I quit, but it can go too far. When they banned smoking on the top of a hill in Golden Gate Park, it really pissed me off.” 

Zealous anti-smokers can get nasty about it. Once, a guy rode his bicycle down the sidewalk and through a crowd of children outside the downtown YMCA in order to give me the finger. 

But mostly it’s a sort of NIMBYism—smokers should have a place to smoke but not around me. 

Chris Sulberg, a professional musician who is a neighbor of mine, says the smell of smoke literally makes him sick. 

“When I was 4 years old, I drove with my parents from Wisconsin to Berkeley. All the way, they both smoked. It took 10 days,” he said. “Every day, I got terribly sick from reading comic books, and as it turns out, I associate the smell of cigarettes with that experience. It’s kind of a Pavlovian response.” 

I live in a small apartment building on upper Kittredge Street where the lease prohibits smoking. I smoked outside behind the building but tenants said they could smell it and that anyway the back lot was filling up with cigarette butts. 

I moved to the sidewalk out front. Sulberg—who took an active interest in the unfolding events—remarked, “The farther away the better.” 

Shortly, an elderly woman I know up the street, would shout out her window: “You’re my friend, but don’t smoke here.” 

I ended up across the street, smoking with employees outside the California Theater. 

These are young artistic types—a writer, a filmmaker, book readers. Smart. A type apparently prone to take up smoking. 

These days, they talk a lot about quitting. 

The smoking ban has yet to be enforced. Berkeley police have avoided being involved with it. Instead, citations may be handed out by the City Health Department following a period of trying to get people to stop smoking and other education efforts. 

Officer Andrew Frankel, the police department’s public information officer, said, “Police resources are limited.” 

“I’m a smoker, by the way,” I mentioned. 

“I won’t be the one who cites you,” Frankel said.