Urban Lessons


Walking in the downtown corridor or a major metropolis is eye opening.  In the pleasant neighborhoods of the suburbs we are distanced, by and large, from the rhythms and drama of the real city.  How comfortable it is to walk down streets that have no sidewalks compared to walking down streets with beggars living on the sidewalks.   The sounds of suburban life are the sounds of nature.  Singing birds and chirping crickets are the only sounds that disturb the quietude.  The heart of the city knows no quiet.  The buzz of traffic and the banging of construction during the day, and the occasional wail of sirens during the night are a city-dweller’s companions.  But the lessons to be gleaned by observation make up for all the visual and audible assaults on the senses.  

Two lessons I have learned are about generosity and acceptance.  I have noticed that the most generous people in the city are smokers. 

To be clear: I am not a champion of smoking.  In fact, I have been known, against the advice of my family who fear any criticism of a stranger may result in a shooting, to tell smokers to put out their cigarettes when and where the law clearly prohibits smoking.  And Jewish law is uncompromising on the matter.  Any threat to one’s health is forbidden (Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 116b) and must be vigorously avoided.   But I do admire the charitable character of smokers even though I question their choice to smoke in the first place.

What I see is an eclectic group of people, men and women of all ages and ethnic groups, gathered outside the entranceways of office buildings, rain or shine, even in the bitter cold.  There seems to be a palpable bond between them, perhaps encouraged by the fact that they share the feeling that they are victims of persecution.  But whatever draws them together, they share.  Should a person join this group and ask for a light, they quickly oblige.  And those who have them happily supply smokers who are out of cigarettes. (Do you know how much a pack of cigarettes can cost these days?)  I observed one guy walking down the street claiming it was his birthday and he wanted a smoke.  No problem.  Several from one group were eager to offer.  Beggars asking for change are more than likely ignored, but smokers asking for a butt find a sympathetic crowd.  Some in the group know one another.  But prior friendship is no barrier to the full and speedy integration of newcomers.  All smokers are welcome.

It seems to me that these bands of smokers have something to teach us about how we ought to live (even though their own lives will surely be shortened).  How wonderful our cities in particular and society at large could be if people learned to be as generous and accepting as smokers. 


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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