"Do you have a cigarette I can buy?"
April 28, 2016 6:33 PM   Subscribe

Is this a pickup line or prostitution code?

A woman asked me today if I had a cigarette she could buy. The buying part seemed a little odd to me; people have tried to cadge smokes off of me before but nobody has ever offered to buy one. Something about her mannerism was unusual. She seemed a bit flirtatious, which for me is uncommon to the point of nonexistence. I am a 52 year old male who at the time was wearing a hooded jacket, dark sunglasses and headphones and walking a large dog. So I don't think I gave the impression of being "on the make." Also we were in an area near a strip bar which is sort of known for that kind of activity. I'm just curious. Is this cigarette, in this case, not just a cigarette?
posted by crazylegs to Human Relations (33 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It's just a cigarette. People occasionally offer to buy them so as not to appear rude for imposing upon you. The polite thing to do is to refuse their money and just give them the cigarette.
posted by matkline at 6:36 PM on April 28, 2016 [73 favorites]

Smokes are expensive - many corner/convenience stores/bodegas in low-income areas sell individual cigarettes, cause sometimes people just can't come up with the $6 -$12 for a whole pack. People have been offering to buy cigs from me in a wide variety of cities for at least a decade. No code, just looking for a nicotine fix.
posted by soundguy99 at 6:39 PM on April 28, 2016 [25 favorites]

Were you smoking at the time? If so, I'd suggest that the woman was just trying to be earnest and sincere about paying to get the cigarette that she wanted, rather than just pre-emptively asking for it. The presumption here is that you will refuse money and just give her the smoke anyways, because, uh, awkward. I've had many people offer to buy a cigarette off me for much below/above actual market value. They just want the cigarette. I always give them one (and I assure you they are not soliciting me for prostitution) and correct their math while I light it.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 6:40 PM on April 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

People almost always offered me money for a smoke. I always gave them a smoke and refused the money.
posted by rtha at 6:40 PM on April 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Correct (no issue), although I learned Lebanese (so he said) will not take cash for cigarettes.
posted by atomicmedia at 6:44 PM on April 28, 2016

Hm, interesting. I'm a non-smoker and wasn't smoking. Guess I was just imagining it. Probably because it was a block away from where I was most definitely propositioned years ago.
posted by crazylegs at 6:44 PM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

One of the horrible police beatings a year or two ago was of a man who the cops claimed was selling individual cigarettes without collecting the tax on them. So it's definitely a thing.
posted by SMPA at 6:45 PM on April 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

The term for these (individual cigarettes for sale) is "loosey," BTW.
posted by SMPA at 6:48 PM on April 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, neither a pickup line nor a prostitution code. It's just a polite way of bumming a smoke. The formula is that they offer to pay (and probably do have the quarter or dollar or whatever they're offering, should you ask for it) and then you refuse payment. That way they don't have to feel like a beggar, and you don't have to feel like you're being imposed upon. Instead, they can be an upstanding citizen who just really wants one cigarette, while you get to feel mangnanimous in refusing their good-faith offer of exchange.

I was on both sides of this exchange dozens of times, when I smoked.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:49 PM on April 28, 2016 [33 favorites]

I think the weirdness you were picking up on may have come from the stereotyped nature of the exchange. They were hoping you were a fellow smoker and would know the code, so they were offering you money while being primed for you to refuse it, which is unusual. People rarely just approach strangers and offer to buy things from them while fully expecting to get the thing (if it exists) for free, and since you didn't know that this was what was going on I'm sure it seemed like a weird interaction.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:55 PM on April 28, 2016 [8 favorites]

This is the modern-day way in which smokers bum smokes off one another. A pack is like $15 in New York these days, so asking "Hey do you have a spare cigarette?" is basically like asking "Hey can you give me a dollar?" It's gotten weird as the price has increased, so it's much more typical now in a lot of places and a lot of neighbourhoods to offer to buy a cigarette off a casual stranger.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:59 PM on April 28, 2016 [8 favorites]

Yep, everyone else is right, although generally it's a faux pas to actually take the money being offered.
posted by Automocar at 7:16 PM on April 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

I like to give the person a smoke and not take the money and loudly proclaim "cigarettes are for sharing!" because I should quit.
posted by vrakatar at 7:48 PM on April 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

However if you were not smoking, that is a bit odd. While trying to quit I'd try to beg, borrow, or purchase a smoke from a stranger, but only if they were smoking. In this case perhaps with the sunglasses and hoody she thought you were someone else, but in any case probably not a flirty move on her part.
posted by vrakatar at 7:58 PM on April 28, 2016

yep, just wanted a smoke.

but as a datapoint in contrast to others here, in Australia it's definitely *not* expected that you refuse the money. smokes cost $21 to $26 for a pack of 20, so the cost per cig is easily over a dollar. I've had people be quite insistent I take their money even when I say "no worries just take it".
posted by russm at 8:04 PM on April 28, 2016

In my observation of my own area, speaking as a smoker who is aware of who does and doesn't smoke, the sunglasses/hoody/dog combo wouldn't necessarily indicate that the person is or could be a smoker, but it wouldn't necessarily not (to a fair degree). I.e. I bet she thought you are someone who might be a smoker. She was flirty because that is an angle that women can use on men that often works.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:07 PM on April 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

I am a non-smoking woman and I have been asked this before as well. It really is just someone looking for a smoke.
posted by joan_holloway at 8:09 PM on April 28, 2016

This is how I met my reason-for-living. She "bought" a smoke , then asked me for a light. Offering to buy a smoke is how she satisfied her nicotine fix. Asking for a light is how she met interesting guys. Me? I'd just ask women for their number. I'd done that 4 times that day, so I was done. "I don't smoke." I said. She asked the guy next to me. He chatted her up. She was having none of it. After she left I thought "wait a minute! She's the cutest one yet!" It took some investigative work, but I tracked her down that day. 14 years later she's long since quit smoking, and married me.
But yeah, initially she was just looking for a smoke.
posted by Floydd at 8:21 PM on April 28, 2016 [30 favorites]

I've had people ask me for cigarettes even if I'm not smoking at that moment, and when I handed one over, were shocked. "You don't look like a smoker!" Some people will ask literally everyone, even if they don't think there's a chance in hell of getting one.
posted by tippy at 9:11 PM on April 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

In NYC people do expect money in my experience. I usually decline, but I've forked over cash for a cigarette. They cost $13/pack, so I don't blame them. I also wear a hoodie pulled over aviator sunglasses while sporting a 5' clock shadow, so people probably think I'm a smoker, or a Unabomber.
posted by gehenna_lion at 9:29 PM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

i've been part of this interaction on both sides since the late 90s. no one was picking anyone up.
posted by nadawi at 9:38 PM on April 28, 2016

She wanted a loosie. $0.25 when I was a street urchin teenager. The kind of thing Eric Garner lost his life over.
posted by dis_integration at 10:06 PM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is such a thing that anthropologist David Graeber wrote about how the culture of bumming smokes is a form of pure communism.
posted by bradbane at 10:45 PM on April 28, 2016 [18 favorites]

There have been many times that people asked me for a cigarette while I was not smoking, simply because I have tattoos. Then they're surprised that I don't smoke because I "have tattoos."

Someone wanting a cigarette will ask for anyone nearby. My husband smoked for at least 3 years into our relationship and I'd often seen people offering to pay for one outside a bar or something. (Though in a college town where we were it's more common that people would just ask for one for free.)
posted by Crystalinne at 10:58 PM on April 28, 2016

As others have said, it's just part of polite smoker culture.

As a "non smoker" who never bought packs, I occasionally liked to smoke when I was out drinking. I would offer to buy a cigarette from a stranger, they would give me a cigarette, I would offer them a folded dollar, and they would refuse.

It is one of the ritual dances of a mildly oppressed subculture.
posted by theorique at 2:43 AM on April 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is definitely a thing non-prostitutes do. Prostitutes probably do it too.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 5:42 AM on April 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

As a non-smoker, I never knew this was such a thing until I traveled to San Francisco with an employee who smoked. We'd stand around on a sidewalk, and she'd rarely finish one without someone asking for one. I can't remember how many (if any) offered to buy one. She was an attractive woman standing next to a man (me) - while we weren't a couple on a date, people may have assumed we were, so this may have affected the "offer to pay" dynamics. We were near the Embarcadero district, and most of these people didn't strike me as poor, although you can't always tell, obviously.

My favorite moment in all this was when she was approached by a younger man who asked for a drag off her cigarette that she was smoking. She hands it to him, he takes a deep drag or two, and hands it back to her. She stands there with it in her hands, smiling sweetly while he thanks her, he walks off -- and then she grinds out the cigarette with extreme prejudice...

(yeah, she probably could have been more assertive)
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:49 AM on April 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a non-smoker myself, but as a data point, I live near a major thoroughfare on which prostitutes are a common sight, and they often approach potential clients (and non-potential ones like me) by asking if they have a cigarette.
posted by Gelatin at 7:16 AM on April 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Someone I know once described 3rd World as anyplace you can buy individual cigarettes.
posted by theora55 at 7:37 AM on April 29, 2016

I went looking for the Graeber info on cig sharing culture (mentioned by bradbane above) and could only find this paper by Cameron Laviere.
posted by MovableBookLady at 8:15 AM on April 29, 2016

I agree with the basic consensus - that's just how people bum smokes now. It is what it is. The problem becomes, for me, that now that people see it as a transaction they get genuinely upset if I refuse. I don't smoke regularly now, but enough to see that that transaction is very different now than it was in the olden days.

Also, just to be clear, loosies are this as business. Selling someone a smoke out of your pack in lieu of just giving one to them is very different from going into a bodega and buying a loosie, or buying a loosie off of someone who is selling them as an entrepreneurial endeavor.
posted by dirtdirt at 9:37 AM on April 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Homeless people who smoke fairly often buy cigarettes individually. Trying to cadge a free smoke from another homeless person is kind of asshole behavior. The decent thing to do is offer to pay for it rather than take advantage. In downtown San Diego, some homeless individuals supplemented their income by selling cigarettes. They were usually smokers. You kind of need to be a smoker to understand the market.

So, in addition to what everyone else said, this is pretty common behavior for street people. They rarely can afford an entire pack. Buying singles is more dignified and sanitary than picking up discarded butts from ashtrays and sidewalks. Some will do that too, but most prefer not to.
posted by Michele in California at 10:59 AM on April 29, 2016

Oh yeah, where I am this is definitely someone asking for a smoke. The other day I was walking around town at about 5:30 am and a woman who I'm pretty sure was a prostitute asked to buy a cigarette off me. I'm positive she just wanted to buy a cigarette off me.

I don't smoke but I see this all the time around me and yeah the people do pay. There's a socio-economic thingie at play here (it's practically a show of how much money you have if you refuse the money -- most of my people don't have that much money so they don't bother with that pretense). Though sometimes people are willing to give rollies away for free (especially if you roll it yourself or often someone will have paper and not tobacco and the other tobacco and not paper and you've got a match made in heaven).

And I see people asking for the snipe which is the last couple of drags or the part that people often throw away even though there's still some tobacco in the cigarette. Get enough snipes together and some paper and you can put together your own rather eclectic cigarette.

Basically what we're all saying is that there is this huge underground community based around cigarettes with their own jargon and mores. I'm constantly amazed.
posted by bfootdav at 4:33 PM on April 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

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