Student solidarity in the smoking section
Entering from the Pearl St. side of campus, one is familiar with this routine: weaving around concrete rectangles and flower pots full of cigarette butts, cutting through a mob of students and pushing through clouds of vape smoke akin to a nightclub. Standing amongst the crowd with a football in one hand and a cigarette in the other is Christopher Giwa.
“Hi. My name is Christopher Giwa, a.k.a Black Sexy, a.k.a. Mr. Make Ya Girl Holla.”
Giwa is all that and more. Tall, dark and handsome with a side of sociability and vulgarity. Giwa is always all over the place, whether it be introducing himself to someone new or chucking a football dangerously close over some girls' heads. Averaging between 10 and 20 cigarettes a day, you can find him in the smoking section any time, Monday through Thursday.
Black Sexy is just one of the many personalities frequenting the smoking section on Pearl & 17th St., the largest and most populated smoking zone around the SMC campuses.
On any day of the week, you can find members of the erratic, extroverted cast of regulars the section has attracted.
From musicians and writers to lab assistants and veterans, the variety of person is endless. International princes roll up to the parking meters in custom sports cars surrounded by their posses, while perched atop the concrete sign reading ‘SAN A MONIC COLLEGE,’ a group of young slackers sunbathe between classes. The one thing linking these people together are the cigarettes dangling between their lips.
Pearl & 17th is more than just a place to light up quickly before class. Constantly bustling, noisy and packed, the smoking section is claimed by many to be the top place to make friends on campus.
"There are hot girls and a lot of people,” Giwa says. “A lot of bad bitches. I mean, there are just a lot of people you can meet, a lot of people from SMC here. People going to the Math department, people just chillin’, smokin'. You get to know them, get to know where they’re from.”
Daniel Rubenstein is the perfect example of one of these gold card carrying members of the smoking club. He began attending SMC in the Winter 2016 semester, and his social life is flourishing now in the busier Spring semester.
The filling of campus in the spring coincided with the emergence of the ‘Damn, Daniel’ meme and every time Daniel approaches the smoking section, at least one person is bound to shout those words his way.
“I’ve been here since day one, baby,” Rubenstein says. “The first two weeks of school I used to always smoke cigarettes here. I would see this squad and everyone looked like they were so friendly and happy and I always wanted to be part of it. One day I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna go introduce myself.’ I went to the squad and I started saying, ‘Hi, I’m Daniel Rubenstein, nice to meet you. Hi, I’m Daniel Rubenstein, nice to meet you,’ and they just inducted me in and now I’m a squad member.”
Now, Rubenstein appears to be a king in the smoking section: always sharply dressed, fabulously perched atop his concrete throne and surrounded by a court of cigarette-carrying cronies. But he wasn’t always the big social butterfly here.
“Life before the squad was lonely,” Rubenstein says. “Well, it wasn’t lonely, because I had friends from class. But I guess I didn’t have as much fun. The second my class was over, I would just go home. Now, sometimes I sit here and chill for hours even though I have no classes.”
Rubenstein says the growth of friends is a gradual, constant process.
“One day you meet one person, the next day you meet three people, the next day you meet four,” Rubenstein says. “[Everyone’s] here at different hours so there’s a lot of people that cycle through here and meeting all of them doesn’t take just one day. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say, and neither is making friends in the smoking section. Every day I try to go over to one person I haven’t met yet and introduce myself.”
On this day in particular, the SMC Police Department is out in full force. Or maybe they have nothing more urgent to tend to. One of the baby-faced officers is making his rounds, saying the words no smoker wants to hear.
“No smoking on campus,” the cop booms, herding the students off the cement benches and onto the sidewalk.
Several groups break off and reform anew on the street to complain. A few brave students yell at the cop in protest, but it's no use.
Some don’t understand where the smoking section actually starts and ends. Santa Monica College is officially a smoke-free campus, and under Santa Monica Municipal Code 4.44.020 Section A Number 8, smoking is prohibited within 20 feet of any entrances or windows of public buildings. Smoking is technically only allowed on the sidewalk and not a step closer to campus, even if there are other kids pushing the limit by going beyond where smoking is permitted.
When asked about the consequences of smoking on campus, officer Summer Samano says, “They’d be sent to the Dean of Discipline and she talks to them and basically states the rules because technically, it’s in the policy manual.”
Soon after the cop leaves, students filter back into their original positions. This endless cycle of moving and being moved continues ritualistically throughout the day.
SMC’s smoking culture is a unique pocket within Santa Monica’s norm. With all of the city codes preventing students from getting their nicotine fix, it’s a surprise that the smoking section is still as populated as it is.
“I’ve sort of evolved into a social smoker,” Rubenstein says. “I smoke a lot more when I’m in the smoking section because everyone’s smoking. I’m not going to deny that. But it’s my choice. It’s not like I’m being peer pressured into anything. I think we’re beyond that. It’s not high school anymore, guys.”
Though this sort of social smoking may lead to an increase in consumption, some of the regulars — like student Willow Sando-Mccall — don’t smoke at all.
"I don’t smoke, but all my friends are here,” Sando-Mccall says. “I’ve definitely thought about picking up smoking. I feel like it’s such an easy way to meet someone too. It’s like, ‘Hey, can I get a cigarette?’ and they’re like, ‘Yeah,’ and then you can start talking to them. But I don’t."
Smoker or not, everyone agrees that giving out cigarettes is the way to make friends here.
“When I'm trying to talk to a girl, even if I have a pack I’ll be like, ‘Hey sorry can I get a cigarette from you?’ And that’s how you start the conversation,” Giwa says. “It’s a great icebreaker."
This process is visible from a mile away. A student scans the crowd, then stumbles over to the most approachable looking smoker. They exchange words. The smoker hands the newcomer a cigarette, and the two begin to converse.
“That’s how I made most of my friends: giving out a lot of cigarettes,” Rubenstein says. “And once you do that, [everyone] is very friendly.”
Talking to anyone in the section for more than five minutes, it’s easy to understand that this practice of give and take is a shared principle within the group.
“I give out sometimes a full pack a day, yes,” Rubenstein says. “Sometimes I’ll have two packs a day, if I give out a lot. Usually I only have one, and I’ll give out 12 and smoke eight and then get some from other people. Everyone just shares and gives and it’s good karma. What goes around comes around. Cigarette karma.“
‘Cigarette karma’ is the idea that whether or not you decide to give out cigarettes will determine your luck to "bum a smoke" in the future.
“I understand what it’s like to need a cigarette,” Rubenstein says. “I understand what it’s like to smoke even if you’re not an addicted smoker, because everyone’s smoking. I understand that desire. I know what it’s like so I always give. The golden rule is 'Do unto others as you want done to yourself,’ and I would love it when people gave me a cigarette when I needed one, so I give to everyone.”
“I bum off a lot of cigarettes and nobody’s ever said no except for one person which is pretty surprising,” student Sam Olguin says. “People are pretty generous. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a girl and I only ask guys, but I feel like people here are very generous with cigarettes usually.”
So, is there anywhere else to make friends on campus?
“No. Not really, no. Like honestly, no,” Sando-McCall says.
“Not even in classes,” she continues. “People in classes aren’t friendly. Everyone’s sitting and trying to do their own thing, and in the smoking section everyone has the same type of personality almost. You can at least find one thing in common with everyone in the smoking section — cigarettes.”
“I have tried sitting in front of the Starbucks but nah,” Giwa says. “It’s not as fun. There’s no one smoking and you can’t talk to people. There’s no ice breaker. You can’t be like, ‘Hey girl! Lemme get a cigarette.’"
In a campus so seemingly disconnected, the smoking section has unexpectedly put the community in community college.
“Two smokers have a connection,” Rubenstein says. “The addiction that they share is a connection of itself. I feel like people feel comfortable here. Here, I feel in my element. This is my space to thrive.”