One afternoon, during midterms and before the holidays, I walked outside to the entrance of Lockhart for a cigarette.
I like to smoke on the wheelchair access ramp because, if you stand in the right spot, you can see at least four different signs, all of which read: “THE UNIVERSITY OF WINNIPEG – A SMOKE FREE ENVIRONMENT,” and one which reads, “SMOKE FREE CAMPUS STARTING APRIL 2, 2007.” It always makes me chuckle.
Anyway, when I stepped outside, I saw a man standing on the wheelchair ramp, blocking my path to that smoking sweet spot. He was wearing a dark hoodie, with shopping bags and old Pepsi cans stuffed into the front pouch.
He looked the way I imagine Ahab, the mad sea captain from Moby Dick, would – wild dark hair and large blue eyes and an expression which said to me, “I’d like to stab you with a bottle.” In short, he looked bat-shit crazy.
“How’s it going?” I said. No response. Captain Ahab just kept staring at me, never blinking. I shrugged, stepped around him and stood a few feet away. We smoked in silence for a while.
A minute later, two guys walked out of the university and passed us down the stairs. They spoke quickly and excitedly, and their conversation went like this:
“No, seriously, you can actually feel the prostate! You just wiggle your finger up there (he illustrates this with his fingers) and push on it a little.”
“What’s that feel like?”
“Well, I mean, I only got to do it that one time, but…”
Seconds later, a trio of girls, two of them blonde and one a brunette, came bursting through the doors giggling.
“ ... I was seriously soooo drunk, you guys. I threw up in his car,” one said.
“What?! Ewwww!” her friends said, still laughing.
“Seriously. And I tried to roll down the window, but…”
The three disappeared around the corner, but we could hear them all laughing. Captain Ahab coughed quietly.
A few minutes later, a pair of Campus Security came through the door, escorting a man in a tan coat who was mumbling something about “cheeseburgers and gravy.” Security walked him to the edge of the stairs and watched as he walked west up Ellice Avenue.
When he had made it across Spence Street, they turned around and saw Ahab, standing quietly on the wheelchair ramp.
“You can’t smoke here, bud,” one said. “You have to leave.”
Calmly, Ahab raised his hand and pointed at me. “That guy’s smokin’.”
The security guard turned to me. “Sir, you can’t smoke here. You’ll have to move.”
I butted out the cigarette, tossed it in the trash and walked back inside. The security guards were now standing on either side of Captain Ahab; he did not want to move.
Now, I’m going to hazard a guess that Ahab never got a chance to attend university. But in seven minutes, hanging around the back entrance of one, here is what he learned: university is a place where wealthy young people go and pay for the privilege of sitting at desks, bragging about their drunken mistakes, smoking in no-smoking zones and discussing the finer points of invasive rectal examination.
And these young people pay other people to make sure he doesn’t hang around.
If Ahab wasn’t crazy when I first saw him, I think he ought to be now.
Rob Holt is a third-year student at the University of Winnipeg. According to the signs outside, he hasn’t had a cigarette in over three years.
Published in Volume 65, Number 15 of The Uniter (January 13, 2011)