Smoked Out! Ban on Cigs in Parks Begins, But Will City Brass Actually Bust Butts?

AT OTHER PARKS, things get a little trickier. It may be a while before, say, Columbus Park in deep Chinatown sees any sort of crackdown–The Observer‘s walk-through found excitable clusters of Chinese men chattering loudly over games of blackjack, cigarettes smoldering in their mouths, blue-gray smoke clouds hovering over the proceedings.

To the north, Union Square Park–maligned of late for a general collapse of standards–actually had its act together. Officer Ishwar Armogar posted up in one of the park’s shadier corners and cherry-picked lit cigs from among the crowd as the scofflaws approached. This was last Friday, and by his estimate, he had nabbed 50 such offenders already.

“I just came to this park a few days ago,” he explained to The Observer, after politely asking a woman to dispose of her smoke (51!). “Everyone’s been responsive. Some people say it’s O.K. in their country. Or the only thing you might find are kids who ask, ‘Why, why!?’ Skateboarders, homeless people. They challenge why we’re taking away their freedoms.”

A shift was evident at Bryant Park as well.

“We tell people to put out their cigarettes, and that there’s no smoking in the park,” said Ranger Singhnani Raj. Soon after, The Observer led him over to a woman dragging on a thin cigarette, a Virginia Slim perhaps.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the young woman said, genuinely surprised. Then, a look of horror crossed her face, and she pleaded, “You mean we can’t smoke on the streets, either?”

“The streets are fine,” Mr. Raj assured her.

As a peace offering, he handed her a small leaflet. “Smell Flowers Not Smoke,” it read. “Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed the law early in 2011 to limit exposure to secondhand smoke, improve air quality, and reduce litter.” Chastened, the woman stuffed the paper into her handbag.

Back in Central Park, we wondered where the most egregious of places in the park to smoke would be–the place an officer would be most likely to approach us, furious, ready to issue the city’s first-ever outdoor smoking ticket.

We tried a picturesque bridge, with tree branches bobbing low over its railings–the sort of place people propose marriage. The Observer engaged a lighter to the end of a fresh smoke and inhaled, making eye contact with each passerby. They said nothing. We raised the stakes. We entered the packed Central Park playground, where droves of children were at play. We dug into that near-empty pack of Marlboros, pulled one out and lit up as pint-size boys and girls scrambled about, not a single one noticing us.

We thought of one perch that would be sufficiently conspicuous and headed to the far side of the playground, to the castle, with its high turrets, guard towers for imaginary kingdoms. We climbed up. Dragging on the cigarette all the way, we had soon taken the peak for ourselves. There we stood smoking, alone, neither parent nor inquisitive child daring to question why we had chosen such a spot for a cigarette. A little girl, not 5 years old, came to join us atop that corner of the edifice, beads woven into her hair, sneakers smaller than our stained fingers. She too ignored us. We stomped out the smoke and left, citation free.

nfreeman@observer.com