Dear Ms. Demeanor,
We live in a Carroll Gardens brownstone occupying the first floor. Our downstairs neighbors who occupy the garden apartment are a very nice couple with a 7-year-old daughter. Our issue is that the they are chain smokers on par with movie stars of the 40’s and 50’s (think Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart). They are NEVER without a cigarette and their incessant backyard smoking (they don’t seem to smoke IN the apartment, perhaps due to their young daughter) is preventing us from being able to leave our back windows open.
At times, we have forgotten to shut the windows before we leave the apartment and come home to an apartment that reeks like a dirty ashtray. Is there any way at all to address this issue politely without alienating our neighbors? Other than their nicotine addictions, we do like them quite a bit and it is a small building so we do need to be on good terms with our neighbors.
Yours Truly, Fresh Air Fanatics
Dear Fresh Air Fanatics,
Ms. Demeanor is not only your friendly neighborhood etiquette columnist; I am also a mother, a childhood asthmatic, and was - in another lifetime and another city far, far away - a doctor. Smoking is Public Enemy Number One as far as I am concerned (Throw your rotten tomatoes, smokers, you won't be able to throw them far enough to hit me). It should be made more widely known to parents who smoke that having someone in the house who smokes--note that this does not say someone who smokes in the house--puts a child at significant risk for asthma, ear infections, and a host of other related illnesses.
And as anyone who knows a smoker knows, the stench and poison cling to clothing, hands, breath... Your neighbor's feeble attempt to keep the smoke out of their home is doing NOTHING to protect their child and much to endanger and offend you.
Obviously, start with a polite but firmly-worded letter to your neighbors. Acknowledge that you appreciate their efforts to keep the smoke out of their home and away from their child and let them know how much you do care for them and enjoy being their neighbor. Ask them if they would like to work together to solve the problem.
If things do not improve within 2 or 3 weeks time, a second letter copying the managing agent is appropriate. If this does not appear to help the problem, you might consider consulting a mediator, such as the non-profit Safe Horizon Mediation Services, which offers services in Manhattan and Brooklyn at no charge.
Hopefully, your neighbors will finally realize that smoking is simply more trouble than it is worth, even if the health effects are not a compelling enough reason to quit. Please be aware, however, that nicotine is more addictive than cocaine--seriously--so quitting is no small feat. However, there are wonderful programs in place at the city and state level, as well as excellent pharamacologic aids available.
Good luck and, hopefully, good riddance to fouled air,
Ms. Demeanor is channeled by a longtime Manhattan vertical dweller and real-estate voyeur who writes under the pen name Jamie Lauren Sutton. She is here to commiserate, calm and correct. Please email your quandaries to firstname.lastname@example.org and put "Dear Ms. Demeanor" in the subject line.