It is commonly known that bad smells have the ability to ruin a person’s mood. What may be less known is that a continuous foul odor may have the ability to destroy a person’s sense of empathy.

At least it is so in my case. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how the new chain-smoker living in the apartment below mine has dropped my voice several octaves and knocked out my nasal passages.

The problem is seepage, the technical term for the passage of smoke from one apartment to another.

How bad can it be, you wonder? Think yellow smoke, the yellow fog of T.S. Eliot‘s Prufock. It rubs its muzzle across my floors, licks its tongue into my closets, and lingers.

On Saturday morning, I had my first extended conversation with the smoke generator. I was in the basement fixing a flat tire on my bicycle when he came down carrying a load of wash.

After asking me if I wanted to borrow his air compressor, he kept talking (about what I can’t remember) until we started on his medical history.

In my previous post, I suggested that maybe I could wait out this fella’s death from emphysema. I was slightly off. The lungs, it seems, are serviceable. The pipes, however, are corroded.

As I pumped up my tire, the smoker told me he has terminal cancer of the colon and rectum.

I stood pumping air into my tire. What do you say to that?

“Really?” I asked.

Standing at the washing machine, he yanked up his yellowed white t-shirt and showed a distended watermelon of a belly hanging below a sunken chest. I’m not sure what I was meant to see; there were no scars, but something was clearly amiss.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.

Soon, he shut the top of the washing machine and walked back upstairs. For the rest of the day I considered the power of addiction and wondered how the man could smoke himself to death.

But what I was really thinking was this: How long will it take?

More from WCP