CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It’s Sunday morning in midtown Charlotte, and the Little Sugar Creek Greenway is filling up. Runners run, bikers bike. In a grassy stretch along Kings Drive, an outdoor yoga class planks and downward dogs.
“Make friends with your neighbors,” a greenway sign beckons.
Ten minutes down the trail, however, that message becomes a trickier task.
Here, under a small bridge near the main entrance to Carolinas Medical Center, smokers smoke. A lot.
For about 20 paces of shade beneath Medical Center Drive, Charlotte’s health-conscious and not-so-muches squeeze into the same county-owned space. Neither is particularly happy with the arrangement.
“Generally, I hold my breath when I come through there,” says Collette Nagy, a Charlotte writer who biked under the bridge late Sunday morning, her dog Pepper riding in a knapsack on her back.
“But I feel sorry for them. I wish they’d get unhooked. I don’t think verbal abuse will help.”
The smokers gather on the greenway due to a policy by CMC, which towers over Little Sugar Creek as it trickles toward Freedom Park. Smoking is banned everywhere on the sprawling hospital campus. Workers can’t smoke in their cars. Hospital visitors must leave the property to light up.
“We’re a health care provider,” says Kevin McCarthy, CMC’s manager of media relations. “We do not encourage patently unhealthy activity.”
So the smokers gather along the creek throughout the day and well into the night. The hospital posts a “smoke patrol” to make sure they stay under the bridge while they puff.
“Trolls of the 21st century,” says one of them, Kendrick Archie of Charlotte, as he pulls on his Pall Mall.
The faces in the shade change quickly. One cigarette, maybe two, a little visiting with the other smokers, then it’s back up a walkway to the hospital waiting rooms and bedside chairs.
Cigarette butts and discarded packs mark the passage. CMC sends clean-up crews throughout the day, says Anthony Jennings, who was policing the area Sunday morning.
Smokers have devised their own ashtray, dumping the cigarette butts in a trough where the concrete slope beneath the bridge meets the border of the greenway. But that accounts for only part of the refuse.
“Where are the butts going? They’re going in the water,” says Donnie Beatty of Charlotte, who believes another area should be set aside for him and other smokers.
“You don’t have to worry about beavers building dams. You’ve got cigarette butts.”
At times, there’s very little room for all the humanity to squeeze through. Around noon, about 10 smokers and their children were sitting or standing around the bridge, as a surge of greenway users – many with their children – dodged and weaved around them. There were near collisions and some frowns. Even in the open air, the smoke under the bridge can be thick.
Mecklenburg Parks and Recreation Director Jim Harges says the county is considering a smoking ban for all its parks and greenways, including Little Sugar Creek. The bridge, and its occasional gauntlet of smokers, is a reason why.
“We try to have as many of our places where people can have a healthy experience,” Harges says. “If you run or bike through a cloud of smoke, it’s not a good thing.”
What makes this more than a saga of good lungs vs. bad are some of the stories of the smokers themselves.
Sheila Miller, still in her hospital patient togs as she toked upstream of the bridge, said she spent Saturday night at the hospital after being beaten up.
Michelle Girvin of Fort Lawn, S.C., looked exhausted after catching a few hours of sleep each night in her father’s hospital room. She sat alone under the bridge and said she doesn’t feel safe coming there in the dark for her final smoke of the day.
Eric Furr of Mount Pleasant, S.C., has been in Charlotte for weeks with his wife, whom he says was airlifted to CMC after a car accident and is not doing well. He estimates he makes five trips to the bridge each day.
On Sunday, looking drawn and tired, he came twice in an hour.
“It’s not ideal,” says Tressy McLean-Hickey, a Charlotte social worker who walked by Furr and the others while pushing a stroller carrying her 9-month-old son, Wyatt.
“You can see the looks on their faces and know that they’re not going through the best of times.”
Marion Lockley of Laurinburg and his family were at CMC to visit his injured brother. He and wife Shelly sat under the bridge and smoked as his two kids danced between them and the creek. Smoke swirled around them. Two mallards paddled close by. Bikes and strollers and pounding feet entered the shade then disappeared into the sunlight pushing against both sides of the bridge.
“I’m not one of those people who’s going to smoke in somebody’s face,” he says. “But I don’t like to be in this situation because you’ve got all these folks, running and biking through here.
“This is a very strange place to smoke.”