Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Where there's smoke...

So, this past week, I was thrilled to read David Sedaris' editorial all about the perils and wonders of smoking. I was laughing out loud with every sentence he wrote. And it put me in my own contemplative mood about smoking and the role it's taken in my life.

Every once in awhile, usually as the recent news announces another country introducing the smoking ban, someone asks me if I was ever a smoker. I usually answer 'nope'. But that doesn't account for the number of times I tried to be. I am not not a smoker because of health reasons or good manners or the lack of smokers around me in life. No, not at all. I am not a smoker because, as much as I love cigs, the darn things don't like me back. Not one little bit. Not even for a temporary toke. It's as if cigarettes decided they wouldn't hang out with me. Not the other way around.

It wasn't that I grew up craving them or determined to smoke the first pack I could get my hands on. In fact, I suppose I could have tried smoking as a young kid. For years, my mom had a pack she kept hidden in the freezer. It was tucked waaaay in the back, under some iced-over thing in a baggie that surely none of us kids would get into. I can barely remember what she looked like, smoking, it was so infrequent and really only in "emergencies" like a big 4th of July party at our house, or my godparents were visiting. I do remember thinking it was cool, even then, for my mom to have something that was sort of a secret. But a secret out in the open. Not to mention, I thought it made her look cool beyond belief. Besides, those were the days when everyone smoked anywhere. Even a number of years later, I took a flight from Portugal to England and was asked if I'd like the smoking or non-smoking section. I chose non-smoking because I thought, 'why take up a seat from someone who really needs to light up?' Turns out, the non-smoking section were rows 1-20 and the smoking section started at row 21. So, while I technically could not light up my own cigarette (which I didn't have anyway*) I could gladly 'smoke' my fellow passengers generous fumes. But, I wasn't upset, I really liked the smell.
*{Another thing I never did was buy my 'own pack'. I did it for others, gladly: I'd take their five-bucks --or, in the good ole days, their quarter, to buy just one!-- and march into the corner store and say, real cool-like, 'yeah. hey, can i get a pack of american spirit/salem/marlboros?'}

I had that same feeling when my sister started smoking. 'How cool is that,' I thought. My big sister, with the cool dyed hair, living in New York City, in love, living in a wacky apartment, of course she smokes! That's what really fabulous people do! It's not a dirty habit, it's a way of life. Case in point: smoke breaks (you don't get to 'break' from your job every fifteen minutes with any other vice, do you? but smoking, it's acceptable, it's intense, everyone recognizes that, you get taken more seriously, it requires focus--you can be in a rush to get somewhere and frantic and decide to make a full stop to light your cigarette before you take one more step! and it's forgiven!)

I would talk on the phone with my sister and hear the lighter snap and then the intake of her breath in between answering all the questions I had about her exciting life. And even though I knew, I always asked, coyly, "are you smoking?" Like my mother, she was a very specific smoker, very civilized. Never before 5 o' clock and never without a glass of wine.

When I, too, finally got old enough to leave home and lead an exciting life, I moved to the UK and one of my best friends was a huge smoker! And he hated smoking alone. So, I jumped in whenever he needed me...and always felt desperately sick afterwards. Eventually he just let me hold a lit cigarette, waving it around as if it were my talking stick, while we had a pint and he smoked wildly.

Many years later, still a non-smoker, on a visit home one summer, my sister and I sat on the deck to talk about life into the night. She lit up a smoke and I said, "oh heck, give me one of those!" And we lit up one cigarette after another until we both noticed I wasn't making a lot of sense any more. I stood up and thought I wouldn't be able to walk straight. When I did finally get inside, I told my mom I didn't feel very good and she took one look at me and said, "You're GREEN!" I was. I'd done it to myself (maybe even subconsciously?); smoked enough cigarettes in one sitting to never long for another cigarette in my life.**

**Times have changed! Now, no one in my family smokes and I think I only have one friend that is still buying his own packs.

***I must make a disclaimer here, if there are any young, impressionable people (kids) out there reading this: I'm
not pushing you to smoke. I am aware of all the dangers and the terrible things smoking does to you, of course, but that's never reduced the fact that I still look on it, longingly, as something more than a habit. Smokers tell me I'm crazy and that I'm just having a classic case of wanting something you can't have. Could be true.

****again, great thanks to this fabulous vintage photo site for the photos.


Ellen said...

I smoked from 16 to 25. Now I do it 2-3 times a year: New Year's Eve, 4th of July, all those boozy holidays. And while it doesn't make me sick, I DO get dizzy. Whenever I'm in a bar, I crave the wave.

Ellen said...

Love those photos! and that crazy tinsel-overload tree from the 50's. I smoked for about 3 yrs, because my college roomates did and they LOOKED like they enjoyed it so much. That was a while back and now I'm just like you, one puff and I want to barf.

slh said...

Dude...the nostalgia, the romance, the rebel yell are all fabulous, but the realities of being a real smoker are totally ugly. For those of you who can escape the addiction, I'm thoroughly jealous. But as someone who has smoked two packs a day and spent decades consumed with where my smokes are. I assure anyone out there thinking of smoking, how unglamorous that first smoke is at 6:30 am, as you cough up all that remains from yet another late night drinking and smoking.

Now none of this is to say that I'm a fan of banning people's rights to smoke. Frankly I'm not at all concerned with the effects of some second hand smoke while I'm out at a bar. This romantic view of smoking is what gets all us smoking in the first place. And seeing as its taken me years to not smoke and I'm always on the edge of starting again, I feel a counter view is required. xoxo

Kate said...

ah, I feel you. I have NEVER been into smoking. I can't even do it in a social sense like many of my friends seem to be able to do. They do nothing for me and I've never been able to finish a single one.
I've never met so many damn smokers before moving to NY too! When we have people over, every person will get up to smoke on the fire escape and there I am, sitting alone on the couch, the only non smoker.
But I'm not complaining, I guess we're just lucky:)