Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Life In Smokes

I suffered occasional bouts of insomnia throughout my late teens. Most nights I’d just stay in bed and try to ride it out; sometimes, though, the walls would start closing in and I’d go walkabout. In summertime, I’d slip out the back door to the pool, and swim. In colder weather I’d shrug on a jacket and prowl around the neighborhood, smoking a cigarette filched from the pack that my mother kept in a kitchen drawer. Soft pack, blue on blue; a cheap Bic lighter; a couple of blocks under my feet in the pre-dawn cold and the dark; a finger of my father’s blended Scotch, then an hour or two of shut-eye on the living room couch, crawling back to my own bed when the sun began to filter through the picture window.

Red box; my brother Dan’s brand. My first two years of college, we rode together, me a new-minted freshman, him returning to school after a long interruption. We ate together, played music together, even worked together, bombing around in that piss-yellow Pinto with the wonky stick-shift, radio at top volume, heaters glowing; I took up the habit more or less in self-defense.

We never went to church when we lived in Ithaca, but we had our Sunday ritual nonetheless. We’d walk downtown to this newsagent-slash-tobacconist’s shop. We’d smell the specialty coffees and browse through the magazines, foreign and domestic; sometimes I’d pick up the NME, or The Face (which was serializing Gaiman & McKean’s Signal To Noise at the time). Then we’d get the Sunday New York Times and head around the corner to this café that made these amazing cinnamon rolls, as big as your face. We’d split one of those and linger over the paper.

And if I had the scratch (which I seldom did), I’d buy twenty Dunhill, in their flat red box, and some Swan vestas. I only smoked when we drank, and we didn’t see the point of drinking at home. Cheap domestic lager and expensive imported cigarettes; in the struggle for sophistication, you’ve got to pick your battles.

Marlboro Lights
I think the reason that Kid Nicotine never got his hooks into me for good is that I never smoked simply for the sake of smoking. There was always an ulterior motive: I smoked for effect; I smoked to keep my hands busy; I smoked to give me an excuse to go outside.

In my nine years on the fringes of academia, I did whatever I could to stay out of my office. I shirked and wandered, gossiping, visiting, drifting from floor to floor and building to building. And I smoked—on the benches, on the steps, on the patio by the big AC units. I bought gold-and-white hardpacks in the bookstore, and kept ‘em in my desk. I would only carry four or five on my person at a time, stashed in an old Altoids tin that still carried ghostly traces of peppermint.

Black & Mild Cigarillos
Performative smoking. I favored these during my brief tenure as bass player for We Saw The Wolf, as part of the gunfighter persona I was affecting. Cheroots and a wooden match: I reckoned myself Clint Fucking Eastwood, but in the end, a hired gun was all I was. I’d grown tired of biting off the plastic pipestem tips, anyway.

Smoking can be a useful networking skill. That’s why I kept it up far longer than I should have; it was a way to hang with the kool kidz—conspiring with co-workers on butt breaks, picking up the skinny in brumious bathrooms and lounges.

The last time I remember buying a deck of gaspers was at the Small Press Expo in Montréal; Oscar and I had come up to shill for Wu Wei, and there were a bunch of us up late in the hotel bar; Matt Feazell, Sim, Gerhard, Sean Bieri, and about a million other people phasing in and out. Paul Pope was there, briefly; but what I remember most was losing at pool to Bieri’s wife, one eye distracted by the wall-sized screen showing MuchMusic, and trying to shake off a no-hope fanboy headcase who’d attached himself to me, lamprey-like, and was spelling out in excruciating detail the first fifty issues of the comics series he said he was gonna write.

I got away from him by making a run for roscoes, and came away from the hotel gift shop with twenty John Player Specials. They were shockingly expensive, and tasted foul; and the pack was nothing like Domino’s description in Fleming’s Thunderball. I smoked two, then threw the rest of the pack away.

And that was the end of it.

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