July 22, 2011
The other day a guy asked me for a light. For anyone born after 1990, the expression "Do you have a light?" is what smokers ask each other when one of them wants to smoke but has no way to light their cigarette. It’s not an expression you hear very much anymore. It used to be fairly common, even though in the old days most people never went anywhere without a lighter, matches, a butane torch, a flame thrower, an arc welder, or some other form of combustion. You know that plug in your car you can use to charge your cell phone or power an MP3 player, laptop computer, popcorn maker, dishwasher, or flame thrower? In older cars that was a cigarette lighter. You would push it in and about a minute later it would pop out and there would be a glowing red burner inside that you could use to light your cigarette. Now it may seem like a bad idea to hold a red hot piece of metal close to your lips while barreling down the highway, but I doubt it was any more dangerous than driving while holding a phone in one hand and drying dishes with the other.
Anyway, I told the guy I didn’t have a light and he said, "No, I didn’t think you would. You don’t look like a smoker." That got me thinking. What does a smoker look like? As they age most smokers start to have faces that look like aerial photographs of the South Dakota Badlands, but I don’t think that’s what he meant. I think he meant I wasn’t wearing a backwards baseball cap, a sleeveless t-shirt, and jeans that had a huge hole in the butt where there used to be a pocket, and that I didn’t have a barbed wire tattoo around my left bicep. Not that all smokers look like this. Actually I know a few people who still smoke, and it’s not like you could put them in a lineup with non-smokers and spot them. The few remaining smokers I know look pretty much like everybody else. It’s probably the one thing about smoking that hasn’t changed. In the old days smokers looked like everybody else. Smoking was hip and cool. Supposedly it was relaxing, which is why, during the Apollo missions, all the guys who worked in the control room were legally required to smoke. And they had a button on their panels that dispensed vodka and tonic, but that’s another story.
If you were a guy on a date it was considered romantic to put two cigarettes in your mouth at the same time and light your date’s cigarette, although it was also considered creepy to put three cigarettes in your mouth at the same time. But put a hundred and sixty cigarettes in your mouth at the same time and you’ll set a world record. Everybody used to smoke from the age of nine because they’d get caught smoking half a butt stolen from an ashtray by their parents and would be put in the closet and forced to smoke an entire carton of cigarettes, thus establishing a lifelong addiction. I think this "punishment" was devised by the tobacco companies because they knew that kids weren’t going to start smoking on their own, even with the help of happy cartoon characters and cigarette vending machines that were conveniently placed next to candy vending machines. And let’s not forget candy cigarettes, made from sugar-coated chalk. I’ve heard they still make those, which surprised me. I thought they would have gone out with smoking sections in restaurants. Remember those? Now restaurants don’t allow smoking at all, but bars still do. I resent the implication that as a first-hand drinker I don’t care if I’m subjected to second-hand smoke. Admittedly I do have some sympathy for smokers. At least I have more sympathy for smokers than I do for people who chew tobacco. It’s not just that they stick a big wad of gooey black leaves in between their gums and their cheeks, or that they spit brown liquid into Coke cans that they then set down among other peoples’ regular cans of Coke. It’s that I knew guys in high school who chewed tobacco in class. And before class they would always come up to me with a bulge the size of the geography’s class’s globe protruding from their lower jaw and they’d say to me, "Chriph, can oo tell I’ve got a dip in?" And I would have to lie and say no. I didn’t want to lie, I didn’t want them to get caught, but I knew that with someone that stupid the truth would only confuse and outrage them.
Okay, I admit I also used to be a smoker. Except I was more of a social smoker. It was in college and I hung around with a lot of theater people. Not that I’m blaming peer pressure. I smoked knowing full well that if I said "No thanks" to the guy who offered me a cigarette he’d still ask me to help him rehearse a scene from True West and I’d still get to pretend to be John Malkovich. And I knew the dangers. In school I’d had teachers who told us again and again how bad smoking was. Then they’d pop out for a few quick puffs in the teachers’ lounge, leaving us to look at a picture of a smoker’s lung, which was black and crusty and shriveled and belonged to a guy who’d died an early death from lung cancer, next to a picture of a non-smoker’s lung which was pink and plump and belonged to a guy who’d died an early death from having his lung ripped out. And I’d read the warnings on the packs. Cigarettes are the only products I know that openly admit that the refreshment they provide greatly increases your chance of an early death. And now they’re putting pictures of corpses on packs of cigarettes. I’m not sure how that will work, especially since all the kids I knew in high school who smoked were also the ones who owned bootleg copies of Faces Of Death III. I suppose quitting was also easy for me because I never really liked smoking cigarettes. They made me lightheaded and made my chest hurt. I preferred cigars. The difference between cigars and cigarettes is you don’t actually inhale cigar smoke into your lungs the way you do cigarette smoke. You just take the smoke into your mouth and swish it around like a fine Chablis or the juice from chewing tobacco before you blow it out. This doesn’t mean cigars are safer than cigarettes. You’re just as likely to get lung cancer from cigars, or you can get more exotic forms, like adenoid cancer or tongue cancer. Freud, who smoked twenty cigars a day, got bone cancer in his jaw and at the end of his life had to wear a prosthetic jaw. It’s enough to make you wonder why anyone starts smoking in the first place, although a friend did once give me a Cuban cigar, and I discovered the reason there’s an embargo on Cuban cigars has nothing to do with Castro’s economic policies. It’s because the damn things are dangerous. As I was swishing the smoke in my mouth I found myself thinking, "You know, a prosthetic jaw would be an interesting conversation piece. Assuming I could still talk." Fortunately my senses cleared once I got out into the open air, which may be why the one thing all the smokers I know do have in common is that they’re all trying to quit. Or they’ve tried to quit. Or they’re planning to try to quit at some time in the future, presumably before they die. People used to start smoking because of peer pressure. Now I think smokers are quitting because of peer pressure. And also the rising cost of cigarettes. And the inconvenience. As the number of smokers declines they’re being pushed farther and farther away. Office buildings which once had smoking lounges were making smokers go to the parking garage, but they were polluting all the car exhaust so now the smokers have to go and stand behind the dumpster. Or in the vacant lot across the street. For a while airports had glass lounges where all the smokers were put on display like a zoo exhibit. Once, while walking through the Atlanta airport, I passed a Burmese python in a glass case, then lounge full of smokers, and then an even more endangered species-the shoe-shine man, but that’s another story. Now if you’re in an airport and you want to smoke you have to stand out on the runway. And it’s actually a glorious time to be a quitter, because smokers who want to quit have so many options: patches, gum, hypnosis, shock therapy, cold turkey, hot chocolate. I know two people who quit smoking because they started coughing up blood every morning. In spite of all that I still have sympathy for smokers. I can understand the appeal, and why, for many, it’s so hard to quit. Sometimes I think I might enjoy having a cigar again, even though, for the price of one, I could have something that was not only equally satisfying but also healthier, like a basket of deep-fried Oreos.