I joined a pub-poker league over a decade and a half ago, and found the challenge and thrill of the game quite satisfying. Through countless hours of play, I developed some pretty solid poker skills and will likely keep this as a favorite activity for life. For the first couple of years, I played practically every night in my efforts to master the game.
It was a few years before my home state of North Carolina, also the home of Big Tobacco, passed laws banning smoking indoors in most public places. I was pleasantly surprised when that happened.
I used to come home from work, grab a quick disco nap, then figure out what I wanted to wear out into the tobacco-fog of the poker game. Nevermind that the outfit would only be worn for a few hours, the smoke guaranteed that it would go directly into the washing machine as soon as I returned home. I carried a little hand-held electric fan to keep the worst of the billowing fumes at bay.
That same smoke added atmosphere to great Hollywood films. I think of the way the light filters through the smoky veil in films like Casablanca and Citizen Kane. What war film is complete without brothers in arms lighting up before or just after a big battle? Ah, the glamor of Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Yul Brenner and John Wayne . . . oh and did I mention cancer?
Cigarettes claimed all four of my grandparents either directly (emphysema, heart disease, esophageal cancer) or indirectly (second-hand exposure at home & work) as well as the lion’s share of my ancestors in the generation just before them. I won’t go into detail describing my grandfather’s final days gasping for air; folks reading this essay are worldly enough to have experienced similar sad endings with direct ties to smoking.
When I was in the 5th Grade, some folks from the American Lung Association came to our school to give a presentation. Two things I learned are as clear to me now as that day when I was 10 years old. One tiny vial contained, “. . . pure nicotine”, so the lady said, “a drop of this on your tongue and you’d be dead before you get home.” Then there were the big jars . . . one contained the pink lung of a non-smoker, the other the shriveled and tar-blackened swiss-cheese remains of a lifetime smokers’. The jars didn’t really need much more explanation.
At the time, my dad still smoked cigarettes. I came home and told him what I’d learned in school. I asked him why he smoked and he couldn’t really give me a good reason. It was then that I, in my 10-year-old draconian fashion, told him that I would no longer speak to him unless he quit. He did and never returned to the habit. It’s one of the many reasons I respect him despite some rather fundamental disagreements about other things.
And yet with all this very personal history and animosity I have for smoking . . . even still . . . I can see the allure. It’s a shame that smoking is so harmful and invasive. It provided magnificent “hand business” for folks and oh what wonderful accessories these folks required: silver cases, sleek lighters, long cigarette holders, and multitudes of ashtrays in every shape and size. Smoking provided a perfectly good excuse for anybody to get away for a few moments . . . an easy plot device for screenwriters.
On the magnificent TV show Mad Men, I can tell with remarkable precision the exact moment when each character will reach for his/her cigarette case and lighter. Always upon receiving bad news and, like clockwork, the moment just before anybody comes up with a great idea.
The writers wove tobacco (and booze) into the very fabric of Mad Men in much the same way it was woven into real life.
From the sweeping deceptions of Big Tobacco and everyone else’s complicity/naiveté to Betty (Draper) Hofstadt’s personal tragic ending, smoking is somewhere in every episode.
It’s too bad grown men don’t often have the opportunity to knit or fan themselves in public and fidget spinners look silly, even in the hands of adolescents. Mobile phones and other electronic devices replaced the “hand-business” that smoking formerly provided. A big difference is that people are usually quite focused on their digital gadgetry while smokers, at least on film, seem disengaged and check out, if only for a moment.
E-cigarettes are kinda goofy in my opinion, like dreadlocks on white boys or skateboards in the hands of anybody over 30.
Even so, I think they ought to remain legal and regulated and might prove themselves to be helpful in some way. Vaping, that is — not dreadlocks on white boys. Who am I to deny somebody else his or her simple but well informed pleasures?
If I head down the writing-rabbit-hole and prattle on about the failures of Prohibition and it’s twin sister, “The War on Drugs”, it’ll be dark before I finish up my little essay.
In the end, smoking is really about the triumphs and failures (mostly failures) of what it means to be human. It’s about brief pleasures and long-term hidden costs. Smoking reminds of our anxieties, insecurities, weaknesses and addictions, but also about our desire to rise above it all, seeking out quiet little moments that let us disengage, sublimate, and let the light filter through.
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A week after posting this story, I stumbled upon this video which I link as a happy addendum: