Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Letting Go

When I was in fourth grade, my class took a field trip to the American Tobacco plant in nearby Durham, North Carolina. There we witnessed the making of cigarettes and were given free packs to take home to our parents. I tell people this and they ask me how old I am, thinking, I guess, that I went to the world’s first elementary school, one where we wrote on cave walls and hunted our lunch with clubs. Then I mention the smoking lounge at my high school. It was outdoors, but, still, you’d never find anything like that now, not even if the school was in a prison.

I recall seeing ashtrays in movie theatres and grocery stores, but they didn’t make me want to smoke. In fact, it was just the opposite. Once, I drove an embroidery needle into my mother’s carton of Winstons, over and over, as if it were a voodoo doll. She then beat me for twenty seconds, at which point she ran out of breath and stood there panting, “That’s . . . not . . . funny.”

A few years later, we were sitting around the breakfast table and she invited me to take a puff. I did. Then I ran to the kitchen and drained a carton of orange juice, drinking so furiously that half of it ran down my chin and onto my shirt. How could she, or anyone, really, make a habit of something so fundamentally unpleasant? When my sister Lisa started smoking, I forbade her to enter my bedroom with a lit cigarette. She could talk to me, but only from the other side of the threshold, and she had to avert her head when she exhaled. I did the same when my sister Gretchen started.

It wasn’t the smoke but the smell of it that bothered me. In later years, I didn’t care so much, but at the time I found it depressing: the scent of neglect. It wasn’t so noticeable in the rest of the house, but then again the rest of the house was neglected. My room was clean and orderly, and if I’d had my way it would have smelled like an album jacket the moment you remove the plastic. That is to say, it would have smelled like anticipation.

When I started smoking myself, I realized that a lit cigarette acted as a kind of beacon, drawing in any freeloader who happened to see or smell it. It was like standing on a street corner and jiggling a palmful of quarters. “Spare change?” someone might ask. And what could you say?

The first time I was hit on, I was twenty years old and had been smoking for all of two days. This was in Vancouver, British Columbia. My best friend, Ronnie, and I had spent the previous month picking apples in Oregon, and this trip to Canada was our way of rewarding ourselves. We stayed that week in a cheap residence hotel, and I remember being enchanted by the Murphy bed, which was something I had heard about but never seen in person. During the time we were there, my greatest pleasure came in folding it away and then looking at the empty spot where it had been. Pull it out, fold it away, pull it out, fold it away. Over and over until my arm got tired.

It was in a little store a block from our hotel that I bought my first pack of cigarettes. The ones I’d smoked earlier had been Ronnie’s—Pall Malls, I think—and though they tasted no better or worse than I thought they would, I felt that in the name of individuality I should find my own brand, something separate. Something me. Carltons, Kents, Alpines: it was like choosing a religion, for weren’t Vantage people fundamentally different from those who’d taken to Larks or Newports? What I didn’t realize was that you could convert, that you were allowed to. The Kent person could, with very little effort, become a Vantage person, though it was harder to go from menthol to regular, or from regular-sized to ultra-long. All rules had their exceptions, but the way I came to see things they generally went like this: Kools and Newports were for black people and lower-class whites. Camels were for procrastinators, those who wrote bad poetry, and those who put off writing bad poetry. Merits were for sex addicts, Salems for alcoholics, and Mores for people who considered themselves to be outrageous but really weren’t. One should never lend money to a Marlboro-menthol smoker, though you could usually count on a regular-Marlboro person to pay you back. The eventual subclasses of milds, lights, and ultra-lights not only threw a wrench in the works but made it nearly impossible for anyone to keep your brand straight. All that, however, came later, along with warning labels and American Spirits.

The cigarettes I bought that day in Vancouver were Viceroys. I’d often noticed them in the shirt pockets of gas-station attendants and, no doubt, thought that they’d make me appear masculine, or at least as masculine as one could look in a beret and a pair of gabardine pants that buttoned at the ankle. Throw in Ronnie’s white silk scarf and I needed all the Viceroy I could get, especially in the neighborhood where this residence hotel was.

It was odd. I’d always heard how clean Canada was, how peaceful, but perhaps people had been talking about a different part, the middle, maybe, or those rocky islands off the eastern coast. Here it was just one creepy drunk after another. The ones who were passed out I didn’t mind so much, but those on their way to passing out—those who could still totter and flail their arms—made me fear for my life.

Take this guy who approached me after I left the store, this guy with a long black braid. It wasn’t the gentle, ropy kind you’d have if you played the flute but something more akin to a bullwhip: a prison braid, I told myself. A month earlier, I might have simply cowered, but now I put a cigarette in my mouth—the way you might if you were about to be executed. This man was going to rob me, then lash me with his braid and set me on fire—but no. “Give me one of those,” he said, and he pointed to the pack I was holding. I handed him a Viceroy, and when he thanked me I smiled and thanked him back.

It was, I later thought, as if I’d been carrying a bouquet and he’d asked me for a single daisy. He loved flowers, I loved flowers, and wasn’t it beautiful that our mutual appreciation could transcend our various differences, and somehow bring us together? I must have thought, too, that had the situation been reversed he would have been happy to give me a cigarette, though my theory was never tested. I may have been a Boy Scout for only two years, but the motto stuck with me forever: “Be Prepared.” This does not mean “Be Prepared to Ask People for Shit”; it means “Think Ahead and Plan Accordingly, Especially in Regard to Your Vices.”

Given my reputation as a strident non-smoker, it was funny how quickly I took to cigarettes. It was as if my life were a play, and the prop mistress had finally showed up. Suddenly there were packs to unwrap, matches to strike, ashtrays to fill and then empty. My hands were at one with their labor, the way a cook’s might be, or a knitter’s.

“Well, that’s a hell of a reason to poison yourself,” my father said.

My mother, however, looked at the bright side. “Now I’ll know what to put in your Christmas stocking!” She put them in my Easter basket as well, entire cartons. Today, it might seem trashy to see a young man accepting a light from his mom, but a cigarette wasn’t always a statement.

by David Sedaris, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Zohar Lazar