I Miss Cigarettes

marlene dietrich

I never really smoked. I certainly don’t now that it’s banned pretty much everyplace in New York. In spite of that, when I smell smoke on someone’s clothing, I find myself almost immediately nostalgic. That man or woman strikes me as a last holdout of a bygone world, bravely flutter-kicking against any currents of change. I feel about them the way I might have felt happening upon someone making horsehoes in 1920. That is to say, I don’t miss cigarettes so much as I miss the culture that went with them.

Oh, alright, I smoked a little bit. I’ve probably smoked ten times in my entire life. But when I read articles like this one in Town and Country, I find myself remembering a time when people smoked in bars. Right there. Right over a glass of scotch. And I begin to wonder whether they sell cloves at the corner bodega (maybe? They sell about 100 different kinds of granola bars, so, perhaps? But I’d have no venue in which I’d be allowed to smoke them.) The writer notes,

You have to work to smoke cigarettes these days. It’s a dying art, so to speak. In 2002, New York City passed the Smoke Free Air Act, making all workplaces smoke-free. In 2003 the prohibition was expanded to restaurants, bars, private clubs, theaters, public conveyances, sports arenas, malls, stores, banks, and schools. In 2011 smoking was banned from public beaches and parks. There are even smoke-free co-op buildings. And it’s not just New York. In Asia almost all hotels are smoke-free. On several safaris in Africa I was out in the bush on my own, smoking among the rhinos and lions….

Take a moment to pause and meditate on the regularity with which Town and Country writers have not simply been on a safari, but several safaris.

That said, I’m never particularly bothered that no one is smoking in restaurants. I don’t like the smell of cigarette smoke. I also don’t really love people hiding in the bushes on safari, because, well, a lot of reasons, most of which have to do with the fact that I like to fire my musket just willy nilly when I’m on safari.

However, the writer goes on to remark that:

Smokers tend to seek each other out like freak animals in the ark. (There’s a new electronic cigarette that can sense other people smoking within 50 feet — maybe so you can ask them for a real one.) Friendships are built on sidewalks. Odd conversations are struck up, usually beginning with a grumbling comment about being outside to smoke. I have found myself smoking next to a stranger, only to find out that I used to date his father.

And this I do miss. I miss the way cigarettes gave you a way to build friendships.

The first time I met Ashley, we were in school. She was smoking a Nat Sherman, which I am sure I mistook for a clove cigarette. My grandmother had recently given me a cigarette holder which I was carrying around, because that’s what you do when you’re a teenager who has watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s 45 times. I went up to Ashley – I would like to point out that Ashley was wildly intimidating to me, because she wore a lot of eye make-up – plucked the cigarette out of her mouth, put it into my cigarette holder, and walked away, sort of tentatively puffing on it and coughing. And, I guess because Ashley is charmed by oddity, after that we were friends.

She is sitting next to me, now, and we are discussing this story for perhaps the hundredth time, and I sometimes wonder if we would have been friends without that particular, bizarre interaction. I am so glad cigarettes existed, if only for that moment.

An ex boyfriend of mine – who adamantly stated that he would never date me if I were a smoker – got his first job by procuring his boss an obscure brand of cigars.

I am still hard pressed to think of a better way to enter a conversation than saying “do you have a light?” leading, as it could, to the immediate intimacy that comes from someone else lighting your cigarette. There was something about a flame hovering between two people that seemed primal, while – executed with the right cigarette lighter – being simultaneously sophisticated.

And afterwards, you didn’t even have to say anything. You were free to just stand there, smoking, with no demands being made upon you for witty conversation. Unlike drinking with people in the hopes that drinking would give you courage for a conversational follow up, standing with a group of smokers, there was no need to worry about a follow-up. It was one of the few situations where it was perfectly acceptable to stand around in silence.

That is what I miss most about smoking. The way the culture that surrounded cigarettes gave you an immediate way to interact with people who normally scared the hell out of you.

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    • Fabel

      I feel the same way (although I’m more of a smoker than not, so there’s that). But I met most of my friends in college by standing around outside the dorm entrance smoking, & I still remember bonding with my roommate with the following exchange: “Do you…smoke?” “Yeah…do you?” “Yeah.” “Okay, good. Because I lied & put ‘no’ on the form.” “Me too!!” (Not as adorable as your meet-cute with Ashley, but still)

      P.S. They totally do sell cloves in most convenience stores. I have some in my purse right now!

      • http://thegloss.com/ Ashley Cardiff

        It was totally a meet-cute.

    • Sean

      It’s not often that I think about it, but you’re right…it’s odd being part of the generation that not only saw the change in culture, but saw that change right in that critical period where studies say we’re most likely to start smoking.

      It seems foreign now, but I remember as far as undergrad the end result of doing anything social was to leave my clothes in the back yard to air out, and washing the smoke smell out of my hair the next day. Smoking with dinner, smoking in the office, even smoking indoors AT ALL seems absurd now.

      Regardless, as much as I love waxing poetic about it, I do enjoy being able to go places without the smoke smell throwing off the taste of food, and the extra dry cleaning costs.

    • DebMoore

      No longer a smoker, I don’t miss the smell, the taste (well maybe a little) or the cost but yes I agree with you I do miss the smoking culture! As a teenager in the 90′s EVERYONE I knew smoked or at least tried it. It was nice to have something to do during downtime or at a party/bar where you don’t know many people, great conversation starter. Now if I stand around outside staring off into space I look like a creep, but put a cigarette in my hand and I am a creep no more!

    • http://www.facebook.com/sameurysm Samantha Escobar

      I definitely met at least half my friends via smoking, and bonded with plenty more because of it. It’s a terrible habit & all, but I miss it quite a bit and I really miss going outside with people in the rain and huddling altogether to keep our stupid cigarettes dry.

    • Sarah!

      I quit smoking four years ago and I miss it seriously every day. I was really good at it.

    • CMJ

      The other day I was watching “She’s All That” and it blew my mind that there were high school kids (theatrically played, of course) openly smoking in a movie….I mean, can you imagine this in one of the teenage rom-coms of today? It was so weird.

      And yes, smoking was how I met guys, rockstars, friends, everything. I remember I used to have a “Oh this is a good song” cigarette. I miss the memories that went along with those cigarettes for sure.. Now, I get a little sick if I smoke an entire cigarette. There’s a bar back home that you can secretly smoke in and when I got home I didn’t know what to do with myself because my sweater smelled like smoke.

    • Stella L.

      Aw. The nostalgia of this article made me a little bit sad.

      I smoke socially, on weekends. Smoking is still very common in some social circles. I like smoking but I think I like the ritual more. I’ve met some great friends, and dates, over a light.

    • Moliss

      California has been pretty non-smoking for a while now, but a ton of my friends still smoke and my husband and I do on occasion if we go out drinking (or stay in drinking!) Then again, literally NO ONE at my mid-sized law firm smokes. No one. And none of their spouses do either. So…maybe it’s just me and my 20 and 30-something friends who still think we are cool? (just kidding, smoking is NOT cool, kids. lol.) Gotta say, whenever I am in Nevada for any reason, I revel in the fact that I can smoke inside casinos. Such a novelty! As a contrast, we visited some family in Kentucky last year and EVERYONE smoked! It was kind of crazy to see groups of people right outside the door of a restaurant all lighting up. It’s just not something you see in California at all anymore.

    • MR

      Yeah, I had to look up Ashley’s cirgarette. I never smoked more than a third of a pack a day, and that was a long time ago. I cheated when I smoked Mustang in South America. One was equal to two Marlboro Red.

    • jamiepeck

      You may smoke as many cloves as you like at my goth party. I will be handing them out.

      • http://www.facebook.com/naomi.kashinsky Naomi Kashinsky

        I do not smoke anymore, but may I come to your goth party? I will bring bat cookies.

      • jamiepeck

        Sure you can! It is a big thing I am doing. I will probably get excited and post something about it on here at some point once I have all the details worked out.

      • http://www.facebook.com/naomi.kashinsky Naomi Kashinsky

        I’m actually really happy now, but I’m not smiling so that I’m prepared for the party.

    • Alexis

      I tried to smoke in high school but it always made me absurdly sick (a disgusting cough that lasted over a week). I was always annoyed that I would never be friends with the people I thought I should be friends with because they only talked to other smokers.
      Now I’m in college, and a lot of my favorite classmates smoke, so I bravely stand outside in the freezing cold with them during breaks.

    • Girl Detective

      This was beautiful. Also, when I was in Prague, I could say “Mate zapolavac?” (Do you have a light?) to any stranger, and thank them, and have that delightful feeling of having successfully completed an entire human interaction in a foreign language without the other person suspecting the truth about one’s nationality and language abilities. Actually you can still smoke everywhere in Czech Rep so this hasn’t really been lost. But what about the Czechs who come here?

    • Anon13

      I quit smoking two days ago. I mean, I’m done with it. Finally. I’ve switched over to one of those electronic things for now, for as long as the Nanny State will let me have that sugar teat. When they get around to banning them too I’m not sure what I’ll do. Be cranky and vaguely spacy, I suppose. It was time. It’s not healthy, and I’m tired of feeling guilty for exposing the people I love to something that could hurt them. If it were just me, I’d go out smoking till the end. Because I love it and I will miss it. But it’s not worth putting others at risk. So I’m done. And part of me feels like the last bit of me that was ever young and rebellious and immortal and brave has now died and is gone forever.