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.

Maybe that’s because there always seemed to be a sort of optimistic notion that smoking would turn you into a1930’s chanteuse. Or a cowboy. Or an existential philosopher. Or a camel who could play the saxophone, despite lacking opposable thumbs.

It would do none of these things, but it did allow you to believe that you were that kind of person very briefly. The kind of person/ungulate who was unafraid of death, and therefore, unafraid of anything.

Smoking also seemed like a rather lazy, pleasant way for people to be death defying. In a world where everyone wants to be very busy, all the time, smokers figured out a way to game the system. They’d found a way to incorporate a fairly regular number of “standing around and talking” breaks into their day. At working events, they could, seemingly without question, stand and say “I’ve got to go for a smoke.” Or they’d tap the side of a box of cigarettes with one finger, and it was understood. They didn’t even have to say anything. It was completely accepted that they were going to go and stand around for 15 minutes outside, chatting and smoking.

It seems like a frivolous, purposeless way to spend time, which is appalling to a certain group of people. A Nazi slogan ran “The German woman does not smoke!” Which reminds me of an episode in Mad Men where Bert Cooper tries to convince Roger to stop smoking, stating that Hitler held a conference at a palace that forbade smoking and that “After an hour and a half of not smoking Neville Chamberlain would have given Hitler his mother as a dance partner.” To which Roger replies, “all I get out of this is that Hitler didn’t smoke, and I do.” There are few rituals that allow you to be entirely silent and still seem like a devil-may-care bon vivant.

It is so odd to think about how these were things people used to do, but I see it more and more rarely. There are so many bans that these things can’t be done with the same regularity they were ten years ago.

I sometimes wondered what would happen if I decided to say, take a “gum break” where I went outside and solemnly chewed gum, while staring off into the distance.

I’d look like an idiot, that’s what would happen.

People are always trying to come up with rituals like that, things that might substitute for smoking. If you suggest that certain exceedingly pleasant rituals will be lost without smoking, advocates of banning cigarettes will, sincerely, tell you that you could always chew gum. No. There is nothing primal about gum chewing. There is no flame being passed between two people. And there is no sophisticated way to whip out a piece of Hubba Bubba.

But then, rituals have always been lost. Life, really, should come with that warning attached, “you are going to lose everything you ever liked.” (You will. If not before, because you are going to die). I have no doubt that there were people in Victorian England who mourned similarly for the way you really got a sense of community with the people you went to opium parlors with. There was surely some man in Sparta saying “remember when kids used to put weasels under their clothing? That was when people knew how to bond.”

This is the course of life. Certain rituals do get lost. It’s not a terrible thing – certainly not for me – and I suppose we should be grateful that people will live longer, and have more quality years as a result.

But it is a loss, all the same.

Maybe when we long for these things we do not long so much for the thing itself – I will never want to sit in a smokey restaurant, or airplane, or bar – but for a period when we were younger. As we get older, we realize that certain rituals like smoking will be extinguished, and we’re going to be the last generation that really remembers them. And so we’re left like that kid in The Road, walking along, carrying the fire – which, in this case, may mean keeping a cigarette lighter in your pocket.