Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Cigarettes and a Side Part

I smoke for all the wrong reasons.

It's hard to justify smoking, for any reason, especially my generation. Growing up in the early to mid nineties, who didn‘t ingest a steady diet of anti-drug messages--from Nickelodeon to those trite “tobacc-y is whack-y… if you’re a teen” ads in the comics . Rising Millennials watched the fall of Joe Camel, tipped off by every media outlet that the tobacco industry was intent upon indoctrinating us into becoming lifelong customers. The tricks of the trade were laid out for us by any authority figure with a podium and a captive audience. In these, our early years, we were made to be wise to the ploys of the seasoned spin doctors based out of Winston-Salem. We were the generation that told our parents to quit smoking, armed with the bizarre upended dynamic of the moral authority. How surreal it must of been to watch a 4th grader chastise an adult for making poor life choices. We Knew Better.
I too, was one of these children. Looking over at the “Smoking Section” at local restaurants (yes, remember those?) I remember thinking absolutely awful things about the kinds of families that would sit there. To think, those families had children. Like myself! Why didn’t those parents know better, and why hadn’t their kids said something to them? The whole family was a failure to my six year old eyes. Later in life, this behavior would become a part of my self identification, and would be called “elitism” or “being hyper critical”. At the time, all I knew was that I was ashamed of and better than those families.
It's an obvious fact that these messages haven't been internalized by the whole of my generation... how could they? Everyone, I'm sure, has their own reasons for starting. For many, smoking starts in high school, in college, or whenever they start drinking. Others seized on it because it was available in their homes. I started under much flimsier pretexts.
It all starts when I was studying abroad in Luxembourg. How can you avoid feeling Continental when your journey into sophistication begins in Europe? I like to believe that being on the other side of the Atlantic gives my beginnings unimpeachable legitimacy. Imagine me, sitting at an open air café with a pan au chocolat et chocolat chaud, ordered in FRENCH no less, while I lean disaffectedly against the back of my chair, an arrow-straight flow of smoke streaming from the cigarette expertly balanced between my fingers and dissipating in some zephyr blown over the Seine. I'm certain that scene did take place, my companions likely thinking about how obviously European we seemed. Likely, in the same moments we were entirely unaware of how distinctly American we were as we snapped photos of each other crowded to one side of the table, the locals rolling their eyes violently at us.
The truth is, my first pack of cigarettes was purchased from a convenience store down some alley in Brussels. I had left my group behind at a ridiculous Americanized bar on the street where we stayed, which is worth mentioning only because our drink (made with Jack Daniels) cost somewhere around 8 Euros, and was served in a shot glass printed with the phrase "Tequila Pistelleros". How had we crossed an ocean, taken a bus into Luxembourg City, navigated the trains in French to Brussels, only to find ourselves drinking Jack from cowboy shot glasses? What Americans! How could we have gone so far, only to remain so ashamedly from the Western Hemisphere? I was ashamed of myself, and after stealing the shot glass (I DID pay 8 Euros), stumbled off into the night towards the closest gay bar.
Quite frankly am amazed that I was able to navigate the streets, three drinks in and understanding no French to find myself at the hole in the wall that called itself a gay bar. I think it was the giant neon sign of a naked man with a raging erection chained up spread-eagle that helped me navigate. Birds use the North Star, I use dicks.
While in the bar, I was approached by two friends, one of whom spoke pidgin English, and who was able to keep a short flirtation going… which is to say that he asked questions and made awful innuendo, and I smiled and convinced him to buy me another beer. While he was the one making all the effort (and paying for drinks), it was his friend, Olivier, whose boyish smiling and coy body language said more. When all was said and done, it was Olivier with whom I left for the next bar. I felt bad leaving the guy who tried so hard behind, but he had a shaved head, wore tinted sunglasses, and wore one of those newsies hat. I’d rather just have the cute Belgian whore.
Between the first bar and the thumping nightclub we came to next (cross indexed to: first time I was offered poppers), he stopped to purchase the cigarettes and pick up a packet of matches. Frankly, he was set to get some that night simply because I was a tourist, but that he used matches really sealed the deal.
I won't bother with the rest of the details of the evening, but suffice it to say by the time we parted ways, Olivier's cigarettes had fallen out of his pants pocket and landed just almost under the bed. Unsure of what to do with this unexpected souvenir, I pocketed it. Later that week, back at the chateau, I confided in my friend Alana. As far as I knew, she had picked up smoking roughly a week before in preparation for the trip. She’s a planner that way. I offered her a cigarette one day while we sat behind the chateau where we stayed, overlooking the Moselle River and Perl, Germany.

"Well, you could certainly smoke them" she offered. "Think of it as a poetic tribute to your first European one night stand." Alana was effortlessly brilliant and had a flair for the literary. She convinced me instantly of the brilliance of her suggestion. I opened the pack, pulled one out, and took her lighter. Putting on some expression approximating bravado, I put the lighter to the end of the cigarette and lit it.

"You have to suck in while you light it" she offered, noticing how confused I was that I couldn't get paper and dried detritus to stay on fire. I inhaled hesitantly and tried again, finding it difficult at first to navigate all the steps simultaneously. I tried again, sucking valiantly on the rapidly moistening filter, and instantly regretted it.

FIRE. There was fire in my wind pipe! I was fairly sure I had inhaled the cherry itself in my zeal and would clearly require hospitalization. How would I explain to my parents that I had ingested flaming tobacco and that was why I was being airlifted to Paris to have emergency trachea surgery?

Alana offered a sympathetic look as I hacked and hacked, bent over in agony in a pristinely manicured European garden. As the pain subsided, I looked down at the offending object, balanced expertly and yet somehow awkwardly between my fore and middle fingers. Skeptically, I tried again, somehow suppressing half of my coughs and all of my theatrics.

Truth be told, I lost the pack while it was still half finished, having fallen out of my pocket somewhere in Amsterdam while bicycling along a busy road. I hope that someone was able to benefit from my Olivier's generosity and my carelessness.

When the school year began again, I was a casual and social smoker. I kept the habit up through RA training, and found myself in the company of four of five others in our cohort, welcomed into a loose brotherhood of smokers. It was, I learned, a social niche all its own, with a culture of generosity and amiability about which no childhood PSA had ever warned me. This was information I could use! I resolved to be seen smoking from time to time by my residents. Among the other misguided ideas that passed through my head during that year, I believed that smoking would be an in with a subset of students who might otherwise choose not to interact with their RA. It was for my job, I reasoned, that the smoking would continue.
To recap, I started smoking as a poetic remembrance of a casual lover, and continued because I thought it made me a better student leader. That I was not rehired should not come as a surprise.
This continued on and off throughout the entirety of my sophomore year, and I think that it was among the dumbest things I have could have done. I cut back, almost quitting on several occasions until the late spring. The trees had come into bloom with an intensity that sidelined me instantly. All of a sudden, I was bedridden with allergic reactions unseen since the days of Exodus. Imagine how different the Bible would have been if only Moses had visited the Pharaoh with a plague of blooming maples instead of locusts. They’d have been able to keep their first born children AND their yeast. Even students who hated me offered me, from their vast supplies of assorted prescription drugs, allergy medicines. Assuming they would slip me Ecstasy I politely declined.
Between my sinuses being filled with a gallon or so of viscous clear mucous that cut off air from getting to my brain and the violent shaking my body experienced as I convulsed my way through yet another sneeze, I was addled enough to look for any ridiculous way to cut this crap off. The multiple doses of benadryl, perhaps enough to take down an elephant, hadn't done anything to cut through the symptoms of my allergy attack, but maybe dampened my higher reasoning skills. Somehow, I arrived at the conclusion that a cigarette might just burn off anything in my nose and throat that was receptive to pollen. I grabbed the pack of American Spirits I purchased drunkenly one night at the Tedeschi's on the corner of Main Street and stumble-ran through a sneezing fit down the hallway and out the front door of my residence hall. To my delight, my idea had worked perfectly. Cigarette smoke, which some call an allergen, had completely disabled my body's ability to detect pollen, and I was symptom free. Let me be the first one to say that cigarettes did my body good, and to this day are the only thing that has ever worked to stop my symptoms. D.A.R.E. never told me about this.
I've been wondering recently on my walks between Kenmore Square and Back Bay Station what people think when they see me smoking and walking down Commonwealth Ave. I briefly held the notion, several years ago, that I had a menacing air about me when I smoked--crew cut, facial piercings, cigarette in hand, and especially with the added bulk of my winter coat. I realize now of course that at my most menacing, I probably resemble a moderately annoyed high school sophomore. Now, with my straight blonde hair parted neatly to the side, I look a bit like Alfalfa after an experiment with peroxide. My cowlicks erase any semblance of street credibility that I might otherwise warrant.
I am not immune to thinking that I hope that the people I see on my walk think that I'm cool. Of course I want to be perceived as such, maybe with a dash of sexy aplomb thrown in too. On these warm May evenings, I watch the Brads and Buffys of the South End walking by in their Nantucket Red shorts, boat shoes, tight cotton dresses and recently bleached hair (none of those bitches are real blondes). To me, these young moneyed folk are the newest permutation of the popular kid mantle that seems to be foisted on other young innocents by those who feel put upon. In other words, I hate them because I think they look down on me. To be fair, they probably do. Cigarette in hand, I feel like I've got a bit of a shield to protect me from their judgment; a prop that suggests a devil-may-care attitude. At least, its something to do with my hands as they walk by and I don't know where to look.
In a way, I've begun to believe my own pretenses and buy into some sort of mentality associated with being perceived as "a smoker", and that maybe I do hold inside some seed of irreverence and badassery. The fact of the matter is, I don't. I'm terrified that someone is going to make a comment about how I should know better, or about how I'm likely killing myself. I can't feign ignorance , given the cloud of puffed out warnings surrounding the collected heads of my generation. The fact is, I don't have a devil may care attitude. At heart, I am still the innocent God fearing teenager that refused a champagne toast at my brother's graduation. At 17. Because I took an oath at school as an incoming Peer Advocate. Seriously. I did this. That a stranger may think otherwise, that I'm not still that fundamentally good boy would be crushing. As though I let down every authority figure I ever purported to respect. Like putting each cigarette out on the shoes of my 5th grade teacher, like snubbing my parents in my Oscar acceptance speech, like punching a baby holding a motherfucking daisy.
Nor can I suggest that I don't worry about my health. The truth is, I'm hyper aware of carcinogens in everyday life. I consume antioxidants compulsively, finding reasons to have green tea or beets with every meal because they fight cancer. In this hypothetical scenario, what am I supposed to say? I suppose I could tell them that without comprehensive health insurance its ultimately cheaper for me to buy a pack of cigarettes than it is to go to a doctor and get an allergy shot. Or that I'm clearly too frail, own no tools, and have no working knowledge as to where to begin trying to cut down the tree in front of my apartment that's blooming and slowly killing me. I guess I could tell them that what they're seeing is the sexiest equivalent to an inhaler I could muster. While I know how ridiculous it sounds, it does explain to curious onlookers why I would suck down on my cigarette, press down on one nostril, and then exhale a large jet of smoke from the other. Obviously, its to clear it out better. I wonder if that has a sexy name, a la the French Exhale. Maybe I can take to calling it "Fonzie's Inhaler". Maybe I can just tell them that I can stop whenever I want... but that I just want to finish off an imagined half pack of cigarettes I still carry around for sentimental reasons.