A year after ban, thoughts on smoking

BY COLIN GILBERT | JULY 01, 2009 7:21 AM

I started smoking because it fit me. I was in my junior year of high school, and anyone holding a cigarette looked undeniably cool. And now I’m trying to quit. Sigh.

The thing with cigarettes that I really love is the culture grown up around them. Picture them: there’s the wonderful disdain of wine-guzzling French artistes languishing on café patios; the arch dismissal of teenage greasers with a pack wound into the sleeves of their white T-shirts; the relaxed and nebulously dangerous cowboys puffing their Marlboros around the fire before turning in; the ruined old ladies propped on their front porches glaring at the neighborhood kids across the street, a scowl, perhaps a line of drool, a rumbling hack. Then the quieter, more personal rituals, the first smoke of the day with coffee that, if I hadn’t smoked the day before, leaves me slightly dizzy. Or the last before sleep, reclined and tired on my roommates’ living room couch and twisting the filter into the ashtray I keep hidden beneath it. Turning a lucky to save it for last, a friend of mine turns two in case he finds himself amorously indisposed. I usually give someone a cigarette if asked for one and so feel OK bumming from others: I call this Smokers’ Karma. It’s a little bit of community and solidarity, which crops up again when my friends and I vacate the bar en masse to stand in circles on the sidewalk. This is part of why it’s so difficult to quit.

Another in our band of (failingly) reforming miscreants has this theory: Don’t smoke for 24 hours, and the half-life of nicotine is spent, your body free of the active agent of addiction; don’t smoke for three days, and the distress of withdrawal has passed, and your body no longer craves whatever pleasure-center cigarettes tickled before; don’t smoke for 30 days, and the lifestyle is gone, you’ve begun to operate your days without this harmful element pervading them. I haven’t tried this method, but it worked for him when he quit years ago.

Then life got strange for my friend, in that way life can, where friendships and opportunities have fallen to distortions and contests. Remembering the refuge cigarettes provided, those short minutes of performing one whole-attention action that could tickle that pleasure-center like it once did, he slipped and bought a pack of Camel Lights while refueling his car. And not just the memory of past enjoyments indulged but the somewhat who-gives-a-shit gesture they provide. When life screws you over, and it will, reader, it will, you just want to find a way to say “fuck you” to life. Falling back on bad habits like smoking is fantastic in this capacity, and anyway, you get to look composed and kinda cocky instead of broken and alone.

Thanks to the smoking ban this loneliness is banished quite literally. Smoking holds people together, like knitting or blogging, an activity to be enjoyed with others. Like any group effort, then, quitting has to be a democratic undertaking. The group activity becomes not smoking. Community and Solidarity. So why are we diving off the bandwagon en masse? I’ve cut my consumption, but not ripped out the roots, you see. None of us have. Maybe we never really wanted to quit but simply gave in to our enthusiasm for the effort. It’s almost become a joke, another group interaction based neither on vice nor virtue but guilt. Maybe. But I think that’s just another reflection of that fundamental human drive: When life sucks in one way, enjoy it in another. Distortions and contests everywhere, from friends to politics to religion. I haven’t yet finished today’s pack of Reds, but I might.

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