I don’t smoke cigarettes. And, like most things, I blame my dad for this.
My dad smoked, but not in a cool or iconic way. Now, maybe this is a lot to ask of a man and a pack of cigarettes. But to my way of thinking, if you’re going to go through the trouble of sucking poison into your body a kajillion times a day, you should, at the very least, look completely awesome doing it.
That’s why whether I’m having my first or 500th diet soda of any given day, I make sure to dim the lights in whatever room I’m in, blare the “Peter Gunn Theme,” and lean uncomfortably against the wall, looking savagely disaffected.
Sure, it eats into my productivity, but that’s the cost of being completely awesome.
In stark contrast to that, my dad’s smoking was a non-event. There was no ritual, no lucky lighter he won in a card game, no sigh of contentment when he had his first smoke of the day, no anything. Just a steady, constant stream of cigarettes starting at around 7am, and moved ever forwards.
It wasn’t a thing he seemed to derive pleasure from in any way, it was just a thing he did because his brain was like, “Oh, hey, dude. Just running some diagnostics, and it looks like you haven’t had a cigarette in about an hour or so. So you may want to get on that, or...PHIL! WHERE ARE WE ON THOSE ANGER SPIDERS? TEN MINUTES? Yeah, so you might want to get on that, or you know, we’re gonna have to fill your head with Anger Spiders. So smoke up, Smokey.”
If you look at European packs of cigarettes, they graphically explain that your head fills with spiders if you forget to smoke. Just another piece of information Big Tobacco (Working in tight, clandestine association with Big Anger Spider and Big Phil) has kept hidden here in the States.
My point is, I didn’t really have a smoking role model, and as result, it’s a habit I’ve never managed to pick up. My dad didn’t make smoking look exciting, or exotic or enviable. It was, at the very least, a non-event, like he was just going into screensaver mode, and, at its worst, completely gross.
The worst was when he was driving my sister and to school on winter mornings. He lived about a half-hour away from our school, so we would pile into his pickup, me in the front, and my sister crammed in the parody of a back seat that it offered. He would crank the heat, because it was 20 degrees out with a windchill factor of “go back to bed forever.” Then, once we were on the road, he cracked the window, and had his second or third smoke of the day.
The idea was that, obviously, the smoke would go out the window, but that never quite happened. Instead, arctic air streamed into the cab where we sat, and mixed with the smoke and blasting heat, creating this sweaty, freezing, smelly invisible wall of malaise that permeated every pore of my being.
And this was unfortunate. Unfortunate, to a lesser extent, because by the end of one of those rides, I was basically a tobacco-smoked brisket, which not even Wylie Dufresne could make delicious. But mostly because by the time I got to my teenage years, and committed myself to a Life In The Theater (Which consisted of me going, “If I hide in the theater department, I won’t get beat up and I might kiss a girl at some point in my allotted time on earth? Sign me up.”), I was WOEFULLY UNPREPARED for a big part of being a Young Insufferable Theater Person.
I didn’t know how to smoke. And more importantly, I didn’t want to. And that bummed me out so much. Because unlike my dad, my fellow Young Insufferable Theater Persons (YITPs) looked AWESOME smoking. They held their cigarettes just so between their fingers, gestured with them for dramatic effect, and blew out clouds of smoke to punctuate their sentences, like Victor Borge if he was also a dragon.
And when a girl pulled out a cigarette, whatever guy was closest would present his lighter. He would sort of cup his hand over hers to block the wind, and light it for her. She would inhale deeply, and sigh. Then they would stare into each other’s eyes, and be whisked away to a higher plane of understanding, with a fluffy cloud of nicotine, tar, and fiberglass to take them on their journey. A whole new cough world.
All I could do was sort of stand on the sidelines and watch this transpire.
And this went on through college and my 20s. In the world of YITPs, the smokers were their own renegade subset. No matter what the weather, they would go outside, huddle up for warmth, and have secret smoking conversations, probably about how completely rad they looked while smoking.
If there was a limited supply of cigarettes (Which would occasionally happen if we were doing a show in the middle of nowhere, and there was no bodega to run to at 1am), the smokers would ration out their cigarettes, sharing them if they had to. Like soldiers in a foxhole, bound by honor and duty to look out for their fellow man.
Occasionally, I would try to join in. Occasionally I would get it fixed in my brain that if I just took a cigarette, and started smoking it, I would get to be one of them. But it never quite shook out like that. I would hold the cigarette awkwardly, like I was trying to balance an entire RenFest turkey leg between two fingers. I would light one of my fingers in an attempt to light the cigarette. And I would inhale an entire carton’s worth of smoke with one puff, and then spend the rest of the month coughing.
Eventually, I gave up on it altogether. The smoker’s life was not for me. I would have to find other ways to be insufferable. It wasn’t too hard.
Years after I gave up on the theater in the interest of being able to afford things like “food” and “shelter,” I was visiting some pals in Boston. It was a frigid, miserable winter. We were out at a bar drinking, and one of my friends excused himself to go smoke. Nobody else wanted to brave the elements, and at that point, I was 78% Sam Adams, so I offered to keep him company.
And an amazing thing happened out there. He offered me a cigarette, and I took it. And I smoked it like a normal person, not like an alien who had observed smoking on their View Screen. And we talked drunkenly about whatever (or, because we were in Boston, “whatevah”), and we kept smoking. And it was kind of glorious. I was great at it. Putting aside the noxious smell and taste, the sense memory of being cold-smoked in my dad’s pickup, and the feeling that my throat and lungs were being sand-blasted, I was DOING IT. I was a SMOKER. I was outside in the freezing cold, having a conversation with a fellow soldier that all of the squares inside weren’t cool enough to have.
My buddy and I ended up splitting the pack, and I walked away from that evening feeling like The Fonz. I woke up the next morning feeling like Dennis Franz. I was disgusting. Hung over, sure, that was a given. But I reeked of smoke. My mouth was devoid of moisture, and tasted like a Skid Row Santa’s beard. The stuff I coughed up could have been a monster in a 50s B-movie. I was a MESS.
And yet, I was able to collect myself, and get it together to go to another friend’s house to watch the Pats game. As I shambled up the stairs to their front deck, I noticed a bunch of folks were smoking. I breathed in the cloud of smoke that surrounded them. And then, the damnedest thing happened. Something in my brain, something that I did not consciously think, something in there just went, “Oh, hey, it’s time for a cigarette. Get on that. That would be great right now. Phil and I were just talking. Just seems like the thing to do.”
And it was both terrifying, and at the same time, weirdly mechanical. And it wasn’t because I wanted to look cool, or fit in, or stand in the cold like a rebel, or anything like that. It was just what my brain was telling me I had to do. No ritual, no lucky lighter I won in a card game, no contentment. A non-event.
I let my brain and Phil down that day, and I didn’t continue on as a smoker. It was an exciting thing to dabble in that one night, and I’m glad I experienced the awesome part of it, but I’m far more glad that I did it because I wanted to, not because I had to. My dad did it because he had to, and he never really seemed all that happy about it.
Luckily, I have plenty of bad habits to fall back on, like fast food, alcohol, competitive cooking shows, and diet soda. Which reminds me, I could really go for a Diet Dr. Pepper. Please excuse me while I set up the disco ball, the strobe lights, and the fog machine, and the “Peter Gunn Theme.”