ESSAYS, ARTICLES, & REVIEWS
"I don't feel as if I'm living unless I'm killing myself." --Russell Hoban
he discussed his
passion for tobacco
Society has turned against my favorite pasttime: smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. The fact that drinking coffee is more popular than ever -- with Starbucks and Coffee Beanerys proliferating -- but now you can't smoke with your coffee, to me is insanity. A sure sign of our society's rapid decline. Here in California I am only free to smoke cigarettes in my own apartment, and outside away from anyone else. I began smoking when I was eleven years old, twenty-seven years ago; damn near three-quarters of my life. H.L. Mencken actually beat me. He once said: "I never smoked a cigarette before I was nine". I was on a bus heading up to a summer camp several hours north of Toronto. The drive from Detroit took eight hours. This being 1970, none of the adults cared whether or not we kids on the bus smoked. Smoking at the summer camp was not allowed, but, as it turned out, no one really cared there, either. I smoked Cameo menthols, a Canadian brand, and dreamed of smoking Marlboro menthols, which I'd never had, but pretended to because all my peers seemed to like them.
When I returned from camp that summer, I purchased that long dreamed-of pack of Marlboro menthols, lit up and choked -- they were much too strong for my taste. I then switched to non-menthols, Larks, with charcoal filters, and have never switched back to menthol. If I have the flu I will sometimes buy menthols so that I can at least taste them. I smoked a short-lived brand inthe early seventies called Real, which were very much like Amercan Spirit Cigarettes now -- all-natural and they went out if you didn't keep puffing on them. I smoked Marlboro Lights for many years, then Benson & Hedges Ultra Light 100's for many more. I presently smoke Merit Ultra Lights, king size. Twenty to thirty of the little buggers a day. At junior high school all of the kids that smoked would pile down the "ravine," a wooded valley beside the school where there sat a wrecked early-sixties Chevy and huff down a cigarette or two before school started. Kids smoked in the lavatories, too, but I was never inclined toward this. The whole process of smoking in the lavatory was too hurried and nerve-wracking. In high school in the early seventies, our elders acquiesced to the smoking problem by creating "Designated Smoking Areas," which were located outside at the end of all the hallways. This was where all the cool people could be found between classes. When I started going to community college we were actually allowed to smoke in class. This school was euphemistically refered to as "high school with ashtrays." Coincidentally, this is the only school where I ever received really good grades. Could there be a connection?
My training as a writer occured mainly in restaurants: drinking endless cups of coffee, writing and smoking. I wrote five screenplays in the Snow White Coffee Shop on Hollywood Blvd. Now, I can barely wait to finish my food before bolting outside to light up. Since smoking is prohibited in all public places in California, I no longer write in restaurants. I do frequent several places with outdoor seating that allow smoking, however my paper, pens and ashes blow all over the place so I'm not nearly as inclined to hang around and write.
A late friend of mine, with whom I saw perhaps a thousand movies, resented my smoking because I would never sit through the end credits of the movies with him. That cigarette after a movie is frequently long-awaited. As my friend would exit the theater several minutes later, he would shake his head sadly at me, as though I'd missed the best part of the film. Smokers, I have found, are generally friendly people; happy to give you a cigarette or a light and happy to converse with you while you smoke. Since we smokers are constantly ostracized and segregated these days, we have plenty to commiserate about. But smokers are generally talkative folk anyway. Perhaps it's the stimulation of the nicotine.
Jean Nicot, French ambassador to Portugal, introduced tobacco in France in the 17th century. He gave his name to the genus Nicotiana to which tobacco belongs. It pleases me to find out that people I admire smoke. I love seeing old black and white photographs of all my favorite actors, directors and writers puffing away on cigarettes, cigars and pipes. The fact that you never see Rod Serling on film without a cigarette I find impressive. When John Ford wasn't smoking, he chewed on a handkerchief.
The great film director William Wyler smoked so much, directly under the lens of the camera, that he frequently blew takes because his smoke was drifting up into the shot. As he got older his wheezing had a tendency to screw up takes as well. It should also be noted, however, that being a smoker is what got Wyler his first break in the movie business. As a gofer at Universal Pictures in the early twenties, Wyler noticed that all of the editors were forever hanging around outside the editing building smoking. When he asked why, he was informed that nitrate film stock was highly flammable-- in those days there had to be a damn good reason why anyplace was no smoking. Wyler then rigged a thin brass tube running out the window of the editing room so that the editors might smoke without going outside. William Wyler took it upon himself to keep the ends of the tubes loaded with fresh, lit cigarettes. This got him into the editing department, which then lead to directing and three Academy Awards.
In his autobiography, "My Last Sigh", Luis Bunuel waxed poetically about smoking: "Tobacco is . . . a fond companion for all occasions, a loyal friend through fair weather and foul. People smoke to celebrate a happy moment, or to hide a bitter regret. Whether you're alone or with friends, it's a joy for all the senses. What lovlier sight is there than that double row of white cigarettes, lined up like soldiers on parade and wrapped in silver paper? . . . I love to touch the pack in my pocket, open it, savor the feel of the cigarette between my fingers, the paper on my lips, the taste of tobacco on my tongue. I love to watch the flame spurt up, love to watch it come closer and closer, filling me with its warmth." I find it reassuring that both Wyler and Bunuel made into their eighties, although, admittedly, not very far for either one. My father is sixty-six and smokes like a chimney. When I was twelve years old and I asked my Dad for a cigarette he'd respond, "Here. Take the whole pack." In my father's office, everyone that works for him smokes. I have suggested that he put up a sign that reads: "We encourage smoking here." Oscar Wilde once said: "A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?"
In L.A. I would surmise that half the people that claim to not smoke actually do smoke in their cars. Apparently, if no one they know sees them then it's not really happening (like the sound of the tree in the forest). I'd also say that another twenty-five percent of the non-smokers smoke at parties or at bars when they drink. What they are saying is: smoking is perfectly all right when I want to smoke, but not when you want to. I'm not ashamed of smoking. I smoke and I like it. I know it's bad for me and I like it anyway. As Fran Lebowitz said: "Smoking is, as far as I'm concerned, the entire point of being an adult. Many people find smoking objectionable. I myself find many--even more--things objectionable. I do not like aftershave lotion, adults who roller-skate, children who speak French, or anyone who is unduly tan. I do not, however, go around enacting legislation and putting up signs." When I leave California now and am suddenly allowed to smoke in restaurants again, I find it disconcerting; like being teleported back in time. On my first day in New Zealand recently, I got on an elevator and found a fellow unapologetically smoking. I personally think this is rude (having never been allowed to smoke on elevators in America), but I didn't say anything. At six dollars a pack, cigarettes are prohibitively expensive in New Zealand. Nevertheless, seemingly everyone smokes. They simply roll their own -- "rollies," as they say. It amuses me greatly to see cute young girls rolling cigarettes like cowboys.
Smoking befouls my breath, yellows my teeth, burns holes in my clothes and causes me to not even like to watch people running or severely exerting themselves, and has even caused me to get into at least one car accident. I was at a red light, and with a cigarette between my fingers scratched the back of my head knocking the burning ash down the back of my shirt. In my ensuing panic I took my foot off the brake and hit the woman in front of me. Luckily, there was no damage to either car. Given all of this I still like to smoke. And since it's my right to smoke if I like, at least here in my own apartment, I think I'll have one right now.
"It has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain when awake." -- Mark Twain.