Regarding Tobacco: an Ode

May 25, 2008 at 6:50 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , )

I’m just going to be completely unoriginal here, and declare loudly, melodiously, and operatically with my warm, jazzy (and, not to mention, husky)  contralto, that I love smoking cigarettes.  Adore them, in fact.  Everything about them. Let us count the ways: The way a cigarette fits so snugly in between your fingers.  The more uncomfortable the social situation, the more comfort a cigarette doth bring.  The incredible way it tastes after a swim in the sea.  With a exquisite rare steak and a Merlot.  After exercise.  The way it makes a meaningful pause full of added juicy meanings; all unique, and all depending on the way the smoke is inhaled and exhaled.  Slowly? Through the nose? Perhaps a playful smoke ring?

Whoooo are youuu???  Is there a more stable or content character in all of Alice in Wonderland?  After rough and tumble sex?  When you’re bored?  When you have come across a particularly thorny problem?  When you’re so mad you want to play baseball with the china?  And best of all: the first drag after a few hours of forced separation from nicotine.  Priceless. It reminds me of the first time I felt head rush; Stumbling from the girls’ bathroom, my head spinning, I felt like I had gained new insight into the LSD trips that I had only read about.

Cigars do absolutely nothing for me. I want the smoke to reach my bowels – what’s the point of keeping it all in the mouth?  Pipes, I get the attraction, but the cloying cloud produced is way too heavy for me.  My extremely thinly rolled (with green Rizla)  Old Holburn (mild) smokes with the (narrow, Swan) filter tip is the last stop of the line for me.  There will be no more flirtations with other brands; Old Holburn has fitted me with its lacquered ball and chain mechanism for good.  I do. Forever til death do us part. Probably.

Tobacco’s detractors just don’t get it.  We don’t want to be Humphrey Bogart or Mae West; we want to feel what they feel when they smoke.  And we only notice them because they’re served to us on a 50 inch gilt plate.  If you stopped showing people smoking on TV, then those who smoked in real life would immediately gain our wide-eyed attention.  Where’s uncle disappearing off to in the garden?  Fascination ensues as the kids spy on the poor man denigrated to a position six yards away from the house and under an umbrella, trying to in vain to achieve some semblance of the pleasure of smoking in a rocking chair in front of a crackling fire.  To the rest of the millenial family, he is a pariah.  But to the kids?  He is mysterious, an outlaw.  He does not finish his spinach when he is told.

http://www.scenesmoking.org/ says that 2050 teenagers begin smoking each day (influenced, naturally, by the movies) and that 340 of those will die of a smoking-related illness.  That’s about one-sixth.  So, of the 748,250 brainwashed-by-Hollywood kids that begin to smoke each year,  124,100 are deemed goners.  At some point in their lives.  Assuming they’re not squashed by a car, flood, earthquake, cyclone, or Charlie Manson wannabee . Am I crazy in thinking this statistic is playable?  What a shame that Hunter S. Thompson, gambling fiend, is not here anymore to tell us the odds.

Gambling is a peculiarity found only in humans (and cats that enjoy crossing the road only when a vehicle is practically upon them).  You don’t have to spend your days at the casino to be a gambler; you can gamble with emotions, material and spiritual goods, and other people.  And you do.  All of you.  And I? Genetics has spoken.  I like to gamble with my life.

And so, on the eve of my dad’s emphysema diagnosis – such an inelegant epilogue for a survivor of cancer in the urinary tract, don’t you think? – I feel like writing a love letter to tobacco.

My dearest addiction: You never misled me.  I always knew you were no good.  My baby voice can be clearly heard on tape lisping “Oxi tigalo, babuli,” (roughly, “No cigaet, daddy!”).  I was parroting my mother, although I adored the way he smelled when he came home from work – a mixture of cold, rain, and tobacco emanated from his gabardine and signalled DADDY to me for all eternity.  The first time he announced he was quitting (about 25 years before he actually did) I went into hysterics, crying uncontrollably.  I couldn’t understand, why would daddy want to change the way he smelled?  He would cease to be daddy!

This four-year old’s existential nightmare soon gave way to a vicious anti-smoking campaign.  I threw away his packs, soaking them under the sink for good measure.  I lectured him.  I bought him anti-smoking trinkets.  I encouraged him whenever he proudly announced, “That was my last one!”  I refused to speak to him when he finally said, “I’d rather smoke for five more years and die, rather than live as a nonsmoker for the next twenty.”

But then…  Then, I don’t quite remember what happened.

My first cigarette was an unfiltered Camel (filched from my wholly unsuspecting father) at the rebellious age of 14.  It was pretty disgusting, as I recall, but I determinedly smoked it until it my fingers burned.  I decided that since fate had dealt me the unpopular-loner-with-no-friends card, I would try to cast myself in the Heathers-era Christian Slater mode rather than Revenge of the Nerds.  I threw myself into the role with gusto and careful research.  Silly girl makes silly choice!  I could have been a Google-type millionaire had I chosen the chess club route, but it was much easier to wear black and not care for homework completion.

For what it was worth, it worked.  The short-term benefits were immediately apparent. My status changed overnight in school.  I smoked!!  I began smoking Marlboro lights, the safe choice for a beginner.  I daringly left school grounds to do so.  An influential smoker girl had followed me one day; when we were caught, and I managed to tearfully convince the principal of our innocence with some outrageous excuse, my cool outsider status was guaranteed.

Soon, I decided that smoking plain old Marlboros was not enough.  Davidoff slims did it for a while, as did Gauloise. But when I was the first to smoke MarIboro Mediums (soft pack), they became my trademark. They were perfect in taste, strength, and image.  I used matches to feel retro and cowboyish.  At the time, I was indistinguishable from my male friends in dress and demeanor.  When I decided to be more girly, I popped my Mediums in a hand-carved red cigarette holder from Mexico.  It was unique; therefore, I became unique.  Simple.

In our acutely image-conscious bubble, instead of being derided, everyone wanted a piece of my cigarette holder.  What a ridiculous sight we must have been! Barely out of school, with vintage clothes, too much makeup, and torn doc martins, boys and girls fighting over who would use the Mexican cigarette holder.  When, drunk one night, I accidentally stepped on it and broke the delicate wood I was heartbroken.  I don’t know what I loved more about it; the way I felt like Greta Garbo when I used it, or the way others looked at me when I did.  Would I be the same without it?

Now, before people – with the artistic and historic sensibilities of a twig – start making a case for airbrushing cigarettes out of classic movies, (to me, this is akin to painting the Pyramids green, evening out the leaning tower of Pisa, and making David’s penis larger) l would just like to note, that yes, adolescents will do everything in their power to find out who they are, and then mold themselves into what they would like to be; but at some point this stops.  You become “mature.”  You don’t obsess over what other think about you anymore, you stop buying matching clothes with your best friend.  Some people stop smoking.

I went in search of the perfect cigarette the way others seek out the perfect mate.

Every brand that I tried was like a romantic encounter with a new partner; the act itself was unchanging, but the ritual around it oh-so-different.  Long, brown Mores or short, lethal Gitanes?  Which did my fingers like best?  Which taste was truer?  The non-EU approved Marlboros my roommate in college had blew my mind, putting me off Mediums forever.  I pounced on cigarette brands that I had never tried before.  I always ignored Camels superstitiously; I refused to think that I was genetically predisposed to them.  This fear was obliterated when I decided to dip into local brands.

My heart still flip-flops whenever I see the square Karelias Gold cassetina; recollecting the way I flipped that old-fashioned pack open one-handedly and makes me want to smoke one for old times’ sake.  Karelias was my true love.  The jewel of Kalamata and I fell in love one day, and until a cherry-flavored rolling tobacco came along, I would have gladly sworn my undying loyalty to the Greek tobacco industry.

However, the moistness of rolling tobacco, the aroma, and the ritual involved in the preparation ruined my relationship with Karelias.  Sadly, when they tried to win me back by putting out their own rolling tobacco, it just didn’t work out.  To further the relationship metaphor:  When the thrill is gone, ain’t no way to get it back…

And I love it.  I know I’m addicted.  I get testy and incoherent whenever more that 5-6 hours pass without a dose of nicotine.  Transatlantic flight gives me the willies. The immediate effect it has on me can be frightening.  Sudden lucidity.  I don’t want to end up talking through a little box in my throat.  I know I am reckless.  I see its effects around me every day.  But I feel like gambling some more. Puff. Cough. Spit. Yellow.

I will quit, if i so choose, when i feel like it.  I put out my cigarette, and worry about my dad.  Oxymoron? You bet.  But we’ve got the life-gambling gene.  Do excuse me now, for I’ve got to go pry his fifth wine and plate serving from his pudgy hands.  And then roll another.

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Late Night Malarkey: Musings upon a Counterfeit Coin

February 27, 2008 at 4:24 pm (Movies, Travel, Uncategorized) (, , )

How is it that some movies, no matter how cheesy they are, reduce you to a sniveling wreck?

I mean, the I Love You portrait?? Please!! It doesn’t get any cheesier than that. So, after realizing I may be the only person on the planet to have disliked Sweeney Todd, (and feeling rather self-righteous about it… ready to go out naked with a sandwich board and and a bell if that’s what it takes…WAKE UP!! -ding-dong, ding dong- THE END IS NIGH!!) I found myself feeling rather weepy watching The Counterfeit Coin (H Kalpiki Lira, 1955, Greece).

Four simple stories, a few classic characters (the starving painter, the sweet orphan, the stingy rich landlord, etc.) and ta-da!! I felt guilty for every time that I haven’t given the thousands of beggar children their coin; felt like a total witch, in fact, for every time that I turned on my windshield wipers after firmly saying, “No, no, thank you, NO.”

Sniff. (sip.)

How can I be so cruel? And how can I laugh at Elli Labeti’s fluttering, “Sagapw,” while at the same being incredibly, unreasonably moved? (down.)

Perhaps it’s because the movie is in black and white.

Ah. Nostalgia. Ain’t nothing like it.

You may have had no friends in elementary school, been teased mercilessly about your name and reading habits, but thinking about it now?? Such a lovely, unspoilt childhood I had, you say. So pretty. Wish I could go back. Flutter your eyelids.

Knowing you can’t go back just makes it all the more painfully beautiful.

Even better than the nostalgia you feel for your own memories, is the nostalgia you feel for an era that you never experienced in the first place. Gone with the Wind made a fortune out of that. As did the Swinging Sixties and Roaring Twenties. Were they even close to our “memories” of them? Probably not. But just an inkling that they may have been so, seeing a sign of their existence gives you a gripping physical sensation.

Sitting in Groppi’s Cafe in Cairo made me want to swoon. And for what? A few small tables, ripped chairs, and a general musty decadence (not the fun kind) all around. No famous ice cream in sight. But there I was. Sipping my asir lamoun where countless pashas, dames and People of Importance have sat and plotted. Yet, in the incredibly dirty sand surrounding the Pyramids – arguably, a far more magical and historical place – all I wanted to do was take a pot shot with an AK-47.

All those tourists (as if I wasn’t one of them) just ruined the atmosphere. Let alone the outrageous prices at the Cataract Hotel in Aswan. Let me live out my Agatha Christie fantasy in peace, damn it! (By the way, Abu Simbel?? Much more impressive in the movie, she says, fleeing the stones being wielded by rabid archaeologists, and directed at her curly head. What can I say? The prayer mark on our guide’s forehead fascinated me much more than the umpteenth Ramses statue before me.)

Where was I? (slurp.)

Nostalgia is a personal thing. Too fragile to be placed out in the open. It works best at 2am when you’re all alone on the couch drinking homemade liquer, watching a black and white movie and snuffling like a snufflupagus.

And the Counterfeit Coin? Film it now, and be laughed out of the theater. Try and revamp it? Somehow, the little orphan girl selling pirated CDs just doesn’t do the same thing to me. If it isn’t far removed from your own reality you don’t even notice it. Booooooooring! But a few years down the line, we’ll wistfully recall a time where Africans fresh off the boat peddled CDs (What are seedeez, auntie? Oh, honey, i forget how young you are! In my day….) and DVDs in every cafe in the city. We’ll sigh with the same nostalgia that we do when gazing at the unrecognizable city of 1955, whose inhabitants never gave a second glance. Who can blame them? It was just there. It still is, isn’t it??

Here’s to cheezy old movies! (chug.) And to cherished moments that were never really special until they disappeared!! And to humankind’s ability to mull over lost time for centuries, ignoring the current time that they are currently losing, and losing even more time in the process!!

At this crucial point in my non-existent argument the bottle has been emptied of its contents.

So I must bid you adieu. To you, and you, and you in the back.

Au revoir.

P.S. in 50 years will I be singing along, deep in the throes of nostalgia, I’ll fiiiiiiiiiiind you Jooooooaaaaaaaaaannaaa in a gravelly smoking old lady’s voice?!

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