Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Requiem For a Smoker

Smoking used to be cool. Humphrey Bogart, the iconic tough good guy, the cigarette between his lips extending his world-weary cool beyond his actual person. Jimmy Page or Keith Richards, stalking the stadium stage, guitar slung low, cigarette protruding defiantly from the rebellious rock 'n' roll sneer. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, cigarette holder jauntily jutting from his confidence-inspiring grin, leading his nation through Depression and war. General Douglas MacArthur, swaggering ashore to liberate the Philippines, RayBan™ shades and corncob pipe underscoring exactly who had returned. Winston Churchill, facing the camera with his bulldog scowl and pinstripe suit, chomping his Havana cigar and wielding a Thompson submachine gun.  (The Nazis tried to use this photo as propaganda, portraying Churchill as a gangster; this backfired, partly due to the perceived glamour of the Depression-era mobsters.)

If I have left out your favorite smoker (likely), then that only serves to point out the traditional cultural acceptability, yea, even the respectability afforded tobacco use for centuries. Even historic Christian figures including J. S. Bach, Charles Spurgeon, Dietrich Bönhoeffer, C. S. Lewis and Chuck Colson were known to light up on a regular basis. Conveniently, it would seem, there is no reference to smoking in Scripture. Instead we are left to draw inferences from passages referring to 'destroy(ing) God's temple' (conveniently “countered” by Jesus' assertion that “(W)hat goes into a man's mouth does not defile him” (Matthew 15:11). Since the perceived morality of smoking is not my focus here, we can happily move on.

At my workplace there's a gentleman on maintenance staff, possibly in his mid-60s, but appearing to be possibly as old as 70. (He can fix anything I break, so I tell him that, as long as I work there, he'll have job security.) He's a wiry little guy who fought in Vietnam, and he smokes whenever the opportunity comes up. Here in Montana it sometimes gets down to -20º F. or even colder in the winter, and yet he dutifully steps outside and lights one up, as do his fellow co-workers/smokers. Now here's a guy who defied the odds and came back alive from 'Nam, choosing (I use that word loosely) to kill himself slowly, on the installment plan. But to add insult to injury, smoking is no longer permitted in the break room, nay, in the building at all. Not even a separate lounge for the smokers, just banishment to the great outdoors, even for one who honorably served his country, in a war he was too good for.

It's easy to confuse legitimate health concerns with political correctness, since in this case they often overlap. What could easily pass for some sort of ideological hysteria turns out to be not only good science, but a blessing for those of us who endured years of secondhand smoke in order to play or facilitate live music. I quit smoking at 22, four years after I started, which had the unexpected effect of making me much more hostile to the presence of cigarette smoke than I had ever been before I started smoking. I never knew that one day the official consensus regarding tobacco would one day follow suit, kicking the hapless smoker out-of-doors, and making the memory of lighting a cigarette in a movie theater or on a commercial flight seem like the memory of performing a minstrel show in blackface and a nappy wig.

I can think of no comparable fall from grace experienced by any other cultural phenomenon, good or bad. (Except maybe the Record Business.) The tobacco industry went, in a relatively short time, from claiming the health benefits of cigarettes, to rubbing our noses in the mortal perils of the same. That which was proudly advertised by everybody from Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble to future president Ronald Reagan is now a vice for pariahs. Can you imagine anybody telling George Burns, Audrey Hepburn, Clint Eastwood, Frank Sinatra or Mark Twain to 'take it outside'?

The good (?) news is, nearly everybody I listed here is dead, a few of them even due to of smoking-related causes. No need to be an iconoclast – the iconic smoker is history, perhaps never to be replaced.

Thirty years ago I smoked my last cigarette, scraped the cigarette burns off the headstock of my Fender Stratocaster (thanks to Eric Clapton for making me think my guitar should join in the fun) and survived the process of becoming an ex-smoker. And yet, thirty years later, not a day goes by that I don't find myself taking a drag from an imaginary Marlboro. It's not about the nicotine – I was never seriously tempted, say, to chew tobacco. Rather, it was the act of lighting up, something to do with my hands, something that was somehow relaxing. (The imaginary cigarette usually turns up when I'm faced with some uncomfortable or embarrassing memory.) And yet I pity those next to me in the store who lay out exorbitant sums of money for something I used to get for $10 per carton, who will likely not be permitted to smoke even in their own homes, let alone an airport, a nightclub or a restaurant.

I'm not the least bit conflicted about the wonderful, ubiquitous freedom from secondhand smoke we experience today, just amazed at the sea change that sank such a mighty ship, now replaced by a tramp steamer, its trail of smoke disappearing forlornly over the distant horizon. May it never return, but thanks for the memories (I think.)