A Defense of Smokers
What cancer-stick sucklers can show us about living
Editor’s Note: We know what the headline and photo promise, but first, an unrelated prologue:
I don’t wish to bore you with my troubles, but my name is, after all, on the marquee here. So if you were hoping to be bored by Matt Taibbi’s or Matt Continetti’s troubles, you’re in the wrong Matt-space. Though the latter Matt, or “Matthew” if you wanna get all uppity about it, has recently published an authoritative, definitive, and elegantly written history of the right, called, appropriately enough, The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism. (And here, you short-attention-spanned types thought conservatism started on the ride down the golden escalator in 2015.) You should buy it for Father’s Day, even if you have two moms, unless your dad/mom hates brilliant, sweeping intellectual histories that explain why the world they are living in now looks like it does. In which case, just buy dad the singing bass plaque like all the other lazy offspring.
But I digress from my digression. I didn’t mean for my lede to turn into a peppery book plug. That’s just the kind of brain-fog, to-hell-with-the-rules mood I’m in. In the interest of transparency, I’m a bit sour this week. Half of my household has (again) fallen to COVID. My sons are now two-timers. Impolite reminder to COVID deniers: I don’t give a wet fart if you consider Dr. Fauci to be Satan’s trainbearer or whether you think being asked to put on your face diaper at Food Lion makes you Kunta Kinte, the pandemic isn’t quite over yet. The seven-day average of new cases is currently over 102,000 per day, which is vastly underreported with all the home testing, and that’s six times higher than it was exactly a year ago at this time.
We’re all vaccinated in these parts, mind you. But that no longer holds the promise of a trouble-free tomorrow, since I don’t seem to be able to talk to two doctors in a row who agree on how effective they are against variants, or for how long, or when, exactly, I need boosted after being infected myself in December. (You Ivermectin magic realists vs. you Pfizer fetishists can duke it out on your own time, just don’t bore me with it in the comments section. I’m already fighting off acute drowsiness.) There are no serious health hazards in my COVID household, knock on wood. Just the pulled hammy I have from running up the stairs countless times a day to play room-service waiter to my quarantined patients. My youngest son, Dean, is a fitness buff – he has about two percent body fat even though he eats five meals a day. And since he can’t cook for himself without possibly spreading his Kung-flu to us (don’t come for me, wokesters, I’m not in the mood), I’ve banished him to his contagion vault, and am fulfilling his exacting culinary demands so he doesn’t feel like John McCain in a Vietnamese tiger cage. (“Tap on the bamboo if it needs more cilantro!”)
To cap it off, I’m on some odious antibiotic after catching a dorsal fin spine in the finger when a fish flipped on me unexpectedly while I was trying to release it. (When they realize you’re not going to kill them, they get all entitled.) My finger swelled, turned a new color, and was stiff as a board the next day. I was going to let it go, but can’t afford to lose the finger, since it’s the middle digit on my right hand, which could leave me defenseless in traffic. So I’m on a seven-day antibiotic regimen that prohibits drinking, just when I could most use some alternative medicine. And whatever mysterious mixture of sulfamethoxazole/trimethoprim and fish bacteria is tangoing in my system, it tripped off my rare strain of angioedema, a blood-vessel leakage malady that causes my lip or lips to swell up five or six times a year (specialists can’t determine what triggers it). So that at the moment, I kind of look like this guy:
Sure, it’s all fun and games when you have the regal headdress and Amazonian chieftain job title. But I’m just a guy with a fat lip.
To take down the swelling, I now have enough diphenhydramine in me to send a bush elephant to the Land of Nod for a half a week or so. But after just pumping out the last five-or-ten-graf grouse (who’s counting when you’re this drugged up?), I reread it in my antihistamine haze to see if it was a fine enough whine to stand on its own. And I decided it wasn’t.
I’d rather light a candle than curse you with my darkness. So I’m leaving you with an old shortish essay of mine defending cancer sticks. Or not so much defending cigarettes, but the people who smoke them. “Smokers,” I call them. Though most others now call them “criminals.” I’m not a smoker myself, but I tend to like them, and explain why. The piece also doubles as a loving tribute to my late Uncle Phil, one of the finest relatives whose second-hand smoke I ever had the pleasure of inhaling. I know what you’re thinking: “Why is he ‘late’? He died of lung cancer, right?” I’m not gonna give you the satisfaction, smart guy. Why do you have to be so negative? But I am starting to think even lung cancer might beat dying of COVID fatigue.
So without (much) further ado, a defense of people who no longer have any defenders besides Big Tobacco lobbyists. I was going to erect the paywall here. But I’m too groggy to erect anything at the moment. So I’m just leaving it open to all. Don’t, however, let COVID/the fish bacteria/angioedema win. Become a paid subscriber now.
At the risk of sounding like some heedless libertine, I’ve always loved smokers, even though I’ve never been one. Not habitually. I sometimes tried to smoke cigars during cocktail hours back in the nineties, when twentysomethings felt duty-bound to pretend they liked swing-dancing and pork pie hats and Squirrel Nut Zippers shows while smoking Cohibas as thick as baby legs. (‘Twas an unfortunate chapter in our history, which served as a sneak preview of what our culture would become: a wan remix of a more vital, authentic time from decades past. The redux version feels more like kids playing dress-up.)
Or maybe I’d bum a cigarette at a bar after one too many drinks—back when you could still smoke in bars, before smoking became regarded as an atrocity on a par with kitten-kicking and ethnic cleansing. I’d do this on occasion not because I liked the taste. (I didn’t.) Smoking during a rigorous drinking bout somehow brought on a hangover, which we drinking professionals consider the mark of an amateur. And that nicotine-induced hangover taste the next morning made my mouth feel, in the words of Kingsley Amis, like it had been “used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum.”
But what I was after, on my occasional smoking safaris, was something other than tobacco flavor or diminished lung capacity. I liked the ceremony of the cigarette. The implicit danger of starting a fire near your face. The punctuation that talking while smoking affords, giving your words animation and shading: the stops and starts, the dramatic pauses, sitting still after exhaling while letting the smoke do all the work around you. It could make even some suburban hump drinking piss-water beer at the Greene Turtle on a Tuesday afternoon feel like Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past or like Keith Richards in life.
Though I’ve never been anything more than an infrequent pretender myself, I’ve always been partial to cigarette smokers. Perhaps I developed my taste for second-hand smoke during childhood flights from my Texas abode to visit East Coast relatives on (now defunct) Eastern Airlines. There, while eating your rubber cold-cuts sandwich and sporting your pilot’s clip-on wings (distributed by sunny stewardesses who did not yet realize it was a hate crime for them not to be called “flight attendants”), you’d be entrapped in a tubular suffocation chamber for hours on end, with no escape, smokers happily puffing away all around you as you tried to read your in-flight magazine through a Marlboro smog.
Nowadays, this would be litigated in The Hague. But to me, back then, this was not only the smell of adventure, but of adult compromise. I’d entered a more sophisticated sanctum than the one I typically inhabited. In my elementary-school world, if I had a classmate with an atrocious personal habit—say, little Ricky who wouldn’t stop eating his snot, and whose breath smelled like it—I’d either tell the teacher or chuck a dirt clod at his head during recess. But on the plane, non-smokers and smokers alike all breathed the same air, and stayed civilized, with nobody losing their cool. Long before I went on to become a civil-rights pioneer, this was my earliest lesson in tolerance. I didn’t merely tolerate smokers, however—I actually quite liked them. Maybe because my first chain-smoking acquaintance was my Great Uncle Phil. He smoked Kools and drank Pabst long before it became the beer of choice for people who wear ironic facial hair. We’d sit on his backyard patio, and while away the day. He’d pour me a tall glass of chocolate milk if it was before noon; a few slugs of Blue Ribbon if it was after. He’d occasionally concoct a mission, declaring that we needed to head “to the boondocks” to look for rattlesnakes and deer sheds.
But mostly, we just enjoyed each other’s easy company, him puffing away on Kools all the while, laconically drawing one after another out of the soft pack in his terry-cloth shirt pocket, like he wasn’t in a hurry to break his lungs but eventually would get around to it. (Which he finally did.) He’d drop pearls of adult wisdom on me, saying things like, “Yep, yep, yep …”, as though he was answering a question that had never been asked. And I took it all in. Along with his second-hand smoke.
I’m not pretending that my seven-year-old self had a clean fix on Uncle Phil, what he wanted out of life, or what doubts or fears he secretly harbored, as all men do. I just knew that we had plenty of time to figure out what it all meant, because he wasn’t going anywhere. He still had a half a pack left to smoke. I’ve always divvied up the world into two kinds of people: stayers and goers. Uncle Phil was a stayer, as most smokers are. They are people whose pleasure shaves years off their lives, as the surgeon general forever reminds us. But maybe they know better how to savor the often truncated lives they live. Smokers tend to be people who prize fellowship, discourse, conviviality, and who know how to stop time, or at least to take the edge off its fleetingness. Because they have to linger long enough to finish up their smoke.
I’m well aware that smoking is bad for you. As Mensa member Brooke Shields once put it, “Smoking kills. If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life.” Yeah, fine. I don’t smoke, nor will I let my children. But if we’re picking nits, what doesn’t kill us these days? Trans fats, artificial sweeteners, stress, ISIS, etc. The list is long. As other health-science types promise: “What doesn’t kill us, will eventually kill us.” Lately, there’s been a rash of stories that taking too many vitamins can lead to fatal illnesses. In other words, the very supplements you swallow to elongate your life might be snuffing it out like a cigarette.
Or maybe not. Who knows? If you don’t like the science, wait five minutes, until science changes its mind yet again. But one thing we don’t need science to tell us is that we willingly and habitually inject a load of poisons into our system. The kind that aren’t delivered by Philip Morris, but by your cable and Internet providers: the victimhood and self-pity, the partisan rage and distrust that tend to convince us that our side alone is God’s Avenger, while the other side is dishonest, violent, and cheesy—some lab-hatched hybrid of Baghdad Bob, Pol Pot, and vape-shop owners. We have reached such a fever pitch that it’s easy to succumb to nostalgia, wondering whether the world was more civilized when everyone smoked. Sure, correlation does not imply causation. But maybe we’d be better off trading one cancer for another: to put down our 24/7 hate machines (i.e., our hand computers), and to pick up a pack of cigarettes, offering to share one with somebody you don’t love, or even like. Head outside—that is, if you live in a city that still permits smoking outside—and have a conversation with them. See how it goes. The surgeon general isn’t the only one who should be worried about clearing the air.
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Bonus Scene: If you have 10 or 12 minutes to kill – say you’re in COVID quarantine or your evil boss made you come back to the office (thanks, Elon Musk) – then you might want to watch this scene between Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, playing themselves in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes.