"Can I have a smoke," he asked me. I was waiting outside some art house theater in Boston and lit up a cigarette for the interval while my friend went to the bathroom when I noticed him looking at me. He stood over with his wife - a woman old enough to be my grandmother at least - and I saw him glancing alternately at her and at me. He too, could have been a grandparent, though probably my grandfather. As I stood there, leaning against the light pole doing my James Dean, I watched as he carefully took each step toward me until he was maybe a foot away. The man was a full foot shorter than I, but something about him told me to be afraid. "Can I have a smoke," he asked. Inwardly I laughed thinking about how I was supposed to be part of the health conscious generation and he was bumming a "cancer stick" from me. Sure, I thought, why not, though the man's wife was giving me a vicious look.
From my pocket I produced a pack of Kamel Red's, the brand I had started smoking and the brand I continue with to this day. He smiled. "Cowboy killers," he laughed. I smiled in return, correcting him that the brand he referred to were actually Marlboro. He mumbled something about split hairs and motioned with his fingers that I was taking to long. I shook him out a smoke and he greedily accepted. With the other hand I flipped open my burnished steel Zippo to light him up and he leaned in. Wind was not a problem.
Taking a deep drag and letting it go with a smile, he looked me dead in the eye and said to me, "Those things will kill you, you know." I looked at my left hand, still holding my Kamel's and smiled back to him, nodding my head. I knew. Everyone had told me. My mother, my father, my brother, and both my sisters had all warned me to the dangers of smoking. The list grew almost daily. He let loose a vicious laugh that was startling comming from what looked like such a frail body. "No, not the cigarettes kid, the lighter." I didn't know what to say. The man looked into my eyes with a wisdom that could only have come from age and maybe both World Wars. He read my confusion and continued. "The Zippo. That'll kill you." I had to know why.
"It's the oil. It's not the nicotine, and it sure as hell isn't the smoke," he grinned. "The oil builds up in your lungs and THAT's what causes the cancer." I loved old people. I loved how they referred to cancer as "the" cancer.
"Is that so," I asked with a fair amount of skepticism.
"It is." He took another drag off of his borrowed cigarette. "Of course, the Germans got more than the oil did." I admited that I was confused. "The Army used to give them out as standard issue, those Zippos," he informed me. "After a while, G.I.'s stopped using them for anything but shining shoes since the Germans had sharpshooters waiting for the flash of steel. One flash and a bullet, you had no idea was out there, would do you in."
"Wow," I said.
"You ought to switch to matches," he told me as he wandered back to his wife and as my friend emerged from the theater. I had been told that smoking would kill me, but never the Zippo that I used to light the babies. Of everything I had every been told in my life about cigarettes, nothing had ever taken as much enjoyment out of the act than that. Zippo's were cool. They had style. Steve McQueen had one in that Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode. They were better than those Bic's people used, except for the German factor, but since I lived in New York I figured it wouldn't be much of an issue. Still, like everything good in life, it too would end up killing me.
I started smoking knowing what I was getting into. It was a decision made of sound mind. At twenty I walked into a corner convenience store in San Francisco and proudly asked for the brand I wanted. Somewhere, in some office where somebody looked at the statistics of R.J. Renolyds smokers, someone was cheered. Lawsuits be damned! They had a legitimate smoker. No advertising directed at children got this one. It had nothing to do with high school peer pressure. I just wanted to smoke. To non-smokers that sounds stupid and it could be but what the hell. I was well informed about everything bad it would do to my body and was also well aware of the stigma it had in the Bay Area where smoking was as bad if not worse than a DUI on a drivers license. It was my body, I figured, and I needed something to take my mind off of things. Smoking seemed like a good idea.
Anti-smokers, of course, have a list of people much longer than mine who died from smoking and, for the timid, it should be looked over. Many many people have lost their lives to the affectation I took up, but then, what did I care when I could be like Steve McQueen, James Dean, Jack Kerouac, Cary Grant, or even creepy Peter Laurie. Sure, I'd never be exactly like them, but I could be a little.
In this day and age, however, no one will let a guy alone about something like smoking. Anyone who has ever cared about me has felt the need, at least once, to inform me as to the dangers of smoking. Those who don't care so much about me, but rather themselves, an understandable position to be in, tell me that I'm killing them or, on a grander scale, destroying the Earth. "Well, Hell," I said, "I guess I'm just a bad guy."
But the old man got to me in a way no one else ever had. Ever since my encounter with him, smoking just hadn't been the same. The little breaks that I took from work to escape outside were filled with a tinge of fear instead of relief. After an afternoon of basketball with my girlfriend, I decided that the time had come for me too to renounce tabbacco and so I did. For seventy-two hours I chewed straws and tried not to think about the nice sides of smoking: The automatic breaks every two hours at work. The Russian Army phrase I had been told never seemed so pertinent. "If you don't smoke, you work." I tried not to think about how calming it all was. I swore I was done. When I smoked half a butt, I confessed to everyone at work, praying it wasn't a bad thing to have done and hoping that they could assure me that I was not a bad man.
After those three days, when I lit up again with the full intention of smoking the whole damned thing, I had to admit that I'd never felt so good. I liked it. Yes sir, I did. A friend of mine had once told me, "There are smokers and there are non-smokers." Health be damned, I've got medical insurance. I am a smoker.
MAIL this to a friend. They'll thank you for it later.