Cigarettes Pt. 1

Long before there were any notches on a beat-down headboard or a depraved selection of stories of how the notches got there, before jobs or deadlines, before past due notices and pleading no contest, there were cigarettes.

The second gateway drug after your friend’s mom and dad’s Kahlua and peppermint schnapps.

The daily dope of yellowing fingernails and raspy morning hacks, the hourly desire to tap the vein and choke the throat with that stinky, sweet tightening of every wonderful inhale…

6th grade. 1985. Metropolitan Learning Center. Northwest Portland, Oregon. Off-campus lunch hour. The Gypsy was a vast, dingy, dark neighborhood lounge where filthy day-drinkers and junkies hoping to escape the light of the afternoon often dwelled. In its doorway stood a cigarette machine that had a picture of a Marlboro cowboy corralling a herd of something while gripping a Full Flavor between his teeth. This was the notorious machine where the schoolkids would sneak into the bar’s entryway and stuff the machine with quarters and pull the knob that delivered those wonderful, brightly colored parcels of contraband.

One day it was Reed’s turn to get the smokes. Never having gone into The Gypsy or even began to fathom what a truly legendary dive bar it was, his introduction to such a venue was monumental. His eyes and mind were forever and beautifully wrecked for seeing such dimly lit debauchery thickly wallowing in a cloud of silent drinking and cigarette smoke.

As to not be spotted by the bartender, this child trembling, pushed what he hoped were enough coins into this towering machine. Frantic with nerves, he quickly saw the camel, that universal desert animal, dirty with gold and dust on its emblem and pulled the plastic, crystal knob that loudly delivered the cigarettes into the dispenser.

Reaching in, he snatched the smokes and booked it out the door, panting, dizzy, victorious.

Reed’s friends, standing across the street at the theater doorway, giggled and ran towards him as he swaggered down 21st Ave, the cock of the cigarette walk. He tossed the pack over his shoulder at the bunch and then watched his delinquent pals groan with disappointment. “C’mon, man, what the hell is this?”
“Whaddya mean,” Reed asked.
“Dude, these are straights.”
“Yeah. Straights. No filter. Tobacco in your mouth. Lung burn! Short and not sweet, have you ever tried them? How are we supposed to smoke these? Gross. You smoke ’em, they’re all yours,” throwing the pack back at Reed in disgust.

Be ready to sacrifice yourself to the gods of vice should you choose to live such a life of experience, excitement and excess. There will be a day when you’re compelled to ingest chemicals you’re not confident in. A day when you will be expected to finish off the rest of the drugs, a moment when, you alone, will have to reckon with the fact that your partners in crime will abruptly leave you high and dry the minute you think everything is great.

Don’t Let The Warnings Fool You

Every smoker who used to smoke has a love affair with the past and thinks about lighting up every so often. In some cases such thoughts occur every single day apparently until the end of time.

The state of Oregon became a “non-smoking indoors or anywhere outside near a door, a school or hospital or dog or child” in 2009 and it’s been great for those who used to have to empty and clean ashtrays on a daily basis. It also lets people go out drinking and to not come home smelling like their clothes have been used to fan a brush fire of Camel Lights all night long.

When tooling around Portland I see throngs of people gathered on the streetsides and sidewalks, talking, watching, standing and smoking. As if the weather deemed it neccessary for people to be outside, as if it were a tropical country where everyone was in the street being seen because it was just too hot to do anything else. In countries and climates that are naturally warm, much of the population fill the streets so it’s a more of a communal society than many Western regions. Now the corners and barfronts in Portland look populated and celebratory. Regardless that those standing outside in droves have been kicked out because their habit has now become a nationwide stigma of poor health and decision, it’s nice to see folks always hanging out in front. (Smoking is still cool in my book. Not smart, but cool.)

On another note, if you’ve ever traveled through Salt Lake City or any other major airport where indoor glass cages with enormous vents that hang from the ceiling (like a toxic cleansing chamber if you’re wearing a yellow haz-mat suit) corral the smoking travelers, look inside and see their faces. Not really a happy bunch and I’ve often wondered if it was the traveling hours, the airline food, or the fact that they’re put on display behind nicotine stained windows to remind the rest of us how sad and lonely it is to smoke cigarettes. (Smoking is still cool. Absolute stupidest habit on earth, but still cool.)

State Express 555

There is a delicious brand of English cigarette here in Vietnam called 555. They come in a yellow box and I smoked them for a few months until I stopped about 3 months ago. For many years I’ve had an ongoing affair with cigarettes and the hanging guilt,  late-night tirades and me picking up my belongings up off the front lawn may never end.

Lately as I walk past the many cigarette stands in Saigon I’ve noticed that 555’s now come in a badass black and silver box, as if Darth Vader were in a biker gang going to an Oakland Raiders game to smoke a bunch of cigarettes.

I really want to try these fascinatingly new cigarettes. I ‘m one of those susceptible sheep that once I see some tired product wrapped in new clothes I’m in love all over again.  I think being in a mysterious black box will make these 555’s quite tastier and give me the much needed nicotine and minerals my body needs. Much more than that sissy yellow box ever could.

I have yet to ask for a pack. For all I know the black box could mean “Super-extra-ultra-light cigarettes that increase estrogen levels”  but I’m pretty sure it means “You better buy a bottle of whiskey and a big-ass stick because if you smoke these you’re going to need them both to beat the women off you.”

Instead, what I’ve done is take the money I would be spending on cigarettes (here in Vietnam a pack of 555’s go for about a dollar) and buy vintage cigarette art instead. I’ve saved about $150 so far and once I get home Marlboros will cost about 4 bucks and that’s $120 a month for crazy stuff like this.

Beats chemo.

I Wish I Smoked Cigarettes

That feeling of rolling over in bed and finding a lighter first thing in the morning.

In a hammock in a summer backyard.

Cruising down a highway with all the windows down.

On that long ski lift back to the top, one glove removed.

At a streetside cafe with a book or a pen and a cuppa joseph.

Having a single sitting behind your ear as you work, waiting for that delicious break.

Nothing is better than leaning up against something and smoking. Or sitting backwards in a chair, hands draped over the top holding a cigarette. Smoking turns loitering into still life.

Watching the clouds of smoke rise from your mouth, like a sexy dragon or greasy rock star.

The only bad time for a cigarette is when you’re in the womb.

The weight of an antique Ronson, the smell of Zippo fluid or match sulfur, the fresh jones of an unlit cigarette, so many things about smoking are just lovely and beautiful, like old friends.

Friends that make me wheeze in stairwells and turn my teeth yellow. The same friends that get me hookers, heroin, and amphetamines, land me in the hoosegow and blow the bail money, the same friends that shave down my life expectancy, and most definitely the same friends whom I can’t play with anymore.


Though the elegant sophisitication cannot be argued when one enjoys the smooth taste of premium tobacco that’s blended with the finest of morning loogies and rich in brown fingernails.