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.”
“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.

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Keep NW While I Convertibally Roadsterize

Look up. The phenomena of groups of people simultaneously looking down and thumbing their phones is almost so normal that I’m beginning to feel like a monkey in a zoo of  shackled humans.

I was politely informed that it would be in my best interest if I stopped going to my favorite coffee shop and pizza joint. How dare I walk the street on which I was raised, how dare I permeate and somehow soil the good names of those who are more concerned with me than with the sanctity of their own sacred institution…how dare I.

Keep NW. Keep Nob Hill, Westover, Goose Hollow, Burnside, Everett and Vista, I hereby surrender all land, delis, venues and avenues that have been laid claim to by the most advanced level of melodrama to ever walk this tree-lined neighborhood. Keep the tourists, traffic and transients. Keep the lifestyle, the drinks and the drugs, the nights of emptiness despite the money spent, keep NW, you’ve earned it (I mean, burned it).

Let it be known. I’m kicking rocks, hookerfish.

Can we protect Russell, please?

Can we eek into the playoffs, please?

Cubs? Really? Cool. (Go Mets).

The beauty and violence of suicide will always both weigh on me and lighten my step because those I’ve known who have chosen that path still stroll aimlessly inside my soul. Everyday.

I miss smoking cigarettes.  A lot. Waking up, reaching over and lighting a Marlboro before even opening both eyes, resting the ashtray on my chest and watching it rise up and down with each drag, cursing the hot sting of burning ash that always flaked onto my bare skin.

There was a day where I would spend all my money on intangible things and during the hangover/comedown I’d rue the decisions I had made with my dividends. Then there became a day when I would spend all my money on objects, things, random stuff and I would still not satiate the emptiness in my belly that usually a new pair of shoes would fill. These days I understand the term “sock away” because most my dough now gets stuffed into an actual sock. Not on a bottle or a bag, not on toys or couture. Not on anything…except maybe something for a girl. Maybe.

Have you seen this? Heard of this? It’s tea. It’s amazing. I’m sold. The industry in which I work sometimes shocks me with its ingenuity.

Kissing is the singly most underrated and underappreciated action two people can perform. The smell of hair and skin, breath and auras, laundry and product, all determine the aftertaste of a passionate embrace.

One day I’m going to bomb around in a little two-seat, convertible roadster, my white silk scarf will billow furiously behind me as my lady and I careen through the hills like happy bats out of hell and I will then surely be satisfied with how things in my life have turned out. Only then.

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.)

Hanging On The Rails

I watch the moon in the lake as it follows the train I’m on.

The big window slides open without a screen so I can stick my head out of it if I want. It’s by no means a bullet train, just a steely diesel beast, and there’s something about putting my face out alongside it that scares me to death. Amtrak would never let me do that back home so I take advantage of the lawlessness and let the wind belt me as if I were a Labrador riding out the window on an American highway.

Every curve lets me see the entire train snake along the rails

It’s noisy and old, a dull green with six cars book ended by monstrous engines that sound like the ocean if the waves were breaking right on your face while someone bangs a hammer onto sheet metal. It’s a constant roar of machinery, hissing, pistons, wheels shaking and clanking, metal against metal. Loudest thing I’ve ever been on.

The older gentlemen who are staffed on the train all come around one by one and want to talk to me and find out who I am. I look like a Westerner but my language pronunciation sounds native so they’re all fascinated. It’s fun. They all have on nice blue shirts and policemen hats, smoking cigarettes and drinking black iced coffee in little plastic cups.

The smoking section is a tiny, shoulder-width compartment between the cars where one small ashtray sits on the wall. It’s adjacent to the exit door that has a drop hatch for the stairs when disembarking, but the hatch apparently stays open during the trip. It’s easily big enough to drop a body through and I watch the ties and gravel zoom by in the open darkness just a few steps away. There is a small handle near the ashtray that’s polished clean from where smokers have stood and puffed while watching that hole for dear life.

The cabin lights are off so looking out is clear, where silhouettes of mountains reflect on the numerous lakes and thinly lit highways with palm trees carved from the sky in front of a brimming round moon somehow makes me homesick.

Houses not 10 feet from the tracks have patios and stoops behind shabby fences where people are sitting, I can look right into their homes and they can see my face and big eyes peeping from the train. A little boy shoots a toy gun as we rumble by.

8 hours of a dark train ride beats 4 hours on a bus any day.

Da Nang or bust. Should get there by 3 in the morn.

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.

Cogito, Ergo Difference

I think war is deplorable. Yet I think tanks and fighter jets are fascinating.

I think murder is horribly wrong. Yet I enjoy watching bloodletting in films.

I think people who chase money are suckers. Yet I feel inadequate if I’m not employed.

I think people who steal are not good people. Yet I believe it’s not what you steal but who you steal from.

I think smoking is a beautiful and wonderful way to spend a few minutes. Yet I’ll always believe that even though I’m Telly Savalas sucking on dum-dums, instead.

I think incarceration for drugs is a waste of taxpayer money. Yet I love watching “Cops” and junkies goin’ to jail.

I think people should be more tolerant and nice to each other. Yet I find myself being hurried, indifferent and sometimes insolent to others.

I think the world is a staggeringly interesting place filled with captivating people and eternal possibilities. Yet I complain about it like a debutante late for the cotillion.

I think too much. Yet I’m told I don’t use my head enough.