“After some time he felt for his pipe. It was not broken, and that was something. Then he felt for his pouch, and there was some tobacco in it, and that was something more. Then he felt for matches and he could not find any at all, and that shattered his hopes completely.” — “The Hobbit”.
Despite our political leaders’ efforts to eradicate cigarettes, or at the very least force those who smoke to do so in the middle of a bustling New York City street, the number of smokers is on the rise. Naturally, New York’s Independent Budget Office attributes this small uptick to a reduced budget for anti-smoking campaigns. As a direct result, it says, the number of New Yorkers who smoke is up to 16.1 percent in 2013, the latest numbers available, from 14 percent in 2010. They say numbers don’t lie, only people do. But at the very least, these numbers are guilty of a lie of omission. Why? Because the numbers say nothing about love.
Beautiful, beautiful love. Much as nanny-staters might be loath to admit it, some people just love to smoke. Count me among them. There’s nothing like that first heady pull — preferably, if you ask me, on a fire escape in winter, with a good mate and a mug of whiskey. There’s also the supreme pleasure derived from doing something so despised by a vast array of people, but mostly our Big Gulp soda-banning progressives — you know the ones. Where there’s a “No Smoking” sign, you can bet I’m somewhere close at hand. I really don’t want to smoke in the street, see — it counteracts the peace the cigarette provides. And look, I know all about the warning label affixed to every pack of Marlboro Reds I buy. I know — and believe — what the surgeon general says. The myth persists that most smokers don’t actually think smoking is deadly. It’s just that — a myth. In short: I get it, smoking kills. And I fully intend to quit. Just . . . not yet.
To better illustrate what I’m trying to get at, let me steal the words of the inimitable late Christopher Hitchens. After his cancer diagnosis, he was asked whether, if he could go back in time, he’d refrain from drinking and smoking as copiously as he was known for. Speaking of both delicious vices, he said anything that “enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation — is worth it to me. So I was knowingly taking a risk. I wouldn’t recommend it to others.” I’d take it one step further: Smoking lends itself to the building of camaraderie and friendship. We take it for granted that drinking does this; so does smoking. Call it the power of the puff. You see, the beauty of smoking is time — and how, in some small way, it allows us to control it. I’ll explain: You can extricate yourself from a rather dull conversation, because, well, that five-minute cigarette is done — and so, too, are you with that conversation. Or, entrenched in the topic at hand, you might find that you and your fellow inhaler have tacitly agreed that to keep the conversation as it is, at least three to four smokes are required. Basically, cigarettes are the barometer for a good or a bad time — unspoken, they allow you to move seamlessly through your evening sans awkward conversation-killers. They’re also a time for solitude, of taking a moment or three for oneself. A respite. A time to live in the space between a light and an ember; a time to live in the space of an inhale and an exhale; a time to live in a space between the first light and the last drag. It’s self-contained, yet somehow expansive. As one of my more inveterate smoker friends put it, he smokes to ponder his own mortality, as if the act of smoking forces him to ask — knowing that it could kill him — if he’s living his life well. And he lives in the hope that he is. Here’s the thing: Every smoker knows that each cigarette has a delicious start, a somewhat interesting middle, and an end that is occasionally satisfying, but always comes too soon. Perhaps the life of a smoke might reflect, to some degree, the life of the smoker.