porky1

The Thinking Man’s Filter

By

Smoking again sounds like a good idea. I quit one November – twelve dry months following five years of intense puffing. The break was insightful, curative even, which was why I thought it might be time to resume the habit.

November turned to December. Spring turned to summer turned to fall turned to November. My year anniversary passed without a puff. Now again it’s December and I can see my breath. Every year this happens, no longer how long it’s been. I look around and see everyone around me smoking but me. See two friends who vowed to quit still puffing. See my best friend Chris supplementing cigars for cigarettes. Hear how his ex-smoker wife bought her first pack of Marlboros in years. The stale cigars I keep in my dresser drawer – stubby Dominicans I just couldn’t dispose of – have so thoroughly desiccated that even Chris, on his budget, won’t smoke them. If the world is filled with signs, how am I supposed to read this?

I love to smoke and hate myself for the passion and wish the affair was over. But the affair is never over. It’s only interrupted by long, restful gaps that a flushed marathoner might describe as “healthy breathers.” Excuse me a second: Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.

Every day I go through this: want, resist, want, resist. And today, like yesterday, I remain a non-smoker. Today.

What do the AA folks say? “One day at a time.” They say other things too.

Ask any alcoholic about that “I-can-have-one-beer” routine. The usual story goes that some dry drunk sees his non-alkie friends drinking beer and thinks, I want a beer. So one night he has a beer. One beer one night here becomes one beer one night there. That inevitably increases into a sixer, which later turns into a few ugly benders, and that one beer becomes one tear cried into an ocean of spilled Coors. Back in AA meetings, the dry drunk sips coffee, waits for his three-month chip and tells the group, “That ‘I-can-have-one-beer’ thing does not work.”

They could have told you that.

But you don’t want to hear that. I don’t. I want to smoke. I want to feel the rich smoke singe my palate. Want something to look forward to when I wake up, get stressed and to punctuate the day, a chemical nipple to nip on. Maybe my life is empty. Or maybe smoking makes it even more full.

What I don’t want is to start putting too much salt on everything again just to taste it. Or clear my throat an excessive amount of times while lying in bed trying to fall asleep. I don’t want a winter cold to make a single day’s abstinence feel like an epoch, or to always carry breath mints. Or chew nicotine gum to endure long flights. I don’t miss finding ashes in my car, or the shame of telling a girlfriend, “I’m sorry honey, I can’t smell that honeysuckle. All I smell are my fingers.” And all the money that you spend—my God. But that isn’t the point. Good sense doesn’t dissolve strong chemical bonds, and nicotine is as mean a molecular slave-master as Nature invented, maybe the meanest. Nicotiniana is a trickier plant than the opium poppy, trickier than the coca bush, as powerful a force as my biological urge to sleep, eat, procreate, avoid death, do anything. And I have to resist?

If stomata were mouths, Nicotiniana would be laughing. A snickering chorus of countless green leaves rising from the world’s tobacco fields.

Last night I had a dream. A cigarette hung from my mouth, and standing alone with it on some city street, it lit itself. Poof, the tip just turned orange. No one was looking, and as I drew in air, the familiar burning bitterness filled my mouth. A cellular sigh arose like swamp gas in the dream darkness, my brain-cells awash in what for so long they insisted we needed. I licked my lips, exhaled. Watching the plume rush past my face, it became clear what I had done. I spat out the cigarette. It laid alone on the sidewalk bent in the middle, like a neglected infant just dumped by bad parents. It looked like it should have been crying there, so rejected, dejected. But instead I was, because it was too late.

***

During his stint as an actor, Ronald Regan appeared in a 1951 print ad for Chesterfield cigarettes. “I’m sending Chesterfields to all my friends,” the caption read. “That’s the merriest Christmas any smoker can have – Chesterfield mildness plus no unpleasant after-taste.”

“Until it became utterly unfashionable,” the Spartanburg Times reported, Senator Jesse Helms began meetings in his Senate office by offering everyone a Lucky Strike.

One 1949 TV ad stated that, according to a nationwide survey of doctors in all branches of medicine, “more doctors smoked Camels than any other cigarette.”

And on one of actor Steve McQueen’s numerous cigarette commercials, he leaned against a wooden porch beam on a western movie set and told viewers, “when I’m off stage I like to stop and think, figure things out. That’s why I smoke Viceroys.” He handed an assistant his prop holster and pistol, lowered himself into a rickety wooden chair and spoke directly to the camera. “Viceroy,” he said, “the thinking man’s filter, the smoking man’s taste.” He died of mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, on November 7, 1980.

“These?” the liquor store clerk said, handing me a pack of Viceroys. When he spotted his mistake, he laid a squat box of unfiltered Luckies on the counter and said, “Ok, six seventy-seven.” I fished change from my jeans. I didn’t smoke any on the drive home, just let one hang from my mouth, like a toothpick or ballpoint pen. The moist paper stuck to my lip. When it tore, tobacco spilled out, wedging in my teeth. I chewed a few strands then, seconds later, spit them out. They tasted too good.

***

I will never inhale another puff of tobacco again. But you don’t have to to smoke. Ask my dad. His mom, my Granny, puffed on cigarettes as if they were cigars, never inhaling. She died on the operating table during triple bypass surgery, age fifty-seven. It was her third heart attack.

Like most young dummies, I started smoking in high school. Camels, Marlboros, dirt cheap generics. I bought a few phony tough-guy brands from head shops, most notably Black Death. When you’re seventeen, mortality is a joke. The Reaper comes for old people, not those still separated from the inevitable by the cushion of decades. After months paying rip-off convenience store prices, my friends and I learned to frequent the Pima Indian Reservation’s tax-free tobacco outlet. Called On-Auk-Mor, the store sat a few blocks from my house in south Scottsdale, Arizona and sold the cheapest smokes in town. They even had a drive-thru window, so no one got winded by walking to the register. Sometimes I bought cigs by the carton. Other times I bought two-packs of whatever was on sale: Southern auto-body shop brands like Winstons and Bull Durhams mostly, real working stiff, NASCAR-sponsor type stuff. Friends laughed at them – “Chesterfield? What the hell is that?” – but my off brands did the trick.

Allowance financed my habit, meaning my parents’ hard-earned money. Then, after nearly two years of predictable teen toking – all those nights of drinking and carousing, mornings spent laundering ash-scented clothes – I made what I considered an adult decision. I quit. Not solely for my health, which was still the domain of geezers. I quit for character.

My high school smoking revealed some ugly personality traits that, as a kid, I never suspected were there. Like compulsion: somehow I’d become one of those compulsive smokers. Although many kids chain-smoke at parties, lighting and relighting in quick, nervous succession when they’re drunk, hitting on girls, or sitting on a curb on a Saturday night, this was different. I smoked constantly, weekends and weekdays. But it wasn’t the act so much as the motivation that unnerved me. The first things I thought of upon waking were sex and cigarettes, not always in that order. When I found myself lighting my second or third Winston on my short drive to high school, I realized how far out of control I had spun. I started to test myself: could I smoke just one per commute? I could, but it was the fact that I required parameters that gave me fright. Where was my strength? My self-control? What next, shock treatment like the Ramones sang about? I was still young enough to recall children’s books about monsters in the closet, and this monster in me needed scaring back in among my sweaters. I didn’t know about nicotine gum or patches, so I did what my old chemistry teacher called “titration:” I weaned myself by adjusting the dose. One week I allowed myself three cigarettes per day. The next week I allowed myself two. Then, on the final day of that final trying week, I snuffed out my last butt and that was it—cold turkey, like a champ. All the pot I smoked senior year likely helped ease withdrawals, but that didn’t change the facts: I graduated a non-smoker. And I did it all through sheer force of will.

Which is why I’m still struggling today.

***

I will never inhale another puff of tobacco again. I haven’t for twelve years. But you don’t have to to smoke.

When I bought my first cigar at age twenty-seven, I thought I’d found a less harmful way to puff that would eventually be easier to quit. By entering your lungs, cigarette smoke channels nicotine to your brain in seven to ten seconds; that’s partly why they have filters. Cigar are unfiltered because you just swish the smoke around in your mouth for flavor, like wine at a vineyard tasting. By only penetrating mouth tissues, I reasoned, cigars were the lumbering dinosaur of drug delivery and therefore guaranteed a less severe withdrawal. “It’s like freebasing cocaine compared to sniffing it,” was my go-to analogy.

Normally I bashed this kind of pseudoscience. In this instance, I cultivated it.

When I explained this “logic” to people, they usually said something like, “So throat and mouth cancers are ok?” Throat and mouth cancers take longer to form, I reasoned, the lesser of two evils, and I’d quit before then anyway. I was twenty-seven at the time. I had plotted this out like a retirement plan.

After five years of heavy cigar smoking, a relentless cough, shortness of breath and stained teeth forced me to admit my self-deception and do the research I failed to do when I took up the habit. There they were, all the unwanted facts I’d been straining out. Cigars not only contained addictive levels of nicotine, but the larger cigar sizes contained as much as if not more tobacco than a single pack of cigarettes. Although you didn’t inhale them, since you normally smoked cigars in a single sitting, they delivered a substantial dose of nicotine in a thirty to sixty minute period. They also stink to high hell and are embarrassing. I disgusted myself and looked like an ass.

Finally, I quit. What followed was a withdrawal worse than I ever suffered with cigarettes: restlessness, leg-tapping, disrupted sleep, anxiety, nightmares, persistent irritability. I wish I could personally apologize to all the Phoenix, Arizona drivers I flipped off on the road during those trying weeks. Everything annoyed me. I chewed pen caps to pieces. Chewed my nicotine gum like cud.

Smokers will tell you, “You have to die of something,” but I refuse to invest in a particular demise.

***

I remember seeing a certain Warner Brothers cartoon as a kid. Porky Pig’s mom had given her son a nickel for the church collection plate and warned him not to talk to strangers. Then, as Porky ambles down the street, he runs into a little cigar-smoking pig leaning against a fence. St-st-stuttering, Porky asks the punk, “Don’t you know what happens to pu—, uh, boys who smoke?” The punk blows a few impressive smoke rings then calls Porky a puny puss. “I ain’t a puny puss,” Porky insists, and to prove it, he takes a puff. One puff. For some of us that’s all it takes. Yet Porky puffs vigorously. Nauseous and dizzy, he stumbles into a dim, deserted smoke shop and collapses on the floor.

From atop the towering shelves, a plump, off-white creature with a long, bumpy nose appears. Part plume, part ghost, the creature pokes his head from between boxes, then slinks down the shelves to the floor beside Porky and hands him a card. “Nick O’Teen,” the card says, “1313 Tobacco Road.” Nick O. Teen says, “So you like to smoke ey? Well you came to the right place sonny.” Then he screams: “And you will get all the smoking you can handle!” With that he jumps over to an organ, built into a box of Habanos, and starts playing a sinister tune. Characters step to life from the boxes – matches, cigarettes, a trio of Three Stooges cigars – swaying to music that has the same menacing air as Duke Ellington’s “The Mooche,” and Seuss’ “You’re A Mean One, Mister Grinch.” “It’s no fun, to smoke just one. Take six at a stroke,” they sing. “Light a bag and take a drag, this is not a joke.” The characters taunt Porky, poke him in the eyes. A stern, bearded corn cob pipe leans from a shelf to add, “Little kids shouldn’t smoke tobaccy.”

Poor Porky. He didn’t know what he was getting into.

It’s December, 2008. I’m thirty-three, and I have managed not to smoke for twelve months. But I’m struggling. Until this December, the preceding November had been the hardest month yet. Since it marked my one-year anniversary, the subject came up constantly. Friends congratulated me. My ex-girlfriend congratulated me, as did my parents: “One year of no smoking, that’s huge. Keep it up!” I congratulated myself: “Twelve months, buddy. You’re a trooper.” Twelve months. Twelve long, empty, torturous months. Months of fiddling with toothpicks and chewing on pens, months of… no… smoking.

Smoking.

No smoking.

The word’s repetition hammered the habit’s absence home. There has to be a less-loaded term to use when discussing my triumph, an unsoiled stand-in that honors my dedication without activating my salivary glands. God has “Yahweh” in place of “He” and “She.” What is my Yahweh for tobacco? “No good son-of-a-bitch” works. So does “devil weed” and “motherfucker.” But that’s Scroogish. This is the holiday season. I’m supposed to be caring and joyful and stringing lights on fresh-cut Douglas firs. The whole country is decorated green and red, yet my mental halls are decked in orange glowing embers, and I can’t find relief.

I was flipping through radio stations recently, searching for festive songs like Bing Crosby’s “Christmas in Killarney” and “Mele Kalikimaka,” and feared Tex Williams’ song “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” might come on. I pictured the DJ of the local country station bound and gagged in a broom closet, the Devil seated at the nearby control desk laughing, programming songs with a pitchfork. Somehow my resistance seemed stronger during my first months of cessation, an evil corollary inverse to the duration of my abstinence. Isn’t this supposed to get easier? I tell myself to hang on, that this is just a rough patch, remind myself of my triumphs.

At a friend’s recent wedding, my best friend Chris offered me a smoldering La Riqueza cigar. He said, “You have to taste this.”

“Get that fucking thing away from me,” I said. “You know I can’t.”

“But you’re the only one I can talk to about cigars!” he said.

He recently started smoking cigars after two months of complete nicotine cessation. He’d smoked cigs for fifteen straight years, never once quit, never even considered it. When he first mentioned that he wanted a cigar, I warned him about transference. “Cigars count because it’s not about the delivery system,” I said, “it’s about the nicotine.” He nodded, seeing his future clearly laid out and accepting it. Now he owns a small humidor filled with breakfast and dinner cigars, an issue of Cigar Aficionado and a Xikar dual flame lighter, which costs fifty dollars. “Well let’s talk about cigars,” I told him at the wedding. “You’re acting like a drug pusher.”

He squinted and told his wife, who was standing beside us, “My friend is a nicotine addict and can’t have one puff.”

In a world of flicking Zippos, I am a paper heart, a gasoline leak at a barbecue competition. Tomorrow might be the day. Maybe tomorrow, but not today.

***

Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Aaron Gilbreath has written essays, many about music, for The New York Times, Paris Review, Tin House, Black Warrior Review, Kenyon Review, Brick, The Threepenny Review, AGNI, Conjunctions, Hotel Amerika, and Cincinnati Review, and written articles for Oxford American, Virginia Quarterly Review and Yeti. Currently at work on a book of travel writing set in Canada, he sells tea in Portland, Oregon and blogs about music, food and miscellany at http://aarongilbreath.wordpress.com. More from this author →