Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bubblegum Cigars & Marlboro Reds

"Warm beer and cold women, I just don't fit in;
every joint I stumbled into tonight,
that's just how it's been.
All these double knit strangers with
gin and vermouth, and the recycled stories
in the naugahyde booths,

with the platinum blondes,
and tobacco brunettes...
I'll just be drinkin' to forget you-
I light another cigarette...
and the band's playin' something
by Tammy Wynette,
and the drinks are on me tonight."

When that song makes sense with a cigar or pipe smoker, I'll feel kinship.

People outside the dirty soap bubble that is tobacco culture sometimes assume we're a monolith- that a Marlboro man can down whiskey with a thirty-something chomping a Davidoff Grand Cru and achieve some kind of smokers' intersubjectivity. Any serious cigarette smoker will laugh in your face if you suggest that they have something in common with someone who knows their way around a meerschaum.

Don't get me wrong-- while I loathe the smell of cigars I do enjoy pipe tobacco once in a while, and sometimes mix it in with mine when I roll my own. But we do not share a culture, or even an understanding of what it means to be smokers, and we never did- even before the state stepped in and made it nigh impossible.

It's a damn shame, because politically, cigar and pipe smokers have much more clout than we lowly filter-suckers- but we are distinct groups, and have often looked on one another with mutual disdain. Sometime last year I combed Manhattan for a smoking-friendly bar, only to find numerous "cigar bars" with signs bluntly noting that cigarettes were completely unwelcome. Cigar and pipe aficionados, noting the easy class distinction between themselves and we, the maligned remnant, sold us out long ago to preserve their own skins. It's worked out well for them, thus far. Unfortunately the War Against Tobacco is merely a battle in the larger War Against Risk, and they will soon find themselves in the crosshairs- but that's a story for another time.

Frankly, the Federation of Tobacco is rather like Yugoslavia in the early 80s. Ignorant outsiders assume that because of various geographic, ethnic and religious ties that Yugoslavs must, at the end of the day, band together. Unfortunately, a Serb is not a Croat, a Catholic is not Orthodox, and a South Slav is not an Arab; likewise, the man who reaches for a cigar to congratulate himself on the birth of his son or a successful business venture has nothing in common with the nicotine-starved paradox that is the cigarette smoker.

Richard Klein notes that "the pleasure of cigarette smoking is distinguished from that procured by other forms of tobacco consumption insofar as it defies the economy of what Freud calls the pleasure principle. According to that principle, which interprets pleasure on the model of need, the satisfaction of desire results in the elimination of desire... Cigarettes, however, defy that economy of pleasure: they do not satisfy desire, they exasperate it. The more only yields to the excitation of smoking, the more deliciously, voluptuously, cruelly, and sweetly it awakens desire- it inflames what it presumes to extinguish."

In other words, cigars and pipes, despite the costly accessories those habits demand, are utterly bourgeois; cigarettes are tragic, and therefore inherently aristocratic, despite the common proletarian manifestation.

It makes perfect sense, to my mind, that in bygone years, before the Puritan resurgence in American government, cigars were peddled to children as bubblegum, and cigarettes as sugar. Bubblegum is brightly colored and flavored, familiar, and impermanent- one spits it out behind the trashcan on the corner when one is done. The thin sugar sticks that passed as candy cigarettes don't taste anything but narcotic and have little to no aesthetic appeal beyond what they manifestly are, and there's no escaping their effect. The ten year old pays a buck fifty for his Potemkin Lucky Strikes, shoves four or five straight down the alimentary canal, climbs trees for an hour and passes out in its shade when the high recedes.

And then he reaches for another.

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