I should say I never touched the stuff before I was legal. I can't say I particularly avoided it for the first 18 years, or that I raced to that birthday eagerly anticipating my passage to manhood via a shriveled, cracked blunt that had been sitting on a dear friend's dashboard for a few weeks, stashed over the heater just for this occasion. It was, of course, a rather bad first smoke; and though I had no other exposure to tobacco I knew it was rather bad. I felt cheated. So went out in search of a better smoke... Just to say I had it.
|Sweet, sweet Punch.|
But eventually my cigar phase humbled itself. The best show of it is, I believe, my current profile picture: the pink jacket, the lush New England summer foliage, the old wooden porch-swing. By then I'd already established my feeble reputation as "the cigar guy", a.k.a. "that guy who spent all his parents' money on cigars", a.k.a. "that guy who showed up to school Mass in the morning smelling like stale cigars", a.k.a. "that guy who pressured all his friends into spending their parents' money on cigars". It was vain, it was glorious. At least I thought so. But by the Age of the Pink Jacket Photograph I'd learned to be more or less discreet with my smoking. My friends who decided they just didn't like cigars gave up, and I coldly accepted their surrender. (Most of them are now either working on Capitol Hill or are in the Army; but, hey, I had the cigars.) Those who did fancy a puff would bring their own favorite brand, and when they tottled over to the Château d'Avis we'd repose on the porch with coffee and a cigar. In our minds we seemed to be getting much older very quickly; in reality our last months before college were no doubt going some way to temper us. I was off to D.C.; one of my cigar buddies was off to St. Andrews in Scotland; another to Manhattan College in New York; and another to St. Anselms in New Hampshire.
|Read: they're disgusting and will make you|
want to not smoke.
Ah, but I've forgotten—the cigarettes! I certainly began smoking before college. My first cigarette was a couple days after the Pink Jacket photograph was taken, I think. My Manhattan College friend, an inveterate post-Kerouacian hipster-ish, bought a pack of American Spirits Blue, smoked one, and gave me the rest, sighing, "If I keep them I'll just chain smoke the whole pack." He didn't insist I try one, but I did. It was unpleasant, as anyone's first cigarette is. I didn't throw up—tobacco has never made me physically sick—but my first attempt to inhale smoke did get me choked up. And why did I smoke the rest of the pack, dear reader? Freud would call it the death drive. Cigarettes taste worse than cigars, they smell worse than cigars, and I knew they'd end up being more expensive than my manageable one-$7-cigar-per-day habit. I suppose I did it because I wanted to see how people could fall hopelessly in love with something so vile.
|That's me on the left, having a puff with ol' Nige.|
Most of my fellow-smokers in the George Washington University Freshman class of 2012 were
|Camel Turkish Silver, the Grace Kelly of filtered cigarettes.|
During that time I fell in and out and around a couple of different social circles, all of them upper-middle prep school types, Episcopalian or Catholic—well-dressed, clean-cut, funny, easy to get along with. One chap in particular, the illustrious Sean Kumnick, WASP extraordinaire, was also especially partial to a fine cigar. Sean's probably a rising star in the GOP and doesn't notice. He's a throwback to the old Northeast Republican establishment, a moderate conservative and extreme patriot. It didn't take long for him to work his way into the GW College Republican inner circle, and I should say he earned that spot. Sean and I—and I still thought of myself as an aspiring Republican powerbroker—would go for a walk one night a week, around the White House and down by the National Mall, being two of the too-few New Englander, Episcopalian, campaign-veteraned, and Coors-averse members of the Freshman class. I let Sean down as I began to opt for a couple of cigarettes in place of my cigar, finding myself increasingly desperate to have a cigarette as often as possible. In the first couple of weeks I began drifting from two or three cigarettes a day to ten... to twenty... to two and a half packs. I'm sure there are farmhands in Indiana who smoked four and a half by the time they were sixteen, but for me that was a lot. And it didn't help much when two new friends—a New York landless gentry and a bourgeois Marylander Jazz musician—introduced me to the true love of my nicotine life. Whatever I'd had with Camels was just for show, the faint heat given off by a volcano about to erupt. When I met Lucky Strikes, that was it for me.
If you've ever been graced with the sight of a pack of Luckies, there's a label on the bottom that says, L.S./M.F.T., which naturally stands for "Lucky Strikes Means Fine Tobacco". And, dear reader, it does indeed mean fine tobacco. Lucky Strikes are one of the epitomes of earthly pleasure, joining all the heavenly tastes and smells of a cigar with the satisfaction of a hardy cigarette. Luckies bonded us together and gave purpose to our resistance. They'd be flicked from silver cigarette cases and lit with gold-plated lighters, drawn with black-gloved hands and tapped in glass ashtrays. They looked fine with an ascot and a pair of pince-nez. They were the perfect company for a glass of Laphroaig—or, rather, a glass of 'phroaig is the perfect company for a half-pack of Luckies. I managed to keep up the two-and-a-half packs a day, despite my horseback riding (being allergic to horses), boxing (being an asthmatic), and almost total sleep depravation (being in love with a woman on the other side of the world). It was a very good and a very awful time to be me, and it was all the better for being so awful. We could sit on the balcony of my gentry friend's apartment, smoking endless Luckies and appreciating our slow martyrdom. But mostly it was the Luckies.
Australia is where true tobacco enthusiasts go to die. From their hideous plain packaging laws to the excessive taxation (a 20=-pack of Benson & Hedges cost about $18), there's no mistaking what sort of moral judgement the Aussie government is levying on its smokers. What's infinitely worse, though, is that something—a special chemical treatment, the extensive shipping time, I don't know—something makes Australian tobacco taste like newspaper and dry weeds. To my further dismay, the plain packaging laws also demand cigarettes be of a uniform size, making it impossible to sell the significantly smaller unfiltered variety I so desperately loved and craved. No Lucky Strikes—not even Camel Basics, which are a more common and still delightful substitute. I tried rolling my own, but even the quality of rolling tobacco here isn't great. So as I reverted to Benson & Hedges Smooth, smoking one after the other, churning out bad articles and bad short stories, slowly realizing I was now an addict rather than an aficionado. Which is why I decided it was time to move on. That's when my pipe made its unexpected comeback.
C.S. Lewis said, "The pipe gives a wise man time to think, and the fool something to stick in his mouth." That's certainly true. But what I remember more distinctly in my transition from cigarette to pipe was a section of Stephen Fry's biography, where he claimed he couldn't write for months after he quit smoking. In Australia my circles moved from almost purely political to purely artistic ones—to Marxists, Fabians, and Freudians—all of them brilliant thinkers, poets, writers, and good friends. As my poetry became increasingly important to me, the last thing I wanted to worry about was kicking cigarettes.
The main obsticle for this grandiose idea of withdrawal is I didn't have much to brag about to begin with. The world would get along just fine without more of "The Politics of Escapism" by M.W. Davis. My best article (if I may say so myself) is still one published on the American High Tory, "An Anglo-Catholic's Dissent from the Ordinariate". It's not groundbreaking, but it's at least consistent. That was certainly written on tobacco. I remember the day well—it was written specifically on two packs of Camel Unfiltered (I was in a bit of a pinch). My first published poems were with cigarettes. My most-shared-on-Facebook article, "Why I'm a Monarchist", was half-cigarettes, half-pipe. My two latest poems, "To Richard II" and "To Hylas" were both on the pipe. And, after a bad chest infection and three days in the ICU, anything published after the 3rd July 2014 will be under the influence of no tobacco products whatsoever. I've been frantically trying to see if I can write without tobacco, and there are three or four pieces sitting with various publishers at the moment. But I'm not sure I could write with tobacco. So maybe it was for the best that I got out before I have the opportunity to get good.