May 30, 2003

Lost smokes

pack of smokes in the gutterA few years ago this would have been a find for me. Free smokes! But I have reformed myself to the point where after picking up some wayward Camels from the side of another Issaquah street a few weeks ago, I haven't broken my fast. They're sitting on my bookshelf at work and I haven't really been tempted.

Even when I was a smoker, I was a light smoker, addicted to the process and the cool of it more than the nicotine. In the jobs I've held for the last 14 years or so, termed "exempt" by the HR people, nobody takes breaks but the smokers. For them, every few hours give or take, that little itch starts up that tells them it's time.

For me it meant a break from sitting in a chair, typing on a keyboard, staring at a CRT. Grab my makings and stroll through the maze of beige cubicles, down the stairs and out the door. Step out of the climate-controlled building and experience weather. Feel moving air. Variations of humidity. Heat and cold. Smell the constantly changing stew of aroma that is masked by indoor stagnation.

At our building, smokers are banished to a patch of gravel access road that circles a storm water settling pond. It's a hundred feet from the building, and completely unsheltered from the elements.

Once in the "smoker's lounge" I would take out my packet of tobacco and paper. Peel a folded paper off the pack and hold it between my fingers. Open the tobacco and pinch out a reasonable quantity, feeling the coarse texture of the leaves, smelling the loamy aroma like the soil of the bottomland where it was grown. Place the curling strips of leaf into the stark white of the paper and with thumbs and fingers coax and persuade it into the semblance of a cylinder. Lick the adhesive edge of the paper and perform the final roll that transforms paper and dried brown leaves into a cigarette. A little ritual craft project resulting in an artifact, a physical accomplishment in the midst of a day of abstract bit twiddling.

But then comes the best part: fire! The magical flare of a lighter pulling flame out of nowhere or the alchemical wonder that is a match flaring in an instant of violent consumption, fading to a steady glow of yellow, red, orange, blue heat and light. Software engineer turned to caveman harnessing the elemental force to his will, touching fire to tinder, producing smoke and a glowing ember.

Draw the smoke, product of my labor into my body, absorbing the mild stimulant of it, altering my awareness ever so slightly. Breath made visible, made tactile, the miracle of inhale exhale sustaining life. Transforming the ubiquitous involuntary action of breathing from background to foreground. Feel the air moving in and out. See it. See how an exhalation doesn't instantly blend into the homogeneity of the atmosphere, but retains its identity for a time, moving out from lungs, drifting away from the body that it has sustained, still connected in a chain of molecular presence leading in and out and out and out into the world.

The artifact of the cigarette is slowly consumed. Paper and leaf and fire transformed into smoke and ash and dust.

This is what I miss about being a smoker. This little drama of making and unmaking. The echo of creation and destruction. The connection to the world of basic physical reality.

And then after the fire is out I would go back inside the sealed containment of the building, back to the beige cubicle, back to the modern ritual of qwerty and crt, back to the abstract shuffling of constructs with no physical manifestation.

Posted by jeffy at May 30, 2003 09:17 PM

That's nice writing on smoking, Jeff.

A couple of weeks ago, I was down at the
doughnut shop, getting my usual, and I saw
some electrically ignited lighters on the
countertop, for a dollar. So I grabbed one.

The doughnut lady ask brightly, "Oh, you
smoke too?" I said that I didn't, and that I
just wanted to take it apart. She looked

Posted by: Dan L at June 1, 2003 10:16 AM