This bit is mostly about pipes. I occasionally smoke a pipe and have so for five years. But, I assure you, I do not consider myself a connoisseur (the nicotine equivalent of a wine snob), nor do I smoke for that professorial aire of “dustiness” that so many TA’s ache for these days. I’m a pipesmoker in the Huck Finn tradition- both crude and lyric in a single puff. On cold wintry nights, with my eyes turned ceiling-ward, I like to lose myself in a cloud of thoughts and flavored smoke. There is a distinct charm to it all, which I’ll illuminate with my favorite analogy:
To me, a cigarette is like a male orgasm: infallible, quick-and-easy, habitual, and physiologically necessary for remaining sane in a world gone mad. It is something that simply must be done. The pipe-smoke is more like a female orgasm: a warm, delicate, nurturing process, which is occasionally arduous, yet ultimately very rewarding. Of course, I don’t smoke cigarettes, nor have I ever had a female orgasm, so who’s to say, really? Nevertheless, orgasms aside, the differences between Camel Lights and Cherry Cavendish are deep and many. For instance, in my pipesmokes, breathing patterns are equally as important as the actual smoke itself. A pipesmoke is more than a nic-fix; it is Dizzy Zen, a moment of clarity for the low, low price of two dollars an ounce. A cultivation of ‘no-mind’ from lightheadness, with a preparation every bit as elaborate and precise as a Japanese tea ceremony– A scratch or two from the ‘shankreamer’ on my pipetool. A few brushes with a fluffy white pipecleaner. A fine Virginia blend gently, but firmly, packed into the bowl of my pipe. An icecold can of Dr. Pepper, to my immediate left. An occasional ember falling from the cherry to my lap, starting a fire, causing me to yelp piteously before I fall to the floor in a Stop-Drop-and-Roll. The very portrait of Far Eastern elegance.
Of course, I’m fully aware of the use of a pipe, by some, as a mere gimmick, a nauseatingly cutesy way to start conversation with both girls and grandmothers “Oh, my father used to smoke that same blend, before that whole mess in Korea. Do you think… well, do you think you could blow it in my face?” Five years ago, when I bought my first pipe–a darling miniature with a Turkish windcap–I confess I did so in a spirit of playful irony. I consciously chose mouth cancer over lung-cancer, figuring easy access would be essential to any future “-ectomies,” whatever their nature. I chose the pipe, not to be taken seriously, but for its power to evoke everything from Sherlock Holmes to Santa Claus to Huckleberry Finn.
“Yeah, but you see, pipe-smoking is inauthentic. I smoke my cigarettes because I have to. No frills, no thrills, just hardboiled, bluecollar realism at its best.” And this makes no sense to me, in any way. Why are habit and necessity more authentic, more genuine, than the vagaries of freeplay? No one was born with a cigarette in their mouth. Somewhere along the line, a decision was made and a whole fistful of cigarettes were choked down before the pleasure and addiction took hold. Behind every jaded and yellow-toothed chain-smoker is a little pre-teen desperately trying to one-up the bad kids in afterschool detention. This means everyone, from James Dean to the Marlboro Man and you included.
Now don’t get me wrong, cigarettes are as kool as they are karcinogenic, without a doubt. Lucky for me, I’ve found a wonderful compromise– Make-Believe Smoking, that is, posturing with real cigarettes. Some number of years ago, I found a plastic cigarette between the cushions of my loveseat, a dead ringer for a Marlboro Red. That night, I wrote a ten page term-paper with the faux-cigarette hanging from my lips. I ashed in soda cans, gestured before the mirror, took long, reflective drags, and otherwise aped what I thought were the late-nite smoking mannerisms of news-journalists. I was hooked. I’d finally found a way to combine all the silverscreen cool-guy antics of cigarettes with the “inauthenticity” of pipesmoking. Neither the nicotine nor the smoke, I soon realized, were necessary for the oral fixation, glossy savoir-faire, or participation in the smoker socialization process. I could now join employee smoking circles, dumbly puffing away on an unlit cigarette, until someone would ask:
“Do you need a light?”
“No, I don’t smoke”(Awkward silence)
“Whaddaya mean you don’t smoke? Why do have a cigarette in your mouth?”
Now begins the rhetorical dodgeball.
“Cigarettes last longer if you don’t light them”
“But you can’t smoke an unlit cigarette, dummy”
“Exactly, didn’t read the label: cigarette smoke is really bad for you.”
“But you can’t get any nicotine that way!”
“That’s the beauty of it!”
Eventually, they give up, finishing up their smokebreak in wary silence, never again to question the whys and wherefores of human oddity.
To further elevate the tensions, dare to bum a cigarette for the purpose of Make-Believe, or refuse certain brands with a sneer- “Oh, I don’t smoke Gauloises” -”Brandon, you don’t smoke at all!” Personally, I prefer the taste of menthols, because they fill my mouth with a minty freshness that the whole dinner table can enjoy. Parliaments, I’ve found, are the ideal brand-choice for Make-Believe Smoking. Their distinctive recessed filters keep your cigarette slobber-free, for a crisper, cleaner smoke. Or, if you don’t mind dodging comparisons to Cruella DeVille and Hunter S. Thompson, try on the aristocratic elegance of a cigarette-holder, available wherever fine tobacco products are sold. And friends, nothing beats a fake cigarette on brisk winter morns, when your hot morningbreath will be taken for genuine clouds of cigarette smoke. More fun with Anti-Essentialism.
In time, however, my body again craves the sooty pleasures of carbon monoxide, and I loyally return to my beloved pipe, the one with “HELLBENT” inscribed on its neck. But unlike a cigarette, a pipesmoke does not comes just anywhere, anytime, anyhow. It only comes in the reflective junctures of my life-narrative, when all the world is fast asleep. The setting must be picture-perfect. To wit:
Two summers ago, with two others- my brother Tyree and Mr. Sean Johnson– I flew to Europe in order to sprint in the Running of the Bulls, with some high hopes for scars and stories. For five-weeks on the Continent, each of us carried a thousand dollars in our pocket and the Death-Force drumming in our soul. Due to obstinacy and financial restraints, we disavowed train travel from the very start, and landed in Heathrow airport with the intention of hitchhiking to Dover. But, because of our numbers and general appearance, that quickly became the dumbest thing ever to come out of three brains. After a breather in a rotating automobile display, countless contradictory directions from airport personnel, and a lengthy sprint down the wrongway of a service tunnel, it took us two hours just to get out of the airport. “Four pounds for the Tube- shit that’s breakfast for a week!”
We spent the remainder of the day on-and-off a London double-decker, trying to ride the outermost loop as far East as possible, while intermittently enjoying the polished snottiness of the British public. Reaching our terminus, we leapt off ready to walk the remaining 70 miles to the ivory cliffs of Dover. Surely, we thought, some trucker will take pity on us, some miracle will lead us out of darkness. But no. Our only map was the inlay of our European travelguide, which only named four or five motorways in the whole of England. Before long, night was upon us, and we found ourselves on the largest motorway in England, in the pitchblack freezing cold, fifteen miles outside London, thousands of miles from home, giggling ourselves stupid. At one point, out of desperation, we tried to “cut through a forest,” only to be impeded by a large herd of cattle. “Look if we just follow that star straight through, we’re bound to hit route 20!”
We had neglected to sleep the previous night, so, despite the cold morning dew, and total lack of preparations, we decided to crash on a five-foot wide cattlepass, which spanned over the roaring motorway. In case of passing cattle, we tied ropes and shoestrings across the bridge entrance, telling ourselves “yeah, this should halt an early morning stampede.” The temperature inside and outside our bodies continued to drop, until we found ourselves huddling together, shivering violently, wearing socks on our hands and ears, and every single stitch of clothing we had crammed into our school knapsacks (including the plastic rain-tarp). But even with our body heat combined, sleep was totally impossible. So instead, we formed a small circle, packed our blends into our bowls, and smoked our pipes in knowing silence. Arctic temperatures, disorientation, physical exhaustion– everything culminated in the perfectest pipesmoke of my life. It revealed to me the deep truth behind my bleak situation: I was in love with certain Doom. Nothing could save us from what we wanted, and I couldn’t be happier- The pipe had spoken, giving final form to our suicidal tendencies. So, with our smokes finished, and our souls packed tight, we started walking again. Five minutes later, we were picked up by the British police, who promptly informed us that we had been traveling the wrong direction. Our miracle had arrived.