Light’em If You Got’em

Well, well, well, I see the brain is functioning–one part resentment, one part despair, one part desperation, one part loneliness—and a jigger of optimism. The morning is bright (partly due to its being 2:16 PM) and the air is fresh and warm—my office (i.e. front) door is open and there’s a fresh-rolled, filtered cigarette smoldering in the ashtray.

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I am aware that such an opening becomes increasingly unlikely—the number of people who are ‘stupid’ enough to smoke tobacco dwindles—or so goes the cant. I can’t help noting that one will always see a knot of nurses and medical staff outside of a hospital, day or night, caging that furtive fix of nicotine and cancer.

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I understand them–and I feel for the senior staff, some of whom must gum or patch their way through to dinner time, whose respectability would be damaged, given current societal mores, by showing such a debased weakness as tobacco-addiction. And right here at the start I’d like to say that all those old commercials and movie scenes wherein the entire troupe luxuriates in a cigarette break—these were not the feint of Oscar-worthy actors, but the actual enjoyment the public once derived from this formerly welcome part of the ‘good life’.

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Back then, the Big Tobacco concerns were stuck in a vicious circle–firstly, their corporate goals were to increase profits, which included the necessity for investments in advertising and scientific research and development, and secondly, that same scientific research gave them both good and bad news. On the one hand, their manufacturers learned about nicotine-addiction as it applied to consumer motivation–and on the other hand, the legal department learned about tobacco smoking and nicotine addiction as health hazards and as increased occurrences of heart disease and lung cancer.

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So the ‘makers’ start controlling the dosage, so to speak, doping and dosing the ‘tobacco’ (which became more of a ‘processed food’ type of filler for the tubes). And then they messed with those paper tubes as well (they couldn’t just leave it as merely paper–profits, gentlemen, profits!). They encircled them with little gunpowder-charge-like spacers that kept the cigarette butt burning like a multi-stage booster rocket! They fixed upon a perfect ‘dosage’ which kept the craving going at maximum—and they fixed the tubes so you wouldn’t have any lit cigarettes going out, even when the smoker was distracted by something else that required one’s mouth—or both hands.

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I smoked those from the age of eighteen until about forty, when I became a totally different person. I went from being stuck with a disgusting habit—to being stuck with a forgivable habit. There were many steps along the way—I’m sure most of you think I should be ashamed of myself because of the whole second-hand smoke thing and raising a family in the same house. I won’t deny it—there’s some guilt there—but nobody’s died yet, so I’m off the hook about that, for now.

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But I didn’t like smoking myself, back then—I was using. It wasn’t the pleasure principle in action, it was the behavior of a lab rat. The second-hand smoke smelled like horse urine and the preponderance of additives made smoking less of an encounter with tobacco and more of a junkie’s fix. At some point, I discovered Rothmans, which were (still are, maybe) manufactured in Canada. They had a sweetness I had never tasted before—it was nearly unprocessed tobacco I tasted, and for the first time. But it wasn’t pure tobacco—and the paper was the same self-perpetuating stuff (when Americans want something a certain way, the whole world gets them that way).

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So I was living on a tightrope—imported Canadian cigarettes were premium priced and hard to find, outside of New York City. Once I began to work in Westchester, I was forced to depend solely on one stationary store/tobacconist’s shop in Katonah—I would buy them two cartons at a time—I was cavalier back then.  There seemed little to worry about—I could still get them at Smoker’s Harbor, in Mt. Kisco, too—and that was no great ride. And the City still had everything in the world for sale, as the Big Apple is expected to do, including hundreds, maybe thousands of cigarette stands, tobacco shops… why, certainly nothing could change the universe so drastically as to drop the landmarks  Dunhills, and Nat Shermans from Fifth Avenue itself? I didn’t buy a few humidors and start buying the Rothmans four cartons at a time until Rothmans were outlawed in NY State, and thereafter, only available from a tobacconist in Danbury, CT.

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This was at the time when frangible cigarette-paper was barred by NY State Legislation—the first toll of the Requiem bells for Smoking—a practice that deserved to be stopped both for what it did to people—and, while of little consequence compared to human life, what it did to tobacco. As I would learn, there is a distinct difference between smoking cigarettes and smoking tobacco, and this difference would give me a great surprise, eventually.

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While I mostly drink coffee. Wait. First I’d like to point out that coffee, a delicious miracle of a beverage, is a far greater luxury than we think. It’s a drug, it’s a hot cup, and it’s a taste sensation, served in a variety of ways (as if just plain coffee wasn’t wonder enough) and, to hear tell, sold on every street corner. If I’m not mistaken, it has even crumbled the great tradition of tea, for a sizable percentage of Britons. That’s nothing against English Tea (which I love), I’m just saying. And the French? The French act like they invented the stuff, as usual—or at least invented the only proper way to make it, as they did with food, and wine.

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But the growing of the beans is difficult, in difficult conditions; the roasting and whatever they do to raw beans. And the brewing of coffee itself, a complex task that no one shuns, simply because it is the only way to get a cup of coffee. What would life be without coffee? (And, once again, nothing against English Tea.) A hell on Earth—that’s what life without coffee would be.

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So, to start again–While I mostly drink coffee, I still enjoy the occasional cup of tea—if one is nuking a mugful of water, late at night, it hardly matters what one throws into the hot water. And tea has a rich history and an aeon’s-worth of traditions—it is an indulgence. All orthodoxies that prevent caffeine make a cup of tea just as forbidden as drinking a Vente-double-shot-something-or-other from Starbucks. But are there not hundreds of millions of old ladies drinking tea, right this minute, around the world, right now? How can one defame such a genteel pleasure? Only by a tunnel-vision-ed focus upon the chemical caffeine contained in coffee and tea—and ignoring every other consideration that tea, or coffee, may be due.

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When it comes to life and death, matters of degree, of relativity, cease to be unimportant caveats and become the difference between the aforementioned pair. So please don’t think I plan to draw analogs of kind and type between caffeinated beverages and tobacco use. The only thing I wish to demonstrate is that, in trashing our pleasures for health reasons, there is a universe of peripheral cultural resonance that goes completely unconsidered, shouted down by the ‘life or death’-ers. But, where the threat is seemingly insignificant, by comparison, the opposite is true—the wealth of the habit’s ties to daily lives, to personal histories, and to individuals who, for one reason or another, will refuse to accept the health ban placed upon the one thing that makes their lives comfortable, once in a while—all these things will tip the scales of justice to find in favor of the habit, and grant us liberty to indulge.

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Let’s take Prohibition—it is the only experience that paints an unvarnished illustration of human nature with regard to bad habits. Prior to Prohibition, no head of a family, no husband, no man of any kind, was held to account for their lapses when drunk. It was waved away—he’s just got a drinkin’ problem, don’t worry—hey, let’s us go have a drink, huh?

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And that was wrong on many levels, and all the hurt women and children unlucky enough to be dependent upon alcoholics, have a historical backlog going back to centuries of persecution and suffering. And it still happens today (which I’ll come back to). My point now is that Prohibition twisted society too far in one direction, which created an underworld outside of government—and that’s no good for nobody. So they Repealed the Prohibition Amendment and legal liquor boosted the society’s spirits, and left little for bootleggers to do except find new businesses (don’t worry, they found some).

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And, finally, after ‘both sides now’, the 1980s & 1990s saw a shift in perception—drunk driving was not a laughing matter—at least, not when one was sober again. And legal protections for victims of domestic abuse began to be enacted. And Alcoholism itself lost its luster and became an Addiction. Like all addictions, it brought its victims to a bad end. But there were treatments now, and restraining orders, and rehab. We came at alcoholism from the point of view that we had already tried Prohibition and we knew that wouldn’t work. ‘So let’s think a little bit about how to deal with this problem, and come at it in a more effective way’.

Which is pretty funny, when compared to our country’s drug problem. The media changed that bit of language—it started out drug ‘abuse’, a more individual perspective based on people who used drugs without caring about the consequences. There were others, people who enjoyed it but escaped being swallowed up by it. Many of them, or I should say us, didn’t know about long-term effects and potential damage from the stronger drugs, or about the phenomenon of addiction. But we nevertheless enjoyed trying drugs, managed not to kill ourselves, and have never used intoxication as an excuse to do bad things. Still, each and every one of us were, technically, outlaws before we even came of age. We didn’t want to be outlaws—we would have rather heard about sensible guidelines, or anything that wasn’t just a steel door snapped shut upon our curiosity and eagerness, and young peoples’ rapt attention upon the forbidden.

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Meanwhile, no one cares if there are carcinogens in the birth control pills (back then, I’m still talking about)—and I mean that literally—no one cared. That controversy was wholly based on the issue of morality. It became an excommunicable crime to the Roman Catholic Pope-dom—just like abortion. And if I know the Catholic Church (which I unfortunately know well) it still, technically, is banishment-to-the-outer-darkness-worthy.

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On LSD, people were talking to God like there was a shortage about to set in. We know now that there is a special spot in the brain that is our center of charismatic/spirituality sense. What we didn’t know then was that the psychotropic qualities of LSD, Peyote, Mescaline, and other hallucinogens had a profound effect upon that part of the brain—hence the many personal conversations with the almighty creator. We didn’t know that. There was a serious question as to whether the LSD mind-frame might bring one closer to (or farther away from) God. Nobody ignited any controversy over the spiritual qualities of ‘tripping’. All they saw was lack of contact with the communal consciousness, awe-filled eyes, and stupid grins—and some very irresponsible behavior. That is why it is classed as the same risk to public safety as opioids and prescription painkillers—because it pisses off the cops and the suits and, of course, The Man.

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Since LSD mimics some mental-disease symptoms, it has often been accused of taking someone on a trip they never returned from. But a certain percentage of any early-adulthood population always sees actual mental-disorders present themselves, because adolescence triggers some of these disorders. It seems to me that many of those never-returned were probably straddling the border before they dropped acid at a party. And I don’t know anything about how LSD overdosing could affect someone, so there’s that possibility as well. The truth, for 99% of kids surveyed, is that they returned from their acid trip, and quickly became tired of LSD, and left it behind. So, don’t let anyone tell you different—there will always be drug experimentation wherever there are adolescents—and I don’t mean just coffee, beer, pot and cigarettes. It’s all in how society treats that situation—teenagers certainly can’t be expected to change themselves, especially when they are so busy being changed into adults, and without any say in it.

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And it would be base hypocrisy, after the over-use of the ‘protecting-our children’ meme employed to win today’s legislative restrictions on drugs, pot, and tobacco, to even suggest that adolescents could be trusted to look after themselves. Nevertheless, every parent eventually discovers that the last phase of raising children is to let go of the bicycle seat and let them pedal off into their own life, on their own. Would it be possible to find a compromise? Are we stuck with the fact that toddlers and teens are considered equally in need of oversight? We may wonder over the billions of dollars spent on the DEA, while the best place to acquire illegal drugs remains either a high-school hallway or a college campus. We may wonder if all this legislation over chemical compounds isn’t an anchor around our culture’s neck.

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So, it’s all very simple for people who are happy with just food and drink—that other stuff is dangerous, probably bad, and certainly irresponsible. But we are not all so happy with the ‘raw feed’ of life. Some of us prefer an occasional ‘filter’, a pair of rose-coloured’s, if you will, to add zest to our lives. Do we have the right to be greedy of life’s pleasures? Can we be trusted with adult responsibilities in spite of our indulgences? Perhaps not. Not all of us, certainly, so it’s the same difference.

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But, getting back to me—in time, I was bereft of Rothmans—I had nowhere to turn. And then online tobacco sales dawned. Before I knew it, I was rolling my own cigarettes—well, not rolling them, really—there’s this contraption that injects the tobacco into a prepared paper tube with built-in filter. And, at first, it was too good to be true—making my own was no biggy—and the taste of these fresh, handmade cigarettes was beyond belief.

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Then I happened upon Three Castles—a brand of cigarette tobacco from the Daughters & Ryan Company—made of pure Virginia Gold Leaf—so fresh it was still moist. I was in smoker’s heaven—and I was paying a third the price of those horrible American cartons. Almost as soon as that paradise came, it vanished. New York became one of the states to outlaw online cigarettes, and all my little universe of tobacconist shops around the globe were cut off from me. So I ordered via UPS, from out-of-state suppliers (no tax). Then the tax law was changed to charge anyone with a NY State delivery address the full NYS sales tax on all tobacco, even pipe tobacco.

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So, I won’t tell you what I’m doing now—I can’t afford the security risk. Although it costs me way more than it should (NYS Sales Tax on Tobacco is about 80%) I can still get my paper tubes and tobacco shipped to the front door—and I’m a past master at fixing the injector gadget—so my life of luxury, including both coffee and cigarettes, goes on.

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I enjoy making cigarettes—it’s no big chore and there’s little enough activity in my life that a little ‘arts-and-crafts therapy’ doesn’t hurt the situation. And I still enjoy smoking them. The only shadow on my enjoyment is public opinion and the lack of comrades to share it with. I understand when European settlers first came to know of tobacco they would gather in an ale-house or a smoking-house and become intoxicated by tobacco, which they smoked from clay pipes. I assume they were following the lead of native Americans, who packed their pipes somewhat differently. The newcomers were only interested in the tobacco part—they loved it. And who doesn’t, unless scared away be fearmongers? And even way back then, men’s wives and pious preachers grumbled about this disgustingly satanic form of amusement.

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And I think I know why those medical personnel, huddled together outside every hospital, completely dismiss the warnings against smoking cigarettes. They know that life is a crap shoot. They know that there are a million ways to die—and lung cancer kills non-smokers all the time—same with heart disease… But the pleasures in life are the best part—get’em while you can, you know? Cigarettes are also a tremendous reward for a tough job—the only one you can give to yourself.

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While I have no beef with the molly-coddling, self-defeating attitude towards bad habits in today’s society, it is only because their victory is not yet complete. I dread the day, but at the same time, I know it will happen—and a tragical day it’ll be—someday I’ll go looking for a cup of joe and a smoke—and they won’t be there.

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Here’s hoping I kick the bucket first.

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