It’s probably a good thing that Americans—at least most in the middle and upper-middle classes—have given up the habit of tobacco. I say “probably” because I’ve always been convinced by those economists who argue that smokers do a favor to nonsmokers by paying exorbitant taxes on their weeds and then kicking off early, reducing the burden on Social Security and Medicare.
Another reason for skepticism about the victory over tobacco is that it involved the biggest public shakedown of a private industry in our history. The claim that the plaintiffs in the tobacco cases had been taken unawares was always bogus. I remember well how I borrowed a cigarette at the tender age of 15: “If you’re packing, can I bum a nail?” That was back in 1959, and “nail” was short for “coffin nail.” Long before the surgeon general’s 1964 report linking smoking to cancer, everyone knew that smoking, at the very least, would “stunt your growth.”
By the time I was 16, I smoked a pack of Lucky Strikes or Camels just about every day. (Filters were for wimps.) I had a summer job at a gas station on Highway 99, then the main route between Los Angeles and San Francisco, which ran through my hometown in California’s Central Valley. As I worked the night shift, I could watch hustlers, whores, crooks, and Hollywood celebrities (Burt Lancaster was one) pass through.
I still remember my cigarettes on the job. The pleasure of the smoke was existential in the deep-night solitude of the shift. Caught between the rural night quiet and the danger of the highway trade, I could see myself as a subject—frozen in exhale behind the glass of the station building—in a painting by Edward Hopper. When I took in a breath of the Camel, my petty world became whole and my place in it somehow as it should be.
Even more luxurious was the last smoke of the “day.” I’d get off work in the morning at eight and make my way to Mary’s Café, a greasy spoon favored by Okies and rodeo cowboys, where I’d sit down at the counter to a plate of bacon, eggs, and home fries. I’d light up one more time, and again, the languorous smoke framed the moment.
Now I smoke only cigars—not even once a week, only on the third-story rear deck of my townhouse on Capitol Hill in Washington, and only when it’s warm enough. No longer the mannequin in the Hopper, I survey the urban scene: the curlicue cupolas and gargoyles on the Victorian turrets behind my house; the goings-on behind the windows in the adjacent house; the mélange of people strolling down the alley.
A cigar’s perspective is completely different from what a cigarette affords. A cigarette hides between your fingers or sits on a tray and delivers its effect, while it deadens the tongue, by the nicotine hit on the brain. But it’s hard not to watch oneself smoking a cigar, with its sheer size and the powerful, complex sensations of taste and smell that it excites. A cigarette is gone in minutes, but a cigar lasts for an hour.
Today’s winter sting revives the memory of my last hot-summer toke. I smoke in the wet heat of a waxing Washington evening. The Hiroshige scene is framed by the simmering urban landscape, the bonsai tree on the wrought-iron table where I sit, the bird flocks swooping overhead, a buzzing fly, and a full moon rising in the darkening sky. The birds are shooting stars. The fly that annoys me will be gone in mere days. The bonsai tree, a miniature windswept spruce of the Pacific Coast, is just 12 years old, a baby. The ripened moon will fall and ripen and fall again with cosmic regularity.
Let me turn philosophical: the cigar, too, whose first light awakens so intensely the fibers of conscious corporal life, promises to replicate cosmic time. In the moment, body and brain and self are one. But the ash soon appears, at first just a thin gray film. As the pleasure mounts, the cylindrical snowcap grows and falls and grows again, and slowly the cigar consumes itself, until the stump is too small to hold, too hot to bring to the lips. Smoking a cigar reminds one of finitude, and life not so reminded is not whole—is no life at all.