Monday, October 7, 2013

Smoke

"Did you ever hear of Sir Walter Raleigh? Well, Raleigh was the person who introduced tobacco in England. And since he was a favorite of the Queen's, smoking caught on as a fashion in court. I'm sure old Bess must've shared a stogie or two with Sir Walter. Once, he made a bet that he could measure the weight of smoke. First he took an unsmoked cigar, and he put it on a balance and weighed it. Then he lit up. He smoked the cigar, carefully tapping the ashes into the balance pan. When he was finished, he put the butt into the pan along with the ashes and weighed what was there. Then he subtracted that number from the original weight of the unsmoked cigar. The difference was the weight of the smoke." (William Hurt as Paul Benjamin in Smoke)


Having lived among smokers all my life, I know of the two occasions when smoking a cigarette is considered de rigeur - right after a meal and after sex. I don't profess to know exactly why. Perhaps, after eating, the combination of flavors on one palate heightens the taste of the tobacco. After sex, a cigarette perhaps fills the momentary empty space, the bothersome moment when words are felt to be necessary, but none are forthcoming.

Of all the things that the 20th century will be remembered for, the curious habit of tobacco smoking must be one of them. At one point in their popularity, Lucky Strikes cigarettes and Zippo lighters were standard issue for America servicemen in World War Two. Today, some movies feel the need to place caveats in their end credits that assure viewers that the producers "did not receive any payment or other consideration . . . for the depiction of tobacco products in the film." Now I notice how many actors in movies - obvious non-smokers - fumble around so inexpertly with a cigarette.

Set in New York in 1990, a quite different city from Mayor Bloomberg's, in which it is now a criminal offense to smoke in public places (including parks and beaches), a small miracle of a film called Smoke (1995) is credited to Wayne Wang and Paul Auster. Among other things, it is a celebration of tobacco smoking, in which one of the main characters, Augustus "Auggie" Wren operates a tobacco shop in Brooklyn. The character is played by Harvey Keitel, turning in one of his most satisfying performances. William Hurt plays a writer named Paul Benjamin whose love for Schimmelpennincks (a thin cigar) makes him a regular in Auggie's store. In an early scene, a conversation between Auggie and the shop's former owner, Vincent, makes the film's allegiances clear:

Vincent: I should stop smoking ... Fuckers are gonna kill me one of these days.
Auggie: Enjoy yourself while you can, Vin ... They're gonna legislate us outta business pretty soon anyway.
Vincent: Yeah. Pretty soon, they catch you smoking tobacco, they'll line you up against a wall and shoot you.
Auggie: Yeah. Tobacco today. Sex tomorrow. Three or four years, it'll probably be against the law to smile at strangers.


In the splendid film Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember, the great actor looks back on a lifetime of smoking:

"It's ridiculous, when you think about it, around 50 cigarettes a day for 50 years makes almost one million cigarettes. It's enough to cover the sky over Rome. But why? You know it's harmful, and yet you continue. Does it help fill a gap? Even though I admit that it's harmful, I'm sick of Americans. They go too far. What do they want? To put smokers in a ghetto? Let people live and die as they choose."


One day in Auggie's store, Paul notices a camera on the counter and wonders if someone might've forgotten it there. When Auggie tells him that the camera belongs to him, Paul says,

"I didn't know you took pictures.
Auggie: I guess you could call it a hobby.
Paul: So, you're not just some guy who pushes coins across a counter.

Since it's closing time, Auggie invites Paul back to his place and shows him a stack of photo albums. He opens one, and discovers, turning the pages of one album after another, that all the photographs seem identical.

"Paul: They're all the same.
Auggie: That's right. More than 4,000 pictures of the same place. The corner of Third Street and Seventh Avenue at 8:00 in the morning. Four thousand straight days in all kinds of weather.
Paul: I've never seen anything like this.
Auggie: It's my project. What you'd call my life's work ... It's my corner, after all. I mean, it's just one little part of the world. But things take place there, too. Just like everywhere else. It's a record of my little spot. You'll never get it if you don't slow down, my friend.
Paul: What do you mean?
Auggie: I mean, you're going too fast. You're hardly even lookin' at the pictures.
Paul: But they're all the same.
Auggie: They're all the same. But each one is different from every other one. You got your bright mornings and your dark mornings. You got your summer light and your autumn light. The earth revolves around the sun, and every day the light from the sun hits the earth at a different angle. You know how it is. 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Time creeps on its petty pace.'"

Taking Auggie's advice, Paul looks at each photograph intently and suddenly notices, walking past the camera in one of them, his pregnant wife who was killed after leaving Auggie's store by a stray bullet a year or so before (see photo above). Paul Auster, author of the novel The Music of Chance, and the writer of Smoke, is fixated on chance. In an interview, he spoke about how, when he was a boy, a friend standing right beside him was struck by lightning and killed. Ever since, he said, he thinks about the capriciousness of his friend being killed instead of him. In another scene from Smoke, Auggie talks about how he might have taken a few more seconds with Paul's wife's change, or in some other way delayed her departure from his store on the day she walked in front of that bullet.


I have never been a smoker, but I have to say that I am disgusted at the transparently puritanical crusade being carried out across America (and now even in some European countries) to completely ostracize people who smoke. I'm convinced that the claims that it is a public safety issue are utterly bogus. No scientist will ever convince me that the dissipating smoke around a person smoking a cigarette is more than an infinitesimally small degree as hazardous to my health as the super-heated smoke being inhaled through the cigarette. It's one thing to go after Big Tobacco, which has been sued innumerable times for its lies to the public. But to try and force people who choose to smoke to stop by kicking them out of public places and their work-places, forcing them to smoke outdoors in an alley, or even going after them in their private spaces, is an outrageous imposition of the law and is brazenly aimed not at protecting people's health, but at interfering with the genuine pleasure that smokers derive from their chosen "addiction."

I don't smoke, but so many of my friends and family are smokers that, when they do me the courtesy of asking if I mind before they light up, I tell them to smoke as much as they please. And if you were to tell me, as some well-paid scientists are doing, that their exhaled smoke, and the smoke from their cigarettes dissipating around me, is hazardous to my health, it would be like telling a priest to put out the candles in his church.

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