Taking Up Smoking at the End of the World

In his late twenties, John Sherman finds a new fondness for cigarettes, despite everything he was ever taught about them.

John Sherman | Longreads | September 2017 | 9 minutes (2,250 words)

 

I started smoking this year. In Berlin, where I lived before recently returning to New York, almost everyone seems to smoke, almost everywhere, almost all the time. It’s like a 1970s game show, but in German and with better hair.

It wasn’t the ubiquity of smoking that sold me as much as the opportunity to become excellent at rolling cigarettes — a simple task that is wildly impressive when done well. The most practiced rollers can assemble a factory-grade filtered cigarette in about ten seconds, packing it casually against a thumbnail while your own attempt looks like a slightly crumpled, pregnant snake, leaking tobacco from both ends.

I’ve watched Berliners roll cigarettes walking, standing up in a moving subway car, and even once while biking through traffic on Karl-Marx-Straße. A German friend claimed her father could roll a cigarette inside his pants pocket, which, bullshit or not, puts the bar for trick-rolling higher than I can even imagine.

Aside from being a cheap way to smoke — about €5 for a bag of decent rolling tobacco, plus €1 each for filters and rolling paper — it’s an excellent sideline for fidgeters, people like me who can’t help but curl straw wrappers into intricate fiddleheads, or peel the label off their beer bottle to fold origami fortune tellers. Cigarette rolling is a mini-craft project unto itself, repeatable and perfectible. I probably enjoy rolling cigarettes even more than I enjoy smoking them.

***

I don’t mean to be flip about the health hazards of smoking, which are illustrated in full color on every side of every tobacco product I’ve ever purchased, and rattled off by every serious smoker I’ve ever talked to about it. I was born in America in 1989; the only thing I know about smoking is that it’s bad for me.

My aunt Sid once said to me, lighting a cigarette, that if I ever started smoking she would beat me. That she was 60 years old and 90 pounds soaking wet should have underscored how serious she was. Sid is the last of the smokers in my mother’s family, the rest either died or quit. My great-grandmother Eunice, a champion needlepointer with an Elaine Stritch vibe, smoked until she died at 94 in Boca Raton. Eunice married rich after her first husband died, and lived the third act of her life in mink coats and diamond cluster rings. Even from her wheelchair, she spoke as if from a gilded litter, a cigarette her constant, smouldering accessory, two knotty fingers in a nicotine benediction. Still, she claimed never to inhale, which, if true, seems more than anything like a waste of cigarettes.

I don’t mean to be flip about the health hazards of smoking, which are illustrated in full color on every side of every tobacco product I’ve ever purchased, and rattled off by every serious smoker I’ve ever talked to about it.

The east coast suburbs of my childhood were so sanitized that my high school’s Battle of the Bands amounted to a Jack Johnson tribute concert, and even the lunchroom punks were straight-edge. The first person who offered me a cigarette was not an eighth grader in a leather jacket, contrary to every PSA I’d ever seen, but a scruffy, hippie kid named Sam who lived with a geriatric cat in his parents’ attic. Sam was not the kind of friend your parents think is a bad influence, just someone who didn’t live under as many rules and expectations as most people I knew growing up in the suburbs. It happened some time in the summer after high school. I declined, but I can’t be sure it was out of concern for my health; by design, from Nancy Reagan on down to my parents’ choice of school system, I’d never seen smoking in any appealing context.

***

Germans’ relationship to smoking has always seemed to me in conflict with their country’s place at the forefront of the global economy — a false dichotomy born of an early-1990s anti-drug moralism that hasn’t quite held water for me as an adult. Democratic socialism, leaders of the free world, sure — but they smoke?


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Perhaps Europeans are, ironically, more temperate than their prudish American cousins, or at least more tolerant. But they appear, from an American outsider’s perspective, to be both more serious (rolling their own cigarettes, smoking in the kitchen), and less committed; they go days without smoking, only to roll and smoke a pack between Friday night and when they leave the club Sunday morning. No one says much about smoking, except to ask for an ashtray, and it manages to be, for an American, shockingly ordinary. Fabric pouches designed for carrying rolling tobacco, papers, and filters are a staple of twee urban flea markets, alongside tote bags, screen-printed tank tops, and €27 votive candles. German iterations of Pottery Barn and Bed Bath & Beyond carry ashtrays in fun seasonal colors. The opportunity to accessorize a habit can be as addictive as the substance itself, as the casual smoking wares of Berliners attest.

Germans’ relationship to smoking has always seemed to me in conflict with their country’s place at the forefront of the global economy. Democratic socialism, leaders of the free world, sure — but they smoke?

My own smoking has so far been more aesthetic than habitual — and to that end, more Marlene Dietrich than Marlboro Man. I always sit to smoke, which I find allows for the indulgent drama I require to excuse myself of such obviously unhealthy behavior. If I’m going to harm myself, I insist on doing so leisurely. I’ve taken on smoking as an almost entirely aesthetic endeavor: I bought a black enamel cigarette holder — an extreme, unnecessary affectation that only makes my habit feel, or at least look, glorious. With a cup of coffee or a glass of wine I’m perfectly staged, slouched in a chair on a deck or a balcony, watching the bluish smoke swirl around the ashy bud waxing along the length of white paper containing it. The trouble is that smoking feels great; thinking about it is what feels shitty.

***

I don’t remember my first cigarette distinctly enough to guess when, where, or why my prior resolve softened, but it must have been at some point when I was in college. Most of my friends were unapologetic smokers from the commuter suburbs of Boston or Philadelphia, who by 19 had already tried to quit “[resigned drag] a couple times.” I smoked probably two dozen cigarettes in four years of college, excluding a few cloves proffered by my dorm neighbor, who smoked them with self-serious nonchalance while driving us to Dunkin’ Donuts in his mother’s Honda Pilot.

Some time during my senior year, feeling similarly dramatic, I bought a pack of my own, which I nursed for about a month. I liked the way I could ash with my thumbnail against the recessed filter, flicking the cigarette against my middle finger. Occasionally this caused the lit ember to dislodge and fly off somewhere, but that was just as well; a whole cigarette made me queasy. My entire life was changing; I left my apartment and lived alert with the possibility that at any point I might indulge in a cigarette. It made me feel dangerous.

I didn’t grasp the extent of my current habit until this past summer when visiting New York for a few weeks. I noticed how many places I couldn’t smoke even if I’d wanted to — bars, sidewalk cafes, rooftops, even the apartments of smoker friends. Toward the end of a recent dinner party, around the time when, in Berlin, my companions would have pulled out their Tabak and a designated ashtray, cracked a high window, and lit up, I instead carried my mug of wine to the back deck for a cigarette, watching the party through a window like A Christmas Carol’s Jacob Marley, doomed to wander at least 20 feet from the building entrance. It felt like a turning point: choosing, even for a few minutes, a cigarette over companionship. A similar, lonelier moment came a few weeks later when rain interrupted my usual morning coffee-and-cigarette; hunched under a beach umbrella in a wet plastic chair, watching the damp air thicken with smoke, I wondered whether I was still choosing to smoke, or whether I’d surrendered that choice a few dozen mornings earlier.

***

Last November, six time zones away from nearly everyone I knew, I watched the U.S. election results roll in, alone in my Berlin apartment, in a building in a city where the winter sun sets at 4 p.m. In the aftermath of uncertainty and anger, a glass of wine and a cigarette became a perpetual last meal, a requiem from the deck of the Titanic before a continually refreshed Twitter feed.

Hope is difficult to grasp even in the abstract, facing down as we must the proud evil of everyday life just by keeping up-to-date. Beyond the cartoonishly sinister dismantling of American democracy, near-daily news of terrorist attacks, mass shootings, climate disasters ongoing and foretold, and threats of mutual nuclear annihilation at the twitchy red-button fingers of weaponized child-men makes any future seem less than a foregone conclusion. What’s a cigarette, if we could all be dead tomorrow?

A friend asked, ‘So, Donald Trump made you start smoking?’ Not exactly, but the fact of such a man in such a job makes the future a dim prospect.

This year, my American friends quit drinking, did cleanses, took up yoga, and cut out dairy, gluten, and coffee, all in pursuit of health and stability. Find you a man who talks about you the way a person who’s stopped drinking milk talks about their bowel movements. I, meanwhile, have winnowed my diet to pasta, street food, and corrective leafy greens; I have no health insurance and have settled on self-medicating with marijuana as a mood stabilizer and nicotine to alleviate anxiety. I am headed steadfastly upstream against a current of body-wokeness.

A fellow exception to this trend is my boyfriend, who has smoked on and off since college. In fact his habit is the reason we met — in college he kept walking by my table in the student center for smoke breaks. Now that smoking is a shared vice, it’s also become alone time for us together. At the end of a day we pour ourselves some wine and light up in the late-night privacy of our bad habit, thick as thieves.

Jogging in the face of tyranny is a uniquely American solution to a uniquely American crisis. If we can just control our own bodies enough — detox; cleanse; cut out sugar, or gluten, or dairy, or egg yolks; join a boutique gym — we can survive a toxic society. A pioneer faith in individual destiny underpins many of America’s larger problems, from lack of universal healthcare to underfunded social welfare programs, wrongly imagining both success and failure as individual achievements. America has treated our current nightmare as just that — a state from which we’ll soon wake up, out of which we can pivot, by sheer force of individual good behavior. Europe, and Germany in particular, can afford no such belief in insurmountable decency, having witnessed — and dealt with honestly — human depravity on its very soil.

This is bus-crash logic: the fatalism of knowing life’s fragility. Why buy a house if its value will be under water in five years? Why invest if the next crash is around the corner, and no one responsible will be made to answer for it? I relayed this line of thinking to a friend — an uncorrupted nonsmoker — who asked, “So, Donald Trump made you start smoking?” Not exactly, but the fact of such a man in such a job makes the future a dim prospect. A long list of grim realities makes planning for anything feel like picking out curtains for a house I can’t afford: the systemic depravity of politics, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, any industry that starts with “Big,” the police; endless wars in countries most Americans cannot spell or find; and dire economic predictions for my entire generation. Pleasure is the only certainty. I can hardly think of a better time to start seriously smoking than this year, right now, today.

My casual attitude is due at least in part to my lack of up-close exposure to the long-term effects of smoking — Great-Grandma Eunice didn’t die of lung cancer, and Aunt Sid is still fit enough to beat me, probably. But bus-crash logic has its virtues: it unshackles pleasure from rationality, lets you stay at the bar with your friends for one more drink even though you have to be up early, buy a concert ticket you can’t quite afford, live for the sake of a joy that can’t be quantified. I smoke most in times of personal uncertainty, when the present is unpredictable and the future almost beyond imagining. The sour Baby Boomer op-ed page may chalk this up to the sour-grapes of Millennial youth, and it may not be far off, but our twenties have been marred by a series of lies about the future. A college education has guaranteed nothing, and voting has not stemmed the tidal wave of shit.

***

A cup of coffee on my balcony in the morning, accompanied by a cigarette in my cigarette holder, is, for now, an ordinary indulgence that doesn’t encroach on the other habits of my day. I tend to believe the addict’s line that, “I can quit whenever I want to,” but it remains a delusion until proven otherwise. The world feels like a toxic place in which smoking is only one of innumerable toxicities. At least when you roll your own, you know what you’re getting.

* * *

John Sherman is an American writer whose work has been published by the New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Morning News, among others.

Editor: Sari Botton