The Benefits of Smoking

     I don’t smoke anymore, but I did for many years, and I was good at it. I smoked fifty Marlboros a day, every day, and twice that number on weekends. I always lit up a cigarette first thing in the morning and kept a pack or two or three within reach all day long. I smoked before and after meals, before and after movies, before and after classes, before and after everything.
     Sports did not hinder my smoking at all. On the golf course, I smoked one cigarette per hole, and two on the par fives. I played shortstop on a slow-pitch softball team and kept a lit cigarette on the outfield grass just behind me, for quick hits between pitches. For years I was a high school teacher and coach, and I demanded the principal assign me the classroom next to the teachers’ lounge, so I could pop in for a quick smoke after every class. The football practice field I littered with thousands of non-organic Marlboro filters every season.
     I once smoked one full carton of cigarettes in a twenty-four-hour period during an all-night poker game in South Carolina. I also drank a fifth of gin and at least a case of beer during the same twenty-four hours. Near the end the gin, the beer, and the cigarettes all tasted exactly the same: a dull, burning bitterness, but one I could not do without.
     I finally quit smoking on a bet. I bet my best friend, who was also my roommate and therefore my sometimes enemy, ten dollars that I could go one full week without a smoke.
     I challenged myself the very first day. I knew there were three occasions when I absolutely had to have a cigarette – while drinking, after a meal, and after sex – so I called up a woman I knew and took her to lunch, then out to a bar, and then to my apartment. I got through that day okay and made the week by staying too drunk to think about smoking, or anything else for that matter.
Then my roommate, the dirty snake, insisted we go double-or-nothing on a second week. The rest, as they say, is history. I still consider myself a smoker. I could light up right now and suck those magic vapors into my nicotine-craving soul. I just haven’t had one for nineteen years. I guess I’m running out the string on a good bet.
     In a way I miss my smoking years. I was popular back then. I was cool. Booze and cigarettes made me a sociable guy, or so I thought at the time. What I really regret is the fact that I never struck terrible revenge on all those cheapskates who bummed cigarettes from me every day.
     There is something predatory about a man who bums cigarettes from another man. Why doesn’t he buy his own, you ask yourself. He makes as much money as you do. He probably has smokes in his jacket pocket. Yet he must have yours, for some reason. You suspect he craves power over you, the power the beggar holds over the charity-giver. You could say no way, jerk, buy your own damn tobacco, but somehow that makes you feel cheap and petty. So you give him the smoke, for the very last time, you tell yourself, and then he owns you, and you hate him for it. He makes you want to hurt someone. You want to go borrow money from your poor sick mother or kick a small dog.
     The highlight of my twelve-year smoking career, in fact, was a four-month period when I was feared and revered by all the cigarette-bummers around me. This was way back during my basic training days at Fort Polk, Louisiana. In the army, of course, bummers are legion. Military days are so incredibly boring, you can’t get through one of them without chain-smoking.
     I had a friend, though, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, an hour from the base, who brought me little tin containers of cigarette loads, tiny explosive sticks that, when touched off by fire, burst the cigarette in the smoker’s face, just like you’d see in an old 1940s cartoon.
     I loaded a few cigarettes in my every pack and marked them ever so slightly with my thumbnail, for my own protection. Soldiers who bummed smokes from me knew the chances were approximately three in twenty that their borrowed prizes would literally blow up in their faces, the cigarette lining curling up in strips like cheap paper daisies.
     I had more fun watching the non-loaded cigarettes get smoked than witnessing the exploding ones. The worried faces sucking in with tentative lips and fear behind the eyes were more entertaining than the stunned, fooled expressions on those whose smoking pleasure was shattered by luck and the odds of my retribution. Always the anticipation of disaster in the human heart is worse than the disaster itself.
     My system of marking cigarettes, by the way, was not foolproof. Occasionally my devious cigarette bombs blew up in my own face, to the delight and wonderment of the bummers. This made my cigarettes seem divinely loaded, in the hands of a higher power, out of my or anyone’s control. To these guys my smokes were like many of the good things in life – money, booze, beautiful women – all plentiful but dangerous. You never knew when you’d get burned.
     When I finally did quit smoking, I experienced positive and negative results. I gained some health and lung capacity, but I lost all my mannerisms. I don’t go to parties since I stopped smoking. I can’t carry on a decent conversation, because I have no gestures, no cigarette-emphatic flair in what I try to say. I end up staring at my hands, wondering what to do with them.
     That’s when I started writing, by the way, after I quit smoking. Just to have something to do with my hands. I don’t know if I’ve gained anything. Writing is at least as dangerous to your health as smoking is, and both will wreck you financially.
     Another setback to the ex-smoker is the loss of the art of relaxation. How can you really kick back if you don’t light up a smoke? And, of course, there’s the problem of sexual intercourse. What do you do afterwards? Talk?
     I found I have no personality, no individuality without my cigarette mannerisms. The intensity with which you draw on a smoke, the deadly stare you can maintain while inhaling, the direction and velocity of the cloud you exhale, these are meaningful gestures. They give your conversation accent, importance, mystery, and pregnant pause. Without them you become a boring guy like me. Picture Humphrey Bogart without a cigarette and George Burns without his cigar. You couldn’t pick them out of a parade of English teachers. They’d show the flair and pizzazz of convenience store clerks.
     But the number one benefit of smoking is the chance to lose some weight. The day I quit I weighed one hundred seventy pounds. Two months later I rocked the scales at two hundred ten. So it stands to reason, then, if I light up tomorrow, I should be on my way to losing forty pounds.
     I have to wonder, though. Why this obsession in our society with losing weight in the first place? Is it narcissism? Do we long to gaze at our full-length bathroom mirrors and ponder the beauty of our bony knees and prominent rib cages? Or do we yearn to become more attractive to others?
     Suppose we do get skinnier, succeed in sculpting our bodies into shapes that excite and tantalize others. What then? Are we aware of the dangers and pitfalls we risk? If we are married and get suddenly thinner, for example, our spouses will accuse us of having an affair. And probably rightly so. But why tip them off so easily? For those of you who lust after extramarital, extracurricular activities, I have some experience in the matter and can advise you. Stay fat. If you are not already fat, quit smoking and get fat.
      If we are unmarried and get suddenly thinner and more attractive, we must suffer the torment of unremitting sexual advances and loss of privacy. We’ll be forever denied the chance to sit quietly in bars and get drunk. Bad-breathed lechers will constantly buy us drinks and suggest strange overnight accommodations. Aggressive persons will crusade to get naked with us, to touch and poke and tickle and stroke our bodies, causing us to get diseases, or married, or worse.
     So don’t start smoking to lose weight without considering the consequences. Overweight people are people, too. I weigh one tenth of a ton, and my brother-in-law, who used to smoke more than I did, weighs an eight of a ton. We’re a couple of happy guys, and you can be happy, too, no matter how much you weigh.
     Think of the restaurants you patronize. High-priced, elegant dining establishments feature tiny portions and monstrous prices, and the meager food is administered by scrawny, sour-pussed waiters. Envision the maitre d’ at such an institution. He’ll be a small, thin, ugly misanthrope with his nose in the air and his hand in your pocket. He’ll smoke narrow little college-girl cigarettes and look effeminate, but you won’t ponder his sexual orientation because, male or female, homo or hetero, you just won’t care.
     Now picture the fat, happy manager of a Denny’s or Perkins or some other cheap franchise carbohydrate factory. He’s a lard-butt in polyester slacks who wears his tie too wide, the wrong color, and way too short, leaving a big belly gap between the tie point and belt buckle. He’ll smoke Bull Durhams or Lucky Strikes unfiltered, and you’ll wonder how much he’d weigh if he ever quit.
     But he smiles as you walk in, pausing from his task of shouting orders at the long-haired, glassy-eyed kitchen-hippies who cook at night. He grins and winks as if it’s your little secret – this is where the big servings are. You pile up small mountains of cheap food from the salad bar and later chomp and stuff huge portions of meat, bread, and potatoes. And fat girls serve you here, friendly chubbettes with bright-colored hair and too much eye make-up who talk dirty and let you pinch their hefty bottoms. No confusion about sexual orientation in the cheap restaurants.
     When I’m not smoking, I’m a food whore. Very promiscuous. Try to name a food I don’t like or won’t eat in great volumes. I’m so horny for some foods, like pork, potato chips, and Sloppy Joes, I’m dangerous. Let me into your house and I’ll rape your refrigerator and leave your wife alone. I’d rather spend an evening with a gallon of beer and a pound of chips and dip than steal your best girlfriend. Food, fat, fun, fried, and full are the only “F” words I know.
     I do believe a few cigarettes a day would constitute a healthy regimen for me today, but I know if I smoke a few, I’ll smoke fifty, so I stay away from them altogether.
     I also don’t know if I could afford to smoke these days. I saw a sign in a grocery store last week – $27.19 for a carton of Pyramid Lights, whatever the hell those are. If twenty-seven dollars is a sale price for a carton of third-rate cigarettes, I’d be one broke smoker today shelling out for two or three cartons of Marlboros every week. I have to admire you folks who still smoke. You must be rich, dedicated, and hooked.
     I am seriously considering resuming my smoking habit, though, as a form of social protest. Everywhere I go, I see “No Smoking” signs. Well, don’t you tell me what I can or cannot do. So to hell with my health and my pocketbook. I’m ready to light up. Anyone have a Marlboro I could bum?

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