Phantom Smoker: I Still Think About Smoking — After Almost a Decade Cigarette-Free
A few weeks ago, a friend and I started talking about planning a summer road trip to Los Angeles. We're both working on large creative projects — he's got a documentary in progress and I've been sitting on a book idea for years — and a long ride in the car together seemed like a great way to hash these figments out and turn them into full-fledged realities. We would take in lots of roadside Americana, stop in Las Vegas along the way to really take in Americana, and eventually make it to L.A. to see friends and, well, get inspired.
As I imagined all of the welcome weirdness we would encounter at truck stops, souvenir hell holes and creepy motels along the way, I began to see myself inside these fictional snapshots of the trip — and in them, I was smoking cigarettes. It has been well over ten years since I took a road trip that involved me smoking, and almost that same amount of time since I have smoked at all. But in my daydreams, I am often sitting at a desk with a typewriter and a rotary dial telephone and an ashtray. Or in the case of this particular musing, I am leaning against an old car at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, smoking a cigarette. My fantasies almost always include cigarettes.
If there ever was a right time to quit smoking, it was the summer of 2006. The smoking ban took effect in Denver in July of that year and I quit smoking in August. I had also quit drinking in July and smoking almost felt pointless after that. I quit smoking because I was, at just over five weeks sober, finding more and more reasons and ways to take better care of my body. But I also quit because it was quickly becoming less and less a part of who I was.
Once I had quit drinking, I had started to reexamine my public persona — and the Capri Menthol 120s I smoked just weren't the best accessory anymore. I often wondered if I was even addicted at all, or if I had just been smoking for those last twelve years because it was a thing I did among other things I did — like carrying an outrageous-looking purse or playing bass guitar. The cool factor of a smoke was suddenly lost when I didn't have a full bottle of champagne in my other hand or a row of shots waiting for just me on a bar top. When I had started smoking at the age of fourteen, it was definitely an act of rebellion against my parents and simultaneously a way to fit in with the other kids who kind of resembled me and hung out on the "smoker's corner" by my high school.
But when I was a teenager, smoking was also just a really cool thing to do. Music was my life and every musician I liked smoked; artists I adored like Courtney Love, Kim Deal, Gregg Dulli and John Davis all smoked...a lot. A quick google search now reveals that many of these artists' most famous images are of them smoking (including the above video that begins and ends with Davis, uh, smoking). Maybe it's still the same way now and I just don't notice it because I'm not sixteen anymore — but man, growing up in the '90s made it seem like everyone cool smoked and everything that was cool involved smoking. (I just re-watched the trailer for Reality Bites, the film this column was inspired by, and there are four scenes involving cigarettes in the two-minute clip.)
But back in reality where it isn't the '90s anymore, I find that after being smoke-free for almost nine years, I'm still forever conflicted about this choice. I dance between being the outwardly smug asshole who thinks that cigarettes are disgusting and the well-kept secret lover of smoking who wants more than anything to go back in time and sink down into a booth at the Denver Diner and enjoy a cigarette with my hot chocolate.
I do think smoking is one of the grossest public habits, and I feel angry when I wake up essentially cigarette-hungover because I have chosen to spend the previous evening at a smoke-filled warehouse show or a smoky house party. I find the commercial industry of cigarettes more fucked-up now than ever — we pay money for a lot of things to kill us slowly, but cigarettes are one of the saddest ways to facilitate death. I hate that people I care about smoke cigarettes (especially young people who didn't even live through the great fall of Joe Camel — why did they start smoking in the first place?).
But as much as I despise the smell of a person who just reeks like an ashtray, I can also relate. Cigarettes are magical. They taste good and make you feel good and remind you of things and places that are pleasant. They relieve stress and sometimes even make you look more attractive. Smoking is just as wonderful a way to spend time alone as it is a conversation starter and social connector: if you're still a person who goes outside for a smoke, then you're a person who has that special bond with other strangers huddled together in the temporary smoking club that pops up whereever humans hang out.
I know quite few people who have decided to quit smoking in the last few months, and to you I say, "Good luck." It is really hard to quit smoking and, from personal experience, I know that the desire to stick a cigarette between your lips may never fully go away. But as much as my fantasy world involves ashtrays, I know that I am better off without cigarettes. I bet you are, too.
Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies