The time I tried to pick up smoking

My early twenties were a great time. Socialising and forging bonds of friendship that still last. Through sports, boredom and nightlife. It was also a time I tried to pick up smoking.

I said I remember the time fondly, not that I was particularly smart.

Back in those days, smoking inside had recently been banned in all public places. On the surface, the result was devastating for smokers. They were forced to congregate in designated outdoor areas — sometimes covered by a roof or at least a canopy, sometimes not — to enjoy their vice. And, remember, we’re not talking about California here. I spent my adolescence deep inside the Arctic Circle. There, even the few months of what we’d call summer mostly consists of days where the weather would be enough to scare tanned surfer dudes and dudettes to stay inside.

Nevertheless, that was the hand the authorities dealt the smokers. Their choices were to shut up and enjoy their drinks inside like the rest of us, or get out in the cold to have their drags of cigarettes. 

It was around this time that I got to know what would end up becoming one of my best friends. Dark, handsome and well built, this was a guy who never said more than he had to, and had an undeniable air of I-dont-give-a-fuck. Not to be mistaken for unfriendliness, he was of that kind who could walk up to any table in any club and talk to anyone — if he so chose — and the people at the table would inevitably enjoy it. As a result, he knew everyone in our little town and everyone not only knew him; they liked him.

In short, he was cool. In a way a geek like myself could never hope to achieve, he was truly cool in that effortless and unbothered fashion. As such, in a time when there was a certain type of stigma attached to smoking — one that young’uns who pick it up today, hoping that it will cast a bit of that James Dean shine on them, can never understand — it was entirely in character that this fellow smoked. He was cool, and with genuine coolness comes great responsibility to make perfect contrarian choices.

(Or, having never been in danger of attaining true coolness myself, so I would believe based entirely on outside observation. If you’re one of the cool kids, please accept my excuse for botching the practice of your art form.)

Either way, we became friends. And, when out and about in the evenings, my friend would join what had ostensibly become a social pariah class at this point: The smokers. Every now and then he’d duck out for a cigarette, before eventually rejoining the rest of us. I thought nothing of it.

A while into our friendship, my friend started sometimes asking if I’d join outside. “With the smokers?” I asked, nonplussed. “Yeah” he answered. I said I don’t smoke, and that was that. Until the next time he asked. This went for a while, until one night it was just us there from our group of friends. For fear of being seen sitting alone for a few minutes I acquiesced and joined him in the smoking area. Nevermind Blaise Pascal’s quote about spending an hour alone in a room, the real issues is when you can’t be alone with yourself for a minute in a crowded room

Now, I’ve mentioned that my friend was cool as a cucumber. You couldn’t miss it if you saw him. Another, less obvious character trait is that he’s smart. It’s always been a bit of a point of pride to me that I’m quick on the uptake. Meeting this guy fixed that. Hidden behind that unassuming, blue collar persona was a lightning sharp mind. In the decades since, I cannot think of a single person I’ve met, not in the universities I attended or the places I worked, that could match this guy’s intellect. He just got things, and he did it quickly. It was, of course, perfectly in character that his job consisted mostly of manual labour.

The reason I mention this is because, I don’t believe it was coincidental that my friend used to ask me about joining him outside for a cigarette. I cannot remember him asking anyone else from our group. But he asked me, and I have to believe it was because he’d seen — truly seen — and considered me and decided that I was suited.

When I eventually said yes to joining him and with the smokers outside, I expected something like this: A collection of individuals huddling over their cigarettes, freezing and desperate to get in a few drags before quickly stepping back inside. Instead, what met me made me feel like Alice when she fell through the whole. Firstly, it turns out heat lamps work. Really. What’s more, people were happy and laughing and engaging in riveting conversations while enjoying their smokes. 

Unlike inside, where everyone would mostly just sit around a table they shared with the friends they already knew and liked — the occasional  targeted foray out into the wild in hopes of a great payoff notwithstanding — people were open and welcoming out here. In the designated smoking area complete strangers would strike up riveting conversations before, as the last of their cigarettes crumbled to ash, they would say goodbye, go back inside and pretend like nothing to their friends who didn’t know better. 

The smoking area was like an alternate world. People talked and joked and laughed. And, naturally, smoked. And that’s where my problems started. Because, fascinated as I was by this alternate reality that I’d stumbled upon, I didn’t smoke. It never really appealed to me and the one or two times I’d tried I didn’t get the fuzz, or the buzz — I just ended up in a fit of coughing.

But here I was, in the smoking area, and I didn’t feel like leaving right away. So I decided to try again. Ended up in a coughing fit on the first drag. Worried that someone would flag me as an interloper, I said “sorry ’bout that, a little dust in my throat” out loud and with as much conviction I could muster. Nobody bought it, but I caught a few smiles.

After that, I gave up. 

I talked with a couple of strangers while pretending to finish my cigarette and waiting for my friend. Once he finished, I resigned myself to the fact that I would never be part of this secret open society of smiles, laughs and conversations among strangers. Smoking just wasn’t for me. 

My friend, smart as he was, but true to his image, continued smoking for a while yet. Occasionally, I would join, to just catch a glimpse of this incongruous world, even though I knew I would never gain admittance. Even though I wish I could have.


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