Burning with a Passion

Yale Herald, February 12, 2010

He takes a ziplock baggy with tobacco out of his left pocket, and several small sheets of paper out of his right. He rolls the former into the latter, quickly and precisely. With a motion of his hand he offers me one, speechless with the cigarette already in his mouth.

“Smoking teaches charity, or at least smokers rely on it. We don’t really share much in life, but every smoker shares cigarettes with the others.” Alex is a senior, short, black-haired, from the deep south. His voice is only slightly raspy, and he speaks quietly and eloquently. “It’s sort of romantic for me, rolling my own cigarettes. It is an acquired skill, and you get extra satisfaction from a well-done one. And most people just can’t do it.”

I remember being surprised by the smokers when I arrived at Yale. At my high school, none of the good students smoked. That was for the bad kids, the troublemakers. So I was confused to see smokers at Yale. Eventually I caught the pattern. At the beginning of this semester, I was trying to find the location of a lit seminar, “Psychoanalysis in Literature and Film.” It was in an unfamiliar location. I walked down College Street, looking at the numbers on the doors of each building, unable to remember which one I was looking for. Then, in front of one white building, I saw billows of smoke, and cigarette tips drawing orange vertical lines in the air, moving from lips to hips. I knew that it was the right spot.

Everybody knows you’ll find more smokers in one lit seminar than on all of Science hill. Does the lit culture’s predilection for smoking come partly from the hipster aesthetic, the embrace of grunge, posturing toward working class cred?

SMOKERS, ALEX THINKS, ARE A SMALL minority at Yale: “There are almost no full-blown smokers who are Yale undergrads—I’d guess less than 50. But a lot of grad students smoke, and so do many of the workers. The environment here reinforces itself against smokers. If you’re not around smokers, it is really hard to become one.” Alex somehow managed, though. He started smoking after his sophomore year. “I did it because, well, of all the obvious reasons to smoke—pleasure, coolness, and the fact that all my best friends had started smoking.”

Alex is clear from the outset that he doesn’t want me to romanticize smoking. “I definitely don’t think smoking is something to be celebrated. Once you are a full-blown smoker, even for a shorter period of time, it becomes nearly impossible to just go casual anymore, to just smoke at parties. It’s addictive­—not just the nicotine, but the romance of holding cigarettes in your hands—really damn addictive. Soon it’s impossible not to smoke a cigarette after finishing a good book, or having a few drinks with friends.” He’s well aware of the long-term health hazards. But the short-term problems are tough, too. “Smoking has prevented me from doing a lot of other things I like, such as strenuous physical activity. It also is really damn expensive—the price for a box has gone from 5.75 dollars last year in Connecticut, to nine dollars in a year. You cough for a long time every morning when you wake up, and you feel more tired and weak all the time.” It’s not like he was never warned. In Europe, where he started, “the cigarette packages in have gigantic warnings that have to take up half of the box, with horrible things on them: ‘Smoking reduces your sperm count’, ‘smoking kills,’ ‘smoking leads to botched pregnancies,’ ‘smoking makes your skin look old.’ This won’t stop anyone from buying them, though. The only real way to stop is to see the effects yourself on yourself.”

Here he almost sounds like a public service announcement, like our health teacher from middle school. We all took the classes, we all see the warnings, we all hear the announcements. So why is that people at Yale still smoke? Why is it that we’re unconvinced that smoking is uncool?

Maybe it’s the camaraderie. Alex is at his most eloquent describing this enjoyment. “You get to talk to people you normally would not get to—from businessmen to the lowest of the laboring classes. And there is something beautiful and tragic about sharing a cigarette together—you know that in this experience, you are both killing yourselves. I feel a camaraderie with other smokers, a ‘we are all in this together and we are going to make it’ feeling. It’s hard to describe, but something like people feel after a natural disaster or catastrophe.” For him, this seems to be why smokers do it.  “All smokers know (now at least) that what they are doing is very bad for their health, and many people smoke because they are stressed emotionally. Smoking with others is a way to collectively share that stress. And the health effects that are coming to all smokers become part of that stress.” Beyond the community, it also just helps one get through the day. “It is really nice to accomplish something and top it off with a cigarette. So, cigarettes can make you feel like you are accomplishing something even when you aren’t.  This last summer when I worked on a farm, I would sit in the grass and have a smoke and relax. It’s the best way to unwind.”

WHEN I WAS A FRESHMAN, ONE WOMAN tried to turn me onto smoking. She was Roman Catholic and brilliant, now a journalist who still blogs about cigarettes. “It’s about embracing my mortality, contemplating my death, and not worrying about it” she tells me. “Our culture fetishizes health, youth, toned skin, all that. We’re obsessed with prolonging life. It’s pathetic. This cigarette is a way of rejecting that mind-set.” A lit cigarette, in other words, differentiates you from those chipper suburbanites with their health food and daily exercise. It’s an anti-bourgeois exercise. “Ayn Rand was wrong about most things. But she said she loved smoking cigarettes because holding fire between her fingertips reminded her of man’s industrial conquest of nature. Amen to that.”

But there’s also that aesthetic appeal, of watching the orange tip brighten when you breathe in, of watching the blue-gray smoke dance upward and disappear. Aesthetics might be why artsy kids like it, and scientists won’t bother.

I see Erica smoking outside of HGS. She oozes sophistication, clearly an artsy type. She’s pursuing a PhD in Italian Literature next year. She looks like she could have walked out of either a Botticelli or a ’30’s film noir, but the cigarette in her hand would seem to indicate the latter. Smoking and aesthetics—particularly women’s fashion—are among her favorite topics. “We’re all intrigued by the smoking woman. Hollywood glamorizes her. Maybe they’re just cleverly exploiting the Freudian imagery.” She laughs, but appears fairly serious.  “Who could forget Bacall sidling up to Bogart for a light in To Have and Have Not? The femme fatale, cigarette in her mouth, gun in her hand and lust in her eyes has made its mark on our collective consciousness. The cigarette represents danger and her desirability. Even though we all know the health hazards of smoking, the femme fatale’s cigarette still adds to her appeal.”

She echoes themes repeated elsewhere: “Smokers gradually grow to recognize one another. We create an index of faces. Later, we can ask them for a light when we need. A camaraderie builds. You single out the other students huddled in the courtyard, facing the winter chill while indulging their habits. And you realize the disproportionate number of literature and art history majors in this group. I suppose that most biology students are less drawn to this pleasure than poets.”

DON’T TELL MICHAEL KNOWLES, DC ’12, that smoking is chic. President and founder of SIGAR (technically, the Society for Intellectual Growth and Reinvigoration, but you know what it really is)—Knowles is an accomplished actor who enjoys bravado, cigars, and generally being a bro. We’re sitting together at the Owl Shop, a smoky haven for New Haven smokers. It seems like the archetypal Old Yale venue, particularly now that Mory’s is gone. And the members of SIGAR seem to enjoy playing with that aesthetic. Michael Knowles wears a velvet smoking jacket, ironically, no doubt. William, across from him, has an argyle sweater, tweed jacket, wingtip shoes. On the table in front of us lies the most recent issue of Cigar Aficionado. The final letter printed there is signed by “Michael Knowles, President of the Yale Cigar Club.” In the letter, he informed the Cigar world of SIGAR’s existence, and thanked Cigar Aficionado for their inspiration, ironically, no doubt. “They love us,” he says. “They just see Yale and they go nuts.”

Everybody at SIGAR seems to be doing it with a wink and a nod. One girl fetches drinks for the men. It’s clearly a joke, but they enjoy the throw-back. The Madmen aesthetic is in, she’s liberated enough for ironic anti-feminism, or so should we have onlookers think. Another of the jokes is talking about the health benefits of smoking. SIGAR has made some effort to get publicity, and has established some connections to the cigar world. “This guy contacted us, and claimed he was a scientist. He wanted to thank us for spreading the message of the health benefits of smoking. We looked him up. He has a degree in dentistry from a bible school or something. But he publishes these articles about the health benefits of cigars. It’s incredible.”

Since I met them at the Owl Shop, however, SIGAR has been kicked out. Their crime? Some of the members were under 21. It appears there are still worse sins in the world than smoking.

I decide to perform an experiment. I buy a pack and take a box of matches from the Owl Shop. The next day, with no classes, I walk around campus with a lit cigarette—not inhaling, heeding Alex’s warning. And, as predicted, I find myself part of the smoker community. Yalies don’t have a reputation for being especially warm and outgoing, but today, strangers introduce themselves to me. A dining hall worker waves me down as I walk past Berkeley. A tall and skinny graduate student, too cool to talk to me otherwise, asks me for a light outside of Sterling. A well-dressed middle-aged person, possibly a professor, asks for one surreptitiously, walking down College Street. I am reminded of what Alex told me, that “the underworld of smokers is a friendly democracy.” And I find myself in a more charitable mood, giving time, matches, and even cigarettes to total strangers. It’s a nice community to have, the nicotine feels pretty good, and I just love, love watching the smoke dance.

But once I’m done with the experiment, I throw the rest of the pack away. It tastes good, real good. It looks cool, real cool. But I’ll take Alex’s word for it: it’s not worth the cancer.

–Matthew Shaffer

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