Cigarettes: The End of the Affair?

Maybe I should make like Mark Wahlberg (whose brother, Donnie, I was said in happier times to resemble) and mark the end of my youth by getting my tattoos lasered away. But — nah. They’re not hurting anyone. At least one of them, a cross formed by the title of Pushkin’s poem “Ne dai mne, Bog, soiti s uma” (“Don’t Let Me Lose My Mind, O God”), has real talismanic value. Besides, the procedure costs a lot of money. I never modeled boxer briefs for Calvin Klein, nor a prosthetic penis for Paul Anderson. It’s with a nod toward the grim fact of penury that I chose my great renunciation: cigarettes.

By my rough estimate, I’ve smoked 175,200 of the things since St. Patrick’s Day, 1988, when I was 16. My brand of choice has evolved from unfiltered Camels — a flip of the forelock to Mickey Rourke, that other great scruffy Irishman, who slithered through Angel Heart with one glued to his mouth — through Marlboros and Winstons. I never tarried with American Spirit, which seemed as pointed and pretentious as Trader Joe’s Full-Flavored would have been. Nor did I have any more luck at rolling my own from Drum or Bugler than I’ve had at making origami cranes. For me, economizing meant switching to Pall Mall 100s — as much slow-burning, name-brand bang as could be found for five bucks and change.

Yes, it’s the expense of the habit that’s forcing my hand. A carton of Pall Malls sells for $39 at the local Pima reservation, but I often lack the time for the trip. Besides, there’s something about standing on line with twenty other sullen, saggy-faced people that ruins my day. Sniping, that other great compromise with state and federal revenue services, is — well, I admit, it can be an adventure. On a few nights, when my nerves were as thin as my checking account balance, I’ve stuffed a couple of empty Pall Mall hard packs in my jacket pockets and prowled the smoking section of every business complex in a two-mile radius. After picking out all the butts offering more than a half-inch for smoking, I flew home and spread my bounty on my kitchen island like Erroll Flynn tossing the poached deer onto Claude Rains’ table.

Those moments offered intense satisfaction, and the whole enterprise felt like a kind of stewardship. Then came that day when, arriving late to the cul-de-sac in front of Le Girls, I found some guy plucking the last of the good snipes out of the sand in the imitation Grecian urns. Catching my eye, he smiled slyly, and I saw us as a Norman Rockwell painting: The Early Bird Catches the Virginia Slim. That tainted sniping for me ever since.

Considering the things — travel, a better wardrobe, probably a new car — I’ve given up over the years in favor of cigarettes, the better question might be what stuck me to them in the first place. It must have something to do with my hysterical temperament. Left to its own devices, my state of mind fluctuates between, “Oh, shit!” and “Well, what did you expect, idiot?” Very quickly, hearing myself think gets to be a real drag.

Nicotine, not unlike alcohol, can serve as either a stimulant or a sedative. On the upper side, it causes the brain to release norepinephrine and dopamine, the same agents used to treat depression. On the downer side, it enhances the effects of serotonin and opiates, which, in sufficient quantities, can lull a person into believing a sucking chest wound is just God’s way of telling him to take some time off. For someone like me, who’s never been able to make up his damn mind whether he’d rather be anxious or depressed, nicotine represents a kind of shampoo-plus-conditioner for the soul.

But wait, as they used to say in those commercials for steak knives, there’s more! Nicotine, according to Wikipedia, “is unique in comparison to most drugs, as its profile changes from stimulant to sedative/painkiller in increasing dosages and use.” A small amount in the bloodstream (attainable from a few, short puffs) brings you up; a large amount (yours for some longer drags) brings you back down and then some. Nicotine may be the only controlled subtance on the market that can moderate its own effects. I’m sure my central nervous system figured this out long before my conscious mind did, instructing me on how deeply to draw and when to stop. Sometmes free will just gets in the damn way.

But enough of writing love poems to alkaloids. Almost from the very beginning, cigarettes have offered one gratification that is strictly social. Smoking one might be the only thing no person can do inside a cubicle. You can eat there, you can check Facebook and OMG there. (Can anyone doubt you can gossip there?) Leaving the building to light up sends an unmistakable message to the rest of the world: I am off the clock, in that happy place in my head, firing broadsides into the Bismarck. Talk to the hand until she sinks by the stern.

A recent Harvard study found that nicotine replacement therapies, including the patch and the gum, “did not improve smokers’ chances of long-term cessation.” I could have told those eggheads as much. The patch made me buzz, and as anyone but a Poor Clare knows, the first thing you want to do when buzzing is smoke a cigarette. No luck with the gum, either; all it did was taste horrible. (I’m sorry to say it does keep that flavor on the bedpost overnight — I checked.) I know other medications exist, but they cost money, and if I had money to spend, I’d spend it on cigarettes.

Apparently, quitting unmedicated isn’t quite impossible. In a 1995 meta -analysis, Baillie, Matlick and Hall found that 7.3% of unassisted quitters managed to stay smoke-free “after an average of 10 months of follow-up.” Hey, I’ve hit the 95th percentile before; it’s what got me into Stuyvesant. I think I’ll try it again and see what happens. If I falter, I’ll swallow my pride and hit the Chantix. On the question of going cold-turkey versus cutting down gradually, I’m hedging my bets: my ashtrays still overflow with half-smoked butts. Whenever it’s begun going dark before my eyes, I’ve smoked one. This method — science take note — has carried me through to the end of this piece.

For a joke, my friend Amie sent me a 40th birthday card with a $5 bill inside, like I was her 9-year-old nephew. Together with the change in my bowl, that could cover one last farewell pack of Pall Malls. I will resist that temptation, however, and in celebration of my passage into maturity, treat myself instead to a copy of the latest Maxim.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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