I smoke cigarettes. I’m a smoker who lights up whenever I can. My very best friend, a cell biologist up at Columbia, has not once complained about my smoking. Nor has she forwarded me reports from the science journals on the ill effects of smoking, or said cigarettes are bad. In my experience, it’s always the nonscientifically minded who tend to openly moralize about smoking, whether they are smokers or nonsmokers or ex-smokers or antismokers. Which has led me, in recent times, to the realization that the problem with smoking is not the problem with smoking: The problem with smoking is smoking.
Let me explain. Smokers, angry about the smoking ban in New York’s bars and restaurants, avoid acknowledging the fact that many people just don’t like cigarette smoke, and not because they’re ex-smokers. (Smokers would argue that ex-smokers tend to be more antismoking than nonsmokers.) In a Martin Amis story, “What I Did on My Summer Holiday,” a boy imagines an American thinking that English people, when they get home, drop their accents and slip into something more casual. As if the English really talk American when Americans aren’t around. Some smokers are like that, too, believing all nonsmokers puff on the sly: out of the window, maybe, or smoking up a storm on a porch in the night. (My very best friend is a nonsmoker who smokes, having a cigarette every now and then when she wants to, not because she must. What better way to smoke?)
Those smokers who say smoking is a minority right and that all minority rights must be protected may be partially to blame for the antismoking legislation in New York. When smoking becomes a question of legal or political right, the right of nonsmokers in public places naturally trumps the rights of those who smoke for the simple reason that smoking isn’t a right. To do as you please should be a right, but it’s a right only when it doesn’t destroy another person’s right to do as they please, as smoking can. No one says, and no one should say, you can’t ever smoke, but why do so many smokers insist on not asking whether anyone else minds, or assuming that they don’t? I’ve done that a thousand times, I know. And when, if you’re seriously smoking, do majority and minority questions, a libertarian affinity, a liberal tendency, a conservative inclination, affect the necessity of the inhalation, the dimensions of the drag, the exhaled cumulus hanging in still interior air? I’m repelled by the idea that a habit must be enshrined in law. I’m repelled by people who sue tobacco companies for their addiction. It may be an article of a version of American faith that everything ends up in court, but if smoking is considered for what it is, a faith of a kind, then it should never arrive in the courts at all.
I no longer enjoy smoking in the company of someone who doesn’t like smoking, whether they’ve made their dislike apparent or not—you can always tell, without one word said. And there are few worse experiences in New York than listening to the smokers who bang on about their smoking, or visiting the cigarette dens, such as Circa Tabac on Watts Street in Soho, where in the stalled, choking air you’re likely to hear long complaints about how difficult it is to smoke in New York these days. What exactly are you doing now? you want to ask of these smokers, as they drink and drag. As every smoker should know, you don’t smoke to talk about smoking; you smoke so that you can talk about everything but smoking.
The problem with smoking is one of failure. I can’t think of a serious smoker who hasn’t tried to stop. If any longtime smoker tells you they haven’t made the attempt, they’re probably lying. Nor are they serious about their smoking, which is the obligation of every smoker—all the more so if they’re very serious about smokers’ rights. I’ve failed to stop so many times: The failure is the reason for more smoking, which masks those failures of will. There’s faith in the habit, none in knowing you’ve failed to break it. I’m now in a phase when the moments I think about not smoking correspond to the times I smoke. I count my last cigarettes—will this, won’t this, be the last one?—and as the counting goes on (and on), so does the smoking, one pack of 20 after another, day after day. This is what smoking is about: the daily, intoxicating failure to stop smoking.
You know that when you do give up smoking, you’ll think about cigarettes for the rest of your life: There’s no such thing as an ex-smoker, just a smoker not smoking (which for a smoker may be the hardest, simplest idea to comprehend). A couple of years ago, in a nonsmoking phase, a friend of mine commended me on breaking the habit. “I haven’t stopped smoking,” I replied indignantly. “I’m a smoker not smoking: That’s all.”
Charles de Gaulle gave up at age 54, soon after D-Day in 1944. He was until then an 80-a-day man, with a bottle of Graves at dinner on the side. My grandfather, who ran the Special Operations Executive, the British organization that financed and organized many guerrillas of the French Resistance, had the task of censoring de Gaulle’s famous broadcast to the French from London on July 26, 1940, eight days after France fell to the Nazis, two days before the general became head of the Free French. That assignment was negotiated as the two men sat in the back of a London taxi, traveling from Free French headquarters to the BBC, their discussion endlessly interrupted as de Gaulle paused to light yet another smoke.
De Gaulle’s speech, addressed to Pétain, the French marshal who had capitulated to Hitler, was even accompanied by a cigarette. Monsieur le Maréchal, de Gaulle began, par les ondes, au dessus de la mer, c’est un soldat français qui vous parle. You can practically see the 64-year-old smoke in those words. In Jean Lacouture’s three-volume biography of the man who, from the age of 10, considered himself the embodiment of France, there’s no explanation for how or why de Gaulle quit smoking after he arrived in France. It’s tempting to speculate (and I have, so I will) that the general said no because in France he wasn’t assured of the supply of French tobacco he counted on when in exile in London: The idea of de Gaulle, always the patriot, smoking British or American tobacco is impossible.
On the streets of New York, I see smokers everywhere, lingering at building entrances, temporarily exiled from their offices; the smokers lighting in mornings, and in afternoons, and before boarding the subway home. I like the sight, not out of perversity or comradeship, but because the gesture of certain smokers is beautiful and lends itself photography and to film. Which reminds me that the best place I ever smoked was at the movies. I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be a smoker if I hadn’t spent a summer, when I was 18, smoking at late-night double bills at the Electric and Gate cinemas in Notting Hill. But it’s been an age since you could smoke at the flicks, although that’s often where I imagine I am when I smoke: at the movies, absorbed by a screen seen through a cigarette haze—that, and imagining that this may be the final cigarette that I smoke.