Hot Air


I do not smoke. I’ve tried to start at least a dozen times in my life, all between the ages of 16 and 24. Oh, and once I tried to start when I was 43.

Most of the time, I smoked Parliaments. I had very good reasons to choose them. They were mild, relatively tasty, the package was a nice blue on white, and the very word Parliament is cool because of George Clinton.



The main reason I wanted to take up smoking was because people who smoke look great doing it. Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Robert DeNiro in Goodfellas. Bette Davis in All About Eve. There’s something about lighting a smoke, taking a drag, even snuffing it out in an ashtray that punctuates a line of dialogue so right, so perfectly, and at times, so sexily.

I’d stand in front of the bathroom mirror, cigarette in hand (unlit, of course, because, hell, all that smoke is so irritating, no?) practicing my hold, my overall look, my jabbing with the cig hand to make a point, my pause to inhale before delivering a devastating bon mot.

Man, I looked good.

I never smoked at home because, well, what’s the point? But I’d smoke at all the hot spots in town: the Double Door, Neo, O’Banion’s, the Matchbox, Simon’s, the Tiny Lounge, O’Rourke’s — any joint where I could do the moves I’d practiced in front of my bathroom mirror. Good looking dames who also smoked would sidle up to me. “Big Mike,” they’d say, “I didn’t know you smoked!”

“Me? Yeah. No big thing.”

And then a substantive conversation would ensue. Back in those days I always was eager to engage in substantive conversations.

Every once in a while some non-smoking acquaintance would give me one of those finger-shaking looks. “Big Mike,” they’d say, “you’re smoking!”

“Um, er, uh….”

And that’d be the end of our colloquy. No matter, I never could stand scolds.

My forays into the smoking world would last, at most, three months at a time. Usually my “habit” would only last a few short weeks. I never could get the hang of it. Oh, sure, I looked great. At a couple of points in time, I even rolled up my boxes of Parliaments in my T-shirt sleeves. Motoring down Michigan Avenue on my Suzuki GS 1100 with a box of smokes rolled up in my T-shirt was the best aphrodisiac money could buy. Any number of times, strange young women would come up to me at red lights and ask if I’d give them a ride. Gentleman that I am, I never refused them.


One-Half Of The Formula

Nevertheless, the headaches, the dizziness, the gagging, the occasional bursts of nausea — all brought on by attempting to inhale — would quickly turn me off the practice.

Mike, can I borrow a cigarette?

Me? Nah. I don’t smoke.

I thought you did.

Nuh uh. Not me.

My beloved hometown legislated against smoking in bits and pieces from the ‘eighties through the year 2006 when Chicago finally outlawed the practice in bars and restaurants. I’d been a bartender four nights a week at Club Lago in the trendy River North neighborhood for a couple of years prior to the bar ban. Every night after my shift, I’d peel off my duds and be amazed at how strongly they reeked of smoke. My whole room would stink of cigarettes and I’d never lit up a one.


Club Lago

I figured I’d inhaled the equivalent of a couple of packs a week simply by being in the presence of my smoking customers.

Still, I always found those smoking bans and all those non-smoking finger-waggers to be annoying. Natch, I know smoking kills. I’ve seen all the pix of the blackened, crumbly, necrotic lungs of smokers who died of this cancer or that pulmonary disease.

Lung Cancer

Yeah, Yeah, I Know

People might say, But what about my kids? Because, you know, whenever people want to shame you, whenever they want to win an argument, there’s always The Kids to fall back on. My retort? Keep your kids out of drinking and smoking joints.

Anyway, one of my primary maxims is Never trust a person who doesn’t have a vice.

Honestly, do you know anybody who doesn’t have a vice? And if you do, how much do you want to tell that person to just shut up about it? Because they always want you to know they don’t have vices.

I started thinking about smoking this morning because my old pal, the crusading attorney Jerry Boyle, points out that a man was beheaded in ISIS-occupied Syrian territory the other day. Acc’d’g to reports, the victim’s head was found with a cigarette in its mouth and a note was attached to his body reading “This is not permissible, Sheikh.”

See, smoking, as well as drinking alcohol, music, swearing, women appearing in public without full-face veil and other horrors are taboo under ISIS’s strict adherence to god’s law. Funny thing is, smoking is huge in many of the areas that ISIS is taking over in the Middle East. Lots of chain-smokers and hookah pipe users are smoking more than ever these days as ISIS nears their homes — they want to get in their last puffs before they, too, lose their heads.

When all is said and done, I’m glad doctors can’t smoke in hospital rooms, travelers can’t light up in airliners, teachers can’t puff away in faculty lounges, and the guy sitting in the next cubicle can’t foul your workspace air anymore. After all, working in a cubicle environment is soul-crushing enough; you don’t need to endure coughing jags and stinky clothes to earn your daily bread as well.

The fact that drinkers at the Atlas bar or Finch’s must go outdoors for a few drags seems utterly nonsensical to me. A bar is a place where we not only indulge in our vices, we celebrate them. No one gives you the stink eye for knocking back a couple or five shots of Pappy Van Winkle. Nor do they tut-tut when people strike up faux-conversations with each other for the sole purpose of convincing each other to disrobe.


No Sin

My personal message to the clean, the pious, the compulsive rebukers of this mad, mad, mad, mad world: Let us kill ourselves any way we want.

One thought on “Hot Air

  1. I strongly disagree with this, but mostly because smoking in a closed environment isn’t about you killing yourself–it’s about your contaminating shared experience not with a vice but with an “unchosen” poison by whomever happens to be next to you. In other words, you become responsible for contaminating my air with one of the few toxic products that everyone agrees is an undeniable health hazard that is as bad for those not-choosing to smoke yet being subjected to it as it is for the smoker. I’d even argue that smoking in rental housing ought to be somehow regulated (I don’t know if landlords can prohibit smoking)–ONLY from the perspective that the toxic heavy metals have been shown to live in the walls, carpets, etc., for decades and that these too are carcinogenic. That is, a choice that lingers and has effects on the future occupant. I would argue this has an interesting relevance in the climate change dilemma. Anyway, I don’t want to die the way you want to die I suppose. Yes, I can stay out of bars. But if a bar can be an environment for a “casual vice,” should it be one for “necessary” vices (the addiction to nicotine and whatever other chemicals are enhancing that addiction) imposed on the whole?

    Why don’t we have “smoking” bars? Or do we? (If airports can create little glass zoo rooms for smokers I assume municipalities ought to be able to do this also.) Of course these would be required to install very serious filtration systems for any external exhaust.

    Yes, that harshes your vice proposition…but if we consider that what’s at issue is the way we promulgate this particular “vice”, the way we re-enforce it culturally (as you show in your post) as an element of fashion and identity, then we have to confront the idea that perhaps smoking is not as much a “choice” as we imagine. That it’s first a coercion and then an addiction. It’s an industrial commercial corporate behemoth. And yes, so is alcohol, but to me there is that simple difference that when you light up, you share that choice with me and in shared environments your will (or perhaps lack of will?) should not trump any other person’s.

    Grow your own, roll your own, smoke your own. This makes sense to me, not least because it slows way down even the very harm you plan to do yourself. So sure, kill yourself any old way you want; but please don’t kill me too.

    Your “scold” argument is as old as the “what about the kids” argument. Both are not really relevant to the actualities of industrial cigarette production as a toxic and destructive “pastime” for which you only wish to argue “because I want to.”

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