What I miss

by St. Frank

The other day I was walking back to work at lunchtime in downtown Oakland. This being California, it was sunny and mild, and I caught sight of a guy in front of an office building enjoying a cigarette. Now, as I said, this is California, so it’s a tough time to be a smoker…and it ain’t cheap either. At any rate, I looked at this guy as I hurried back to my job, and I felt a pang of nostalgia. I am an ex-smoker.

What I miss about smoking is just standing around, watching the world go by. It’s nearly meditational, as you rhythmically breathe in and out, all the while checking out the scenery. As a non-smoker, I’d look foolish standing outside a building, huffing and puffing and gazing mindlessly at people.

I also miss the rush or buzz you get from having waited a little too long between smokes. For me, this would have been something like ten minutes. But that first drag! You can literally feel the nicotine course through each vein and capillary as it goes about its business, feeding your body’s craving. You might get a little light-headed and let out a giggle, as passersby glance at you to make sure you’re not dangerous.

I miss the paraphernalia and routines: Getting ready to get out of the office to “burn one”; the smell of the sulphur from a freshly lit match. These things usually accompanied the first one of the day, or one of the ones you’ve waited too long for.

Mostly, I miss the camaraderie of smokers. Actually, it was less camaraderie than it was a Bunker Mentality. Yes, even a few years ago, being a smoker in California was about as popular as being a Young Republican at UC Berkeley. We knew we were hated, but that merely strengthened our resolve to smoke more! To Hell with the “Health Nazis,” we’d say, give me another Menthol.

Now I’ve turned the corner. Now it’s me casting disparaging looks at them. I have become the enemy; worse, I am an ex-smoker. I am reformed, so I preach to the unenlightened about the horrors of their pastime. I have recently become more of a danger, as I have entered to race in the Sea Otter Classic Mountain Bike Race in Monterey this March.

Still, there are those times…

Confederates in the Attic

I’m reading a book called Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz.

Its subtitle is “Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War,” and in it the author travels through the modern South talking to people about the Civil War, what they know of it and what it means to them. Horwitz, who spent years as a war correspondent in places like Bosnia and Iraq, is surprised to find so many people (eccentric and otherwise) who are intensely passionate about that ancient conflict. They aren’t interested in seceding anymore so much as they are interested in remembering and romanticizing the Lost Cause of the Old South. I admit I’m a sucker for Civil War books, but this is a great read.

I am a Southerner, and I’m glad the South lost that war. It fought for the wrong reason and lost for the right reason.

But what a story!

It’s damn near impossible to read about the run-up to Gettysburg or Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg and not be swept up by the drama of it. And I’ll tell you one thing the South has that the North does not: we know what it means to have lost a war. And I’m not talking about any Vietnam did-we-lose-or-didn’t-we ambiguity. We were whupped fair and square, invaded, defeated, and occupied. Strangely, there is a perverse comfort in that. The South stood up for what it believed and was pinned to the floor. The burden’s off. All Southerners, eccentric and otherwise, are welcome to relax in the warm and weathered lap of humility. It makes it a little bit easier to kick back and live a life.

You want some bourbon? Drink some bourbon. You want a smoke? Light up a goddamned cigarette. A little blustery Uncle Sam is all well and good, but it helps to be able to chuckle.

The Cause is Lost, but the memory endures. I’m glad the cause lost, but I’m glad the memory endures.

This week, we are grateful to St. Frank for sharing a word with us about cigarettes and enduring memories.