Culture and smoking
We are out of matches, and I need to light the grill. Rummaging around the back of the junk drawer, my fingers find an old Bic lighter, a relic from my smoking days. I hold it up to check the butane tank, and my 6-year-old son asks, "What's that?" His ignorance stirs something. Smoking culture, its hardware and miscellany, tactile and once so familiar, is on the verge of extinction. To my son, the mechanical masterpiece I hold, with its depressible release valve and rough-edged spark wheel, is a relic. It might as well be Amenhotep's scarab.
My mother was a smoker. She smelled of nicotine most of the time. When she wiggled a loose tooth of mine, her finger tasted like tobacco, sweet and earthy, as she was. I had my first cigarette at 11, but before I ever tried my mother's Now 100s, I tried her lighter. She had a high shelf for cookies, but she wasn't particularly careful about where she left her lighter. I was fascinated by the tiny lick of flame it made, once you mastered the fine-motor skill of flicking your Bic.
My fascination ended the summer I nearly burned down the house. In an experimental mood, I'd touched the lighter to the kitchen curtain. Within seconds, it was a conflagration, bright orange flames crawling all over the blue-patterned cotton. I tried to put it out with a cup from the sink, but it had no effect. I called up the stairs. "Mom? You'd better come down. The house is on fire . . . but I didn't do it."
"I SAID, THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE . . . BUT I DIDN'T DO IT."
She was down in a flash. Heading straight to the sink, she yanked the metal hand sprayer. The measly arcing streams were useless. In a coolheaded and heroic act, my mother used the hose like a whip to knock the blazing curtains down from their metal rod and away from the ceiling. She aimed the spray handle with one hand while reaching back to fill a large water glass with the other. Keeping her eyes on the fire, she looked like a police officer holding a perp at bay with her gun while reaching through the windows of his getaway car to grab the keys out of the ignition.
When she gained the upper hand, smoke trailed up from the wet remains of the curtains to a black smudge on the ceiling. My mom slumped to rest against the sink, and we locked eyes. She plucked the Bic lighter from the countertop.
"What happened here? Did you do this?" My mother was not a yeller. She wanted me to confess. She felt that if I didn't come clean, the guilt would haunt me. "Did you do it? It's OK if you did. I just want you to tell me the truth." I couldn't speak.
The atmosphere was thick the rest of the day. There was cleaning to do. My mother took down some Entenmann's doughnuts from her high shelf and put them on plates for me and my siblings. This was unusual, but it had been an unusual day. As I ate, I could feel their eyes. "I did it, " I whispered. My mother put her arm around my shoulder and drew me to her. "It's OK, " she said. She smelled like smoke. I loved it. She was just as forgiving when my older sister and I picked up the smoking habit as teens. She wasn't pleased — far from it — but her own guilt kept her from coming down too hard on us.
My kids get panicky when they see someone smoking. "Daddy!" they gasp, pointing, as if they've seen someone naked. "He's smoking. Doesn't he know it's bad?" Of course he does. My mom knew, and my sister knew. I knew. You could be a smoker then and still be a good person. I gave it up when the invulnerability of youth faded and the impulse to live both long and well reared up. The only smoke I inhale now comes when the wind shifts and I'm standing on the wrong side of my charcoal grill, if I can get it lit.
Matthew Hennessey is an associate editor of Manhattan Institute's City Journal, where this essay first appeared.