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Smoking (Part of Involuntary Affinities, Elective Aversions)

Even when I was a child, as soon as they saw that I liked the smell of petrol at the pump in my father?s garage, everyone knew I was going to be a smoker. Wilson who worked for my father pumped the petrol and let me sniff it where the nozzle entered the car?s tank. There were thin pools of floating petrol mixed with water on the concrete floor that made rainbow-like refraction patterns that I understood later when I learned about two-layer reflection interference.

Wilson sometimes tried to amuse me. Once he took caps from my toy cap gun and forced a large number of them into the screw cap of a tire valve and then put it on the oil-black concrete floor and hit it with a big heavy sledgehammer. Some of the shrapnel went into my eyes and I screamed that I couldn?t see. The pharmacist they took me to put some glycerine into my eyes.

Once the hydraulic lift that held cars in the air so their underside could be inspected easily failed and came down unexpectedly, trapping Wilson for a short while, maybe even hurting him. I was too small to know.

My father smoked Mills cigarettes in last-your-whole-life tins of lovely enameled yellow metal that came from England, but he gave them up at a relatively early age. My cousin and I, when we were no older than eight, retreated to the store-room attached to the back of our house and lit the ends of paper soda-drinking straws and inhaled the smoke through them.

Somewhere around the age of 16 I started on menthols whose brand name I can’t remember. I never smoked a lot but I never completely quit smoking either. My friend at university insisted that menthol cigarettes were good for your hay fever. and we used to try it as a cure. I was always a bit skeptical Later I began to splurge on Mills myself. Players Cigarettes, with its picture on the packet of a bearded sailor were good too. Sobranies with black paper were even classier, a James-Bond-worthy smoke. Imported from England to South Africa and displayed in little tobacconist stores, they cost twice the price of Peter Stuyvesant or Ransom or local Viceroy, but they seemed worth it. I convinced myself I would smoke half as much for twice the price.

Cigarettes came in a luscious variety of styles. Filter was filter. But then there was plain, which meant no filter at all. People who smoked plain had nicotine-stained index and middle fingers, and yellowed teeth eventually. There was cork, which meant cork-tipped: literally, a layer of genuine cork on the lip-end of a plain cigarette to prevent it from sticking to your lips, but no filter at all. The reason some cigarettes still have brown lip ends is that that the brown edge was once real cork from Portugal.

Cigarette packs were more versatile too; smokes or fags came in variety of containers to match your lifestyle. There were packs of 5 meant either for poor people, or to be put as free gifts on Barmitzvah or wedding dinner tables. Then there were larger packs of 10. There were regular 20s. And then there were flat books of 30s (two layers of 15 each) and finally 50s, triple layer thick. My sister’s boyfriend smoked Viceroy Green 30s (green for cork-tipped) 30 in a flat box whose cover was green but whose rear was white cardboard. He used the back of the flat box as a Filofax, writing his reminders on the large white surface and then copying them over from pack to pack. through the day or week. How cool was that?

And of course, blessedly, you could go into cafes and buy ONE cigarette in a variety of brands kept loose in a tin near the counter.

Cinemas had ashtrays on the seat in front and you could smoke anywhere. Airplanes had ashtrays in the armrest. No one worried about second-hand smoke and no one was allergic to peanuts.

When you came back from parties your clothes and hair were impregnated with cigarette smoke but it was just natural.

My sister, before she gave up smoking used to triple dip, smoking a cigarette, sucking Imperial Mints, and drinking coffee.

At Salomon Bros in the 80s people smoked cigars on the trading floor. I once had dinner with friends in Cambridge Mass and lit up a cigar after dinner in a small brownstone restaurant and no one objected.

What cigarettes had was this fantastic ability: when you were down they took you up, and when you were too up they calmed you down.

Published in Opinion