Posted: February 6, 2002
moking is the last undefended vice. Who among us will stand up for the much-maligned stogy? For the delicious aroma of black Cavendish burning in a cherrywood bowl? For the lowly cigarette? Let me come clean: my deepest sympathies lie with the pipe and those who partake in its pleasures. Which is not to say I won't indulge in a cigar to celebrate in grand fashion, as my friends always do, Winston Churchill's birthday. And far be it from me to say that a cigar or even a cigarette is out of place before, during, or after any virtuous activity.
Indeed, the poor cigarette does not get its due. Not too long ago I studied philosophy in Belgium—a country which, the Belgians lamented, had some of the toughest smoking restrictions in Europe. This meant that students couldn't smoke in class during lectures (a restriction apparently not enforced against professors). Everywhere else was fair game, including right outside the doors of classrooms during breaks. Now when I think of Spinoza or Heidegger, or a dozen other giants of the Western tradition, I think of thick palls of smoke engulfing the heads of graduate students, especially those North Americans who ironically had to travel to the Old World to satisfy their yearning to breathe free.
I should also make clear that although I don't mount my defense of smoking on health grounds, I don't for a moment believe that I'm being irrational on that score. Haven't we discovered that the other drug that works wonders—alcohol—is good for us? It was recently suggested that even salt is not necessarily as bad as we've been told.
When I lived in Los Angeles I was constantly bombarded by the television ads of a California fast food chain which boldly proclaimed that there is a word for men who don't love dripping, greasy cheeseburgers: the word is "losers." And so, I think, there is a word for men who—for reasons of pseudo-religious devotion rather than genuine choice—will not light up a cigar when the moment comes for it. The future as seen by Woody Allen in "Sleeper" will undoubtedly come to pass. What was down will be up, and even tobacco will be discovered to have health benefits. And if it doesn't, so be it.
My defense, after all, skillfully skirts this issue. It is based rather on my troglodytic sense that there are a few simple pleasures that individuals should be left alone to enjoy, free from the censure of meddlesome megalomaniacs with too much time on their hands. My defense is based also on romance, tradition, and memory. The pipe in particular is the natural choice for traditionalist conservatives, for it is so linked to the mystic chords of memory.
Who, early in his life, has not felt the romantic allure of smoking? What boy—for this is one area where I don't think I can speak for girls—has not been intoxicated by the smell of smoke pouring from a man—a real man—as he walked blissfully unaware of the youngster's presence? Smoking, especially the smoking of pipes and cigars, reminds us all of our first lessons in manliness; of what it meant to be something other than a boy and other than a girl. It reminds us of tweed jackets, deep voices, manual labor, brogues, fathers, grandfathers.
"The pipe is a trusted friend. Pipe smoking creates a common bond among all men."
I look wistfully at these introductory words from a mail order catalogue designed exclusively for pipe smokers and involuntarily conjure exquisite aromas from my past. Almost everyone takes up pipe smoking for the same three intertwined reasons: to look older, more intellectual, and more attractive to young women. (Why young men persist in believing that looking like an old intellectual is attractive to women surely remains one of life's unfathomable mysteries.) I still consider myself a relatively young pipe smoker, though in candid moments I admit that I careen recklessly toward middle age. I remain convinced that pipe smoking makes me seem older than what I convince myself are my rather boyish early—yes early—middle years.
I remember my first "real" pipe and the elderly British gent who sold it to me. He surely knew more about the fine art of pipe smoking than I do now, or ever will. He taught me that I needed a large bowl so that the pipe would fit comfortably in my large hand. It was he who recommended the Danish Sovereign of handsomely polished briarwood I now proudly call my own. Expensive, but a small price to pay for a lifetime's worth of pleasure. He told me of the glories of briarwood—its hardiness, its lightness, its heat resistance. And, of course, how it's capable of revealing, in the hands of a master pipe craftsman, the most lovely grains and patterns. He told me how to hold my pipe, how properly to tamp my tobacco. And he threw in a free tamper for the purpose. That same evening, I took my then fiance (now wife) to the finest restaurant in town, at which time we commenced our celebration of the fact that however wretched the working world might be, we could always escape to our world. And we spoke too of my proud new possession.
I remember the times, good and bad, when my "trusted friend" and I would sit in splendid isolation and reflect on our misery or joy. Yet I recall also the occasions when pipe smoking was a communal experience. It is in the early 1980s, the glory days of the Reagan Administration. My friends and I are sitting in a cruddy but wonderful bar in a tiny town in upstate New York. It is a bitterly cold December afternoon, yet we are unaware of the outside conditions as we celebrate our mutual victory over the first law school exams we ever wrote, puffing to our hearts' content, drinking Wild Turkey and beer as though we'd all been given a week to live. I still have the $1 corncob I purchased specially for the occasion.
I remember too my father as he stood behind the glass counter of our general store. He was not a smoker (died early, nonetheless) but made certain exceptions. A notable one was during the seemingly endless hours he spent waiting on a boat in the frigid waters of the English Channel, in the dusk of June 5, 1944, not knowing whether life held 40 years or 40 hours. No pseudo-religious devotion there; only the real thing. Both he and I would relish the opportunity to smell the small packages of pipe tobacco he used to sell, for a pittance, to a world not yet chastened by health zealots or anti-smoking Nazis. I was four or five then, and I knew little about the contents of these packets, but I wished they were edible.
Pipe smoking is nothing if not civilized. It is somehow fitting that both of nature's finest pipe materials—briar and meerschaum—come from the Mediterranean region. The peoples of this region today may be pitiful warriors, indolent workers, and economic have-nots. But their food, their lifestyle, their culture, their wantonness, all betoken an attitude toward life that us Northern types can, for the most part, only covet from afar.
When I practiced law, bored and miserable as a man can be, my pipe was an escape to the southern Europes of my mind (this before they banned smoking outright in my office). I could, occasionally, take a moment to look up from the drudgery of the multitudinous petty disputes with which I was dealing. With every respite I would carefully scrape any old tobacco from my pipe, scoop in the new, and tamp it gently but firmly into the bowl. Instantly I was on a glorious beach in the Greek Isles, observing 21-year-old Italian models wearing virtually nothing, or less, reveling in the innocent decadence of the moment. Or I was back in Istanbul, standing on the banks of the Bosporus, negotiating the price of an intricately carved meerschaum with a man named Mustafa.
Meerschaum is the perfect blend of magnesium, silica, and water. When properly polished, it is a beautiful stark white, like a Mediterranean beach house set against an azure sky. With age and many bowls of tobacco, it yellows gracefully as it renders its uniquely cool and dry smoke. It is a mineral that is produced in greatest quantity at the wonderful plain of Eskisehir in Turkey. In fact, I recall trekking through half of Turkey in search of this, perhaps the most perfect pipe. I walked in 100-degree heat through just about every back-alley bazaar in Istanbul, risking life and limb (I convinced myself) in search of the ideal. It was our honeymoon, and my wife gleefully accompanied me. I finally found my dream, carved in the form of a particularly diabolical-looking Sultan's head.
Today, in the academy, the workaday world fades in my consciousness and I can light up almost at will, as long as I go outside to do it and don't mind the quizzical looks of students and co-workers. Certainly a smoke, be it pipe, cigar, or cigarette, can be an academic's best friend. Nothing will get the creative juices flowing more readily, or better occupy one's hands and thoughts in those many moments of writers' block, than a little tobacco in any of its forms. The haze I sit in as I construct this essay is accentuated by a tall glass of tawny port: a natural complement. Rubbing the Sultan's head of my meerschaum, I conjure my genies from the phantasm of smoke. In more serious moods, I summon Plato, and he speaks to me through the mist of expired Cavendish. As he constructs his city in speech, so I stare heavenward, constructing mine in cotton-candy billows drifting idly to the ceiling.
But man cannot live by philosophy alone. I flip Sinatra onto the CD player and take slow draws from my Sultan. And I become supremely confident that I am doing things My Way. Or I stroll across the campus green, attracting the most violent looks from those who can't imagine that a man—particularly a relatively young man—would want to do such a thing. But I also see envy in the eyes of the men who wish they too could take up my blithesome habit, or that their bosses, wives, town councils, or health gurus would let them.