Smokers are the last of a dying breed. For some time now we’ve been denied the privacy of watering holes or shelter of any kind—forced out into sun or under street lights—made to wear their ashen letter in public for all to see.
This, of course, doesn’t discourage as much as it emboldens. If anything, it’s only managed to solidify one of the habit’s irreplaceable charms: The aside. Even on the best night out, nearly every bar plays host to a steady frequency of pinballing shoulders, shout-to-be-heard conversations, and enough body heat to fog up the windows at the entrance and sweat the glass in your hand. Regardless of if you’re an extrovert or occasionally moonlight as one, proclaiming your intent to “grab some fresh air” is met with raised eyebrows and bobbing chins—few, if any, intended to convey approval.
By itself, the “smoke break” has served as the primary wedge between those who do and those who do not because, let’s face it, it’s non-essential. The fact that it’s only afforded to those who smoke further drives the societal wedge between those who do not, therein shining a light on what makes the habit so unique: every benefit that it affords the user compounds the alienation they feel from their peers. The exile may seem stressful at first glance—yet another excuse to reach for your Zippo—but those who habitually spark up know full well that being ostracized is part of the deal, a fact that wounds them as much as it heals.
This is the paragraph where I say, OBVIOUSLY, smoking is extremely bad for you and don’t do it and now I’ve done my social and ethical diligence and we can move on.
My relationship with smoking started on the uneven ground navigated by most all recent graduates—a few friends, in similar straits, had rented a house in West Michigan where we’d convene at night, during the Midwest’s ’13-’14 polar vortex, over games of NHL on PlayStation. At the conclusion of each third period (or OTs in the more storied matches), we’d huddle in a tight circle on the front porch in below zero temps and bum Camels off one another, harping on missed opportunities and extolling due praise. I’m still not sure I ever caught a buzz off the nicotine, but I certainly got high on the kinship.
Shortly thereafter, I moved to Santa Monica to work in marketing, where a cigarette would help distract from the hours I spent commuting every morning, and every night. At work, I began jockeying for an open role on our editorial team, campaigning over bummed Marlboros in the company parking lot with editors who were kind enough to take me under their wing. I got the job, and kept the habit.
Then came Chicago, where, to escape the new reality of a gig that crippled me with anxiety and self-doubt, I’d seek out conversations with strangers at night I’d found via mutual right swipes or two or three bar stools down from me. If there’s one thing I’ve found, it’s that wanderers and outcasts tend to seek out and attract one another—and they all carry lighters, sometimes out of necessity, other times out of foresight. They prepare for the best and expect the worse and I admire that.
In each of these conversations, no matter the city, there were two or more people (but never a crowd), with each one of us being some mix of overworked, unsure, and unhappy. Each of us heroes and failures in our own right, I again found that same warmth only afforded to huddled friends on winter porches, when the air was so cold that, from a distance, no one could be sure if our breath was freezing or we were exhaling.
The orange glow gave us away, and we never really cared.