Smoking or Non by Eben S. Schwartz

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ash tray and pack of Camel cigarettes on diner table with salt and paper in background

It is the first week of January 2002, and I am stranded in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The system of highways and buses that brought me here has shut down after a storm draped everything in an inch of snow. It will end up taking two or three days to melt. Until then, tracks cut across streets as if a party of moose got into a bag of roller skates.

My friend’s housemate hasn’t paid the bills, so we have no electricity or heat. Every day we go to the Acadia Grill—a diner I consider marrying. More grease than spoon at that time, it will later be remodeled, and then ultimately, permanently closed, teaching me that beauty fades and death is inevitable.

It is disorienting to be marooned. One morning I go out in search of a newspaper to see whether it is my birthday or not. I read the entire issue as I wait in line to buy a pack of cigarettes. There are only two people ahead of me, but human interaction is as slow as snowmelt when vowels stretch out ‘til they’re cozy.

This is when Northern cities are starting to ban smoking in public areas. There is talk of pregnant waitresses having to expose their fetuses to secondhand smoke. California is an early agitator. I am living in New York City, which will always second a motion, even if it’s just to stay in motion. The price of cigarettes has been jacked up to dis-incentivize those of us who only smoke because it’s cheap.

These stirrings have made it into the newspaper in Winston-Salem—the headquarters of R. J. Reynolds, the company that named two cigarette brands after the city—where I see pickup trucks with bumper stickers that say “Big Tobacco Paid For This Truck” and “Joe Camel Sends My Kids To College.”

The next day at the Acadia Grill, I light up one of those cigarettes, ask the waitress for an ashtray, and she says, “Oh, I’m sorry honey—this is a non-smoking table.” My eyes bug out. She waits a beat and then laughs so hard it triggers a coughing fit. A joke at the expense of a Yank.

Someone at the neighboring table has to explain it to his friend:

“Up North, some restaurants have non-smoking sections now.”

“What?! You mean non-smoking tables.”

“No, whole sections.”

“But that’s crazy—they’ll all go out of business!”

Sadly, his friend would prove to be wrong. In a few years, we smokers would become the outcasts we always knew we were. The perimeters within which smoking was verboten gradually expanded until the spaces within which it was legal were the size of walk-in closets. Places like the smoking car on the Empire Builder, and the smoking room at the Houston International Airport—where the co-misery was so thick you could hardly breathe. A few years after that, and they would eliminate those havens altogether, leaving us dejected travelers out in the cold.

People with mental health problems are more likely to smoke. So are people with less education. So are people with less money. So are people with disabilities. So are veterans. So are members of the LGBT group.

Then again, so is anyone who isn’t Asian- or Hispanic-American, and anyone who doesn’t live in California or Utah.

I live in Wisconsin now. It’s been seven years since I quit smoking, and I still get that feeling of jonesing for a cigarette. I know now that the sensation is actually something else—anger, boredom, excitement, fatigue, hunger, impatience, loneliness, triumph, worry—but knowing that doesn’t alter the perception that I need a smoke. Now, when I dream about smoking, I’m flooded with guilt, fear, and shame. Not unlike when, on rare occasions, I sneak a cigarette.

Not that smoking one now and then does it any justice. What sets smoking apart from other addictions is that you can do it 20 times a day and still function. This allows cigarettes to take on the role that punctuation does in prose. Each one breaks up the stream of lived experience into sensible units, adding just the right amount of pause—break; or finality.

It’s been seven years since I quit smoking, and life still feels like a run-on sentence.

A rambling jumble of appetite, emotion, and waiting.

A life sentence.


eben schwartzEben S. Schwartz is a neuropsychologist in Milwaukee. His writing has appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, and elsewhere, and has been deemed Notable by Best American Essays. Follow him on Twitter to see what he writes next.



STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Jack Lyons

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