I first had a cigarette when I was about 12. It wasn?t a life-changing event. I didn?t throw up or become immediately hooked, I neither loved nor hated it.
My brother, two years older, had just started smoking and he pretty much forced me to try that first one. Smart as he was, he figured that once I?d had just one puff, I wouldn’t be able to grass him up to mum. Probably justified as I was a little sneak back in those days. Legend has it, in my own head, that he forced me to take that cigarette by holding a lighter to my face and threatening to burn me. True or not, this certainly gets a good reaction. I do occasionally doubt its authenticity but then I remember that he also pointed his air rifle directly at me and shot a hole through my girl guide blouse.
I bought my first pack of cigarettes when I was around 14, a packet of ten B&H — Benson & Hedges. Rough as sandpaper. Actually I didn?t buy them, I nicked them from the village sweet shop I was working at. Not really my fault, I was pretty much left alone in there and it was only a matter of time before I graduated from lemon bon-bons and aniseed balls to something a little stronger.
I?ve often wondered how popular cigarettes would have been with a less posh name. Instead of fancy ‘cigarettes’, why not a tossy name like Dickles. And if cancer isn’t doing the job, how about some new side-effects. Warning: Smoking Dickles can cause hamster breath and bleeding cuticles.
Anyway I switched brands a lot in the early days. I tried Camels for a while because they were different, but they were also disgusting (though no-one ever tried to bum one from me). I changed to Marlboro red because that?s what Roger Taylor of Queen smoked and you didn?t get much cooler than him. There were lots of stories about ground-up glass in the filters and Marlboro supporting the klu klux klan because the red on white design supposedly made 3 K?s but I trusted Roger.
When I was 17, I dabbled a little with menthols. My friend Karen and I would bunk off school and walk down to the local Wimpy, a pre-cursor to MacDonalds which gave me food poisoning on more than one occasion. We?d sit in Wimpy with a hot chocolate, smoking St Moritz cigarettes. St Moritz were all white with a super cool gold band and they came in extra-wide boxes which I think were gold and green. Classy days.
When I started working in bars, smoking was pretty much mandatory. We?d all smoke between serving customers and at busy times there?d be half a dozen burning cigarettes in an ashtray at the end of the bar. Bloody irritating when someone would interrupt our fag break for half a cider and a bag of scampi fries. Even in my poorest moments, I’d still make sure I could buy cigarettes, along with a very small jar of nescafe, a bottle of Ernest & Julio Gallo and some hob nobs. And when I remembered, a box of matches.
There were few things worse than having a cigarette but no light. If you had a gas stove you were in luck, but an electric hob was tricky. You had to be sure to hold your hair back and raise your eyebrows up as high as you could before sticking your face into the ring. I also heard later that you could set fire to a piece of paper in the toaster and light it that way but that sounded a bit wussy.
I suppose that cigarettes gave me my greatest pleasure during my office years. One of the great advantages to smoking is that it always gives you an excuse to get away from your work. Just popping out for some cigarettes. I?ll be in the smoking room if anyone wants me. Screw it, lets have a fag break. If it meant a few extra hours of work at the end of the day, it was worth it. It was always a bonus for me if a client smoked because it was a great way to bond and generally meant I didn?t have to work as hard to impress them. And cigarettes have always paired so well with both coffee and wine. Nowadays I have nothing with my morning coffee except food and nothing to do in a bar except drink.
After 3 or 4 half-hearted attempts, I finally quit smoking when I was 31. January 1st, 1999, 4 months before I got married. I could have cared less about how much smoking was costing me, about cancer or burn holes in my furniture, but the thought of having nicotine cravings when I was standing at the altar was enough to make me slap on a patch.
Life hasn?t been dull without cigarettes, it?s just been different. I miss having a reason to go out to the lobby during intermission at the theater. I miss having an excuse to get to the nearest gas station for emergency smokes. I miss being offended about my right to smoke being violated or complaining about persecution. And I have nothing to do after sex.
Yes I know I?m a ton healthier now than I ever was. Living in Austin I have to be. Very few people here smoke and if the city council had its way they?d all be excommunicated to some nasty stinky island . But there are still days when I?d love to pull off the transparent cellophane outer sleeve of a pack of british Silk Cut, remove the inner silver foil, pull out a single cigarette and stick my head over the hob.