I was drinking bourbon and smoking camel unfiltered cigarettes, like I used to do, in a bar in Cambridge, Mass.
They were horrible, the cigarettes. Every inhalation hurt. If I’d been smart I’d have smoked them like a cigar, letting the smoke hang out in my mouth, swishing it around like wine.
But I inhaled every one, hard, hurting my chest. I wasn’t smart, and I was in a hurry to finish one cigarette so I could dig around in the pack for another.
Sometimes I’d smoke filtered cigarettes, though, and I remember a friend looking at my brown filter saying “You’re smoking the hell out of that cigarette.”
Which confused me. I didn’t know there was more than one way to smoke a cigarette. You have a cigarette in your mouth, you want to smoke it, so you suck on it, draw on it, hard.
Letting your lungs fill up.
Exhaling. Inhaling hard again.
Later I learned that some people treat cigarettes like ornaments. Just hanging loosely on their lips. Maybe talking, letting the white stick bounce up and down.
Letting it enhance their expression or their essence.
Or inhaling absently, only every now and then.
Like in the movies. Everyone smoked in the movies, from housewives to hard-boiled detectives. Bogart to Lucille Ball.
So in the bar, I was drinking bourbon and smoking. I was enjoying it. I had “no deeds to do no promises to keep,” as Paul Simon said, riffing on Robert Frost in the Snowy Woods.
There was an older man, a Harvard prof sitting next to me. He called me a hard-ass. “You’re a hard-ass,” he said. “I don’t know how you smoke those unfiltered things.”
I was surprised by this — so surprised that I remember it now, 25 years later. No one had ever called me a hard-ass before, nor has called me one since.
I think he was a little envious. Of my insouciance, my youth. My irresponsibility, my apparent ease.
That happened another time in a bar, also in Cambridge.
An older man finished a sentence with “but what the hell would you know about it; you have nothing to worry about,”
while casting a resentful and slightly envious eye my way.
I was momentarily stunned, and defensive. Me? Did he mean me?
How would he know what my life is like, what my struggles were?
Little did these gentlemen know that I was anything but at ease.
I wore my skin like someone else’s suit. Uncomfortable, dissatisfied, awkward, longing for what I didn’t have.
Unsure with what to do with what I did.
Except my passion, I guess. That I let tumble out of me unbridled.
Does that sound self-servingly sentimental?
Yeah so what’s it to ya? I’m a hard-ass I don’t care.
Youth is wasted on the young. Man that’s for sure.
Now that I’m older I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. If I go in a bar I order cranberry and soda water and suck it with a straw.
But I don’t sip it slowly. I suck it down hard and fast and ask for another. That impatient part of me remains.
Maybe I’m even more impatient than before. Maybe discipline is a function of impatience. I have to get things done.
And at almost-47 I don’t want to waste a thing. A thought, a breeze, a smile from a stranger, a cute baby or puppy.
I want to — I must — drink it all in. Inhale it before it dissipates.
Once, a couple of years ago I saw a band playing in the subway.
Young good-looking kids in skinny jeans and tshirts, jumping around. They looked good and sounded good and people were giving them lots of money.
I cast an envious eye their way but didn’t stick around to listen.
I hurried down the steps to the subway so I wouldn’t miss the next train.