Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Smokin'!

In the late fall of 1986, I was living in Switzerland and wanted an addiction, so I took up smoking.

I aimed to become a writer, and I imagined that I could develop into a better writer by experiencing more of life, including deadly habits.

A little critical thinking would have killed that fantasy, but I was more into creating than critiquing.

I began with the roll-your-own type of zig-zag cigarette, figuring that I'd look more the part of the cultured Swiss-French 'alternatif' intellectual, sitting in a Fribourg cafe reading Tous les hommes sont mortel, blue smoke wreathing my head like the halo of some fallen angel.

Beyond the frisson of a Baudelairian aesthetics, smoking came to play a functional role in my reading. I discovered that my French improved more quickly. Previously, I had detested thumbing my way through a pocket dictionary for a ride to fluency. Somehow, I had never reached my destination.

Now, however, I began to enjoy looking words up . . .

Let's see, "soup├žon." Hmmm . . . what does that mean? A kind of soup? Soup's on? Nah, doesn't fit.

At that, I'd reach for my French dictionary, take a deep drag on my cigarette, and search for the word, exhaling slowly, leisurely.

Ah, here it is: "suspicion." Okay, gotta remember that.

I'd then lean back, take another drag, and think about the word, memorizing it as I let the smoke escape from my lips . . .

That was fun. It was cool. It was effective. My French improved.

Moreover, I achieved my primary goal of addiction and switched from roll-your-owns to prefabricated Galois cigarettes for more quickly satisfying my craving.

Months went by . . .

I returned to Berkeley, registered for the French exam required by my degree, and passed without difficulty.

Ah, two birds with one stone, time to stop smoking.

But I didn't want to stop yet. Not that I was still enjoying smoking. Its ephemeral pleasures had passed, and I wasn't using it to learn Greek and Coptic because I didn't smoke in the coffee lounge where I worked and studied. Rather, the smoking detracted from my language study because I would step outside to light up.

I wouldn't say that I had a monkey on my back, but something simian was perched there, invited by the sleep of my reason.

More months passed . . .

I returned to Switzerland, this time Basel, where I lived for the summer of '88 with anarchists, Greens, and 'Sandalistas' -- as the young, leftist supporters of Nicaragua's Sandinistas were sometimes called. These various Alternativen, as they termed themselves, had occupied the Old City Gardens on the bank of the Rhine and had set up tents for the homeless and beer kegs for everyone. By day, they marched in protests along the main avenue, shattering plateglass windows. At night, they retired to the Gardens to drink and, with a Swiss passion for cleanliness, sweep the loose dirt from the hard-packed dirt.

I avoided the protests but showed up evenings for the beer, developed an inebriated affinity for the unruly mob that milled about, and reveled in the vague notion that I was part of a larger significance.

My fool's paradise didn't last long. One night, the riot police appeared to evict us from the garden. They looked impressive in their dark rows of body armor, helmets, long shields, and tear-gas guns.

Without warning -- or none that I heard -- the guns went off and gas cannisters hailed down.

Surreal . . .

White, burning fog welling up from the ground, enveloping everyone . . .

People coughing . . . weeping . . . vomiting . . .

Mucus streaming from mouths and nostrils . . .

I ran to escape, slipped through the lines unhurt but alone, my fair-weather friends elsewhere . . .

Hurrying homeward along back streets, I arrived to an empty, unlit house. Spooky. Haunted by absences.

To wash the reek of tear gas from my skin, I showered. I could still smell it, though, and my eyes continued stinging throughout the night, keeping me from sleep. I surrendered to wakefulness and sat up reading Simone de Beauvoir all night. Les Mandarins. And I smoked cigarette after cigarette after cigarette . . .

At six that morning, I left the house, still empty, and headed downtown. Unexpectedly, an open cafe appeared. I found a German newspaper and sat down to drink a cafe creme. I lit and tried to smoke another cigarette. It sickened me. I stubbed it out, barely used.

Later that morning, I sat in the university library, exhausted, and again tried to smoke. The cigarette tasted horrible. Again, the nausea.

For a long time after that, I couldn't even think of tobacco without a profound feeling of disgust. The disgust has passed, but I haven't smoked a cigarette since that morning in Basel.

That's how I kicked the habit.

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