A man stood outside the library having a cigarette. I had just come in from my break and walking past him asked if he could please cross the street as our campus was non-smoking.
“You can’t tell me what to do,” he said.
He was right. It was not my place to tell a grown man what to do. I am a librarian, protector and guardian of the books, not a fireman.
Instead of telling him this or quoting the Board of Director’s decision or further quoting the city council’s decision that smoking cannot happen inside a public space or within fifteen feet of an entrance to a public space, instead of rattling off all that bureaucratic nonsense that other people decided to govern how the smoking minority behave, I just pulled out my own pack of Camel Lights.
I am a member of the club. Or I was. More on that in a minute.
For sixteen years I have been a smoker. I cannot tell you why I started. Probably equal parts teenage rebellion, perceived peer pressure, and thinking it looked cool. Either way, I picked up my first cigarette when I was fifteen and never looked back.
See, I love smoking. It is my religion. The rituals of going to the store, enjoying a brand, packing the cigarettes, lighting the cigarette, emptying ashtrays, all of it, I love it all. I love the reward of a cigarette after a hard work day, the release after a good meal or sex, the simple joy of consistency of a thing that I can control. As an introvert, a deep part of me enjoys the fact that people stay away while I go and do my smoking thing, that I get to walk away from the crowd to feed my habit.
And that’s just the thing. It is a habit, like any other religion. Smoking is a culture, and community, and a set type of rules and order. Always lend because you never know when you might need a cigarette. Never refuse a light, even if you have to lend your cigarette to help. Never ask for a last cigarette unless he offers. Rules and order. Sanity and a light in darkness. Places to commune and talk with others while having a shared habit, a shared belief.
Is that belief that I am stronger than the cigarettes? That they will not kill me? Maybe. I know all the health risks and the debates of second hand and argued both sides with myself. At the end of the day, I do not care. That’s not a suicidal thought, mind you. Just the same belief structure that allows me to go to Taco Bell or have one too many drinks or while in fast traffic cut off the guy with the “My Kid ate your honor student” sticker on his truck or any other risky behaviors that in the long run will find me wedged into my grave, bloated on fast food and booze.
In the end, I believe belief killed my relationship with cigarettes. Like any good believer, my faith was tested and I did not measure up and I do not enjoy them as I once did. As of this typing, I have not kept up a regular habit of smoking in over six months. I did break down while drunk over crawfish a month ago and had two, but the nasty taste and stomach churning effects made me steer clear since. The habits remain, though, the random cravings when I lean back in a chair or sit outside on a porch in a thunderstorm.
Why did I lose my faith in cigarettes? I could not tell you. There was no one event, no prophet from on high preaching about the dangers. Possibly I realized I am not immortal. Somewhere inside, the lizard that controls my dreams and wants and wishes suddenly found the idea of lighting up revolting and that was that. What I do know is that once the decision to stop was made, I did not turn back or need a substitute. Even the slide back during the crawfish party was a desire to try again rather than a need to have one.
But what remains is my fascination and love for smoking. I am a member of the club, now and forever because I did it. I lived the life and had my experiences and have no regrets. Would I tell someone they should not smoke? Yes, but I would also tell them they should not drive fast before telling them how we used to race our cars around the local mall parking lot. Just because you should not do something does not make it less appealing or fun.
I also cannot say I quit. I will never quit; I will always be a smoker. The scars are there, the past cannot be unmade and I am better for having done than standing off to the side chiding. I stopped doing a habit, nothing more, and will live with the consequences.
The man in front of the library understood and gave me no argument. When I held up my pack of Camel Lights, he understood what I was saying.
“I’m in the same boat, the same club, and if I have to obey the rules to do what I want, so do you, brother.”
All that being said, if I make it 30 or more years, if I reach the age of the average life span of my people and still have my wits about me, I will start smoking again. Hell, if I do not have my wits about me, you better let me smoke. I want to be the oldest, most alzheimer’s having chimney you have ever seen and will then die happy.
The other exception includes any apocalypse scenario, including zombie, robot, asteroid and/or alien invasion. If the human race starts looking like it is game over, I’m lighting up and you can try and stop me.