A Lovely So Real: An Ode to Smoke
“Yet once you've come to be part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”
— Nelson Algren
The writer Nelson Algren said that about Chicago over 60 years ago in Chicago: City on the Make. While I agree with his assessment that loving the city is like loving a woman with a broken nose, I have a seedier lover than even the gritty streets of my chosen home.
When I was a kid, I hated that my mom smoked. Hated it. I was that kid that would hide her cigarettes or flush whole packs down the toilet. I was also that kid who, in protest of my mom’s dictated bedtime for me, once took a dump in one of her shoes and put it back in her closet. I had practically forgotten about it when she discovered the deed and lost her mind.
With my youthful disgust at the dirty habit of my mother — a habit she’d had since she was 13 or 14 years old — it was an irony that I encountered my saucy, tattooed, foul-mouthed lady and went in for the courtship 25 years later.
I didn’t smoke my first cigarette (as opposed to joint) until I was 29 years old. That was when she and I met. It was where one meets a woman you know is probably bad for you but somehow you can’t resist her: the theater.
I was in a noir play. The director wanted my character to chain-smoke. I didn’t. She insisted. Long before the e-cigarette boom and with prop cigarettes looking about as fake as possible, I bought a pack of Lucky Strikes, unfiltered, for six bucks and started to practice dancing with this new, sexy chanteuse. Like Bill Clinton, I didn’t inhale and looked the fool. The director wouldn’t have it. She taught me to smoke like a pro.
Soon, I took to flirting with the Lady Smoke outside of the theater. In bars. At home. Suddenly she and I were an item. We could be seen together everywhere, holding each other close in the cold Chicago air, staring into each others’ eyes like lovers who knew we were doomed but embracing the infatuation with gusto. We’d go down but we’d go down in style.
The thing for those civilians out there to get wrapped around their brain stems is that it isn’t about the nicotine. It’s about the smoke. The feel of it, incandescently winding it’s way into your mouth and down your pipes. Exhaling it into slow curls into the night air. Booze hasn’t got it but she likes to come around when I’m knocking a few snorts back. Drugs don’t have it — they’re for kids and the perpetually adolescent. Nah, bub. It’s the smoke.
Aside from my family and my best friend of 35 years, our relationship has been my longest and rockiest. I’ve quit her a few times in 33 years but never for too long. Sometimes she came back to me as cigars but the tango with smoking was still a dance I couldn’t resist.
You can see the Others in the world who have fallen for her everywhere. Her hold is strong and, while you may fight — she hurts you when you spend too much time with her, she is a truly expensive date, and so many in the world look down their noses at her — in the end, she is reliable and satisfying.
Before I spent a decade with Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me! but after I had been a theater boss, before I married a third time but after I taught public school, I spent a year-and-a-half working in a tobacconist’s in Portage Park. A huge walk-in humidor, a smoking lounge that seated ten or so, and a regular congregation of her lovers in and out. Mostly old school Polish and Italian, Chicago hardcases who worked for the city, men with faces etched in years of dirty work and dirtier play. These guys would come in, grab a couple of stogies and a cup of coffee, and sit and smoke while watching the same five episodes of The Sopranos every week.
One day I noticed Tony, a 72-year old retired sanitation boss, come in alone. He bought a long cigar, an Arturo Fuente, and went to the lounge. But I didn’t smell the smoke. 45 minutes later, he split. He left no ash. He left no stub. The cigar, rather than being smoked had simply disappeared. Maybe he just sat and pocketed it for later, I thought.
This continued daily. Cigar. The lounge. The Sopranos. No smoking.
I had to know what was going on but Tony was a keep-to-himself kind of guy so I spied. What I saw floored me. Tony was slowly eating his cigar. Bite by bite, chewing slowly and swallowing. He finished it and left.
It turned out that Tony’s doctor had said he couldn’t see her anymore — no more smoking. He couldn’t break away, however, so he took to simply eating his cigars.
I did some research. There were cigars with infused flavors so I ordered a couple of different kinds and when Tony came in, I’d have one ready for him, a recommendation. “Have you tried these Cameroon wrapped CAO’s? Great flavor I’m told.”
Tony and I never spoke of his weird, obsessive habit of eating cigars because I understood his love for the Lady. To be forbidden her company yet still tethered to her femme fatal allure.
Three years ago, I met Dana and got engaged to her on our third date. We married a few months later and she would not have competition. My Lady Smoke was stinky, unhealthy, expensive and Dana knew when I was with her. She put her foot down and I agreed to quit smoking cigarettes. Or rather, I promised to stop buying them. You don’t buy them, you don’t smoke them, right?
This Fall, Dana gifted me her grandfather’s pipe and I found my reprieve. I would not have to resort to Tony’s Solution. Like me, my Lady has aged and smells better, richer, like a fine rye whiskey or Helen Mirren in a tight evening gown. For Christmas, my mom — who hasn’t smoked for decades now and turned the tables in her desire that I quit — bought me a couple more pipes, a cool pipe Zippo. David, my Literate Ape partner, got me another pipe.
And now I am a pipe smoker. No longer when I flirt with my oldest love on the street do people look down on us. She’s like a vintage whore, steeped in a dark respectability and class, despite the fact that she’ll spit on the street and curse the taxi drivers. I smell like your father or your grandfather now and the scent of nostalgia makes you smile.
Sometimes the bad girl matures into the uncompromising Grand Dame and I am happy to have her on my arm.
“...once you've come to be part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”