Autobiography of a Smoke-Filled Room

by Jim Knipfel

Unlike most smokers I've known over the years, I didn't first light up at 13 or 14 in a cheap attempt to be "cool" or one of them "rebel" types. I didn't hang out in junior high bathrooms, hacking and coughing in order to be one of the guys.

Neither one of my folks smoked, either. In fact, whenever the subject came up, my dad always told the delightful story about his first experience with tobacco. Seems he'd gotten his hands on some chaw when he was 10, and snuck out behind the barn to find out for himself what the fuss was all about. Of course, while he was huddling back there, chewin' and spittin', my grandpa came around the corner with a friend of his and caught him, just as nature intended.

"Pretty good, eh?" my grandpa's friend asked my dad.

"Yeah, it's great!" my dad answered.

"You know what you do with it now?"


"Ya swallow it."

Well, my dad ended up in bed for the next two weeks, sick as he had ever been, ever would be, and never touched tobacco again, in any form.

Myself, I waited until I was 19, well aware of all the dangers, all the warnings, anxious to engage death in a slow and painful tango. Actually, slow suicide wasn't why I started, but it's certainly why I continue today. I didn't even start with cigarettes. Instead, I began with cigars. Big, cheap, nasty-as-nasty-gets Phillie Titans. And I started, simply enough, because I was a bad man. Smoking fat, foul cigars in cramped public places seemed an easy and evil form of entertainment.

It was so simple to be walking down the street, cigar clamped tightly between my teeth, and just on a whim pop into a high-end sweater shop. I'd only be in there for a minute or two before the (always) dim employees figured out what was going on. They'd ask me to leave, which I did without argument, feigning ignorance ("I'm so sorry--I forgot all about it--I just wasn't thinking")--but my presence would be remembered there for days afterwards.

I'd bring a box of five Titans into a local hipster/arty coffee shop frequented by skinny white kids in turtlenecks and berets and pretend to read and drink coffee while frantically puffing away. It always insured that no one would sit next to me, but the bohemian hepcats were too cowardly to ask me to stop. That was a weekly bit of good fun until the complaints mounted and the management at Steep & Brew posted the "No Pipes, No Cigars" sign on their front door. I took that sign as a great moral victory, though I don't know why.

I discovered another neat little obnoxious cigar trick while it was raining. I was waiting in a doorway for Grinch to show one night, watching all these people traipse by with their umbrellas, when I started experimenting. I found that if you time it just right, you can blow a puff of foul, acrid Titan smoke so that it will settle underneath the canopy of an umbrella, hang there, and travel along with the umbrella-user for several blocks.

Oh, the fun I had!

Before long, I found that I was chain-smoking Titans. By the third one, I could feel what seemed to be a golf ball-sized knot of hot tar sitting just behind my breastbone. It was a good feeling, a good pain. I figured I was onto something.

Unfortunately, the problem with cigars is this--especially in these days of the anti-smoking crusaders--you need a good half-hour chunk of time in order to properly enjoy a cigar. When I was in school, I had that kind of schedule, but not anymore. My day is now cut up into tiny little segments, and I can't take a half-hour break to go smoke a bad cigar at someone else's expense.

For awhile in Minneapolis, I tried some little monsters called Dutch Treats. Even more rancid than Titans they were, but they were cigarette-sized and came in three delightful flavors (leather, tangerine and raccoon, as I remember). Better still, they were sold in two-packs for 99 cents. That's 40 little hate-sticks for less than a dollar! And even better yet, you didn't have to ask for them the way you had to ask for regular cigarettes--they could be found in the tobacco aisle of my local Snyder's drugstore, which made stealing them not just easy, but almost obligatory. Best of all, nobody--not even the most smoke-desperate homeless psychos--would ever bum one off me once they found out what they were.

Unfortunately, I was sharing my office at the University with four other grad students, most of whom smoked, but none of whom would put up with the stench of Dutch Treats. So then I moved on to Pall Mall 25's. Regular, filterless Pall Malls, but they came in packs of 25 instead of 20--for the same price! Unfortunately, I was only able to find the 25's available in one place: a gas station which, though close to my apartment, required a death-defying dash across an extremely busy (and crosswalk-free) highway. It was worth it for the while I was there, when I was young and spry, but once I left Minneapolis, Pall Malls--and specifically the 25's--became too damned hard to find to keep it up as my home brand.

In Philly, Pall Mall-less, I floated freely through all sorts of nonsense. I smoked Camels until I realized that everyone smoked Camels. I never touched Marlboro's for the same reason. I spent a few weeks with Lucky's, then with Chesterfields. Bogart smoked Chesterfields. In fact, Chesterfields were the smokes that killed Bogart. That alone made them a class operation. Unfortunately, they also gave me a ringing headache from the first draw.

I even made the mistake of going snooty a couple of times and trying Turkish cigarettes, which were just too wimpy for my taste, and burned too quickly. Then I tried those Black Russians--the smokes wrapped in black paper, which I thought was pretty neat for a box or two, until I realized that they had no kick whatsoever, and left me looking like a sissy. Same with Dunhills. Too expensive, too sissy.

When those Injun smokes, American Spirit, were first introduced into the marketplace, I was sent a press kit with two packs and a bag of rolling tobacco. Well, I tried them, and not only did the smokes themselves taste like dried, shredded cat turds rolled in toilet paper, but the press kit was full of all sorts of New Age hooey about "the Great Spirit" and "taking time out to get in touch with yourself." I ended up writing a story for the paper I was with at the time called "Me Smoke 'Um One Heap Foul Peace Pipe!"

I forget, exactly, how it was that I settled on Kools. Maybe it was the clean, minty taste. Maybe the fact that fewer people are willing to bum these--except for the bums, who love them, and love me, in turn, for doling them out. And come the revolution, I think I'd like the bums on my side. Kools are an easy way to get and keep them there. I also remember I was very impressed to discover that there was a time when the fine folks who make Kools were packing the filters with asbestos and fiberglass (in order, I guess, to keep them cool)--and that this shit was ripping smoker's lungs all to hell.

I think it was with that knowledge, and with the Kools themselves, that I consciously decided to use cigarettes as a means of slow suicide. So now I combine the smokes with the booze and the bad, greasy frozen food. The more difficult I find it to breathe, the harder it is to walk up a flight of stairs or carry things, the more greenish-brown globs of thick phlegm I hack up over the course of the day, the more I wheeze into the telephone--well, dammit, the better I feel.

Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. Artwork copyright Bob Hires. All rights reserved.

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