This is a guest post by Rantz, who writes surrounded by a cloud of vapor.
I started putting nails in my coffin when I was 14. That’s what I called the clove cigarettes I “smoked” as an affectation… long before filmmaker Kevin Smith created his iconic “NAILS” brand of smokes for his films. When friends would say “That’ll kill you!” with wide, concerned eyes, I laughed with all the arrogance of youth and said “Yep, just pounding nails in my coffin!”
One day, in the early morning hours before school, a group of us waited for the bus to arrive. All shivers and clouds of cold breath. A friend turned to me, cig smoldering in one hand, as she punched me in the shoulder. Hard. The blow was delivered with the words, “Don’t be a moron, stop with the cigs.”
I was stunned. Here’s a 2 pack-a-day 15-year-old girl (with a voice that sounded like Bettie Davis in her declining years), telling me to stop with the cigs. Anticipating my objections she continued with, “I know I’m a smoker, but you… you don’t even inhale. You hold them all awkward, you puff and puff… never holding the smoke in. It’s ‘pretend’ for you now.” She paused to light another cigarette. Exhaled with brows furrowed. “You keep doing this, you’ll wake up one day, realizing that you can’t put them down… that you don’t know how to function without them… Like it’d be easier to cut off your fingers.” She took a long, hard pull on the cig, looked down for a second. “Seriously… I’m trying to help you, moron.” That said, she walked away to wait for the bus.
I stood there, my shoulder throbbing from the punch. I thought she was nuts.
Of course I didn’t inhale… It hurt when I inhaled. I “smoked” cloves because I felt like smoking was part of the “creative uniform” I’d need to wear in my future career as an artist, writer, rock star… whatever. Desperately striving by association to be cool, smooth, badass… like James Dean, Hemingway, Serling, and Heinlein. Whatever I was going to do in life, it was going to be creative, and all my creative idols and heroes, smoked.
That was 30 years ago
My friend was right. By the time I left high school I went from “smoking for appearances”, to “dying for a cig”. Inhaling deep, holding it in. Twin streams of clove-scented exhaust billowing from my nostrils all too often. Over 25 years of professional work writing, editing, making art, designing video games, getting fired, running companies, winning awards, career setbacks… Every bit of it was done with a burning clove in hand. Pinhole burns marked almost all of my clothes, scarring T-shirts & suits alike. The dash of my car had a layer of ashy grime that I couldn’t get rid of. The tips of my index and pointer fingers on my right hand turned a permanent sickly shade of brownish-yellow, calluses indelibly stained in an unwanted tattoo by tar and smoke.
Smoking at work
In the mid 80’s you could still smoke in an office building. At my first job, the art department office was closed off, with windows on the fifth floor that did not open. With the deadlines, and high-stress creative energy it resembled a scene from Mad Men. The main difference between the Hollywood glamour of that award-winning show, and the reality of the office hung in the tangible cloud of toxic smoke that hovered at chest level from the ceiling. Like an inverted layer of gritty fog it never really dissipated, embedding the walls, clothes, and skin with a permanent scent of ashtrays overflowing.
By the mid-90’s, laws changed to where you could only smoke in bars and clubs, and so the office work routine changed as well. “Review sessions” were held outside so fellow smokers could binge-inhale as much ash, tar, and nicotine as they could while going over corrections and alterations, before heading back in for the next 30-40 minute burst of “desk work”. This was how I worked for years. The only way I knew how to work. Rain or shine, on magazines or video games, in the freezing winters of the Northwest, or the Mild climes of Southern California. Work, smoke, work, smoke, drive home while smoking. Rinse. Repeat. Ad Infinitum.
Laptops and Wi-Fi made it possible to work outside. The freedom allowed me to work and smoke at the office’s designated outdoor smoking area. I was able to work and smoke from my back patio at home, and at the outdoor smoking area at airports while waiting for flights. Without having to break from smoking to do “desk work”, I could chain-smoke and work the majority of the day at the office. At home, I could work on the back porch… ever-present cig burning… into the darkest hours of the night, while my wife and children slept. I worked and smoked and worked and smoked. By 2010, I’d reached a point where I knew something had to change…
(to be continued in Part 2)
Rantz writes, does art, and a variety of other things in any medium he can get his hands on, most frequently digital narratives and comics. Follow him on Twitter @RantzHoseley.