Sometimes I don’t like myself very much. This feeling can be traced all the way back to my childhood. It’s a mommy issue kind of thing. I know that we all have things about ourselves that we would like to change, but I have really honed my self-loathing to a fine point over the years. I have a whole laundry list of baggage, if you will forgive the mixed metaphor, which I constantly find myself referencing and keeping score with. Leading up the list is a vice that I am announcing to the world today; I am a smoker.
Sucking down a cancer stick has become more and more frowned upon in society as a whole, but it has an added scorn among the wine community, and with good reason. I am quite certain that nobody who smokes is under the mistaken impression that it is anything but the vilest of habits. It is a stinky, unhealthy, expensive and generally disgusting thing to do, yet the nicotine nation continues to puff away with abandon. I always get a nice surge of guilt after a cigarette; you know, that post-masturbation kind of guilt.
Just to get this on the record, my smoking has been an on-again, off-again foible that is generally revitalized by negative changes in my environment. I have had long periods of not smoking, interrupted by the onset of stressful situations. When I was laid off recently, I found myself picking it up again – a counterintuitive leap if ever there was one, given that my income had just experienced a significant drop. I am a fairly light smoker, never topping out at more than five or six cigs a day. I have had a field day psychoanalyzing myself (dangerous, I know) to explore the deeper nature of the more addictive aspects of my personality in the light of my smoking habits.
There is a special brand of disdain that we smokers feel among our wine friends. When I was in Napa over a year ago, I had a group of smoker friends with whom I would periodically abscond to “take a walk,” a euphemism that fooled no one. Many of them work in the wine industry, which is a very tightly knit community. Everyone desperately wanted to avoid having their habit become public knowledge. The desire to keep our vice hidden meant that the smokers’ ghettos that now exist in most cities were not hidden enough for us, and necessitated taking a real walk prior to taking our euphemistic one. I guess the bright side is that it meant that we got some additional exercise, but I couldn’t help but feel like I was perpetrating a major social crime every time I wanted to grab a square.
There are some very real reasons why cigarettes and wine don’t go together. The effects of smoking on your ability to accurately evaluate wine can be fairly significant. Not only does it make it more difficult for the choker to analyze wine, they also carry that lovely aroma with them on their clothes to share with everyone else. It is more than a little challenging to get a read on the nose of a wine when everything smells like the Marlboro Man (or in my case, the American Spirit Indian.) It is no wonder that lighting up before going into a tasting will lead to scornful looks from your fellow tasters. I would hate me too.
For some reason, the disdain for smoking has not made its way as deeply into the restaurant culture as it has the wine world. The same negative effects on the palate exist with food as with wine, but an above average number of chefs admit to being regular smokers. Anthony Bourdain, one of the world’s most famous food personalities, is an unrepentant smoker. Bourdain was quoted in a 2007 Time magazine article as saying, “I’m amused by food nerds who say, ‘I’d never eat at a restaurant where the chef smokes.’ Almost all the chefs I know smoke. … I don’t want to encourage anyone to quit smoking. In my experience, it really does make you cool.” The enduring rockstar image of chefs within the restaurant community might explain why the stigma has not made the same inroads within the food world as it has for winos.
I can’t say for certain that this “rockstar” image doesn’t play into my habit. I am not consciously aware of trying to “look cool” when I smoke, but I have always been attracted to the types of figures who would be more likely to smoke. Most of my writing heroes tend to fall onto the Anthony Bourdain and Hunter S. Thompson side of the spectrum rather than the one occupied by Robert Parker. I cut my teeth on punk rock music and Tom Waits, so I guess I should consider myself lucky to not be putting anything worse into my system than nicotine. No amount of anti-smoking ads that draw comparisons between smokers and monkeys will ever be able to replace the image of how cool James Dean looked with a cigarette.
I would like to say that this post serves to announce that I am quitting smoking and that I will never light up again, but I have to admit that this is unlikely to be the case. I know that I should give it up, but I also know that I don’t always do the things I should. I have resigned myself to the fact that I will continue to feel guilty and ostracized for engaging in a behavior that I recognize as unpleasant and unhealthy. I do believe that one day I will give up the habit for good, and I actually hope that the day comes soon. In the meantime, you can find me with my friends in the smokers’ ghettos of America, which are ultimately social prisons of our own making.