Friday, August 12, 2011
For most of her adult life my mother was a smoker of Pall Malls, long, thin, unfiltered American cigarette in a blood-red pack with elegant white lettering. She picked up the habit when she was a Free French soldier in Algeria during World War II and the Allied GIs stationed there handed them out to pretty French girls. To the best of my knowledge she never inhaled, but the blonde Virginia tobacco still stained her teeth and her fingers. Pall Malls were among her more expensive comforts, $2.25 for a carton of ten packs from the local liquor store, with five free matchbooks advertising the stores inventory of American beers and Canadian whiskey.
There were Pall Malls all over our house. My mother put them in lacquered boxes, silver goblets, slim cigarette cases and small fabric bags with clasps designed to hold a pack. There were ornate silver table lighters with wicks and cotton fillings, it was my job to fill them with Ronson lighter fluid, and a large collection of heavy glass ashtrays that as a child I would empty and rinse out after a party. The ashes and butts smelled strangely metallic, and I remember for the first time a seeing Kent filter among the dead mégots. There was a circle of crimson lipstick around it, and I tried to figure out who, among the women who’d come for dinner the night before, had smoked Kents, overly mild and ineffective cigarettes not worth paying good money for. I still have some of my mother’s ashtrays, and they are odd and useless appurtenances nowadays since no one smokes in my house.
There was always a pack or two of Pall Malls at the bottom of my mother’s purse. These were crushed by the keys, address book, make-up case, three tubes of lipstick, lighter (at first a Zippo, then as my mother’s elegance and rank rose among her peers, a silver, then a gold Dupont that I still have), seven or eight prescription bottles of anti-depressants, uppers, downers and specially concocted vitamin pills, a small ringed notebook for to-do lists, a pen from the local bank, a balled handkerchief, and a copy of the latest Screen Gem magazine.
My father never smoked. His pearly whites were exactly that and he once told me he made a dentist cry. He tolerated the acrid smell that pervaded the air and infused every seat and sofa cushion. He did not complain, and though a gentleman through and through, never lit my mother’s cigarettes. It was an unspoken agreement that she would not smoke either in the car if he was driving, or in bed. She cheated on the latter after he fell asleep, heedless of the fact that one of their best friends had incinerated herself and her family of four after too many cognacs and one Lucky Strike that ignited the sheets she and her husband were sleeping upon.
I started smoking stolen Pall Malls when I was 12, and to this day I remember the visceral thrill of peeling the thin cellophane line that sealed a pack, tearing the silver-foiled paper, and tapping a first cigarette out. Many years later, I switched to a pipe because it made me look worldlier, and many years after that, I went for filterless Kools because that was what the savvy people of my neighborhood smoked. Kools packed a true kick; the first one after a long night, before coffee or toast or a full breath of morning air made my head spin in a not unpleasant manner. At the end of the day, with a joint and a tumbler of Jack Daniels Black, Kools effortlessly cast off life’s frustrations and failures.
I quit smoking 13 years ago. By then, I was back to pipes to fulfill the writer’s image of himself. I smoked a mélange of black Turkish and fine cut French Gauloise tobaccos in a collection of briars from Ireland. As I struggle to stop I came to believe that nicotine is indeed one of the harshest of habits to give up, harder than heroine or crack, some would tell you. But I was coughing incessantly and waking in the middle of the night needing a smoke; I could no longer run or exercise, and I felt as if my skin was turning jaundiced. I later learned that nicotine is indeed a strange drug whose half-life lasts only minutes. The reason people become chain smokers is that they are constantly detoxing from the last smoke, and nicotine being both a stimulant and a depressant, is truly an addict’s dream.
A few days ago I saw a flattened pack of Pall Malls on the sidewalk near where I lived. I stared at it. I wasn’t ever sure Pall Malls were made anymore, but there was the proof, and I wondered about the pack’s owner. Smoking is politically incorrect now, and those who still partake huddle like sparrows in the rain, banned from offices, restaurants, homes.
When my mother, near the end of her life, was told she must give up her beloved Pall Malls, she started smoking Indian bidis which smell like marijuana. We were once asked to leave a restaurant after my mother lit up, and within a week, fearing familial ridicule, she switched to repulsively flavored clove cigarettes. Just before she died, she found her Pall Malls again. Some habits die hard.