“One pack of Marlboro lights please.”
“10 or 20?”
“10 or 20?”
“Oh, uh, 10 please.”
“Oh shit, can I get a lighter too?”
And that is how it happened. The gas station in Shoreditch, late one cold friday night, just me and the middle eastern man behind the counter with not much to say but “yep.” I made the fateful choice to ruin my health, die from lung cancer and lose half of my friends. Or at least that is what the modern media and rhetoric surrounding smoking has told me about my newfound habit. Of course it felt right in the moment, and still now the only thing that actually bothers me about it is the smell that lingers on my breath and clothes. I know that my mom would be disappointed but she does it too so she doesn’t get to be a hypocrite and judge me. Maybe I am doing it to spite her, I don’t really know why I do it. I know I am not rich enough to take up a habit that costs 6 quid every time I feel stressed. Everything about it says “disgrace.” I don’t even do it right, which is embarrassing, but that isn’t the point. It might not make sense but there is a sense of comradely and community in the act of smoking. It is as though, for six minutes, there is a friend there with you, offering you comfort, reducing the stress, providing a distraction to the hustle and bustle that can become so overwhelming. I guess this is why I choose to go into the sketchy gas station, in a neighborhood quite far from my own, and start a fateful habit.
However, the way I came to the conclusion to make this choice was quite contradictory. In school we are taught of the dangers of second-hand smoke and shown hollowing commercials and documentaries about people who have holes in their throats because they made the choices to smoke. They are punished by fate and karma. We are taught to abstain, stay away from this disgusting act, fight the evil that is smoking, and we are taught this by our very teachers who talk shit and gossip about us to each other on their own smoke breaks out behind the cafeteria, where none of us can see their blatant hypocrisy while we are playing 100 ft away on the playground. This comes at us from all directions at a young age.
Then there is the other side of the story. The story about the rebellious teenagers who are of the “tortured artist” genre, constantly fighting off the powers of establishment and clinging to their individuality through art and self-expression. The type who discuss the issues of the world behind the gym after school, or during math class if you are really bad-ass, over a cigarette. There is also the Grease narrative, which, if you haven’t seen the critically acclaimed musical featuring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John, preaches that you can change your outfit, smoke a cig, stomp it out with your red high-heeled shoes and subsequently get the boy.
Then there is the final type. The one who seeks the warmth, the attention and who wants to feel something. Anything. Those of us who feel numb. Neither passionate nor stupid. Just floating along, not getting in anyone’s way. It is nice to raise the little stick to your mouth, breath in and out, and see the smoke slowly disappear away into the night. It reminds you of yourself. That you make decisions, you are in control, you can be good or bad or anything. While it does not take a human form and offer someone to talk to or give you advice, it proves you are real. Simply a presence there to be with you in your solitude.
So if it is an accessory of the type of people you want to hang out with then so be it. If you think it is disgusting and you are repulsed by the people who commit such a heinous crime, so be it. If you are looking for a friend in the dark of the night in Shoreditch, then so be it. While most people think that everyone wants to be “popular,” I have realized that what most young individuals want/need is just a place to fit in. We don’t want to be alone. It is really that simple.