Read part one of Patrick’s “Smoking, a History” here.
That I’d made it to fifteen without smoking a Camel Light astounded a seventeen-year-old Mary. At the time she was dating my best friend, which is how I’d met her. The two of us would wait until he fell asleep and she’d drive us to the woods behind the Stop-N-Go, where she’d bought me my reds and her own lights.
She tasted like Seagram’s Golden. After making out in her car we’d sit on the hood and smoke and make out some more.
But like I was saying, I hadn’t tried a Camel before. It seemed like a lady’s cigarette. I remember she smiled when I asked for another. Mary grabbed the reds from my hand and chucked them into the woods. I lost my cool but didn’t let it show. Mary asked if I needed the rest of her Camels. I said “sure” or “thanks” or “totally.”
What really kept me on the Camels was Joe. A smoker’s hero. A camel about town. Someone somewhere is collecting signatures for Joe Camel day.
Sure, people joke this humpless dromedary had a scrotal countenance. He was cool. Joe Cool. He played pool and wore leather jackets and hung out with chicks. All in shades. As far as I could tell he was doing a lot better than me in ’89.
Not that they’re any better now, but things weren’t going terribly well in ’92. I’d lost my job at Xerox for reasons I’d really rather not get into. But I maintain my innocence regardless.
Mervyn’s was one of the last places I’d ever expected I’d work, but you play the hand you’re dealt. Even if some asshole at Xerox who doesn’t appreciate practical jokes is the dealer.
The chicken farm some ten miles away shouldn’t have become a problem for Mervyn’s shoppers. But the new owners, so the rumor went, had no clue how to run the place. So the chicken shit baked and wafted toward us all June as I smoked my Camel Lights and ate Crunch bars on my “coffee breaks.”
I’d go home and refuse my mother’s meals, throwing adult tantrums, valid as they were. She was a terrible cook, but still, I could have been nicer. I was living out the cliché.
They’d turned my room into a home gym-cum-office. I recall one of those Southern California nights where you had to sleep naked. The smoke from the Camel went up and out the cracked window above the Levitz-bought futon. My parents loved it at Levitz.
Mary was dead. Dead to me, anyway. I’d made a scene, sure, but between her and her boyfriend I’d been the clear choice. Things are frequently clearer to me than to others. But I smelled chicken shit on my hands, from my moustache, my chest hair.
The next day I quit Mervyn’s, respectfully offering them a piece of my mind as I left, went home, and called my buddy Mark. I asked him why he smoked Winstons.
“I dunno. My Dad smokes ’em.”
Thanks a million, Mark.
Well, variety is the spice of life, I reasoned as I bought a pack. And I quit screwing around with the lights, the low-tar bullshit. I was free. I was a man. A man who smoked Winstons.
I started with reds and moved on to kings. Kings, if you’re uninformed and inattentive, are as long as “regular” cigarettes but wider. Smoking a king makes you feel like you’re doing something. It’s an accomplishment.
A Winston King. These words together made me think of Churchill orating George VI out of Buckingham Palace and announcing himself as defender of the faith.
By ’94 I’d confirmed a gig hawking records at Pennylane in Old Town. Frequently we did swaps. If, say, we had twenty copies of an Ini Kamoze CD we’d take a few to Poobah’s and try and trade for something that might sell.
This one time when I was leaving Poobah’s I saw this scruffy gent holding a bag of 45s and smoking a nearly all-white cigarette with a silver band ringing the filter. I’d also been on the hunt for something delicious for myself and had found a Miracles LP I hadn’t heard of before. I had won for me and for the store. Big Audio Dynamite, Big Mountain, Meshell Ndegeocelo, all for the measly price of ten Here Comes The Hotsteppers and around the same number of Sunshine On Leiths.
The Winstons burned my heart and I needed a change. I approached the man and tugged at his trench coat.
He turned out to be a welder. Underwater he pieced together ships, and he smoked Parliament Lights when aboveboard. The blue and white box shined strong in the warm Pasadena October. His hand shone unwrinkled despite his obvious middle age and rugged line of work. The man lit the cigarette I’d pulled from the box he’d bent in my direction. I inspected the hollow filter.
“How come no filter?”
Then on and on about sailors doing coke out of the recessed filter and how his son didn’t talk to him anymore and wouldn’t I like to suck down some Midori Sours and maybe make it a regular thing: I pulled sweet smoke from the end of this imperial-colored stick and said something like “no” or “no way” or “beat it old man.”
I could’ve been nicer.
Patrick Benjamin is a writer living near Los Angeles. He lives with his sister and grandmother.