October 7, 2008

(Or, Why I Blame MSG for my Nico-Recidivism)

Fifteen years ago, I quit smoking. For 15 years, I lived a glorious, tar-free existence. That was until about 18 months ago, when I started again—causing friends and family to ask, “What’re you, some kind of moron?!”

And now, as another cloud of smoke settles onto my monitor and into the slots between the keys of my typer—I can’t help but wonder how, how, how the Christ did I get back here again.


Phase 1: First Cigarette: It’s a night like any other. You’re at an after-hours party at a friend’s house. Perhaps his name is Johnny Pruett. Perhaps he’s the singer in your brother’s band. Sometime late in the evening, your friend Johnny lights up. Suddenly, from a place somewhere in the bowels of your drunk-face brain, an idea comes to you. The idea is this: It might be excellent to smoke a cigarette.

Normally, this is not a problem. You’ve had this thought before, but tonight—perhaps because Jupiter is passing below the western horizon, perhaps because your drunk-face brain is drunker and face-ier than usual—The Small Dark Recess at the Bottom of Your Brain that Loves Nicotine has awoken from its slumber.

At one point in your life, when you were a full-time smoker, The Small Dark Recess at the Bottom of Your Brain, was quite large. It encompassed nearly your whole brain. But, after years of abstention, it shriveled and descended to the lowest, darkest part of your mind where it lies dormant—jonesing in silence for 15 winters.

So you do the unthinkable. You ask to bum a smoke from your friend Johnny, the singer, the Judas. And you smoke that cigarette hard, all the time telling everyone that you haven’t had a grit in 15 years, that it doesn’t even taste that good and that you’re not at all worried about picking up the habit again (though you are).

The next day, upon waking, you recall the relapse and think, Well, now, that certainly was a bad idea. So you check yourself to see if you had wrecked yourself and are pleased to discover that you are not craving nicotine. You vow to never have a cigarette again.

Phase 2: Second Cigarette: It’s been several months since that late-night, drunken smoke, and you barely recall it. Hardly a nail in your coffin, that cigarette is as obsolete and forgotten as the rusty tack that once pinned a Beat Farmer’s flyer to a telephone pole.

Or so you thought.

Three months later, you find yourself at the outdoor patio at Gilley’s with a friend and business associate. Perhaps his name is Michael Steven Gregory (MSG). Perhaps he’s the director of the Southern California Writer’s Conference. As the smoke from MSG’s Virginia Slims drift into the pores of your eyeballs, the Small Dark Recess at the Bottom of your Brain that Loves Nicotine is again awakened.

“How about a cigarette?” it asks.

“Don’t be absurd!” you snap. “We don’t smoke anymore.”

“We had a cigarette three months ago—did the world collapse?” it replies.

The Small Dark Recess has made a valid point. You look at MSG’s grinder smoldering in the ashtray, and the world closes in. All that exists is that cigarette, and your desire for it. You ask MSG, the Benedict, the Brutus, if you can have one of his Slims, and he produces without delay.

Phase 3: First Sober-in-the-Day Cigarette:
You’ve been bumming smokes here and there for the last six months. But only at night, and only when drunk. Then, one afternoon, you get your first sober-in-the-day urge. You’re driving in the car with someone—perhaps his name is Mike Decker; perhaps he is your brother—and he torches a Camel Light. There’s a lull in the conversation allowing just enough time for your nicotine-loving Recess to get a word in. It’s just one word, not even a real word, unless onomatopoeia counts.

The word is, “Mmmm.”

So you ask your brother, the Cain, the Claudius, the Romulus who slew Remus, if you could bum one of his Turkish blends, and he complies. As you smoke, you notice there’s something wrong and unnatural about smoking in the day and sober, but you puff it down to the filter anyway.

Phase 4: Buy a Pack:
It’s been about a year since that ill-fated day at Gilley’s with Michael Benedict Gregory (MBG). You still enjoy an occasional sober-in-the-day cigarette, but you pride yourself on the fact that you only smoke OPCs (Other People’s Cigarettes), knowing that as long as you don’t actually buy a pack, you’ll be OK.
But, see, there’s a problem. When you were a smoker, your brand was Salem.
Perhaps, at this juncture, the reader will be inclined to laugh at your choice of cigarette brands. Whatever. To you, menthols are like smoking a brisk mountain stream, while regular cigarettes taste like your grandmother’s basement.

Since OPCs are rarely mentholated, you don’t all that much enjoy the cigarettes you’ve been bumming. So the Small Dark Recess in the Bottom of your Brain that loves Mentholated Nicotine gives you permission to buy a pack of your beloved Salems.

Phase 5: Total Addiction:
Game over. You’re just another flunky with a monkey on his back. But there’s liberty in addiction. Because you know, as the smoke settles on your monitor and under the keys of your typer all over again, that it’s not your last, that you could light another any time you choose. There’s freedom in that knowledge, and freedom burns so good.

Edwin Decker


  1. We had a little glitch with the original version of this post which caused Gayle’s comment to be deleted. Gayle, it seems, seemed shocked — shocked, I tell ya! — that MSG smoked Virginia Slims. Well, lemme explain. These are not just any regular old Virginia Slims we’re talking about, but VG 120 Luxury Lights that’re 11 minutes long for the contemplative smoker (7 minutes under pressure). Given that your average, regular smoke is a mere 6-7 minutes long, I take great pride in the choice. They’re sleek. They’re long. They’re light. And if you’re not careful you can put your eye out with one.

  2. and, of course, they are gay. Very, very gay.

  3. Oh, come on Decker, give us a kiss.

  4. but then my beard would rub your cheek – are you man enough to handle the manpaper?

  5. Decker’s man sand? Afraid I needs me some TRUE Grit.

  6. Weren’t Virginia Slims the ones that had a decorative pattern where the filter met the tobacco? Is that still happening? I’m not sure what disturbs me more, the mental picture of Michael tapping a flowery cigarette out of the pack, or the fact that he has calculated the smoking time of every cigarette he’s ever smoked and is willing to trade his manly reputation for four extra minutes of nicotine.

  7. and wasn’t Virginia Slims the official cigarette of the Suffragette movement?

    You’ve come a long way MSG, with your bra burning and your getting the right to vote!

  8. Why, Gayle, you should know better than to question a man’s judgement of length. “Four extra minutes” is easily eight or nine in my book. Feels like an hour, in fact.

    And the VG 120mm LL is not, btw, “flowery.” There’s no decorative pattern, no foo-foo coloration along its formidable pipe. In fact, I liken each and every one as a sveltly tooled, dew-filled dream drop of downy baby ferret bellies luxuriating in the warm sun and in need of a nuzzle.

  9. I wouldn’t question your manly judgment of anything, Michael, only your sanity. So, you’re smoking ferret bellies now? Or, perhaps, your cigarettes smell like ferrets?

  10. Salem Light 100’s – End of Story

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