I finally sat down last night and watched A Single Man, Tom Ford's twee exercise in mid-century modern cigarette smoking. Back in the day, a movie with that much smoking and drinking in it would send me straight out to the packie for a carton of Luckies and a crate of Tanqueray. But watching it now it seemed like a curious custom from an alien culture.
Yeah, I used to smoke. Back when I was young and glam. And now, like most ex-smokers I can't stand the stink of it. But you know, as noxious as smoking was, people forget why they started: because when everyone was doing it, it was the perfect opening line.
"Got a light?" was the all-purpose come-on.
Everything about cigarettes — even the fact that they're addictive-- was perfect for bridging that now unbridgeable gap between strangers. First and foremost, it gave both parties an out. If she rebuffed you, usually with a "no, sorry, this is my last one," you still had your pride. Every smoker knows that smoking is like yawning. You see someone doing it, you have the ineluctable urge yourself.
You had to ask. As smoking became less socially acceptable, and smokers were shunned from restaurants and bars, it was even better for establishing an instant bond.
If she — or he — said yes, there was always time as she fished in her pocketbook, or he unrolled the sleeve of his tee, looking all rebelly without a cause, to show off your charm. The cigarette was an in, an opening. And despite the fact that it would eventually kill you, it was also supremely civilizing.
Nothing has taken its place.
Gum-chewing lacks sophistication, asking the time doesn't invite intimacy, and you can't just go up to someone you don't know and start talking about the weather, even in New England, where it is a rich, inexhaustible topic.
I used to think of cell phones as the new smoking, but only because they, too, pollute the environment. But cell phones are actually worse. They've allowed the virtual, in the guise of the private, to colonize and completely overrun the already decimated public sphere, the shared space of strangers that once held the promise of a strange intimacy, without which our common life withers. Smoking, as damaging as it was to health, at least had a social function among strangers to partly make up for it. I mean, try asking someone if you can use their cell phone. Not the same as bumming a fag, is it?
I was on the street the other day and some character lurking in the entryway of an apartment building called out to me and asked if he could use my phone, presumably because he was locked out and needed to call up to get buzzed in. Yeah, no. If he'd asked me for a fag, I'd've given him one. It's also perfectly possible he wanted to hook up. But nowadays you need a phone for that. The irony. Missed opportunities on all fronts.
At least with smoking you got that moment. The intimacy, the sexuality of that gesture of huddling with a stranger, the spark of lighting up. Something, up close, illuminated.