Tapering

by F.

Right now, one of my neighbors is out on his deck smoking. Not because he’s on fire, but because he’s having a cigarette. This may not seem remarkable, and it wouldn’t be if he weren’t out there twenty times a day doing the same thing.

I don’t know how he makes a living, unless he’s a cigarette tester. Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night to have a cup of cocoa. There he is, outside, a little orange point of light illuminating his face. Sometimes I get up early—maybe 5:30 or so—and there he is. Earlier this year, we had some serious storms. High winds. Rain. Stinging cold. There he was, out on his deck, sitting in chair, wrapped in a huge parka, “enjoying” a cigarette.

I remember those days.

I would roll out of bed and, on the way to the shower, put a cigarette in my mouth. I would stand in the shower with my arm thrust outside the plastic curtain so my Winston wouldn’t get wet. Then I would stick my head out of the shower, take a drag, and exhale that wonderful smoke into the spray of water hitting my face. That’s the best cigarette of the day. Your brain has been deprived of nicotine for six, seven, maybe eight long hours. And when it gets it, it positively vibrates with pleasure.

Unfortunately, it’s short-lived, and if you have any sort of compulsive tendencies, having this sort of addition gets worse and worse. Because you start to smoke whether you want to or not. It’s a distractor. You feel like to have to do it whether you want to or not. It gives you something to think about. Planning where you’ll have your next cigarette (the deck). Fantasizing about how good it’ll feel (very). Thinking about how many are left in this pack (only twelve left! Shit, I better go to 7-11).

I’d quit a bunch of times but somehow kept coming back to it, the last time when I was a first-year in law school. I lived in a fairly tall apartment in L.A. which didn’t have a deck, but there was a little open area near the stairwell and I would go out there and have one. Or six. Sometimes, if it was too cold or something, I would open the window in my bedroom and stick my head out. Why did I go to all this trouble? Because my unit was non-smoking. And I had a roommate who was allergic.

I don’t remember which brand I started with that last time. In the old days (high school and college), I smoked filterless Camels, Lucky Strikes, rolled my own Drums, smoked Gitanes, smoked Gaulouise (rolled and roll-your-own). I never really had any cigars, other than those cheap Swisher Sweets, which are hardly cigars—more like dried grass rolled in a paper bag.

Maybe it was Dunhills that got me started?

No, actually, I think I got smoking again because of cigars. Somehow, I started smoking them, which is odd because (i) I think they smell horrible and (ii) they don’t have that much of a kick, generally. It may have been my soon-to-be-inlaws. They did all sorts of pretentious stuff like that—drank brandy from a snifter, smoked cigars, ate caviar on heart-shaped toast points.

In Beverly Hills there was a Dunhill shop and it had a smoking room. I didn’t ever actually go there but my fiance would buy cigars for me and bring them home. First, little thin ones, which were sort of cool looking. Later, it was the larger, phallic models. Cigars smell so good—sort of like raisins or dried dates or molasses. Until you light them. Then they smell like burning poo.

At first, I couldn’t quite understand this whole cigar thing. I mean, it was fairly hard to inhale the smoke. It was pretty noxious. But I got used to it, and then it all made sense. Pretty soon, I was inhaling those things like cigarettes. I could almost hear my little alveoli crying for mercy as the plume of hot, tar-filled smoke went down into my body. “NO! Please no! Aaaaaaah!” Take that you little fuckers.

Then for whatever reason I started to smoke a pipe, quite possible one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done. First because it looks completely ridiculous and second because it tastes, after a while, worse than a cigar. Think of a bong—all that resin sitting in there. It’s the same if not worse with tobacco. Sure, you clean the thing out with a pipe cleaner. But that only does so much. The tar and skanky tobacco oils collect in the bowl and the stem and every once in a while a little sip of those precious juices flows down into your mouth. And you feel like you’ve just started sucking on the hair-wad in the shower drain.

Pipe tobacco is often flavored. So when you go to the tobacconist (I think I got this crap at Dunhill, too) it’s like Baskin-Robbins. There’s Cherry and Brandy and 29 other nasty-ass flavors. The tobacco is in these big glass jars and, to choose the one you want, you open the jar and take a big sniff. It smells great—because it’s not on fire. As with cigars, as soon as you light up it’s burning poo.

I didn’t do the pipe thing in public. Too ridiculous. I would smoke it in my apartment. That is, with my head out the window. Or in the stairwell. Really classy.

After a while, my lungs started to hurt. I knew, like we all do, that smoking can’t be good for the body. But then I started to really feel it. My chest was tight. I coughed. My throat was scratchy. But I kept on doing it for the same reason my neighbor is out in his porch right now, and for the same reason that Warren Buffet said tobacco companies are smart investments: it’s addictive.

So I coughed my way through my first year of law school and then at some point decided to quit. But how? Back in high school, I used Nicorette, which works great—if you have the discipline. Some don’t. They just get addicted to Nicorette. I had two professors at UCLA that were totally addicted to Nicorette. One—the older of the two—carried around a blister pack of Nicorette but, because of arthritis, he couldn’t open them without help. So he had this little pair of scissors he would use to cut the plastic. We’d be in a seminar and he would start jonesing. His tremulous hand would reach down into the gym back he always carried and pull out the foil-backed sheet of gum and his little scissors. After much rustling around and cursing under his breath, he’d remove one of the beige blocks of gum and get it into his mouth.

Aaaaaah.

But when I was in law school, Nicorette was still prescription only. Fuck that. I had a better idea—something that would be more fun.

Thanks to some government agency, I’m sure, cigarette manufacturers publish the nicotine content of their cigarettes (along with info on how much tar they have). Often it’s right in the ads—it may always be for that matter. Anyway, I thought of an interesting way to quit: I would quit the pipe and go back to smoking cigarettes, but with a twist: I would slowly lower the amount of nicotine I was getting, so I could gradually taper and beat my addiction.

It’s not hard to find cigarettes with huge amounts of nicotine. As I recall, menthols had a lot—sometimes twice as much as something ordinary like a Malboro. Dunhills were potent, too. And Japanese cigarettes like 777s or Larks had a positively huge nicotine payload. What was hard was finding cigarettes with very little. So-called “light” cigarettes often are only light on tar; when it comes to nicotine, they’re not light at all. They’re heavy. I searched and searched but the answer was right under my nose.

Gitanes.

I had always loved french cigarettes. First, the packaging it totally cool. The illustration on the cover of Gitanes still looks good, and I imagine it hasn’t change in 50 years. Gauloise are not as cool looking, but they still have that certain something. Both of these brands are short and fat, which makes them distinctive. And they actually taste good. I can think of no other tobacco product that tastes good besides a Gitane or a Gauloise.

When I checked the packaging, I found out they had almost no nicotine, which may explain why I tended to suck on them like a diver buddy-breathing from his friend’s respirator. My face practically imploded I would suck so hard just to get—-something. But what used to seem like a product defect now turned into their most appealing feature. These would be my final cigarettes before quitting. I bought a couple packs of Gitanes and put them in a drawer.

Then, working backwards, I bought different brands with different nicotine contents and arrayed them in descending order. I bought some Malboros, some Winstons, some Camels, then some Turkish ones, then something else from Egypt with a real strip of cork wrapped around the tip, and so on, until I had a more-or-less smooth continuum of nicotine delivery vehicles.

It worked.

Sure, it was bumpy going from one brand to the other. I definitely noticed the difference in nic content. But after a couple days, it would generally be OK. And then I would move on to the next brand and the next and the next, until I got to the Gitanes. I really jonesed when I hit those. They have almost no nicotine. So I tended to smoke more of them. But soon I cut down and down and down, and then didn’t have any.

As I waived goodbye to my nicotine monkey in my rear-view mirror, I started to get my taste buds back. I had smoked so much that food had no taste at all and flowers had no smell. Everything was just sort of uniformly blech. But that reversed itself quickly. In order to keep myself from going back to smoking, I would think about all the downsides, like having to have a cigarette in the morning, like feeling like I needed to shave my tongue, like having to go outside into the stairwell to smoke.

Sort of like my poor neighbor, who’s still there, by the way, sitting under an umbrella, now on his third cigarette.

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