Sunday, July 01, 2012

Mini-Post I: On the Hatred of Smoking

I am (again) going to try my hand at breaking up an interminable multi-subject posting into three or four mini posts, in the name of (1) publishing more frequently (2) bulking up my post total and (3) presenting a more welcoming format to the contemporary reader. This has the downside of somehow making my topics appear even less substantial than they do already, but I am going to try to do it this one time anyway.

A few years back I was riding on the "T" in Boston--the old green line trolley that runs out Beacon Street and into Brookline, as it happens--when a homeless-looking man on the car I was riding on performed an act that caused nearly everyone around him to gasp in a tone hinting at horror and move backward several paces so as to form a circle with a radius of about two feet on either side of the disheveled ruffian. The reader doubtless will have discerned that the offender had not brandished a knife, groped the buttocks of a  woman, or even exposed himself (indeed, in the Washington DC metro I did once come across an obviously  crazy man who was wandering around one of the stations holding his family jewels in his hand such that they were clearly visible to the public, which for its part walked doggedly past as if it had seen nothing--this was in the early 90s, however), but had pulled out a cigarette--a very dirty and crooked cigarette, it might be noted--and proceeded to light it. As soon as the crowd had overcome its initial shock, about a dozen cell phones simultaneously emerged from various pockets like so many flowers opening at once in a warm sun, calls were placed to, evidently, appropriate parties, for the train was halted at the next stop while a couple of policemen of some kind came on to the car and escorted the gentleman, who by then had extinguished the cigarette, off the train without violence, if not without protest. The professional and educated Boston people who had reported the perpetrator resumed their previous spots and the rest of their regular commuting routine at that point, but the incident had clearly perturbed them; and their souls would find no repose until that particular journey was over.

By the time of this amusing episode on the train, I had long given up attempting to smoke myself. I tried for a time, way back when Camels cost a little more than 2 dollars a pack, to cultivate the habit, but as I both got older and the restrictions and general hysteria against smoking grew more vehement, I gave up this effort, as my main interest in pursuing it was aesthetic; as I enjoyed it most in an old upper storey room with an old window with a view of an old street, seated at an old wooden table with an old book and a view of a shelf containing many more, drinking a glass of something that would be recognizable to a person living in a large city in 1940, the reality of having to go stand outside in the middle of winter in order to have a cigarette because someone two floors up could smell your emanations in the house and believed her life to be at stake because of it rather defeated the purpose. Anyway, despite having moved on in this particular area, I do not  begrudge others their continuing the habit, and scarcely even notice its odious existence anymore, so thoroughly has it been banished from most of ordinary life nowadays. There are apparently a great many people, however, who do not share my benevolent attitude towards those who continue to engage in smoking.

(I was going to give somewhere in the course of this discourse a brief history of the steps by which, from 1990-1994, my college underwent a transformation from having cigarette vending machines in the dorms and allowing smoking in the library to, one week before my class graduated, banning the practice anywhere within the main campus building, including the Great Hall, which had been the scene of so many memorable and smoke-filled social events--I still regard this action as the moment when it finally hit me [though I now realize that other signs had been making this evident most of the year] that my time there had passed and my general suavity and attitude were obviously wanted no more--but this is already more than a mini-post, and it does not really connect with the main portion of the essay. As another aside with regard to school however, I understand that now smoking has been banned in all buildings on campus, including the dormitories, and I have even heard an outrageous rumor that the sale of champagne is no longer allowed at waltz parties. I have also seen at least one person on the internet who is appalled by the food served in the cafeteria and thinks the school should ban fries, chicken patties, white bread and God only knows what else, though I don't think this has happened as yet at least.)

The inspiration for this post was actually due to a blog posting at the website of a company with which I have some dealings. Smoking is banned of course on the entire campus of this institution but apparently there have been incidents of visitors and even staff being spotted smoking in their cars or in some fairly obscure nook, as well as the discovery of cigarette butts tossed on the ground in various parking lots and islands of shrubbery. I was as usual completely oblivious to all of this. Some of the smokers evidently reek of the foul stuff when they come back in to work, and this is not merely unpleasant to other employees, but in many instances the stench alone directly affects their breathing, causes headaches, and generally prevents them from functioning at their highest level. I was oblivious to this too. The post attracted many comments, all signed by real people, sober, professional adults well into mid-life in most cases, and they had more than had it with the whole culture of smoking. All manner of punishments were advocated. Higher insurance premiums; mandatory smoking cessation classes, with suspension from or termination of employment if the issue at hand was not after such measures corrected; more screening of potential employees before hiring to check for the presence of these sorts of dreadful habits. There seemed to be an underlying consensus that anyone in the organization who was still smoking at this point in the war against this pernicious habit--and was intelligent enough to hold down a position in the organization--must not have been shamed and harassed enough to will themselves to quit, it being more than considered acceptable to shame people in this particular area. Given this liberty even of expression, which is not afforded to ordinary people in too many areas of contemporary life, they run with it quite eagerly. They don't want to hear an opposing argument or a defense. They don't even really care if someone is a generally good person, or that he performs his job excellently, at least if he is beneath them in the hierarchy. If he smokes, if he enjoys smoking, if that is one of the main pleasures he has to look forward in the course of the average day, they don't care about any of that. They want him to stop smoking and find something else to enjoy, preferably exercising and eating sprouts I suppose. Defending a smoker or sympathizing with one on any grounds has become almost akin to sympathizing with the lower sorts of criminals. The idea has become so unthinkable in certain circles that the assumption is that there is something seriously deficient in oneself; and I am having a hard time getting around that.    

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