Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Remember when smoking was an ice-breaker?

Something precious was lost when the world stopped smoking.

A tradition of "offering" was stolen from the tentative processes of social overtures.

The proffering of a cigarette packet, one ciggie thoughtfully pulled forth, and the single question "cigarette?" could break the ice in countless contexts. Once upon a time.

It was an excuse to start a conversation, a way to bring an outsider into a circle, a pick-up line, an outreach, a kindness...

It had partner contact lines in "do you have a light?" or "care for a light?" - the swish of a match on red phosphorus, the classy click of a Zippo, the sharing of a living flame. And people came together, initiating further exchanges under an ease of inhaled smoke.

Those were the days.

People could express themselves with their style of smoking - assert an urbane charm or myriad elements of mood and character. A flourish. A toss of the head. An agitated ashing.

Now we are all clean smoke-free, we have forgotten about the old mores.

The anti-smoking fanatics have gone so far as to erase cigarettes from photos and films, even from the period flavor of celebrated theatre pieces. Noel Coward plays lose a lot when the nuance of smoking is cut from the action - since it IS the action. Suddenly, where a character smoked, the character now does nothing. In one production, I noted he was provided with chewing gum in lieu of a cigarette. Hardly Noel Coward, darlings.

And when they do make token efforts to incorporate the culture of the cigarette into period theatre pieces, the tender little actors will light a cigarette, take a lightning-fast suck, not inhaling but blowing fast in a desperate puff and then stubbing the cigarette out furiously. Token smokin'. It is poor form since it does not represent the history or the character. And, for heaven's sake, no true smoker would ever butt out a freshly-lit cigarette.

But there it all is. History sabotaged by reformist zeal.

Meanwhile, what is there to replace the old social icebreaker of the cigarette? One television program introduced an eccentric character offering Nicorettes to people. Nice comment on the lost custom. I wonder how many viewers saw the irony? Too few, since we fast are entering the "before my time" generation made up of those who have only ever seen deadbeats and villains with a smoke in hand. That image has been elevated as part of the anti-smoking propaganda.

Not that I am espousing smoking. I am among the sturdy formers who can't stand the smell or taste.

I am simply reflecting on a social crutch of yore. It was an invidious habit, but it burned the flame of friendship and conviviality and was a shared ritual which has found no peer.

May I offer you a toothpick?