First time smokers — how to start smoking cigarettes — esquire

Originally published in the March 2008 issue

Five weeks ago, I was working the elliptical, my feet throbbing out those nasty loops. The entire machine panted its report, the morning mantra down, down, down. Once I’d hit a certain threshold of sweat, I quit, grabbed my bag, and walked straight into the cold winter air, still huffing. I felt around in my pocket for my cigarettes, lumped together like a damp little brick of cash next to my car keys.

As the smoke filled my chest, my shoulders lifted so much that my keys actually rolled over in my jacket pocket. It was like my mouth was full of something viscid and metallic. My throat seemed to radiate heat forward and backward in the space where I stood. There was a taste, a little like burnt popcorn. I touched my tongue to the roof of my mouth, a gesture meant to calm the incipient cough it lit there, a little electric. I pulled in more smoke, blowback from the cold wind in my face, and my lungs, raw and open from the workout, were suddenly soaked in it. The light of the world fell on me, soluble and absolute, and I looked around to see if anyone was watching, half hoping they were. I was a little high, something like all the other highs I know.

My lungs were scissored by the hit. I had two stray thoughts Something is wrong the ground rushed up at me, and I thought I might fall and Something is right I was giddy, eager to see what would happen next. I lowered myself to one knee. Then I inhaled again, cherried up the ember. The sky loomed bigger and my car seemed farther away and I stood, wobbling a little under the serous weight of the drag. I raised the cigarette again, drew on it, and the sun seemed to jerk upward, like a fish tugged on a line. I walked to my car, extra slow, savoring the glacial cool in my mouth, the burn in my chest.

I had been a smoker for barely a week, and this was the first one that really worked. I guess I hadn’t been inhaling correctly. But I was now. For the first time, I could feel it.

I went forty six years before my first cigarette oh, maybe I pretended here and there, but I never took a real drag. Then I made myself a smoker in thirty days.

This story isn’t about quitting smoking. It’s about starting. And starting, for me, included thirty four different brands of cigarette, eleven lighters, spiritual revelations and moments of clarity, gatherings at alley mouths, unions with strangers on the streets of various cities, huddlings on a ragged porch watching the hand cupped flare of a match in a snowstorm, a perpetual sore throat, a nagging cough, several puking sessions, a six day headache, an increased appetite, a bout of vertigo, and a wicked case of what I can only call moral confusion. It also meant joining a kind of club, getting bitch slapped by hegemony, trying to fit in, and not wanting to fit in.

I don’t like to mess around, so I worked quickly, and I don’t like to commit to anything, so I kept it short. I wanted to get to a pack a day, the arbitrary unit by which all smokers measure themselves, in one month. Then I would quit. If it made me sick, fine. I wanted to feel that. If I had withdrawal symptoms, okay, I would deal with it. I needed to understand. Plus, I figured, I might lose some weight.

So as the morning light rose on the day I decided to start smoking, I rolled over, took a deep breath, put my feet on the carpet, and got on with it. By dinnertime, I’d smoked six American Spirit Lights. I smoked out that first pack in two days.

My first walking home the four long blocks from the school where I teach.

I didn’t know how to hold it. My fingers, clamped on the little cigarette, looked porcine, oversized, poorly positioned. The smoke, ashy and light, filled my mouth, made my eyes water. I coughed on every drag, even though I barely inhaled. I covered all this up by walking fast, figuring I’d just look like a man with places to go, a busy man, smoking his daily fact of life, not a poser considering the small elements of style that obsessed me Was the cigarette well lit? How deeply should I breathe? Somehow, I cared, like some dumbass kid in ninth grade.

From there, I tried to hit it every two hours or so. Within a week, I was up to twelve a day. I went to the store, bought a new pack, and threw it on top of my refrigerator when I was done. I tried every brand I could find. At thirty days, I hit a pack a day. On the thirty first day, I smoked twenty two cigarettes. So I can honestly make the claim that I used to smoke more than a pack a day. For a day.

Early on, my insecurities drove me to call a cigarette company and ask for some pointers. I threaded my way through the voice mail menu of the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, maker of American Spirits, until I was talking to a representative named Shawn, who seemed, for the moment, nice enough.

«I just took up smoking,» I said, «and I think I’m doing it wrong. Something’s not right.»


«I don’t hold cigarettes right, I don’t inhale fully, I don’t know how to ash, I never know where to throw the butts. And when you’re old, just starting out, no one will teach you. Do you have anyone who can help me learn to smoke?»

There was a long pause. I could picture this guy’s face, almost hear his lips purse.

«We don’t give advice to new smokers,» he said. Then he took a deep breath. Poor guy. He must get crank calls all day. Only I wasn’t a crank.

«Well, when I inhale, it hurts,» I said. «It makes me cough.»

«Yes, sir,» he said.

«I’m just looking for a little help,» I said. «I watch people on television and I can see when they aren’t inhaling, you know? I know they’re faking.»

«Yes, sir,» he said, his voice stonier with each exchange.

«I don’t want to fake. I want to inhale.»

Pause. The guy’s leg must have been tapping up and down like a lawn mower piston. He kept his cool. Good kid, Shawn.

«There’s really no instruction available,» he said. «You just inhale and you exhale.»

«I used your promotional offer,» I said. It was true. A twenty dollar gift certificate.

He thrummed along, finger on the disconnect button. «There’s really nothing I can do to help you.»

«No one seems to want to,» I said.

«Yes, sir.»

«Do you smoke?» I said.

He allowed that he didn’t, and at that point I thought, The hell with him. He has no idea what I need.

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