Thursday, May 25, 2017

In praise of the cigarette break

Marcel Duchamp

I was out of a job for two and a half months at the beginning of the year. During that time, I nearly stopped smoking cigarettes. I'd only buy a pack of American Spirits during my weekly or fortnightly visits to Ray's Happy Birthday Bar, and afterwards I'd give away most of the cigs that hadn't disappeared in pursuit of Johnnie Walker. This isn't to say I went completely cold turkey: I did invest in a vaporizer, but it's hardly a replacement. For one thing, I only use it at home. There's really no way to suck on one of those things in public without looking like a goober, so I deposit mine in my desk drawer whenever I go out.

In March I rejoined the workforce and resumed blackening my lungs. You might guess, prima facie, that this means I'm dissatisfied with my new gig. You'd be wrong: I can't complain too much about what I'm doing for money (and where I'm doing it) these days. But it's rarely the case that a member of the working class truly savors his time on someone else's clock, and even if he finds his wage-earning activities more or less agreeable, he'll probably need a few moments of respite from time to time. Sitting in a break room and absorbing photons from a personal device seems to be the most popular method of on-the-job decompression these days. That's not for me, thanks: I'll take a good old-fashioned cigarette break.

Look. I know it's the twenty-first century. I know the mystique and glamor of the smoker has all but dissipated. I know smoking is awful for one's health, I know that nicotine is tremendously addictive, and I know that someone who's just smoked a cigarette smells awful to anyone who isn't currently smoking one. But the cigarette break is an edifying, even ennobling thing, and I'd like to say a few words on its behalf.

First of all: I'm not making the case that anyone should become a smoker. I differ with ardent tobacco apologist Lin Yutang believing the reasons to abstain outweigh the reasons to smoke by an order of magnitude—but that's not to say there are no reasons to smoke. The problem with tobacco is simply that it has a way of implicating itself in more and more of your activities, more than you'd like, and without you noticing.

I have a friend in his sixties who smokes exactly one cigarette a day—no more, no fewer—because that's as many as he can smoke and still enjoy it. Most smokers have considerably less control over their hobby: it can easily become a hindrance and a distraction, something one does out of compulsion rather than intention. And when it gets to that point, it usually ceases to be fun. (The same could be said about Facebook, I think, but that's a different conversation.)

For the record: lately I'm only smoking during my breaks at work (and when I'm summoned out of my cave to join friends at one of Philadelphia's many fine vile dive bars), and I intend to keep it that way.

So: the cigarette break.

You're at work. You've been populating spreadsheets, standing at a cash register, waiting tables, or taking phone calls for three, four, five hours, and you've decided: it's time.

Maybe you stand up at your desk, push in your chair, and head for the elevator. Maybe you hang up your apron and slip through an employee door, or discreetly exit through the front. Maybe you put on your coat and scarf and wander out back to the loading dock. In any case, you're already feeling the accrued tension of the day relaxing its grip—a cigarette, you felt, was precisely what the moment called for, and now you're about to have one. Be honest: how often when you're at work, doing what must be done for the sake of somebody else's bottom line, do you otherwise get exactly what you want? When you abscond from something you're obligated to be doing in order to do something you want, you begin to understand why the Marlboro Man, Joe Camel, and all those marketing campaigns tethering cigarettes to images of freedom and extravagance were so effective for so long—they were manipulative, sure, but not entirely false. The cigarette you leave the office or shop to smoke is always going to be a sybaritic luxury.

So you've made it outside to the corner of the sidewalk, to the edge of the woods out behind the delivery area, or the designated smokers' kiosk on some isolated concrete slab in a distant corner of the complex. Let's say you're not alone: someone is already there, a coworker or a colleague of yours. If it's a friend, all the better. If you're joining person with whom you're only loosely acquainted, or perhaps haven't always gotten along with—that's fine too. This is when you begin to endear yourselves to one another.

A person smoking a cigarette will almost take an affable posture towards someone else smoking a cigarette, or at least be amenable to offering them the benefit of the doubt. After all, you know from the start you share at least one thing in common. And, given the circumstances, both of you are going to be in good moods—if not good, then getting better. There's no better time to improve your acquaintance. Pretensions have a way of dropping like loosened towels when people speak over cigarettes; conversations tend towards candor. I've found this particularly true where men are concerned: we tend not to let our guard down before men we haven't already accepted into our trust. It can be difficult for us to draw our male peers out beyond mere civility. But smoke a cigarette with a man, and you're half the way towards earning his confidence.

The coworkers you'll be able to speak to most openly, the ones who are more likely to have your back (and on whose behalf you'll most readily step up), and whom you'll probably keep in touch with after one or both of you has moved on will be the ones you've met and conversed with over a cigarette. You'll get more quality time with a person during a ten-minute smoke break than over two of facing each other across the break room table and poking at your iPhones.

All of this can be accounted for by an elementary behavioristic analysis; but on the surface, it's as though the presence of tobacco smoke effects an alchemical transformation in people's dispositions. Light a cigarette, approach somebody who's standing and smoking on the sidewalk, and ask them how they're doing; they'll probably answer you. Maybe it won't blossom into a tête-à-tête, but they probably won't respond to you as though you've committed a breach of etiquette. But if you approach a stranger on the sidewalk who isn't smoking and ask them how they've been—that's a completely different situation. If somebody is outside from something other than a cigarette, chances are they're in the middle of something: they're watching for their uber, talking on the phone, looking up directions, or waiting for the light to change so they can cross the street and get to their yoga class or acupuncture appointment. They're busy, and you, a stranger who has nothing to do with it, are intruding on them. Unlike the smoker, their mind is riveted on their rate of progress from Point A to Point B.

That brings us to the second possible smoke break scenario: you step outside and you're by yourself.

Jack Kerouac

"Believing we do something when we do nothing is the first illusion of tobacco," Ralphie Emerson wrote in his journal, and he's right. Of course the dear old didact meant it pejoratively—but the opportunity to do nothing is, to my mind, the principal boon of the cigarette break.

For all the condescension and pity directed at smokers by well-intentioned (or sanctimonious) nonsmokers, smokers are actually capable of doing something most nonsmokers are not. I'll prove it: stand up, walk away from your computer (or put down your smartphone), and go outside. Just stand out by the curb for ten minutes by yourself.

Did you do it? Were you able to do it?

Did you enjoy yourself?

I'm willing to bet you didn't. You were bored. You fidgeted, paced, and looked at your watch every fifty seconds, thinking about all the things you could or should or would rather be doing instead.

Imagine, if you can, what it must be like to walk out the door and stand outside as you did—doing nothing—and feeling completely at ease, contended in the moment, in no rush to go anywhere or to do anything else. This is a pleasure, I suspect, enjoyed far more often by smokers than nonsmokers. We, subjects of a freakishly accelerated, productivity-obsessed, media-addled culture, don't know how to do nothing. Engaging in activity that isn't expressly purposeful, or that doesn't have us gaping at a screen, is strange and uncomfortable to us. The smoker isn't necessarily an exception: but he, as Emerson inadvertently points out, is able to comfortable do nothing by virtue of the sensation of doing something. It's a sad thing that this is so often what it takes to get someone to relax, turn down the volume, and listen to the unmediated hum and thrum of Planet Earth for a few minutes—but that's the situation we've inherited.

The benefits to doing nothing are manifold. You can watch the cars and the people pass by. Look up at the sky. Observe the signals of the changing seasons: the leaves changing color, the trees budding, the wind sweeping cherry petals across the street, the snow falling. Study the sparrows wiggling in the gravel, listen to the robins and starlings in the trees and on the utility wires. Get acquainted with the architecture of the neighborhood. See what the ants at your feet are up to. You can think—allowing the course and character of your thoughts to be guided by the immediate moment rather than the goading exigencies of the clock or the smartphone notification—and without any self-laudatory ostentations of hashtag "mindfulness."

(Sure, says the critical nonsmoker: but you don't need cigarettes for this! That's true: but how often do you step outdoors for five minutes, just for the sake of taking in the world being the world? Be honest, now.)

I cannot think of any better field antidote for the drudgery that constitutes the average workday than a smoke break—or a means more effective than a tobacco habit of hedging the issue about what to do when we reach retirement age in an economy where employee and state pensions are a distant memory.


  1. i love this, i've often wished i was a smoker for some of the reasons you said: being able to bond with people; having an excuse for doing nothing while standing outside, without being perceived as a weirdo. i'm too much of an elitist dickhead to smoke cigarettes, i've never smoked anything in my life, ever, (out of some dumb pride thing about treating my body well or something, even though i don't otherwise treat it so great [actually, the one time i "tried" to smoke a cigarillo i didn't even know which end to smoke and was afraid i would burn my lips so i just threw it away]). i dunno - might get a pipe or something and bring that with me next time i'm out with friends and see how that feels.

    1. Maybe try a vaporizer? Of all your options, that one's the LEAST ruinous for your health, and it's probably still not great for you. And once nicotine gets its hooks into you, they're very, VERY hard to get out. So, uh, do be careful.

      Maybe get a vaporizer but be that guy who uses the nicotine-free liquid? (Just don't tell the other smokers. They'll point and laugh and then double over coughing. It'll be awkward for everyone.)

  2. I like that you know someone who has precisely one a day. I usually have two a day; to accompany morning coffee and to take the edge off during the evening. I have this innate ability to think about exactly nothing while I’m smoking too, which for someone who has just two modes of being: anxious, or maniacally inspired, is a welcome respite from my brain.

    I never mustered the confidence to smoke during work hours though… I don’t know if it’s just the UK but non-smoking colleagues have a tendency to get totally pissed about people stepping out to smoke. And I can't enjoy a cigarette if I feel i'm being monitored. One guy even started timing people and created an Excel document to present his findings to management. I was kinda upset when he got laid off actually, it was a source of amusement.

    1. Huh. It depends on where you work/what sector you're in, but the smoke break is still sort of sacrosanct in the US. A lot of service industry (especially restaurant) gigs don't have structured break periods—in fact sometimes you just don't get one at all—but if you tell your boss you're going out for a cigarette, it's been my experience that she/he will usually say yes, provided there's not much going on. But I'm pretty sure if, under similar circumstance, I asked him/her if I could go out back for five minutes and stare at the wall, the answer would be "fuck off."

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