We were sitting in a really nice kids-and-fami!y restaurant on Northwest Highway-you know, the kind of place childless couples would think of as way worse than eating at the county jail-when I smelled smoke. We were in non, of course. But there, at the other side of the place, was a whole table full of smoking-so many people smoking so many cigarettes and sucking on them and blowing out the smoke so hard all at once that their smoke cloud reached us, even though we were way over on the far border away from smoking.
They appeared to be a family of smoking. It looked like a late-middle aged dad smoking, his wife smoking, two young adult progeny smoking and a couple of people who may have been smoking mates or dates of the young smoking progeny. They were of a piece-part and parcel of a culture. In a snobbish way of which I was immediately ashamed, I even felt that they were wearing smoking-type clothes and had smoking hairdos. In this setting of allcotton salad-eaters, there was something exotic about them, as if they were a troupe. I almost said to my wife, “Well, look who’s here, the Flying Smokinskis.” But our young son was with us, and one hates to convey messages of bias.
And it is a bias, isn’t it? You see the smokers lurking outside office buildings on the sidewalk or in the alley, always looking conspiratorial and ashamed. What can they be talking about?
The rules. You know that must come up. The questions: Why are they persecuting us? Where Will it all end? Which of the supervisors is the meanest about it and which the most compassionate? You know it has to revolve around resentment of authority. If I were Caesar and if I saw a bunch of my own people standing around outside in that kind of posture, I definitely would be worried.
One of the ways in which real life flies in the face of cliché is the difference between city dwellers and small-town people, where smoking culture is concerned. There is a notion among Americans that people in small towns are the ones who lead healthy lives and people in big cities, with all the stress and smog and Dickensian strife, are the wrecks. But every time we get in the car and drive down to the Hill Country, I am astonished afresh at me time warp and the health warp and the culture warp between the city and the small towns.
There is one town in particular in the Hill Country where we love to go, but-without ever really having said this to myself before sitting down to write this piece-I have come slowly to think of the town as “St. Smokersburg.” You probably know the place. It’s right in the middle of that charming old place, Cholesterol County.
Big plates of steaming, grease-sweating sausage, and eggs and eggs and eggs, cooked up on a scaly black skillet of spitting-spattering butter, and pastries that weigh a couple of pounds each in which you want to poke a hole with your finger and then fill those little guys up with honey and then smather them with more butter, and everybody in the place just eating and sucking smoke at the same time.
“There is something really familiar about the people in this town,” I say to my wife. “Do you think this could be where the Flying Smokinskis are from?”
Is it because people in the city get the news first? Or are people in the city more fad-prone and therefore willing to change their most personal habits according to the dictates of fashion? Or are people in small towns so conservative about change and so alert to the slightest sign that someone in their midst has become a health faddist-a non-smoking flibbertigibbet-that none of them will ever change any of their habits?
All we can know is that there are divisions deep in the culture, and those divisions may run along class lines but not always, and they may run along geographic lines but not always, but they have to do with smoking and diet, and they are important beyond their relevance to health itself.
I swear that 1 can see smoking-culture differences between Dallas and other cities. At one point about a year ago, standing in the Raleigh-Durham airport in North Carolina, I was struck by an incongruous scene just across the way from me-an all-cotton looking family with beautiful little children, probably pidgewhips (people in Jeeps with phones), and both the mom and the dad were sucking down cigarettes like fire-eaters in the circus (descendants of Umrcvo Smokinski, who forsook the family act to go to Princeton?).
And then it struck me that I was in tobacco-growing, cigarette-manufacturing country and that here there were pidgewhip pockets in which people smoked.
On the continental scale of things, Dallas is much closer to LA, than to Raleigh-Durham. Dallas is the kind of place where pidgewhips just do not smoke. If the children smoke, it’s to get even with the parents for being pidgewhips and the only other people who smoke are visitors from small towns and really seriously profoundly addicted persons who just cannot help themselves and who therefore must be suspected of harboring homicidal tendencies. At this point in time, it’s safe to say that smoking in Dallas is not socially legitimate.
The restaurants in Dallas that still provide only grudging little sections of non-smoking will all be out of business in two years. You read it here first. Cannot survive. If it were merely a question of lung cancer, they might be able to fend, but this is a serious question of style, and nothing can survive that for more than a couple years,
It’s strange, though. There are moments when the mind still drifts back lazily to Cholesterol County-that room full of round florid faces, white napkins dabbing at greasy foreheads, and all around the flut tering pulse of sucking and exhaling. A faraway time in a faraway land. You could get misty about it.