David Sedaris has penned a lovely ode to his smoking years (inhale, exhale) in this week's New Yorker. With wicked precision, he ruminates on just what it is about cigarettes that allows one to be both self-debasing (the cough) and self-promoting (the cool) at once. He extols the many means of self-identification offered by cigarette consumption, pitting Newports v. Pall Malls v. Virginia Slims (my undergraduate literary experience confirms that "Camels were for procrastinators, those who wrote bad poetry, and those who put off writing bad poetry"), and noting that the "glam factor"--vestigial tail of Old Hollywood--is no less potent for being utterly vaporous.
For aside from pure addiction, the main psychological explanation of why one smokes is affiliation. (This works in the reverse: "No thanks; we quit.") This is borne out by another, very Samaritan feature of smoking (now sub-) culture: Reciprocity.
Take this guy who approached me after I left the store, this guy with a long black braid. It wasn’t the gentle, ropy kind you’d have if you played the flute but something more akin to a bullwhip: a prison braid, I told myself. A month earlier, I might have simply cowered, but now I put a cigarette in my mouth—the way you might if you were about to be executed. This man was going to rob me, then lash me with his braid and set me on fire—but no. “Give me one of those,” he said, and he pointed to the pack I was holding. I handed him a Viceroy, and when he thanked me I smiled and thanked him back.
It was, I later thought, as if I’d been carrying a bouquet and he’d asked me for a single daisy. He loved flowers, I loved flowers, and wasn’t it beautiful that our mutual appreciation could transcend our various differences, and somehow bring us together?
I believe anthropologists call this "gifting." And it's an all-too undervalued part of human intercourse. That's the same point made by Paul Devlin over at The Root. Tongue half in-cheek, Devlin's "Open Letter to Michelle Obama" asks the candidate's wife: "Can Barack please have a cigarette?" 45 million American adults smoke. So politically, it's not a terrible thought:
Think about the pure gold of "Barack outside smoking with the boys," like he surely used to do, talking sports with the friendly janitors who were having a smoke outside the University of Chicago Law School. If Hillary had stopped smoking, believe me, she'd have started again (and denied she ever stopped), and then reminisced about her smoking breaks with the gals back when she worked as a hair-netted cafeteria lady in a Terre Haute elementary school.