smoking when I was twelve. That would have put me in the seventh grade,
the last year but one of primary school. And although drinking, which
I took up the following year, quickly developed into a genuine social
pursuit, it was tobacco that became my true addictive love. From my first
puff forward, we parted company but once, for three months; and that was
Both my parents were heavy smokers, my mother regularly getting through
three packs of Chesterfield a day, my father two packs of Pall Mall. Each
lived well into their seventies, as did my mother's second husband, who
continued to indulge his beloved habit long after he had been diagnosed
with emphysema. Cigarettes may eventually kill me (as nearly everyone
is predicting), but I'm still keeping my fingers crossed for even greater
It was my father's brand I opted for. (As it happened, though in
every other respect they were totally dissimilar, it was my stepfather's,
as well.) The elegant dark red pack, the Latin epigraph (In hoc signo
vinces, In this sign shalt thou conquer); and the fact that--as the
ads calmly pointed out, no sooner had filters become all the rage--you
could light either end. Pall Mall was also the original king-size; but
no reference to length was made in any media publicity, there never having
been a diminutive version. One simply knew that Pall Malls offered more.
Pronunciation of the name was something else again. On radio, and
later television, it was said correctly, i.e. in the English manner, as
befitted its eponymous relationship with the famed London street that
had earlier been an alley, where a 17th-century forerunner of stickball--involving
a boxwood ball, a mallet and an iron ring--was played. But I never heard
anyone, and especially not my father, refer to these wonderful fags as
either 'pal-mals' or even 'pel-mels.' They were instead 'paul-mauls';
nor will the similarity between this way of saying Pall and the first
syllable of 'pallbearer' go unnoticed by any of my non-smoking friends,
least of all those proselytising converts to a supposedly healthier lifestyle.
I tried other brands, of course. Mother's Chesterfields were okay
in a pinch, but just. Camels, on the other hand, were out of the question.
After one drag it felt like I had a hole in my tongue. Perhaps not as
big as the very real hole that cocaine, many years later, would gnaw through
my nasal septum. But unlike the wicked white lady, Camels bit where you
didn't want them to. I wouldn't walk two feet for one. All the rest, with
one exception, were tasteless and therefore nondescript. The sweet exception
was Lucky Strike.
Ah, Luckies! Mike Hammer smoked them, which was a plus of sorts.
And that distinctive target logo more than compensated for their relative
shortness (we're talkin' 'guys-our-age' days, remember. For me, a 1940
model, that means kind of on the cusp of the ageless Johnny and his "All
call for Philip Mor-rees!"). Now, I don't know what it says for either
author Mickey Spillane (I, The Jury; My Gun Is Quick; Kiss Me, Deadly)
or his all-too-obvious and hopefully-fictional alter ego; but the saccharine
flavor of Lucky Strike was hardly to be believed. In any blindfold test,
I could pick out the Lucky every time, without it being lit! If that's
what toasting does, forget it.
Parliaments were of occasional interest, primarily on account of
the recessed filter. For snob appeal and taste, one clearly preferred
an Egyptian oval, certainly when it was offered. Yet despite the experience
of Camels, Luckies and--on the positive side--ovals, a lone cigarette
tells you nothing. You choose a brand according to which will give you
the maximum pleasure smoke after smoke, day after day. For me that brand
was Pall Mall, and it wasn't long before my daily consumption was equal
to my dad's. And I honestly doubt I ever once nicked his. He sometimes
gave me a pack, as freely as he would lay extra pocket money on me. But
cigarettes were dirt cheap back then (I live in England now, so excuse
me while I weep!), and I had after-school and summer-holiday jobs from
before I turned 10. The only cigarettes I stole were from the drugstore
where I worked as a delivery boy, and then it was by the carton. By way
of making up for the minimum wage we weren't getting, or so my cohorts
and I blithely reasoned.
From the start, my parents made it dead easy for me to smoke... anywhere,
and practically anytime. When I told my mother I wanted to take up cigarette
smoking, she made but one rule: "Smoke at home, not on the street."
Yes! My father didn't mind one way or the other. Then again, he was like
that with most everything.
Well, I stuck with Pall Malls for quite a long while, like a dozen
years. It was only when I returned to Germany--after my separation from
the Air Force (oh happy day!), but also from PXs--that I had to get down
to some serious searching for another brand. Although I spent a fair amount
of time on U.S. military installations, selling mutual funds and later
on encyclopedias, there was no way I was going to hassle any soldier or
airman to buy fags for me at the post exchange. That wasn't my style at
all. During my four years in uniform, I always wore civvies off-duty.
And for the most part, I bought those clothes on the local economy. The
last thing I wanted was to look like a GI. But my Pall Malls I clung to
for as long as I could. At PX prices they were too cheap to resist...while
I was still in, that is, doing my stint--and engaging in guerrilla warfare
against the entire command structure. For me, that's what made the Air
So I tried this, that and the other German brand. Gauloises and Gitanes
were of course freely available, but they left as bad a taste in my mouth
as did the German equivalents, Rothändle and Reval. No black tobacco
for me! Yet will I ever forget the horrible stubs from a single pack of
Gitane that my mistress and I lit and relit in a Metz hotel room after
my Mercedes ran out of gas and we had to wait three days for money to
arrive from Munich? I'm afraid not. Yuck!
But the sole brand that came close to Pall Mall (yet not close enough)
was Ernte 23. What to do, lah?
What I did was somehow get hold of a pack or two of Pall Malls, and
then go round to every tobacconist in Landshut (the capital of Lower Bavaria,
baby) and say: "Here, try one. This is the flavor, and the mildness,
I want. What do you recommend?" And one guy actually came up with
it! I won't say I can still see his face; but I can picture the shop,
and hear the certainty with which he said, "This is what you're looking
for." With which he handed me a pack of Senoussi, interestingly enough
made by the same company, Reemtsma, that produced Ernte 23. What's more,
they also came in oval tins of 50 (or was it 100?). I bought three packs
to begin with; then, once I was satisfied, went back and got me a couple
of tins and a silver-plated cigarette case. The latter purchase was also
by way of saying thank you to the shopkeeper.
Smoking Senoussi, which remained my brand until I left Europe five
years later, got me into the somewhat obsessive habit of stockpiling backup.
A rather exclusive mark, you wouldn't find it in machines and rarely at
newsagents or the like. To this day I'll not leave the house without a
spare pack or two (of my current brand) somewhere in my kick.
And menthols? Yes, we're nearly there. At one time or another, I'd
sampled most of the going brands, but never as a steady diet. They were
for when you had a cold, an addict's trick I'd picked up from my mother.
Of the American brands, I tended towards Salem. Kools, Newports, whatever,
didn't say much to me. Given that they were merely stopgaps, it hardly
God knows what I smoked my first year in the East. Since that mainly
meant Hong Kong (I bopped over to Okinawa a couple of times in between),
I imagine scoring Pall Mall presented little or no problem. As for early
Bangkok days, the momentous nature of what eventually transpired has effectively
blocked out all fag-related memories. And I am talking about cigarettes,
not the countless Thai boys I ended up sleeping with during my two-year
sojourn in the City of Angels.
It went like this. I never once tried cannabis until I was 29. Rebellious
kid though I was, all that 1950s marijuana-madness propaganda effectively
scared me off. The closest I got to any kind of dope as a teenager was
an aspirin cigarette. Strictly headachesville; avoid at all costs. I might
have gotten into pot at college, except I didn't go. Whereas in the Air
Force, it was pretty much only blacks who smoked, and they weren't offering
whitey anything so esoteric. In all likelihood, I wouldn't have either,
had I been in their brogans. The rest of the Sixties saw me well away
from America, and hence every aspect of rock culture that I wasn't to
discover--and then really tune in to--until around the time Woodstock
was a celluloid event, with great grass to hand and minus all the mud.
Enter the dragon, Hong Kong, 1969. An Austrian painter-cum-con man
named Robert hands me a joint. I take a few deep drags and nothing happens.
Same with the second joint. Yet everyone else in the room is stoned out
of their gourds. This experience would repeat itself with every new drug
I subsequently tried, for I have an extremely high tolerance. LSD worked
its magic on the second go, when I was utterly consumed by...no, when
I became white light, long before having read Politics of Ecstasy
or anything else about acid. Opium required a good dozen pipes and two
forays to a Colombo den before anything more exciting than vomiting resulted.
[Tip: If you get off on O, but can't stand the nausea, forget smoking
(which in any case is slow), likewise swallowing it. Instead, stick it
up your ass! Wham, goes straight to your bloodstream, with no annoying
Cocaine...let's not get into that; other than to say, I had to work
damn hard to acquire a habit. Which turned into an 11-year love affair,
ending in divorce without any desire for reconciliation. The decree is
absolute. Basta. These days, even Remy Martin--once sipped at the rate
of half a bottle a day, minimum--is reserved for special occasions. I'm
more than content to be a gentleman wino. Ah, but do I ever adore my menthols!
Grass finally gripped me in Singapore. My Chinese drag-queen prostitute
lover Kim turned me on to the truly good stuff, top-of-the-crops Sumatran
from Banda Aceh, sold in the shadows of Bugis Street in slim katoos (tan
paper cylinders, twirled shut at each end). She also introduced me to
Abbey Road, Jimi Hendrix, The Stones, The Who, all that wonderful
mind-bending jazz. And while living with her, I read Moby Dick
for the first time. Let the good times roll!
Back up to Thailand and a worthy stint with the Bangkok Post,
plus all else that I did there. Then one evening, before going out to
the bars, and immediately after smoking a pure Thai-stick joint, and because
I had a cold, I lit a menthol cigarette. And after finishing that fag...it
seemed to me...that I was a lot more stoned...than I would have been otherwise.
Could that be? Was there something about menthol, that when combined with
weed, kicked in like an afterburner to accelerate the high? Next day I
tried it again. And the day after. And the day after that. My cold was
gone, but I kept on trying. Started smoking menthols at other times, as
well. Very soon, I realised I liked them. And, they gave me a mild sort
of buzz. Yeah, right, I was hooked on menthol! The brand was Sai Phon,
Falling Rain. I continued to smoke them right up to the moment I was forced
to flee Thailand, under the ludicrous but all too real threat of imminent
arrest for high treason. What the hell, I wanted to go to Bali anyway.
Indonesia was a mindblower. I discovered durians, psychedelic mushrooms,
batik, double-ikat weaving, gamelan music and kretek cigarettes. Indeed,
it was on account of kreteks that I stopped smoking tobacco altogether
for three months. I didn't quit, mind you, in the sense of saying to myself,
"Oy, let's see if we can't kick this terrible habit" or anything
like that. Rather I awoke one morning to the startling realisation that
I'd lost all desire for tobacco. I had no explanation for the phenomenon
at the time, but it dawned on me afterwards that the previous three months
of inhaling 10 or more of those thick, luscious, slow-burning, constantly
crackling clove-scented cigarettes a day had at once over-satisfied my
nicotine craving and placed a burden on my lungs that naturally demanded
a suitable yet unforced respite. The body declared, whispering significantly
to the mind, whereupon an agreement was reached.
I did, however, continue to smoke pure grass. (Hash would come much
later: back in Europe, down to North Africa, off to desert regions of
the Near East and beyond.) And I finally learned to roll joints, as opposed
to stuffing my weed into emptied-out cigarette casings. Even though initial
attempts had me convinced I'd never get the hang of it.
Annele: "You can do it, Eddie. You can do anything. You're perfect."
Of course I am!
It was while living in Bali--Den Pasar and then Kuta Beach--that I saw
freaks smearing Tiger Balm on their joints. When I asked why, some said
it made for cooler smoking, others...that it added to the buzz! Ah, so!
next few years, which frequently included weeks on end of intensive traveling,
I smoked menthols whenever I could find them. And when not, then damn
near everything else. Beedies and Passing Show in India, Taj (Crown) during
two extended stays in Tehran, whatever in Afghanistan, something or other
in Taiwan, something else again in Korea. Oh, but upon my first return
visit to the USA in 12 years, did I not instantly dive for Salems? I did.
Really big down South, Salems are. While knocking about through the deeper
parts of Dixie, I once found myself in a room with eight other people
in the backwoods of Alabama, and every one of us was smoking our own Salems.
Not so big in California, though. No cigarettes are, and even then weren't
San Francisco, 1976. I stroll into a hippie café and immediately
notice the absence of ashtrays.
"Is this a no-smoking café?" I ask.
"This is a please-don't-smoke café," comes the squeaky
reply from a supercilious girl-creature wearing the kind of maddening
smile that would make a saint want to kill. Kind-hearted soul that I am,
I give it another go.
"If I sit down and order something to drink, and then light
a cigarette, will you let me smoke it?"
Her hideous smile refused to break ranks with the dominant mood.
"We wish you wouldn't do that," she said.
Thinking, 'Nothing like a straight answer,' I beat a quiet retreat.
Tucson, Arizona, several weeks later, wearily on the heels of a three-day
drive down with my old friend David (Bali, Dharamsala, Kathmandu; assorted
clouds of smoke continually enveloping us), who will let me neither light
up nor open a window in his 'state of the art' air-conditioned van.
("Pull over, David," I cry out, somewhere outside of L.A.
"Pull over now and park this bloody thing. Leave it to rot, or get
stolen; we'll walk to Tucson...and I'll quit smoking, forever!" Fat
chance? On his part, for sure. I really meant it.)
I'm at a party, in an enormous hacienda, with nothing but ventilation.
"Please," says the hostess, having espied me tapping a fag from
my pack, "not in the house." There must be 75 guests, each one
looking more hip than the other, and no one is smoking. I've no need of
a calculator to tell me what outnumbered is. Quick like a bunny, I make
a beeline for the verandah. Moonlight, stars, cool night air. And a cigarette!
"Excuse me, could I possibly bum one of those?"
I remember nothing about him, or whether our subsequent conversation
(we must have had one) ever ranged beyond the borders of tobacco. What
I do vividly recall is throwing my arms around this welcome stranger,
clearly another refugee from the restrictive party area, and exclaiming,
"Thank God, a fellow pervert!"
It never occurred to me to advise him beforehand that it was menthol,
nor did he in any way object. All that was in the offing, but not till
Amsterdam. And then, for some strange reason, everywhere else I went.
After six months in the States, I fly back to the Old World and for
a second time take up residence in London. Money is now very tight. I
write; plus do the shopping, the laundry and most of the cooking; and
keep house. My girlfriend does office work, pays the rent and all, and
gives me a weekly allowance. No sooner is the bread in my hand than I'm
off to the corner newsagent for my week's supply of Consulates. I line
the packs up--like a squad of mentholated soldiers squatting at parade
rest--along one end of my gigantic oak desk, so I can easily keep a peripheral
eye on the pace at which their numbers dwindle. I'm fine with this brand,
until we trade London for Amsterdam and I encounter the menthol of a lifetime:
Yet it was this Dutch brand, in particular, that inspired a most
astonishing range of adverse reactions in many other smokers, running
the gamut from mild condescension to disgust or even hostility. The American
writer William Levy may have been the first to respond with a firm "Thanks
but no thanks" after hitting me up for a fag, only to learn that
something more was being proffered. Not for him the refreshing coolness
of this peppermint derivative that is simultaneously a differential anesthetic
and a stimulant acting on the body's receptor cells. Moreover, Bill likes
to cough, freely admitting that "besides bicycle riding, coughing
is the only exercise I get." An ardent smoker who has written passionately
in defense of his "hobby," his tastes in this regard are more
eclectic than mine; but he draws the line at menthols...much as Tennessee
Williams--as I was surprised to find out, when we visited Singapore together--drew
the line at drag queens.
"If you like them that swish, ba-by," he insisted when
we'd returned to Bangkok, "then you like girls."
"I do, Tom," I replied. "I surely do."
In one otherwise erudite tract ("Viva Tobacco," High
Times, September 1984), Bill makes the error, common among the uninitiated,
of assuming it is the filters that are mentholated; whereas it's the tobacco
itself that has been thoughtfully treated (laced, is the way I like to
think of it) with this soothing crystalline alcohol to which I've become
Few go to Bill's length in distancing themselves from menthol smokers.
While he publicly refers to us as "plebeians," the vast majority
simply say no. Except for an amazingly large number of Amsterdam street
junkies, who, having tried to cadge a cigarette, angrily run off when
you ask, "Do you mind if it's menthol?" Hey, no problem. I save
more cigarettes that way! Though I am admittedly delighted when someone
approaches me saying, "I see you're smoking menthols. May I?"
Just as, usually in restaurants, I've been known to follow the scent of
a kretek to the table of total strangers and boldly ask for one. The aroma
Kreteks. As surely as they led me to stop smoking, they also got
me off and running again. When the time came to leave Bali, when that
magical isle whispered to my inner ear, "Go! Other adventures await
you," I didn't want to face the crowded bus journeys from Kuta to
Singaradja without the companionship of a few joints. But how to camouflage
the ganja, with its equally distinctive bouquet? Roll it together with
some Gudang Garam, my favorite kretek brand, that's how. But this double-whammy
had irresistible consequences: arriving in the north of the island, and
before catching the ferry to Banjuwangi, I bought one Kretek (you can
do that in the East) to smoke on its own, followed--shortly afterward--by
another. And then I bought a pack.
Nowadays I think, 'If only menthol could disguise the fact that I'm
smoking tobacco!' Especially on British busses and trains, in a country
where people either smoke too much or mind terribly if you do at all.
Since moving to England, I've taken to smoking mentholated shag, as the
price of ready-mades here is truly exorbitant. But that shag I must self-import
from Holland (where practically everyone rolls their own, including at
black or even white-tie events), as it is unobtainable other than in London
and a few other cities, and then only with difficulty and at great cost.
Good thing for me that they abolished duty-free within the European Union,
as now there is no limit on the quantity of tobacco you can carry between
member states, providing it is all for personal use. Nor may Customs even
question you on this, as long as the total amount does not exceed 800
cigarettes and one kilo of shag and 400 cigarillos and 200 cigars. Yep,
my luggage gets kinda' heavy on those trips back from the Continent. But
I'd rather schlepp than pay through the nose. Or worse yet, do without
mentholated shag; plus, for after breakfast and dinner (and with one of
those rare Remys), a superlative Gladstone.
Took a few packs of Winner Menthol with me on a recent visit to Florida.
(And flew both ways via New York, so I could smoke while crossing the
Atlantic, compliments of Kuwait Air.) "Don't go doing that in public,"
warned my friend Gerry, at whose modestly lavish house I stayed, when
he saw me rolling up. Point swiftly taken. Once my Rizzlas ran out, I
didn't give a thought to replacing them. Anyway, Florida is a bargain
basement when it comes to buying cigarettes. Certainly when compared to
Britain, and (from what I hear) Australia...a country I nearly made it
to way back when, but now will never see. If a three-hour flight from
New York to West Palm Beach, or a four-hour coach ride from Exeter to
Heathrow, has me on the nerve-wracking verge of a nicotine fit, I can't
even imagine the traumas I'd face trying to make it on Vicks VapoRub alone
from London to Sydney!
In his famous "Jewish & goyish" rap, Lenny Bruce tells
us that whereas Camels are very goyish, Salems are Jewish. As is the Air
Force (unlike the other three branches of the military, all of which are
goyish). Being a New York dago who grew up thinking he was a Jew (Lenny
again: "All New Yorkers are Jewish, all Italians are Jewish..."),
in a neighborhood that had three rabbis--Orthodox, Conservative &
Reformed--on the same block (two of whom lived in our apartment building),
I feel I was destined to smoke menthols. So I don't care who minds. That
is my smoke.