Tom Chiarella Learns to Smoke

In the March 2008 issue of Esquire, writer Tom Chiarella wrote about his first cigarette — as a 46-year-old non-smoker.

From “Learning to Smoke“:

It’s not permitted. It pisses people off. It makes you puke. It confuses you, and it brings clarity. It makes you an outcast, and it helps you meet wonderful strangers…

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.

Although Chiarella’s story is not exactly about the people he met while smoking (partly because smoking bans have yet to enacted in certain parts of the country, allowing patrons to smoke at their restaurant tables or bar stools), his observations as a new smoker are enlightening, and occasionally even surprising. Chiarella looks at each cigarette, and each time he inhales a burning drag and exhales a plume of silver smoke, as a new and exciting experience.

Chiarella recalls a particularly satisfying cigarette, two weeks after he started smoking:

We were eating out. I’d ordered a light beer, a rib eye, and something called snazzy peas. My girlfriend was across from me, the two of us in one of our back-and-forths, laughing, delighting each other, speaking as characters, teasing out familiar jokes. We never need company. The steak was nicely cooked, the peas — snazzy. And as I pushed back the plate, I was struck for the first time in my life by a faint pinging sound in the center of my chest. It was a kind of tug, as if someone had wrapped a string around my rib, a string gently pulling me somewhere. I laid a hand flat on my chest, and my girlfriend looked at me, vaguely alarmed. “You okay?”

“I’m okay,” I said. “It’s just, I feel like, I don’t know. . . .” I paused and swallowed to be sure this wasn’t some weird new need for more food. “I think I need a cigarette.” She smiled and stood, held out her hand, and we went to the exit, stood on the handicap ramp, and smoked two American Spirits. She didn’t like my smoking any better now, but she accepted it and even allowed herself to enjoy it in moments like these. Up and down the street, now blanketed by darkness, the streetlamps formed friendly circles of light, so it looked like a kind of orchard. People stood, one and two per light, out there smoking cigarettes, looking up quietly at the stars or the cars or the windows of houses and stores.

“Wow,” I said.


“That’s a lot of smokers.” I flicked a finger up and down. “A smoke for every light.” There were others out there, I supposed, standing in the dark.

“Yeah,” she said. “There are a lot. There always are.”

Read the full story here.


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One response to “Tom Chiarella Learns to Smoke

  1. Pingback: Bookmarks about Smoking

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