Obviously I’m Not Saying You Should Start Smoking
It’s hard to know whether it seems like everything is getting worse faster than usual because everything is getting worse, or if that slight dying sensation is just how it feels to be an adult all the time now, just as it always has for adults throughout history. Which is a moot point; in either case the world feels a little faster, and a little meaner than it used to, now. Cycles of gentrification have sped up to the point that a person leaving a city for six months runs the risk of returning to it a stranger, all their favourite places scrubbed off the map, all of the old lines redrawn by indifferent hands.
Knowing this makes me feel particularly tender about the kinds of places I like to go to, because those always seem to be the places least likely to survive in the event of even minimal competition or pressure from the outside world. These include bars hidden behind a freeway and under a bridge, mom and pop restaurants recessed in the corners of plazas where nothing more lucrative could be made to fit, and places where they still let you smoke inside. Above all, places that let you smoke inside.
There are two angles on this, and they’re both right:
First: Loving things because they are unlikely, and doomed to die is an extremely stupid way of going about the world, a terrible way of looking after your heart, and fetishises things which should absolutely be allowed to go extinct (see: nostalgia for racist kitsch). Even so, the fact that I’m probably not allowed to smoke inside anywhere else absolutely enhances the quality of my indoor cigarette breakfasts in the burnt-out shell of a diner down the street from my apartment. If they could bottle the sensation of Getting Away with Something it would smell like burnt coffee and honeyed toast and half a century of cigarettes and it would make a lot of money – but not from me, because I’m already getting away with something, in the burnt-out shell of a diner down the street from my apartment. I recognise the dangers inherent in getting attached to places which seem anachronistic (see: steampunk coffee shops etcetera), but this isn’t quite that. It’s more the fact that it’s 2018 and there is nothing about our present moment that would suggest as likely the survival of a modest diner that has all of its 1950s furniture because its owners have been alternately cheap and inert for three generations, and that permits its customers to line their insides with tar while being sheltered from the elements. There are a lot of laws about it, there are a lot of people with opinions and money and an apparent desire to see places like this one cease to exist – and yet, it exists. It will have to close eventually, so another heterosexual gin martini bar can have its moment in the sun, but I can no more stop attending this place than I could look away from a miracle before it was concluded. A brief allusion to a different world, though probably not a better one. Until nature reasserts itself and this thing goes belly-up, however, you will find me and a handful of other moon-faced and black-lunged idiots eating and drinking and smoking there and not making eye contact with each other any more than you would in a church.
Second: I’m suspicious of any kind of eating practice that demands sequencing – soy then fish then rice, salt then lemon then tequila – but let me tell you about the best cigarette breakfast: coffee, bread, honey, cigarettes, apple. If it’s at the kind of place that lets you smoke indoors the coffee will be served in a ceramic mug that looks and feels like a giant stained tooth, the coffee will be both scorched and watery, with a skein of oil on the surface. The bread will be white or off-white, but likely toasted. You may have to provide your own honey. You will have to provide your own cigarettes. You will want to provide your own apple, ideally crisp and a little sour. You take a bite of the toast, which you’ve allowed to sit for a hot second so the honey sinks in, you sip at the coffee which tastes like its own aftertaste, bitterness offset by the toast, dryness offset by – look, at least the coffee’s wet. Then you take a drag of your cigarette, tepid flavours aromatised by the smoke, and then you get to have a little moment where the morning light is cutting through a thin veil of smoke onto the formica table before you, and you could be in any number of anonymous, squalid little places in the world; you could even be in this one, if you wanted to. Repeat, as the light gets harder and the coffee cools down and reveals its muddier notes, hopefully subdued by the careful deletion of taste buds that your cigarette is performing. Finish with the apple, so much as to hydrate as to contrast. Your whole day will have no choice but to be downhill from there, but aren’t they all.
Liam Kruger writes fiction, essays, and poetry. His work has appeared in places like 3AM, The Rumpus, and Brittle Paper. Right now he lives in the midwest of the United States.