Day 3: On smoke and whiskey

Have you ever looked down at the two poisons and couldn’t decide which to enjoy first?

It’s really a matter of preference. Do you take a sip first, and follow it with a drag, or vice versa?

Would you rather the taste left in your mouth be the whiskey you’re drinking or the cancer stick you’re smoking?

I’m mixing it up tonight. I didn’t always. I would lead with whichever was of poorer quality – the smoke or the drink – and washed it down with the other. Typically it was the smoke that went first. Cheap menthol cigarettes that tasted like gasoline followed by a sharp burn of a bottom shelf whiskey.

I’m smoking a cognac-dipped Al Capone cigarillo coupled with a glass of Bulleit Small Batch Rye tonight. A person who enjoys cigars and whiskey knows that allowing either flavor to resonate between sets during this ritual is acceptable.

This self-destructive meditation isn’t about stress release, at least it’s not supposed to be.

I’ve gotten caught up in it in the past and have found myself addicted to the smoke. Whether it was the menthol, the nicotine, the tobacco or whatever, it’s easy to let it grab ahold of you.

When the ritual is done right, it’s not about stress release or addiction. It’s about reflection. Ideally with others who share that same passion for the smoke and the whiskey as you do. When you’re not able to be surrounded by like-minded family, the order in which you ingest the poisons becomes more important.

Remember, the second substance is the key here. Whichever you designate as second is the one you savor between sets  – the flavor, the burn and, most importantly, the memories it derives from your subconscious.

Let’s start with the smoke and follow it with the whiskey.

You pull. You take a sip. The flavor of the whiskey stays on your lips and the burn hits your mouth and goes down your throat. You close your eyes to enhance the feeling. You lick your lips and savor the sweet residue. That’s when the memories hit.

I first started drinking whiskey my senior year in college. I had gotten an influx of extra cash from my student loan that semester (still paying that off, son of a bitch). I went with my best friend Mike to the package store (liquor store for anyone outside of New England) to get supplies for the weekend. A couple six-packs of different Octoberfest microbrews and a 30 of Bud Light in hand, we were headed to the register more than satisfied.

That’s when we saw it.

It was a wooden case. Dark, treated wood with a glass pane in the front and a handle on top to ease carrying. Glowing through the glass pane were three bottles: Jack Daniel’s Old Tennessee Whiskey, Jack Daniel’s Gentlemen Jack and Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel. The bottles were snugged in a soft foam enclosure to keep them from moving within the box.

“The Suitcase” as we came to call it, was majestic. A Siren Song. We had to have it.

Mike was a gin drinker. Tanqueray and tonic. At this point in my college years, I had already spoiled vodka, as well as most any other kind of spirit. I had drank whiskey before, but wasn’t infatuated.

By the end of the year, our poison of choice was whiskey.

We threw parties every weekend in our apartment that year (more on that later), but The Suitcase wasn’t for the public.We started our own ritual.

Three fingers of whiskey, two cubes in a glass and a Black & Mild each. We’d walk around our apartment complex until our two poisons were exhausted. We’d talk about life, about love, about the past, present and future. We’d sip and we’d pull and we’d share memories. Those days would never end.

Eventually the weather at UConn would prevent these walks.

In the back of our apartment was a hill. At the top of the hill was a picnic table that overlooked our apartment and the adjacent buildings. Out of necessity, our ritual shifted from walking around the complex to scaling the steep hill behind our apartment and sitting at that picnic table. We could not be stopped.

We saved empty 30-rack boxes to serve as seats when it snowed or rain, proving to ourselves and to Mother Nature that the elements were not as strong as our ritual. This was important.

I’ve shared a glass of whiskey (or a bottle, to be honest) with many friends since then (more on that later). It would be exhausting to dictate them all. But all of these occasions have shared the same virtues of that original ritual: the flavor, the burn, the memories.

Let’s flip our course. Let’s lead with the whiskey and follow it with the smoke.

There are unwritten rules to when it comes to lighting up.

You never use a white lighter. That’s bad luck. When you’re lighting someone else’s as well as your’s, you light her’s first. You should never light both in your mouth. In college, my girls held strong that when you light someone else’s, you have to give them a kiss on the cheek. The first stick you touch is your Lucky. Flip it over and put it back in the box. You smoke that one last.

Life is all about rituals. Traditions.

Take a sip. Take a pull. Hold it.

You’re killing yourself, but you’re not thinking about that. You’re embracing the temporary light-headedness the smoke offers. You’re letting the smoke swirl in your lungs. You’re closing your eyes. You’re enjoying the self-destructive nature of the pain the smoke brings.

Then you exhale. If you want to get fancy, you blow a ring or two. This really enhances the high.

Then the memories hit.

For the smoke, it’s all about where you are and where you were. You remember the precise vantage point you had at different points of your life.

The first time I ever smoked. Senior year of high school, after swim season had ended. It was a Newport 100. I grew up in Waterbury (more on that later) and that’s what we smoked. Menthol. Fiberglass.

I was in the backseat of my friend’s car on the way back from a house party in Thomaston. I’m withholding names in this story.

We were drinking. A lot. That night.

The car was four deep. Driver, passenger seat, two (including me) in the back. All boys (we were definitely not men yet).

My adjacent compadre offered me a Newport 100. I had reservations. I had never smoked before. My mother struggled with smoking. I hated it. My older brother had gotten caught smoking by my mother years before. I hated it.

He reassured me and said that it “would enhance my drunk” or something like that.

And boy did it. I remember being so inebriated from one drag that I couldn’t finish it. It was unreal.

I didn’t become a smoker right away. But I began noticing more and more the people in my life that did smoke.

I recall bumming a Newport from a friend at school each day (loosies, 25 cents a pop) and saving it until that night. I would wait until my mother went to bed and light it in the bathroom, with the window open. I would get so light-headed I had to lay on the floor. The world circled. Any perceived stress, gone.

Before too long, that initial nicotine/menthol takeover subsided and the high wasn’t as intense. I found myself skipping class in high school to smoke Newports in my friend’s car in the parking lot, chasing that initial sensation.

In college, times was tough. Freshman year I was up late studying for a final (or a mid-term, or quiz, or what have you) one night. I was smoking regularly at that time, but I was broke. Shit, I was a college kid.

I shook out my jeans, emptied my desk, rattled every drawer I had to collect change. I came up with like four bucks and change. Then I walked to what was then Store 24. Current UConn kids will have no IDEA what I’m talking about.

It was about a quarter mile walk. I’d done it a million times. Late-night excursions for a nicotine fix, a snack fix, or a blunt wrap.

I got to the counter and looked the cashier right in the eye:

“I need the cheapest pack of menthol cigarettes you have.”

Checkers. Three bucks and change. They tasted like gasoline.

Another sip. Another pull. Hold it.

Newports, on the swing outside Hollister.

Parliament Menthol Lights, outside (and inside) Ella Grasso.

Marlboro Smooths, at Homer, outside Orchard Acres, walking to and from class.

Marlboro Reds, with my older brother, outside Nonnie’s house in Texas.

Newports, on my stoop on Angel Drive.

Black & Milds, on my stoop on Angel Drive.

Black & Milds, in my car, outside the house on Lilly Lane in Meriden, right after accepted my job in California.

Cognac-dipped Al Capone cigarillos, outside Pasquale’s home, with my best friends, the night before I drove to California.


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