23 June 1999


Whatever his faults, and they are legion, I always credited my father for not having any addictions. He and my mother drank seldom and never to excess, and there were no other drugs floating around the house when I was little despite the era and the locale. The only nonsexual temptations my father could not resist in San Francisco in the 1970s appear to have been investment swindles and garage sales. For this I am ambivalently thankful. I didn't wind up in ACOA meetings, but a lot of money vanished and there was always a ton of junk around the house.

My father turned out, however, to have an addiction after all. He was addicted to not smoking. Everything in his life was branded "Thank you for not smoking": doors, clothing, car interiors, refrigerators. All over the house there was this constant outpouring of gratitude for not smoking. Thank you, thank you, thank you. On top of his desk sat a human skull with a cigarette wedged between its teeth. My father's memento mori was so optimistic: don't smoke and you won't wind up like this asshole.

As my father aged, his passion for not smoking ripened into fanaticism. On each visit I could count on at least one lengthy uninterruptable rant, usually concerning his latest speech to some deliberative body deciding on a smoking ordinance. I became his ghostwriter, typist, and overall enabler, toning down the rhetoric and printing out preachy speeches in 22-point font. After a while, not smoking became his sole topic. In his eccentric way, my father had become incredibly boring.

As a young teenager I adopted cigarettes as my own outrage for a while. Then I became my own person by growing out of it and villifying car alarms, wind chimes and people who throw white paper in the newspaper recycling bin. When I smoked my first cigarettes I was genuinely afraid of what would befall me if my father ever saw me or found out about it. Abandonment was certain; it was threatened and doled out in parcels for much milder offenses. The world became my father's spy network, able to infiltrate the darkest, seediest gay bar in the East Village and report back to him three thousand miles away in San Francisco. It would be many years before I would be well enough to enjoy a cigarette because my father loathed them so much, but unfortunately by that time I was also well enough to realize I was killing myself to spite him, and for the most part quit. So I have never really enjoyed a cigarette to the fullest. Except maybe that first one.

No cigarette will ever live up to the first because that one I smoked after drinking three bottles of cheap red wine with two friends, and because it was first. Megan and Dubi and I staggered out of Puglia's in Little Italy and the two of them lit up. I was feeling just self-indulgent enough, or just self-punishing enough, to want to finally give it a try. That first hit was as physically altering as any drug I have ever taken. It was a perfectly distributed instant orgasm. I weighed nothing. Champagne flowed through my veins.

Not long after my first cigarette I found a queer father figure with a somewhat different take on smoking than my biological father.

"It's like jerking off your lungs," purred Albert as we sat around his bar smoking Johan's unfiltered Camels. "You draw the smoke in, and as long as you hold it nobody can see it, but inside you're jerking off your lungs."

I loved cigarettes, but I didn't get the idea that I was jerking off my lungs. I didn't feel much of anything in my lungs--it was all in my legs and arms and fingertips, right under the skin, everything frying lightly with pleasure.

"Ah ha," Albert said, nodding sagely. "So it's jerking off your superficial capillaries."

Oscar Wilde called cigarettes the perfect vice because they were "exquisite," but left you unsatisfied. Port in Sheltering Sky compared life itself to a cigarette: "The first few puffs it tastes wonderful, and you don't ever think of its ever being used up. Then you begin taking it for granted. Suddenly you realize it's nearly burned down to the end. And that's when you're conscious of the bitter taste." In my experience the cigarette has behaved most like a phallus: promising pleasure, threatening death, serving as an unacknowledged battleground between father and son over unacknowledgeable grievances. And what might those be?

Thank you for not asking.