At first, I couldn’t figure out what I liked about the bar a mile down the road from our house.
Every week or two I would stop in for an ice-cold glass of Coors. The friendly bartender always remembered what I wanted. The same group of cowboy-hat-wearing regulars were in session down at the end of the bar, and there was free popcorn, but you had to go get it yourself. Nice place.
At first I thought it was the western ambiance – rodeo art and big taxidermy – but I finally figured out what it was that was different, and it will shock and maybe appall you:
The place smelled like the bars of my college days, because they let folks smoke cigarettes.
Now, I don’t smoke. I haven’t for 45 years. And I’m turned off like everyone else by thick cigarette smoke. But the cold beer and the subtle aroma of someone’s cigarette down at the end of the bar was a blast from the past, a memory from early adulthood, enjoying a cold one, an opportunity to take stock, uninterrupted.
Our sense of smell is key in sparking memories. The first office I worked in was a fascinating combination of the cigarettes smoked by the editor and my fellow reporter, the oil used to keep the ever-clacking United Press International teletypes lubricated, and the ink and solvent they used on the press down in the basement.
I can smell it as I write this, and I lament the day smoking was banished and hard-core newsrooms started to smell no more interesting than government offices or insurance agencies. (Sadly, that first newsroom I worked in is now a commercial laundry. I couldn’t go back and smell the place if I wanted, or see my old Royal typewriter with the missing backspace key.)
At my father’s funeral 25 years ago, one of my older brothers told a story about building a boat with our dad down in our basement. The two of them would accomplish a task – fashioning the keel, a rib, or the transom – and then they would take a break, and my father would smoke a Camel cigarette as he contemplated the next step.
Years later he would give up smoking with the aid of cinnamon-flavored toothpicks. My guess is he missed those smoke breaks, and the pause to gather his thoughts.
(At that funeral, my brother told another story. The time came to paint the underside of the deck of the boat – a pretty impossible place to maneuver. “Nobody would know if we left it unpainted,” my brother said. “But, WE would know,” my father replied. And the underside of the deck got painted.)
One last story about smoking.
Long after lighting up a cigarette in a newsroom became a firing offense, and newsrooms started smelling like every other boring office in town, the smokers still found refuge out behind the building, rain or shine, hot or cold, gathered in a little group, enjoying their smoke-break and conversation.
At one paper, there was a picnic table by the back door, where our smokers would convene, greeting folks as they made their way to or from the parking lot.
It ultimately occurred to me that the inter-departmental communication that went on at that picnic table, or out on the loading dock at another paper, was far more effective than any department head meeting, or all-staff meeting I ever attended.
From then on, if I really wanted to know what was going on – who was mad at whom, who was about to quit, what caused that new dent in the company van, and the very juiciest gossip – I would ask a smoker. They usually had the answer, and would roll their eyes that the boss was always the last to know.
I’m sure the smokers still gather out behind those offices – one of the last things to survive from our rough-and-tumble “Front Page” past, sharing the latest gossip.
Our world is no doubt more healthy since our smoking days went up in smoke.
But, that whiff of smoke from the other end of the bar sure sparks a lot of memories.