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Rant #118
(published January 23, 2003)
How Can A Man Smoke Without An Ashtray?
by Manish Raiji

A friend introduced me to his brilliant scheme to quit smoking. He threw away all of his ashtrays. And he was startling in his honesty about this; he really meant all of his ashtrays. The rose Val-Saint Lambert Crystal Nicot Ashtray that set him back $450 in one of those splurge "I have a job and its better than your's" moments? Gone. The gleaming silver one from Mikasa (he would never admit that he actually went there), square and wide with four perfectly crafted cigarette depressions, one on each corner? Gone. The instant-kitsch of a ceramic frog, ash receptacle unfortunately bisecting its spine, with an Irish flag on its outstretched tongue and a British one on its ass (to this day I'm not sure which nation is being insulted)? Gone. The stack of cheap tinfoil ashtrays lifted from a truck stop somewhere in Kentucky? Gone.

He even took a screwdriver to the front console of his car and successfully removed the little pop-out ashtray in there, along with an inch or so of skin and a pint or so of blood. He never, of course, used that ashtray, since the proper way to smoke in the car is to ash (used here as a verb, meaning to depose of the residue of a cigarette) straight out the window, no matter the precipitation and/or frigidity.

This was, he assured me, foolproof. How can a man smoke without an ashtray? He kept his full regalia of lighters, his cigarette holders (inspired by the Penguin and Raoul Duke), and his arsenal of cigarette cases. He was, to be sure, very serious about his smoking and enjoyed collecting all sorts of now-Nicotinia tabacum-stained knick-knacks that somehow accessorized his habits. But all of these props were in his mind meaningless, simple memories of a disappeared man, since he, the new ex-smoking he, could not smoke without an ashtray.

One would obviously point out that you don't need an ashtray to smoke outside. Or in a car. Or at a bar. Or in a whorehouse. But this logic did not enter his mind, and his friends, dutifully trying to crutch him in his embrace of a less-toxic lifestyle, sidestepped those uncomfortable issues.

But he did not stray in those obvious senses. He walked freely outside, unencumbered by a cigarette (though it was clear that Extra and Trident made quite a fortune off of this orally-fixated twenty-something); the interior of his car began to fade into a comfortable and nondescript scent; our trips to libationary houses found him double-fisted with drink. Even his infrequent trips to the madams were . . . oh, alright, he didn't go to whorehouses.

This lasted for a week. A business week, to be precise, but let's spare the poor man an undue guilt trip.

Because his fool-proof plan failed to adapt to the depth of foolishness that an ex-smoker will delve to in order to rid himself of that pesky prefix.

He had removed the ashtrays, but had retained the paraphernalia of a smoker - the intricate machines designed to make fire; the elegant rhinoceros bone holders that looked like ebony tipped on one end by greedy, inhalatory lips and the other with an equally greedy habit; the svelte, gilded carrying cases created for those pretentious few who deign not to be seen with a commoners cardboard and cellophane pack of Camels; and, most importantly, he retained the shakes and tics associated with a man who desperately believes in his need for sexy-yet-degenerative tobacco/ammonia/arsenic smoke.

It was a Sunday that his trash bags were filled with ashtrays; it was a Saturday that I entered his abode, under the presupposition that we were to go to a movie with some people, and noted the familiar smell of freshly smoked cigarettes. "But the ashtrays?" I thought to myself. "How can a man smoke without an ashtray?"

An explanation from his slightly dehydrated lips was unnecessary. There, on the coffee table before him (he, on the couch, feet resting on said coffee table, reading The Wall Street Journal with a half-empty bowl of grapes - he was oddly paranoid about his nutrition, considering his one major, perhaps life-defining habit - resting on his lap), was a glass, filled three-quarters up with water. The effect created by this glass-and-water combination was a breathtaking snowglobe, with the cheap plastic flakes usually associated with such trinkets being replaced by dark black cigarette ash and the snowman or nativity scene (did it really snow in Bethlehem when the King was born? Did it snow in Tupelo when the other King was born?) replaced by soggy orange-brown butts.

It was beautiful, it was fresh. The water had begun to turn a brownish color, but remained relatively clear and each tap of his cigarette on the lip of the cup sent a flurry of black and white specks into the water, where they floated gently over its fallen brethren. On the bottom lay a desert scene of ash, making me want to upend the entire contraption and watch the whole pile of waste dance. I didn't mention the fact that he was smoking (again), and he didn't mention the fact that he was smoking (again). Friends may not allow friends to drive drunk, but they sure as hell look the other way at a whole host of other personal failings.

As the departure time arrived, the beauty of the snowglobe (ashglobe?) had faded. The water had by then turned a dark and opaque black, the tangle of cigarettes looking like lobsters stacked haphazardly on top of each other in a tank, and the smooth desert scene transformed into a landfill of dirty black chalk dust. For the first time that night, his regression made a slight impact on our demeanor, as we both glanced at the glass and then at each other, his only reaction being a slight shrug at the look of apprehension on my face. Perhaps he thought I was disgusted at him? I was not - it was the destroyed beauty of his creation that had contorted my face.

Whatever his thoughts were on my judgment, the next day he threw away all the glasses in his house, drinking water straight from the tap and orange juice out of the bottle. Beer from a can at his house, for now at least. Because a man, after all, cannot smoke without an ashtray.

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