Smokers Get All the Breaks

Remember matches?

Remember matches?

For various reasons, including some good ones, I have moved in mainly smoke-free circles for most of my life. Every once in a while, seeing someone with that fiery little tube between lips or fingers can startle me to attention, as if I’d just seen a rare bird or a quaint way of dressing. But I’ve also noticed enough workplace smoking areas to be convinced that smokers may be smarter than the rest of us. Really.

It was Wanda that got me thinking about it first. She was the professeur de français, a precise and careful woman who was also a dedicated smoker. It seemed incongruous to me, given her fastidious habits of diet and dress. After all, I was the “healthy” one, the school’s basketball coach, a guy who tried to keep an ex-athletic body in some kind of tune. We worked in a sparkling new high school with a total climate-control system, not an open window in the place.

“Time for a fix,” I’d smirk as Wanda left for the parking lot. Like the men on staff who smoked, she sat in her car, or drove around town if there were likely to be giggling grade nines or over-confident seniors lurking about. Sometimes I felt sorry for her. But then I’d find myself leaving school after practice, maybe even after the community house league games ended at 10 p.m., and I’d realize that I had breathed only recycled oxygen since early that morning. I’d barely seen the sun all day.

Micheline has reminded me, too, not that she’d say anything directly. We might have been sitting in her small government office across the hall from mine, planning what papers we had to shuffle by the next day. The phone would ring. “Okay, Nat. Je viens,” she’d say. Then, to me, “Time for some fresh air,” and down the stairs she’d go, joining Natalie somewhere along the way to the safe-inhaling site. Inevitably, there’d be a few other clients on the benches under the trees, and the Smokers’ Spa and Social Club would reconvene. Back in my own office, I’d realize again that the puffers organized their workdays so much better than I did mine. I had never envied those who smoked until I thought about my working life. I haven’t had a mid-life conversion to nicotine worship, but I have learned a few things.

While I have locked myself in my classroom or cubicle, my bad-habited colleagues – as a matter of simple routine – do an amazing thing. They go outside. They don’t just think outside the box, they physically leave it, giving themselves not just a mental but a tangible break from the job. They also breathe deeply, before and after each pull on a smoke. Sure, they’re taking in some toxins – it’s not exactly yoga – but they are also relaxing and even invigorating themselves. Passing by offices and factories (not to mention private homes), I used to feel sorry for the huddled exiles, little bands of loyal smokers evicted from their buildings, especially on the days when they were pelted by freezing rain or wind. “That’s dedication,” I’d think, but my sarcasm would change to a grudging sort of admiration when I remembered their colleagues, likely still chained to their work stations.

For those of us in white-collar confinement, there’s also the matter of exercise. How many of us sit endlessly, with numb butts and rounded shoulders, in front of a humming video screen? For Micheline, each tobacco break means four flights of stairs (two up, two down) and a brisk walk to get outside. As for me, even though I was the same two minutes from the lawns and gardens that surrounded our offices, I almost never got near the roses, let alone stopping to smell them.

The smokers also had a ready-made social venue that a reclusive writer could have used. Maybe you’ll say that misery loves company, but it’s more: they actually know what’s going on with their smoking associates, and the non-smokers who stop by. It’s a sustained conversation, probably not always profound, but that sort of bonding is nearly as important to workaday adults as it is to high school kids escaping the hallways, banding together to share some pavement, a few puffs and a sense of belonging. Meanwhile, I’d be upstairs looking for a new idea, or trying to convince myself I was, unaware that Natalie had gotten a raise, that Micheline planned a vacation, or that Randy was considering a new job. The smoking buddies, it occurred to me, weren’t just indulging a habit – they were building a professional support network. My goodness, they were fostering collegiality and team spirit, and there wasn’t a Happy Workplace Guru in sight! And all because they needed a cigarette.

The poet Rilke said, “Take a step outside of your house, which you know so well.

Possibly even better without the carcinogens. Still.

Possibly even better without the carcinogens. Still.

Enormous space is near…” This is what I’ve also learned from Wanda and Mich and all those dedicated smokers. Get out. Breathe. Walk a little. Talk to the people. So I try and join them sometimes. I’m the guy holding a pencil between his fingers, gesturing and breathing extravagantly and not missing my office chair a bit.

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