I smoke. this should surprise no one. As a writer, it’s almost a mandate. The difference, here: I chose to smoke. It was a conscious choice—not the product of peer pressure or the vice of a rebellious youth. No, I decided that as a writer I needed to smoke. Somehow it completed the picture I had in my head of what a writer looked like. Every picture of me would be barely legible, buried under a hazy cloud, a cigarette in hand or, better yet, clenched between my teeth. Every writer needs an affectation. And there’s no better accessory than a pack of cigarettes and a Zippo lighter.
Smoking also helps create an air of importance (or a stank of importance). Especially in this modern, anti-smoking utopia where having to smoke means having to be removed from the group in order to get a nicotine fix. It allows people to walk away for brief periods of time without so much as a few words of explanation.
“I’m going to smoke.”
That’s all. Immediately, it buys 15 minutes.
I can’t tell you how many meetings I was able to salvage after drawing a blank, simply by uttering those words and stepping away long enough to get my head straight. It also helped me get out of awkward social situations. Unhappy with the current conversation? Pull out a cigarette and head for the door.
When they first banned smoking everywhere, I was angry—until I realized the benefit of having a habitual exit strategy. It’s a bad habit with a lot of benefits.
Smoking also offers an immediate icebreaker among other smokers. Some of the best networking I ever participated in happened while sitting outside a bar, restaurant or soundstage, sharing a cigarette with other nicotine addicts. Over the years, I had conversations with agents, executives, and A-list actors while stepping out to have a cigarette, most of the time even having to loan them out. I’m amazed at the number of people I met over the years who had more money than God but never seemed to have a cigarette handy. I was more than happy to oblige. I owe at least 25 percent of my career to this habit which seems fitting since that’s how much of my life it shortened.
My introduction to the world of film and television came on the set of a popular teen drama. I had started doing extra work to try and get a better understanding of how a film set functioned. A couple of days turned into a couple of months. They kept bringing me back again and again because I never complained, I was always available, and I left the talent alone.
That last part is the most important. Actors don’t want to be bothered, especially when they’re working. I had no interest in celebrity. My pursuits were strictly creative. My low-maintenance style and general disinterest in the cast made me quite popular with the assistant directors, who were always putting me in close proximity to the cast because they knew I wouldn’t stare, try to make eye contact or, god forbid, try and talk to them. I always was placed just behind the stars. For an entire season, I could be seen just past the left shoulder of the cast, in spite of looking far too old to be in high school—which I can probably credit to smoking.
Film and television shoots give ample opportunity to sneak away for a smoke. There’s always a small eternity between set-ups where one can wander off and get a fix. One day, during an extended break, I was approached by Craig, the pleasant assistant director.
“Can I get a cigarette?” he asked.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” I replied.
“I don’t. It’s for Tyler.”
Standing behind Craig was Tyler, one of the actors from the show. Apparently, he lacked the nerve or the interest to just walk up and ask me. Instead, he decided to use set protocol to find a crew member to handle his request. I handed Craig a Marlboro, Tyler gave me a nod and then walked off to smoke in quiet isolation. This ritual continued for nearly a month. At some point during the 14-hour day, Craig would approach me, ask for a cigarette, and walk it over to Tyler some five feet away. One day, I received my daily request for a cigarette not from Craig but from Tyler, himself. Maybe Craig was sick. It was the first interaction I had with a member of the cast. For the first time, Tyler didn’t skulk away but instead stood there smoking in my general vicinity. He didn’t say a lot—most of the time he had this vacant look in his eyes as if his mind was a thousand miles away.
Over the next few months small conversations evolved. General chatter. Nothing too specific. The kind of 5- and 10-minute talks had with someone while passing time, never investing too much into unnecessary detail. This ritual continued off and on for nearly two months. I even started bringing an extra pack to set to make sure I had one when he would inevitably ask. I had become the cool smoking guy. For a brief moment, I felt as though I had achieved some level of success. It would be short lived.
The show had been on hiatus over the holidays. I spent my time drinking, smoking and writing. One day I was lounging around downtown on a particularly overcast day. I stepped outside the coffeehouse for a cigarette. I lit one up, and within moments I saw someone waving at me from across the street. It was Tyler.
I was shocked—practically stunned as he walked across the street to join me.
“Can I get one of those?”
Like clockwork, I produced a cigarette and lit it for him. He took a nice, long drag and exhaled.
“Thanks, man. I really needed that.”
The entire moment was a little surreal. I’d never seen Tyler off set. It was like being 10 and seeing my teacher at the mall. Their existence is based on a specific location and seeing them anywhere else felt unnatural. I wasn’t sure what the next step was, so I attempted some small talk.
“So what brings you out here?” I asked.
“Me?” he replied, as if the question had been posed to someone else. “I do a TV show here in town.”
There was a brief moment where I thought perhaps I had heard him wrong or maybe my question had not been specific enough. If there was any doubt, it was quickly squelched by his reply.
“So what do you do?” he asked.
He had no idea who I was. Three months of idle conversation and sharing cigarettes didn’t exactly resonate with Tyler. I was just a guy on the street he could borrow a cigarette from. I thought about his question and gave him an answer.
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