I keep falling in love with smokers

When I first moved to Hobart, I worked for a few weeks at a bar in Salamanca. The bar was advertised as a craft beer bar, though it often tapped kegs of domestic lager anyone worth their malt would know as commercial attempts to cash in on the trend. It was also one of the least busy bars on the busiest strip in the city. I would often be stood behind the empty bar, watching people walking from the Irish pub on our left to the nautically themed joint on our right, unsurprised when they walked on by as if our pub was located at 12, Grimmauld Place.
The bar was staffed entirely by girls in their late teens and early 20s who always looked as though they would rather be anywhere else, and managed by a married couple.
She was in her early 30s, blonde, bubbly, and in the time I worked there, pregnant. He was closer to 40, disinterested in knowing who I was or what I was doing in his bar, with a vicious coke habit and a presence which caused his wife to shrink into the shadows, becoming a shadow herself. His son seemed to be the only human presence which brought out a relatable human warmth; everything else was anger.
Anger that festered at the core of constant failure, anger that invaded a soul too weak to recognise itself as the sole constant in a string of regrettable decisions. Anger that manifested as distrust and arrogance. An anger that developed a fractious coke habit and with it a hatred for every pleasure he had once loved. And the last time I saw him, an anger that caused his voice to shake as he accused me of stealing, insulted me and called me arrogant.
It was 10am on a Friday morning and we were outside his bar in the middle of Hobart and people were beginning to stare.
His jaw was clenched and he ground his teeth as he wiped his nose and damn near popped a vessel in his eye as he threatened to knock me out. I stood my ground and stared. I wasn’t strung out like he was, and I was owed money. I had a little recklessness left in me; I would take a punch from this coked-out termite of a human just to see how far he would fall when I hit the ground. Not that I had any malevolence; just a little sense of karma and curiosity as to how far anger will go to protect pride. He was squaring up, a head taller than me and beginning to splutter, flecks of spit flying as he swore incredulously. I realised this wasn’t going to end well for either of us, but he was still seething as I turned and walked back to where my bike was locked up, and he followed me off the patio.
“Yeah, go on. Take your little fucking bike and get the fuck off my property!” he barked, choking on the sheer emotion of insulting someone for riding a bike around a city.

An older couple gasped and stumbled as they walked by.
I felt pity and confusion as to how someone became so broken and angry, but it probably looked to him like fear, as I glanced at him one last time and left without a word.
I let my frustration out on my old Malvern Star, and my thighs began to burn as I forced the single speed road bike up the steep hill of Montpelier Retreat.
Up past the fast food chicken store I had seen so many people drunkenly loving each other (and fried food) in those first few weekends I worked the bar scene in Hobart, and on by the cocktail bar I stopped in at on my way to my first shift at the job I had just left, and where the bartender, now a good friend, had warned me about my new boss. I should have just heeded his warning, cut a little deeper into my savings, and looked elsewhere for work.

Once I reached the crest of the hill anger began to take me over, and my elbows shook as I gripped the bars of my bike, freewheeling back down Sandy Bay Road and into Queen Street.

I have had one panic attack in my life before and this felt similar. My breath began to grow short and my palms were sweaty. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say my knees were weak, and my arms were heavy. I got home, dropped my bike in the yard and collapsed in a chair in the sun on the back deck. I tried to breathe deeply while the hammers of a nearby construction site became a rhythm to which I could align myself. My eyes closed and my mind drifted, and as I so often do, I found myself thinking about nothing but visualising a scene from my memory.
In my mind I was back in Canada in mid 2017, watching my housemate roll a spliff to share before breakfast. Maybe this was my happy place, somewhere similar to that of Fight Club’s Narrator, but with fewer anthropomorphised penguins and a more positive view of humanity.
Mikey’s hands are steady and his chat entertaining as he crushes a nugget of weed into the grinder; he’s giggling about a girl from work who won’t stop texting him. Although I don’t smoke much, I’ve often admired the methodical nature of rolling joints and cigarettes, and I’ve watched him and countless others do it through all states of inebriation. On hikes, at parties or, like now, simply as a ritual before a meal. There’s a sociability and a generosity to it; an act of kindness for those around who will share in it, and though it is not expected, likely return the favour for it.
The dangers of smoking were always rammed down my throat throughout my childhood; at home and at school. But Harold the Giraffe never taught us that smokers could be such decent people.The earliest memory I have of questioning whether smokers were terrible people was when I was 17, working for a mining company in Western Australia. The head geologist for the nickel exploration project I was working on was a young guy named Rupert, and he rolled his own cigarettes. I had never seen anyone roll their own cigarettes, and didn’t really know anyone who smoked more than socially.
He told me the repetitive motion of rolling and smoking the cigarette allowed him time to think; to mull over issues with the drilling site or simply as a brief reprieve from the harsh Western Australian desert sun.He didn’t give a shit about anyone’s opinion of his smoking; he smoked because he enjoyed it. He wasn’t a teenager trying to impress anyone, and he reasoned that it’s an innately human trait to do things that will harm and probably kill us. He wasn’t hurting anyone else.Despite his influence, as one of the supervisors of my first full time job, I still despised the smell of cigarettes and swore to never smoke myself. And therefore could certainly never be attracted to anyone who smoked.
Well, the following year I started university and that resolution didn’t last long. An 18-year-old kid living on campus has to make a few sacrifices for his education, you know. I even bought a pack of smokes for a girl in one of my first year classes because she hadn’t turned 18 yet. I’d like to say I’m better at sticking to my virtues now than I used to be, but I’d probably be lying.
Still, I was outspoken in my criticism of the smokers around me – it wasn’t just the smell, it was so bloody expensive!
How could the people around me afford to smoke?
We were students; we always had plenty of week left at the end of our money. Though I was making sure to afford at least a case of beer per Centrelink cycle, and the irony of that was definitely lost on me. I told them they shouldn’t smoke, I criticised the music they listened to, I wondered out loud how they could live on the Sunshine Coast and not want to surf every morning.
I made all these grand declarations of who I was and how I would live my life and I promptly forgot them all within the next year. But I’m sure I thought I was on the right track at the time. Maybe that’s the only thing I’ve really learnt in the intervening decade since I watched Rupert roll his cigarettes on the tray of the LandCruiser: I’m not as idealistic as I’d like to be. But I also feel I’ve learnt tolerance for what’s worth fighting for. And, maybe more importantly, what isn’t.

At the same time as I was trying to figure out how I could rationalise working for the kind of person whose anger could be fuelled by the presence of a bicycle, and who more than likely beat his wife, I spent a couple of nights with a girl I’m going to call Molly.
The first conversation I had with Molly was punctuated with apologies for rolling cigarettes, and for accidentally blowing smoke in my face.
I didn’t mind at all because Molly, with her fringe and leather jacket, was cute as hell and seemed to enjoy my shit jokes.
The week after we met she took off interstate for a music festival, and then a camping trip on Tasmania’s East Coast when she returned. I wanted her in my life.
It took another week or so, but we found a night that suited both of us (mostly her, I would have made any night work) and decided on a bar to meet at. Neither of us knew Hobart particularly well so we ended up at a shitty bar near my place, and then went off to a worse one for a game of pool she didn’t expect to lose as badly as she did. We shared a guilty pleasure of early 2000s punk, drank dark beer and whisky and kissed in the rain at the end of the night because we thought it would be cute. She tasted of smoke and lipgloss, and I never saw her again.
In the bad 90s movie version of my life, I could have conversations with 15-year-old me and he would tell me that the girl who smokes and won’t return my texts for days at a time is bad news.
And each time, 28-year-old me would laugh off his advice, and let him know that his idealistic nature is admirable, but if I attribute my pain to other people’s decisions, I will find myself in more pain more often, having learnt nothing along the way.
Some of the happiest people I know are vessels of consistently poor choices, and some of the smartest haven’t known peace in years. I have made choices based purely in pleasure which lead only to sorrow, and I have stumbled upon happiness in the darkest of times. I have fallen in love with smokers and I have grown to detest people whose values I could hold up as a mirror against my own.
Four years ago I left Australia to travel and wrote on this blog and on Facebook that if I returned and began writing for newspapers again that somebody should take my credit card and put me on another flight overseas.
November 5, 2018 was the start date for a job at a newspaper with the same company I swore then that I would not return to. And that’s not a cry for sympathy; it’s just a statement of fact and perhaps an illumination of my point.
You can’t know who you will be in the future. Or where, or why.
For three years I prioritised my happiness in-the-moment over career progression or white-picket-fence type aspiration, and I learnt that many of the things I once thought intolerable are actually simulacra of pleasure. And now I have no trouble saying I am fragile and flawed and prone to poor choices, because these are traits I can recognise in some of the greatest people I have met, and who I aspire to be.
Hopefully, not so flawed as to find myself in my 40s, divesting my anger at the world on to an employee out the front of my bar on a Friday morning.
Though if I do open my own bar it will be called ‘Pour Decisions’, and I still won’t smoke much, unless, you know, I can watch you roll one for me.


One thought on “I keep falling in love with smokers

  1. mathewchanner says:

    Hey Sandy. This is great read! You are a very talented writer. I’m looking forward to getting into some writing talk the next time we meet.

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