By Jess Clay
The Indy sits in on a smoker’s rights meeting.
A couple of weeks ago I found myself in Stephen Helfer’s apartment at a meeting of the Cambridge Citizens for Smokers’ Rights. Helfer is the Citizens’ leader, and you’ve probably seen him if you’ve walked through Harvard Square enough times. He’s got an off-white mustache and a face like a well-hewn walnut, and he sets up shop in the Square a few days a week. Sometimes he’s seated behind a table collecting signatures for a petition, and sometimes he stands and holds up a sign like some smoldering Jeremiah, smoking a tobacco pipe and generally neglecting to give a damn about what other people think. But he gives an enormous damn about smokers’ rights, and so did the fellow citizens assembled around the table in his apartment.
I am a native son of Texas, and I have long held a fascination with single-issue groups. We have a cornucopia of nuts back home—largely of the Tea Party genus, and particularly of the gun species. Growing up, my family had seventeen guns for six people. This may seem like an inordinate number of firearms for any single household or city-state to possess, but I suspect there are parts of Texas where such a low guns-to-people ratio might allow a family to register as conscientious objectors to the draft. As such, I was not fearful of these people who wielded much weaker means of expelling smoke and flame. But I was hopeful they might prove just as wacko, and in this I was sorely disappointed. The general atmosphere of the meeting was more that of a book club than a gun show. Granted, the literary selections were primarily of the pro-smoking variety, which is a pretty niche genre. But overall the ambience was the same. Helfer had spread his table with pumpkin bread and baked apples and a French press filled with coffee so dark it verged on syrupy. Next to the French press was a blue ceramic water pitcher. It was shaped like a fish and gurgled drolly when poured, to the general delight of all present. A few ashtrays also littered the table, and over the course of the meeting they saw a healthy- or maybe unhealthy – amount of use.
We conceive easily of the anti-smoking movement. Most ubiquitous are those little images of cigarettes with a red circle around them and a big slash over them—a familiar trope on airplanes, college campuses, museum grounds, and American society as a whole. There are the ad campaigns, featuring someone speaking through a hole in their throat, or a middle-aged widow who used to be married. There are the surgeon general’s warnings on packets of cigarettes and in magazine pages, and insurance penalties, and articles on the ten things that improve once you quit smoking. But it is harder to conceive of those who ardently support smoking. We think of Joe Camel peddling heaters to children, and of Big Tobacco, and maybe we think of Aaron Eckhart’s character in Thank You for Smoking. But it was a more motley and amiable crew huddled around the ashtrays inside the apartment. Besides Helfer, there were two other men who were old or pushing it, two women nebulously between twenty-five and forty, and a grad school student from Montana who smoked, among other things, an e-pipe. They shared a common passion, a love which transcended age or gender or social class, and that was the desire to smoke various tobacco products in more places than they could at present. This, I learned, was the purpose of the e-pipe: it allowed its user to smoke in his smoke-free apartment building. However, most of the group opted for more old-fashioned methods. The women both smoked cigarettes, and the men were divided between cigarettes and pipes. Helfer magnanimously alternated between his big wooden pipe and his hand-rolled cigarettes. He used white rolling papers and shag tobacco and no filters, and his fingers glided nimbly as a shuttle on a loom.
One of the major purposes of this meeting, it seemed, was simply to offer an opportunity to smoke indoors with pleasant company. The other purpose was to discuss how to combat the anti-smoking movement. I expected these discussions to take a somewhat rightward bend, in which paranoia and Constitutionalist anger would converge to let me hear declarations like “Obama can take my cigarettes from my cold, dead lips,” with maybe a dismissive loogie-hocking thrown in for good measure. However, the Citizens took special care to avoid associating themselves with the ideologically charged tropes and buzzwords; they were painfully aware that the word “liberty,” in particular, had been co-opted by groups of the far right, and as such they avoided using such terms any more than necessary. As Helfer noted, this was a civic organization rather than a partisan one – the tent was plenty big, if not all that full. I admired this ecumenical approach, but I suspect it grew more out of necessity than ideology. It was true that the group’s open hatred of the nanny state and authoritarianism were bedrock conservative principles, and it was equally true that tobacco taxes and smoke-free public housing disproportionately affected the poor – the sort of regressive taxes and undue burdens that no good liberal could abide. But I think the lack of partisanship derived primarily from the fact that “pro-smoking” is not, at present, a viable platform for any party.
Not that this difficulty could stop the Citizens from trying. The ideas flew thick and fast through the soft gray haze, and the emergent strategies were often remarkable. The group’s website currently features a “Centenarian Smoker” every week – some longtime smoker who defied the surgeon general’s prophecies and lived to be over one hundred. This celebration of longevity was oddly paired with a general acceptance of mortality. No one at the meeting doubted that smoking was physically harmful – though they did believe the reports, like those of Mark Twain’s death, were greatly exaggerated. But as the grad student noted, not wearing a helmet while long boarding also offered a health risk; he would prefer to take that risk and not look like an idiot every time he long boarded, and he would prefer to smoke. This analogy was well-received by the group, and it initiated a reflection on mortality which was refreshing if somewhat macabre. In a way, their introspection supported the claim that tobacco might improve the mind and spirit, if not the lungs and throat – for in every cigarette, they held poor Yorick’s skull.
Most of the discussion, however, was more hopeful and hilarious. One of the young women suggested a social media campaign in the style of “Humans of New York” which might be entitled “Smokers of Cambridge,” or something like that. One of the old men wanted to make posters with celebrated smokers alongside salient slogans – a picture of Bob Marley smoking with the caption “Our civil liberties are going up in smoke.” Helfer mentioned an activist in New York who had gone the civil disobedience route, lighting up a cigarette in city hall on Bloomberg’s last day in office. Such an action had immediately lent her folk-hero status among the movement. It was by such diverse means – both the overtly political and the socially perceptive- that the group sought to achieve its ends. By the end of the meeting, it was hard to tell which ideas, if any, were truly good or practical. But the enjoyment of the day rested not so much in the future as in the present. In his emails, Helfer sometimes quotes the late Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Fresh air and innocence are good if you don’t take too much of them—but I always remember that most of the achievements and pleasures of life are in bad air.” And bad as the air was in that room, there was no denying its pleasure.
The achievements remain largely unrealized thus far, but the challenge of the task before them did little to quell the ardor of Helfer and the Citizens. On the wall of the apartment hung a framed print. It featured two figures, silhouetted in black ink. One figure was short and squat, and the other was long and lean, and each was astride his mount, and it was easy enough to tell that it was an image of Don Quixote. It was oddly fitting, looking down upon this exceptionally quixotic meeting. As the citizen-smokers gathered, their burning tobacco held in hand like so many flame-tipped lances, it was hard to shake the feeling that they were tilting at windmills, dreaming impossible dreams and fighting unbeatable foes. Yet the glory never really lay in slaying the windmills, but in the charge.
Jess Clay ’17 (firstname.lastname@example.org) often pursues fresh air and innocence—in moderation.