If you are a smoker, there are two things you cannot be without – the cigarette, and the light. Everything else is secondary. To lack one of these things is to understand human suffering and futility in the face of a suddenly absurd and indifferent universe. But the difference between the two is so wide, so critical, that entire character judgments can be formed before the words come out. Just as soon as you mutter “Hey man, you have an extra cigarette?” you are shunned, immediately relegated to the level of the itinerant homeless.
I am not the chronic cigarette-bummer. Instead, this is a story of lighters, those fickle and transient objects that slide so easily out of our pockets into the hands of others, as lost as the hazy memories they’re a part of when the din of conversation winds away with the smoke. Rather than casting you as the detestable villain, asking for a light encourages the opposite: people are willing to share, because what’s it to them? It’s the least they can do. And at least you didn’t ask to bum one. I think most people are just relieved. They go from complete strangers to willing assistants – even lighting the cigarette for you as you stand there, leaning awkwardly into their hands.
The False Start
Music festival, pouring rain, under an awning; I ask a girl for a lighter and she says, “I don’t think that cigarette is going to light any time soon.” Looking down at my hand, I notice the thing was sopping wet and stained brown from the tobacco after I’d sat down in a puddle. How did I not notice this? Cue embarrassed retreat. Make sure you actually have a whole functioning cigarette before making the move; this is half the battle.
Sometimes people will stun you with their generosity. At the train station, waiting for the 4:10 to New York, I ask a guy for a lighter. “Sure,” he says. “You know what? Why don’t you keep it!” Seriously? Wow man, you really just made my day. But is this a trap? Is there something I should know about this lighter? I see you still have cigarettes to smoke. Was it some kind of murder weapon? I am still uneasy.
The New Friend
Then there are those who aren’t willing to let you go without a chat. You get the light, but you have to commit to some small talk and the general bonhomie of two people smoking together. It was in Koblenz, Germany, outside my hotel. An old man in a worn suit smoking Lucky Strikes launches into a dialogue about women, or something, I’m not really sure. I know it started when a cute girl passed us. I think the gist was, “Women you can’t live with em’ can’t live without em’,” but my German is kind of rough. We laughed, though, and nodded knowingly at each other and shook hands.
The Technical Difficulties
Outside Penn Station, midnight, I approach two girls speaking what sounds like an Eastern European language and begin to gesture the universal sign for “lighter.” Looking put off, one complies, and I spend five minutes trying to spark the worst lighter in history. This happens more than it should, somebody hands you what appears to be a lighter in perfect working condition, but it takes every angle of hand-blocking-the-wind contortion and thumb finesse to nurse a tiny flame to life. Are these prop lighters? A gag, like those trick candles, something you keep on hand for presumptuous strangers so you can laugh about it later? I get it half-lit, flash a conciliatory smile, and practically run away. In the future I will not approach foreign girls in the dark outside Penn Station for any purposes, no matter how bad I need a light.
The Old Reliable
Some lighters develop character, and become treasured companions in times of need. Take Golden Boy, the small yellow Bic that my friend would always swear by. It had a tendency to be there when you needed it, to never let you down, hanging around longer than other lighters. Maybe it was that bright, insistent yellow that never let you lose track of it in the dark. Golden Boy was the kind of lighter that I would ask to use, absent-mindedly slip into my pocket, and forget about until next weekend. Then, out again with my friend, we would be absolutely, desperately in need of a light. I would reach into my pocket, and sure enough it would be there. I could tell without even looking. Golden Boy was the light you bummed from yourself.
The “I Don’t Smoke”
Every so often you’ll be stuck somewhere, drunk, scanning eye level for wisps of smoke between people to scout the best person to approach, and you’ll find yourself out of options. You have to go for the Hail Mary of nicotine desperation. You have to ask a random person for a light, and encounter that singularly derisive attitude that often informs the actions of the non-smoker. A gentle, still condescending “Sorry, I don’t smoke.” The pity and the scorn. I realize I am being annoying, really, so I don’t feel any resentment toward you. Maybe one day you will understand what it is I’m searching for.