Opinion

I Still Feel Like Myself: Tiny Book of Smokes

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I Still Feel Like Myself: Tiny Book of Smokes

Bobcat, Tiger, Wolf, Bear. I enjoyed Cub Scouts with its papier maché projects, model making, and fields trips to museums, highlighted by my winning the Pinewood Derby. I liked these tasks that would garner me rewards in the form of merit badges. My early successes led in a natural upward progression to joining Boy Scouts when I was in sixth grade.

Two weeks in I went along on my first overnight campout. Three character-affirming experiences occurred during this short trip, two imposed on me and the third following my own impulse to experiment. The first was being forced to do calisthenics in the mud as a demoralizing initiation ritual. I’ve never liked getting dirty and lacked a natural athleticism. I chafed at the authoritarian and badgering character of this form of leadership training.

The second event involved a sort of guard duty, the requirement that I take a night shift maintaining the fire in the wood stove that heated the cabin. I fell asleep. In the morning I was berated for this lapse by the leader, some older scouts, and my peers. Once back home, those two incidents caused me to question what I was getting from Boy Scouts. Why would I put myself through that? Taking control of my life at age eleven, I quit.

In the third experience of that overnight trip, I smoked a campfire. I joined in this performance, as fellow campers inhaled camp smoke, audibly exhaling as if they were smoking cigarettes. I took in a mouthful and found it to be the most distasteful thing I’d ever done. Granted, it could be argued that campfire smoke is nothing like a cigarette, but I gave the matter no further consideration. I swore to never smoke. I still consider this the only thing of lasting value that I took from those few dozen hours as a Boy Scout.

Long before the anti-smoking trend took hold, the fact that friends were smoking caused me no distress or discomfort. In fact, I became a collaborator with a project documenting their smoking. Free of any scientific inquiry, I’d have them burn a cigarette hole in a page of my ever-present pocket notebook. Next to each hole, I’d write their name, the date, time and cigarette brand. There would be four or five to a page, and after the first few pages I started a dedicated notebook specifically for this project. I made three books in total. The first one starts in May of 1971 and the final one ends in April, 1972. Carefully printed on the cover of all three was “This Whole Book,” followed by Part 1, 2, and 3. However, with only three pages used in the concluding book, it seems I lost interest in the last months before high school graduation.

These are snapshots without film, journal entries without a traditional narrative. Some holes allow glimpses through to the edge of other holes on the following page. All the pages have an organization to them which yield their own aesthetic, accidental as it may be.

Looking through the notebooks, I know who I was with at a specific time. With several people having burned holes within minutes of each other, it’s clear there was a group of us hanging out somewhere. I obviously didn’t feel a need to add information about locations to the documentation, and I harbor no regrets about that omission. These little books are about who I was spending time without that point in my life. There are a few people who show up and never return, but most of them are from the same circles of friends. I’m still in touch with many of them, or at least I know where they are. Of the ones I’ve seen in recent years, very few still smoke. Several have died, none from lung cancer.

While I was engaged in this project it was met with responses from mild amusement to unabashed gusto. Some friends would seek me out when they lit up so they could be documented. The filled notebooks always felt valuable to me. While I could lose or discard something I’d written down, the thoughts would still be somewhere in my head. These pages of interactions with friends and acquaintances could never be reconstructed. For nearly four dozen years I’ve kept these notebooks close at hand, packed in a box, treating them with the same care as old family photographs.

Artist David Greenberger lives in Greenwich, NY. His latest CD is My Thoughts Approximately. www.davidgreenberger.com @davidbg

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