Coffin Nails

by Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

Our personalities are a collection of attitudes and affectations. We keep our true selves so deeply and continually hidden that we forget what we are genuinely like– and believe that we are what we pretend to be. The source of personality pretense I used was smoking cigarettes.

Through a skillful and cunning use of smoking a cigarette, I could become many poses, many sorts of people. When, over a year ago, I stopped smoking cigarettes, I experienced personality changes I still cannot totally manage. I am happy I no longer smoke. I am healthier. But I have forsaken some charming personality traits that were provided by smoking cigarettes.

At least ten intervals a day you are shown affection and concern because you smoke. I would be conversing with a group of people when suddenly I would hike my breath, goggly my eyes, then gasp, then begin coughing. I would hunch over, hug my chest, stamp my feet, mouth the air like a fish being raped, and begin turning all colors. There is always someone brave enough to risk interrupting what seemed like my heart attack, to pat my back and croon, “There, there,” then step back in case I dropped dead on top of him.

It was always sucking in my breath as though trying to swallow a cooked fish bone. If anyone was with me when I walked across the street, they became sad at how exhaustedly I panted and hoped I did not die of asthma or emphysema. Children would see the stains on my teeth and fingers and think I was slowly decaying.

I imitated actors and actresses who were dramatic smokers.

Bette Davis smoked marvelously. She used cigarettes as a baton, as a club, a stiletto. Just before she shot her lover, she always lit a cigarette. It was a living extension of her lower lip. She even exhaled with melodrama. A burst of smoke was rage. Slow streams oozing from her nostrils were meditation. When she leaned back, and breathed smoke to the moon, she was consenting to an illicit love affair. I was always in awe of the actor who could kiss a woman who smelled like a burning shoe.

Humphrey Bogart was a splendid cigarette smoker. As a real-life person, he was about as tough as melting vanilla. But when he spoke his lines through cigarette smoke, he gained menace, he became threatening. Half of his acting career consisted of lighting, holding, smoking, crushing out and lighting another, and staring through his cigarette smoke. Many times he was not smoking when he kissed an actress, but there was always an issue of smoke blanketing them. I suspected that a crew of firefighters stood on the movie set, holding water hoses, in case flames suddenly burst through his ears.

In an early 1940s movie, Four Daughters, there is an unforgettable scene. John Garfield, playing and itinerant music composer, is sitting at a piano playing one of his unfinished concertos. He is smoking a cigarette while he speaks on how Fate has flipped a coin and his future came up tails and he was a loser. Smoke trailed up from his cigarette as he spoke in a whimsical, plaintiff, sentimentally cynical voice. Then he would remove the cigarette and stare at the tip, longingly, sadly, and then exhale as though life was leaving him. Then stop playing even though the concerto was unfinished, and put out the cigarette. He was the master of not finishing his cigarettes.

When I was younger and being tough, I would smoke the cigarette so close to the end of my lip it looked like it was growing a fuming ember. I would stare at some tough guy and inhale some smoke and hold it in my body and not breathe until I was on the verge of death. I could snap cigarettes across a wide street. I would snip the burning tip off with my fingertips and put the remainder of the butt behind my ear. Many times it would still be lit and my hair would begin to smoke.

Once, I saw a movie villain put a cigarette out by crushing it in his palm. At a party, there was a succulent brunette I wanted to impress. While she watched, I slowly crushed the cigarette out in my palm. It was only after I stopped screaming did the doctor at the emergency clinic tell me I was an idiot.

When you’re a hobo doing the rails and the roads, you roll your own smoke. You always carry a small tin can with you. When you’re in some city, between drifts, you walk the streets picking up discarded butts. You shred them into the tin can to use them later on when you are done for the day and are sitting in some hobo jungle camp, ready to retire.

You take out your makin’s and role a crude cigarette, pinching and twisting the ends. You wet the tip that stays on your lips, then light up and inhale deeply and think, “Yeah, yeah, life’s good.”

I stopped smoking after 40 years because I did not want to die of lung cancer or some type of heart disease. I never want to smoke again. But I did enjoy the way I looked–the poses I could make when I did smoke cigarettes.

©2013  the estate of Leonard Bishop

(first published January 10, 1988 the Manhattan Mercury)


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