ten best

by David Straughan

ten best



I have felt like cigarettes made me look cool since my friend Joe Camel introduced me to the concept of cool at age six. The restaurant or bar is an important arena to see and be seen — smoking cigarettes. The French know it. Humphrey Bogart knew it. And whether or not people want to admit it smoking cigarettes looks cool. They would not have been able to advertise how cool it is if it wasn’t true, now would they?


North Carolina has a long, proud diner tradition, and cigarettes are part of the aesthetic. If you take cigarettes out of diners, you might as well tell the waitresses to stop calling us “sweetheart” and to give us clean silverware. I can’t imagine how my undercooked home fries will taste without the peppering of ash, tar and nicotine. I don’t want to eat in a diner with walls un-yellowed by years of tobacco smoke any more than I want to go to a baseball game where they don’t sell hot dogs.


Since the advent of the smoking section, people willing to sit in a cancerous cloud for their meal are treated to a significantly shorter wait for a table. Now, people will no longer be able to take advantage of the “smoker’s wait.” I’m sure that if you were to add up all the time you didn’t spend waiting for a table and compare it to the years taken off of your life by smoking that you would probably still be better off not smoking, but at least you didn’t spend so much damn time waiting around for a table.


Is there a more fabled combination in gastronomical and cardiovascular history than the coffee and cigarette? Jim Jarmusch made a movie about it. The caffeine-nicotine double whammy has served as a common thread among completely disparate groups throughout modern history. It is the best way to start a day and to finish a meal. There is no time of the day that the cigarette and coffee combination is not completely appropriate — whether you are a trucker stopping in the middle of the night for a rest, a downtown banker trying to shake the morning cobwebs or an old retiree with nothing better to do than read the newspaper all morning and chat up the wait staff, the cigarette and coffee is just right. Always.


I often refer to cigarettes as the North Carolina Egg Timer: Any time I need to wait for anything, smoking a cigarette gives me both a measurement of time and something to do during it. At restaurants, there is a lot of waiting (no pun intended) going on. Some like to employ the “going-to-the-bathroom-needlessly” trick, imagining that when they come back to the table their food will have magically been placed in front of them. I prefer smoking. Waiting for your food? Light one up. Waiting for the check? Take a puff. Waiting for a table? Not if you’re a smoker.


Taking cigarettes out of restaurants means taking ashtrays out of restaurants. Taking ashtrays out of restaurants means taking away our little table-top trashcans. Without the ashtray, diners will be forced to wallow in our balled-up straw papers and spent napkins. Even gum chewers will suffer.


For those of us who are less than immediately socially confident, asking for or providing a smoke or a light has long served as the easiest way to start a conversation with a stranger. It could be a long time before we come up with a new simple and non-creepy icebreaker. In a time where women are taught to be cautious and afraid of their men, there are few things left to say that won’t land you a vodka-cranberry in your ear. Countless opportunities for love and friendship will be squandered as less confident and more on-edge people have no easy way to introduce themselves to each other.


I predict that in the months following the implementation of the smoking ban, the state will see a drastic rise in waiter-customer mutual abuse. We smokers are known for our unlimited patience, and there is a fairly high probability that your waiter or waitress lights up. The relationship between staff and customer is already a tedious one at restaurants, but taking away cigarettes means taking away everyone’s stress reduction mechanism. No cigarettes means a higher probability of being a jerk to the server and ending up with something not on the menu in your food.


When going out with other people, there is the inevitable uncomfortable silence bound to ensue at some point in the evening. Lighting up provides a quite useful distraction from an obviously awkward situation, whether at a post-church family gathering with people you can barely pretend to like or a date gone awry. Smoking a cigarette says, “I’m cool with this,” and just might inspire others to ease up as well.


Ultimately, when you and whoever you are with finish your meal you will be greeted by the surly glance of a pushy server. Sit there for too long and you will be hovered over and cleaned up in front of. That is, unless you order another drink and light one up. Cigarettes have the amazing ability to extend any social interaction and provide a backdrop for an easy and relaxed conversation.