Got a Light?

All kidding aside, why smoking may be good for Houston

The Velvet Melvin was practically empty when Todd Line bellied up to the bar on a Monday afternoon. His round face had grown long from a hard day at the mortgage company, and all this 28-year-old wanted was a little conversation, a couple of beers and a few smokes.

He liked the Velvet Melvin. He saw this pub on Richmond as his home away from home, a place where he could rest his stout frame before heading back to the apartment, watching a little TV, going to bed and starting all over again. He ordered a big-ass beer, dragged an ashtray his way and lit up a Marlboro Light.

In came a woman, who sat down next to him and signaled the bartender. "There were only three people there," says Line, "and she was talking to her buddy, and I could see her out of the corner of my eye making a choking sign to her buddy and going 'hack hack.' "

Todd and Lisa Line met on account of smoking.
Daniel Kramer
Todd and Lisa Line met on account of smoking.
Dennis Keim puffs away at Cecil's on West Gray.
Daniel Kramer
Dennis Keim puffs away at Cecil's on West Gray.

Line ignored her, not because he doesn't know the Heimlich -- he does -- but because he knew she was just making fun of his habit. "It's gotten ridiculous," he says. "People think you're stupid now, like, 'Oh, my God, you must be an idiot, you know what it does to you.' She had to sit next to me just so she could fake choke. I hate that shit."

This scenario replays itself every night. The actors and the setting might change, but the message is the same: Smokers are pariahs. People turn their noses up and away from them. It's become PC to diss a smoker in public.

Seventy-eight percent of Texans are nonsmokers. This number is growing, slowly and steadily. But what's skyrocketing is the number of local antismokers. Their mantra: "Your rights end where mine begin." Their style: vociferous. Their leader: City Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, the dermatologist who has appointed herself health czar on City Council and who recently spearheaded the push for a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants.

She was only mildly successful. After months of debate, a ban (effective September 9) was placed on smoking in indoor dining areas. This wasn't enough for the antismokers, so you can bet they'll keep pushing, both in council and in public, for a smoke-free environment, claiming the high ground, pooh-poohing anyone who disagrees.

They're all missing some important points. Smoking is good for Houston, and here's why:

Crazy, Sexy, Cool

Smoking is bad for you. It blackens your lungs. It rots your teeth. It stinks.

Most of us know this. We see the public service announcements. We hear the smoker's cough. Yet new puff-daddies pop up every day. Kids light up behind bleachers; adults light up in bars. Why? For the same reason people have always lit up: not because of peer pressure, not because of addiction, but because, well, smoking is cool.

Think James Dean, James Bond, any character from a Quentin Tarantino flick. Now take away their smokes, and see how cool they become.

Ask any waiter which customers are the most laid-back, and odds are he'll say the smokers. Go to any event and follow the laughter; it's probably coming from the smokers out back.

Smokers know how to live life, how to party.

"Nonsmokers look so uptight all the time," says Lisa Line, 32, a smoker for 16 years (and Todd's wife). Like many a troubled youth before her, Lisa started smoking to rebel. "It was my escape," she says. "Instead of having sex, I smoked."

Lisa knows smoking is bad for her, although you wouldn't guess it from the way she sucks down her butts. She rarely worries about the effect of a dozen daily cigarettes on her fair skin and pretty smile -- "They have teeth-whitening stuff," she says; "they have all these skin-care products" -- but she does plan to quit, eventually. "It'll just happen one day, and it's not going to be from the help of the government or these nonsmokers.

"They all do the little huff," she says, "like they can't breathe, waving their hands in front of their faces, looking like fucking idiots."

Her husband agrees: "It's freakin' discrimination. There's no doubt about it. Total bullshit." Todd's been a pack-a-day smoker for a dozen years, and he started for the same reason as just about everyone else: Smoking was rebellious then, as it is now. And rebellion is cool.

Why, Hello There...

Smoking gives you a foolproof way to strike up a conversation without looking sleazy. "Can I buy you a drink?" is too forward. "Come here often?" is downright lame. But "Hey, can I bum a light?" is an opening no one can refuse. And then you've got about a ten-second window to strike up a conversation with your future ex-lover. Try talking about antismokers, and how prissy you think they are. That should work.

Jacob Young, a 20-year-old freshman at the University of Houston, has gotten dates through smoking, most recently when he asked a young woman for her lighter at a party. "We just started talking," he says, "and we sat out there for a couple of hours, smoking cigarettes, and she gave me her number and I called her up a few days later."

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