Do You Mind If It’s Menthol?

I started smoking when I was twelve. That would have put me in the seventh grade, the last year but one of primary school. And although drinking, which I took up the following year, quickly developed into a genuine social pursuit, it was tobacco that became my true addictive love. From my first puff forward, we parted company but once, for three months; and that was a fluke.

Both my parents were heavy smokers, my mother regularly getting through three packs of Chesterfield a day, my father two packs of Pall Mall. Each lived well into their seventies, as did my mother’s second husband, who continued to indulge his beloved habit long after he had been diagnosed with emphysema. Cigarettes may eventually kill me (as nearly everyone is predicting), but I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for even greater longevity.

It was my father’s brand I opted for. (As it happened, though in every other respect they were totally dissimilar, it was my stepfather’s, as well.) The elegant dark red pack, the Latin epigraph (In hoc signo vinces, In this sign shalt thou conquer); and the fact that––as the ads calmly pointed out, no sooner had filters become all the rage––you could light either end. Pall Mall was also the original king-size; but no reference to length was made in any media publicity, there never having been a diminutive version. One simply knew that Pall Malls offered more.

Pronunciation of the name was something else again. On radio, and later television, it was said correctly, i.e. in the English manner, as befitted its eponymous relationship with the famed London street that had earlier been an alley, where a 17th-century forerunner of stickball––involving a boxwood ball, a mallet and an iron ring––was played. But I never heard anyone, and especially not my father, refer to these wonderful fags as either ‘pal-mals’ or even ‘pel-mels.’ They were instead ‘paul-mauls’; nor will the similarity between this way of saying Pall and the first syllable of ‘pallbearer’ go unnoticed by any of my non-smoking friends, least of all those proselytizing converts to a supposedly healthier lifestyle.

I tried other brands, of course. Mother’s Chesterfields were okay in a pinch, but just. Camels, on the other hand, were out of the question. After one drag it felt like I had a hole in my tongue. Perhaps not as big as the very real hole that cocaine, many years later, would gnaw through my nasal septum. But unlike the wicked white lady, Camels bit where you didn’t want them to. I wouldn’t walk two feet for one. All the rest, with one exception, were tasteless and therefore nondescript. The sweet exception was Lucky Strike.

Ah, Luckies! Mike Hammer smoked them, which was a plus of sorts. And that distinctive target logo more than compensated for their relative shortness (we’re talkin’ ‘guys-our-age’ days, remember. For me, a 1940 model, that means kind of on the cusp of the ageless Johnny and his “All call for Philip Mor-rees!”). Now, I don’t know what it says for either author Mickey Spillane (I, The Jury; My Gun Is Quick; Kiss Me, Deadly) or his all-too-obvious and hopefully-fictional alter ego; but the saccharine flavor of Lucky Strike was hardly to be believed. In any blindfold test, I could pick out the Lucky every time, without it being lit! If that’s what toasting does, forget it.

Parliaments were of occasional interest, primarily on account of the recessed filter. For snob appeal and taste, one clearly preferred an Egyptian oval, certainly when it was offered. Yet despite the experience of Camels, Luckies and–on the positive side–ovals, a lone cigarette tells you nothing. You choose a brand according to which will give you the maximum pleasure smoke after smoke, day after day. For me that brand was Pall Mall, and it wasn’t long before my daily consumption was equal to my dad’s. And I honestly doubt I ever once nicked his. He sometimes gave me a pack, as freely as he would lay extra pocket money on me. But cigarettes were dirt cheap back then, and I had after-school and summer-holiday jobs from before I turned 10. The only cigarettes I stole were from the drugstore where I worked as a delivery boy, and then it was by the carton. By way of making up for the minimum wage we weren’t getting, or so my cohorts and I blithely reasoned.

From the start, my parents made it dead easy for me to smoke… anywhere, and practically anytime. When I told my mother I wanted to take up cigarette smoking, she made but one rule: “Smoke at home, not on the street.” Yes! My father didn’t mind one way or the other. Then again, he was like that with most everything.

Well, I stuck with Pall Malls for quite a long while, like a dozen years. It was only when I returned to Germany––after my separation from the Air Force (oh happy day!), but also from PXs––that I had to get down to some serious searching for another brand. Although I spent a fair amount of time on U.S. military installations, selling mutual funds and later on encyclopedias, there was no way I was going to hassle any soldier or airman to buy fags for me at the post exchange. That wasn’t my style at all. During my four years in uniform, I always wore civvies off-duty. And for the most part, I bought those clothes on the local economy. The last thing I wanted was to look like a GI. But my Pall Malls I clung to for as long as I could. At PX prices they were too cheap to resist…while I was still in, that is, doing my stint—and engaging in guerrilla warfare against the entire command structure. For me, that’s what made the Air Force fun!

So I tried this, that and the other German brand. Gauloises and Gitanes were of course freely available, but they left as bad a taste in my mouth as did the German equivalents, Rothändle and Reval. No black tobacco for me! Yet will I ever forget the horrible stubs from a single pack of Gitane that my mistress and I lit and relit in a Metz hotel room after my Mercedes ran out of gas and we had to wait three days for money to arrive from Munich? I’m afraid not. Yuck!

But the sole brand that came close to Pall Mall (yet not close enough) was Ernte 23. What to do, lah?

What I did was somehow get hold of a pack or two of Pall Malls, and then go round to every tobacconist in Landshut (the capital of Lower Bavaria, baby) and say: “Here, try one. This is the flavor, and the mildness, I want. What do you recommend?” And one guy actually came up with it! I won’t say I can still see his face; but I can picture the shop, and hear the certainty with which he said, “This is what you’re looking for.” With which he handed me a pack of Senoussi, interestingly enough made by the same company, Reemtsma, that produced Ernte 23. What’s more, they also came in oval tins of 50 (or was it 100?). I bought three packs to begin with; then, once I was satisfied, went back and got me a couple of tins and a silver-plated cigarette case. The latter purchase was also by way of saying thank you to the shopkeeper.

Smoking Senoussi, which remained my brand until I left Europe five years later, got me into the somewhat obsessive habit of stockpiling backup. A rather exclusive mark, you wouldn’t find it in machines and rarely at newsagents or the like. To this day I’ll not leave the house without a spare pack or two (of my current brand) somewhere in my kick.

And menthols? Yes, we’re nearly there. At one time or another, I’d sampled most of the going brands, but never as a steady diet. They were for when you had a cold, an addict’s trick I’d picked up from my mother. Of the American brands, I tended towards Salem. Kools, Newports, whatever, didn’t say much to me. Given that they were merely stopgaps, it hardly mattered.

God knows what I smoked my first year in the East. Since that mainly meant Hong Kong (I bopped over to Okinawa a couple of times in between), I imagine scoring Pall Mall presented little or no problem. As for early Bangkok days, the momentous nature of what eventually transpired has effectively blocked out all fag-related memories. And I am talking about cigarettes, not the countless Thai boys I ended up sleeping with during my two-year sojourn in the City of Angels. It went like this.

I never once tried cannabis until I was 29!

Rebellious kid though I was, all that 1950s marijuana-madness propaganda effectively scared me off. The closest I got to any kind of dope as a teenager was an aspirin cigarette. Strictly headachesville; avoid at all costs. I might have gotten into pot at college, except I didn’t go. Whereas in the Air Force, it was pretty much only Blacks who smoked, and they weren’t offering whitey anything so esoteric. In all likelihood, I wouldn’t have either, had I been in their brogans. The rest of the Sixties saw me well away from America, and hence every aspect of rock culture that I wasn’t to discover––and then really tune in to––until around the time Woodstock was a celluloid event, with great grass to hand and minus all the mud.

Enter the dragon, Hong Kong, 1969. An Austrian painter-cum-con man named Robert hands me a joint. I take a few deep drags and nothing happens. Same with the second joint. Yet everyone else in the room is stoned out of their gourds. This experience would repeat itself with every new drug I subsequently tried, for I have an extremely high tolerance. LSD worked its magic on the second go, when I was utterly consumed by…no, when I became white light, long before having read Politics of Ecstasy or anything else about acid. Opium required a good dozen pipes and two forays to a Colombo den before anything more exciting than vomiting resulted. [Tip: If you get off on O, but can’t stand the nausea, forget smoking (which in any case is slow), likewise swallowing it. Instead, stick it up your ass! Wham, goes straight to your bloodstream, with no annoying side effects.]

Cocaine…let’s not get into that; other than to say, I had to work damn hard to acquire a habit. Which turned into an 11-year love affair, ending in divorce without any desire for reconciliation. The decree is absolute. Basta. These days, even Remy Martin––once sipped at the rate of half a bottle a day, minimum––is reserved for special occasions. I’m more than content to be a gentleman wino. Ah, but do I ever adore my menthols!

Grass finally gripped me in Singapore. My Chinese drag-queen prostitute lover Kim turned me on to the truly good stuff, top-of-the-crops Sumatran from Banda Aceh, sold in the shadows of Bugis Street in slim katoos (tan paper cylinders, twirled shut at each end). She also introduced me to Abbey Road, Jimi Hendrix, The Stones, The Who, all that wonderful mind-bending jazz. And while living with her, I read Moby Dick for the first time. Let the good times roll!

Back up to Thailand and a worthy stint with the Bangkok Post, plus all else that I did there. Then one evening, before going out to the bars, and immediately after smoking a pure Thai-stick joint, and because I had a cold, I lit a menthol cigarette. And after finishing that fag…it seemed to me…that I was a lot more stoned…than I would have been otherwise. Could that be? Was there something about menthol, that when combined with weed, kicked in like an afterburner to accelerate the high? Next day I tried it again. And the day after. And the day after that. My cold was gone, but I kept on trying. Started smoking menthols at other times, as well. Very soon, I realized I liked them. And, they gave me a mild sort of buzz. Yeah, right, I was hooked on menthol! The brand was Sai Phon, Falling Rain. I continued to smoke them right up to the moment I was forced to flee Thailand, under the ludicrous but all too real threat of imminent arrest for high treason. What the hell, I wanted to go to Bali anyway.

Indonesia was a mindblower. I discovered durians, psychedelic mushrooms, batik, double-ikat weaving, gamelan music and kretek cigarettes. Indeed, it was on account of kreteks that I stopped smoking tobacco altogether for three months. I didn’t quit, mind you, in the sense of saying to myself, “Oy, let’s see if we can’t kick this terrible habit” or anything like that. Rather I awoke one morning to the startling realization that I’d lost all desire for tobacco. I had no explanation for the phenomenon at the time, but it dawned on me afterwards that the previous three months of inhaling 10 or more of those thick, luscious, slow-burning, constantly crackling clove-scented cigarettes a day had at once over-satisfied my nicotine craving and placed a burden on my lungs that naturally demanded a suitable yet unforced respite. The body declared, whispering significantly to the mind, whereupon an agreement was reached.

I did, however, continue to smoke pure grass. (Hash would come much later: back in Europe, down to North Africa, off to desert regions of the Near East and beyond.) And I finally learned to roll joints, as opposed to stuffing my weed into emptied-out cigarette casings. Even though initial attempts had me convinced I’d never get the hang of it.

Annele: “You can do it, Eddie. You can do anything. You’re perfect.” Of course I am!

It was while living in Bali––Den Pasar and then Kuta Beach––that I saw freaks smearing Tiger Balm on their joints. When I asked why, some said it made for cooler smoking, others…that it added to the buzz! Ah, so!

Over the next few years, which frequently included weeks on end of intensive traveling, I smoked menthols whenever I could find them. And when not, then damn near everything else. Beedies and Passing Show in India, Taj (Crown) during two extended stays in Tehran, whatever in Afghanistan, something or other in Taiwan, something else again in Korea. Oh, but upon my first return visit to the USA in 12 years, did I not instantly dive for Salems? I did. Really big down South, Salems are. While knocking about through the deeper parts of Dixie, I once found myself in a room with eight other people in the backwoods of Alabama, and every one of us was smoking our own Salems. Not so big in California, though. No cigarettes are, and even then weren’t .

San Francisco, 1976. I stroll into a hippie café and immediately notice the absence of ashtrays.

“Is this a no-smoking café?” I ask.

“This is a please-don’t-smoke café,” comes the squeaky reply from a supercilious girl-creature wearing the kind of maddening smile that would make a saint want to kill. Kind-hearted soul that I am, I give it another go.

“If I sit down and order something to drink, and then light a cigarette, will you let me smoke it?”

Her hideous smile refused to break ranks with the dominant mood.

“We wish you wouldn’t do that,” she said.

Thinking, ‘Nothing like a straight answer,’ I beat a quiet retreat.

Tucson, Arizona, several weeks later, wearily on the heels of a three-day drive down with my old friend David (Bali, Dharamsala, Kathmandu; assorted clouds of smoke continually enveloping us), who will let me neither light up nor open a window in his ‘state of the art’ air-conditioned van.

(“Pull over, David,” I cry out, somewhere outside of L.A. “Pull over now and park this bloody thing. Leave it to rot, or get stolen; we’ll walk to Tucson…and I’ll quit smoking, forever!” Fat chance? On his part, for sure. I really meant it.)

I’m at a party, in an enormous hacienda, with nothing but ventilation. “Please,” says the hostess, having espied me tapping a fag from my pack, “not in the house.” There must be 75 guests, each one looking more hip than the other, and no one is smoking. I’ve no need of a calculator to tell me what outnumbered is. Quick like a bunny, I make a beeline for the verandah. Moonlight, stars, cool night air. And a cigarette!

“Excuse me, could I possibly bum one of those?”

I remember nothing about him, or whether our subsequent conversation (we must have had one) ever ranged beyond the borders of tobacco. What I do vividly recall is throwing my arms around this welcome stranger, clearly another refugee from the restrictive party area, and exclaiming, “Thank God, a fellow pervert!”

It never occurred to me to advise him beforehand that it was menthol, nor did he in any way object. All that was in the offing, but not till Amsterdam. And then, for some strange reason, everywhere else I went.

After six months in the States, I fly back to the Old World and for a second time take up residence in London. Money is now very tight. I write; plus do the shopping, the laundry and most of the cooking; and keep house. My girlfriend does office work, pays the rent and all, and gives me a weekly allowance. No sooner is the bread in my hand than I’m off to the corner newsagent for my week’s supply of Consulates. I line the packs up––like a squad of mentholated soldiers squatting at parade rest––along one end of my gigantic oak desk, so I can easily keep a peripheral eye on the pace at which their numbers dwindle. I’m fine with this brand, until we trade London for Amsterdam and I encounter the menthol of a lifetime: Gladstone.

Yet it was this Dutch brand, in particular, that inspired a most astonishing range of adverse reactions in many other smokers, running the gamut from mild condescension to disgust or even hostility. The American writer William Levy may have been the first to respond with a firm “Thanks but no thanks” after hitting me up for a fag, only to learn that something more was being proffered. Not for him the refreshing coolness of this peppermint derivative that is simultaneously a differential anesthetic and a stimulant acting on the body’s receptor cells. Moreover, Bill likes to cough, freely admitting that “besides bicycle riding, coughing is the only exercise I get.” An ardent smoker who has written passionately in defense of his “hobby,” his tastes in this regard are more eclectic than mine; but he draws the line at menthols…much as Tennessee Williams (as I was surprised to find out, when we visited Singapore together) drew the line at drag queens.

“If you like them that swish, ba-by,” he insisted when we’d returned to Bangkok, “then you like girls.”

“I do, Tom,” I replied. “I surely do.”

In one otherwise erudite tract (“Viva Tobacco,” High Times, September 1984), Bill makes the error, common among the uninitiated, of assuming it is the filters that are mentholated; whereas it’s the tobacco itself that has been thoughtfully treated (laced, is the way I like to think of it) with this soothing crystalline alcohol to which I’ve become blissfully addicted.

Few go to Bill’s length in distancing themselves from menthol smokers. While he publicly refers to us as “plebeians,” the vast majority simply say no. Except for an amazingly large number of Amsterdam street junkies, who, having tried to cadge a cigarette, angrily run off when you ask, “Do you mind if it’s menthol?” Hey, no problem. I save more cigarettes that way! Though I am admittedly delighted when someone approaches me saying, “I see you’re smoking menthols. May I?” Just as, usually in restaurants, I’ve been known to follow the scent of a kretek to the table of total strangers and boldly ask for one. The aroma is unmistakable.

Kreteks. As surely as they led me to stop smoking, they also got me off and running again. When the time came to leave Bali, when that magical isle whispered to my inner ear, “Go! Other adventures await you,” I didn’t want to face the crowded bus journeys from Kuta to Singaradja without the companionship of a few joints. But how to camouflage the ganja, with its equally distinctive bouquet? Roll it together with some Gudang Garam, my favorite kretek brand, that’s how. But this double-whammy had irresistible consequences: arriving in the north of the island, and before catching the ferry to Banjuwangi, I bought one Kretek (you can do that in the East) to smoke on its own, followed––shortly afterward––by another. And then I bought a pack.

Nowadays I think, ‘If only menthol could disguise the fact that I’m smoking tobacco!’ Especially on British busses and trains, in a country where people either smoke too much or mind terribly if you do at all. When I was again living in England (for six years from 1998), I took to smoking mentholated shag, as the price of ready-mades there was truly exorbitant. But that shag I had to self-import from Holland (where practically everyone rolls their own, including at black or even white-tie events), as it is unobtainable other than in London and a few other cities, and then only with difficulty and at great cost. Good thing for me that they’d abolished duty-free within the European Union, meaning there was no limit on the quantity of tobacco one could carry between member states, providing it’s for personal use. Nor may Customs even question you on this, as long as the total amount does not exceed 800 cigarettes and one kilo of shag and 400 cigarillos and 200 cigars. Yep, my luggage got kinda’ heavy on those trips back from the Continent. But I’d rather schlepp than pay through the nose. Or worse yet, do without mentholated shag; plus, for after breakfast and dinner (and with one of those rare Remys), a superlative Gladstone.

Took a few packs of Winner Menthol with me on a visit to Florida in 1999. (And flew both ways via New York, so I could smoke while crossing the Atlantic, compliments of Kuwait Air.) “Don’t go doing that in public,” warned my friend Gerry, at whose modestly lavish house I stayed, when he saw me rolling up. Point swiftly taken. Once my Rizzlas ran out, I didn’t give a thought to replacing them. Anyway, Florida is a bargain basement when it comes to buying cigarettes. Certainly when compared to Britain, and (from what I hear) Australia…a country I nearly made it to way back when, but now will never see. If a three-hour flight from New York to West Palm Beach, or a four-hour coach ride from Exeter to Heathrow, had me on the nerve-wracking verge of a nicotine fit, I can’t even imagine the traumas I’d face trying to make it on Vicks VapoRub alone from Amsterdam to Sydney!

In his famous “Jewish & goyish” rap, Lenny Bruce tells us that whereas Camels are very goyish, Salems are Jewish. As is the Air Force (unlike the other three branches of the military, all of which are goyish). Being a New York dago who grew up thinking he was a Jew (Lenny again: “All New Yorkers are Jewish, all Italians are Jewish…”), in a neighborhood that had three rabbis—Orthodox, Conservative & Reform—on the same block (two of whom lived in our apartment building), I feel I was destined to smoke menthols. So I don’t care who minds. That is my smoke.

© 2010 by Eddie Woods

This piece was originally published online in Exquisite Corpse.