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various essays on, well, art and culture
lessons learned from this profession
ok, I'm not the guy from SNL,
mostly true stories from my
more "it's all about me"
Iím at -7.13/-7.33 on The
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take a trip with me
Smokin'College Town has a number of espresso shops downtown, some that have outdoor seating. Any pleasant afternoon he'll be there, between classes, before his teaching assignments, a double espresso close at hand. He'll have a stack of three or four dense texts that an undergrad wouldn't touch this early in the semester. He'll have a notepad that he's actually using, sometimes a laptop. He'll have papers to grade, homework to comment upon. All packed onto a little cafe table, balancing there, barely room to write or move without spilling his coffee. But he'll make room for an ashtray, and a pack of cigarettes.
Almost all smokers take up smoking in their adolescence.
Almost, but not all. There are a few that turn to nicotine in later years to help through a crisis. The death of a family member. Maybe a divorce. Or grad school, the crisis that lasts for years.
That's the story with him. You can tell this from watching him. Crisis, of the graduate school variety. That's the way it is in some disciplines, where to merely do well isn't enough. If you want a job in your field you have to shine brightly, get published, present papers at professional meetings, establish your name and reputation early.
He's older than the bulk of the students, dark hair, dark eyes behind thick glasses. Thin, in a nervous sort of way. Wears real clothes, not the standard 'Coed Naked Something' t-shirt and jeans of the undergrads. But he looks more rumpled and harried than the professors. Always smoking, keeping the nervous energy high, the mind in a state of flow, even as his lungs corrode from the abuse.
He doesn't do it for the 'fresh mint' taste. He doesn't do it because it looks cool, or because of peer pressure. He doesn't do it to attract potential mates. He does it for the jolt that the nicotine gives him, for the enhanced ability to focus his attention and mental energy. It's a trade-off that he is making, consciously. Calculating the loss of athletic ability, the risk of premature death or some hideous disease, for a few extra hours of being awake and functional each week.
As he works, and he work almost constantly, the cigarettes are in use. Not burning unnoticed in the ashtray. Used. Smoked. Lit, and then the life sucked out of them, tips burning bright even in the afternoon sunshine. The nicotine rush is what he wants, so that he can juggle teaching and taking classes, preparing for comps and dodging the million-and-six little disasters that can derail a graduate career at almost any time. Sure, the caffeine of his double espresso helps, but it works best in conjunction with the cigarettes, expanding and augmenting the nicotine, pushing the synapses of his brain into hyperactivity. When one cigarette is done, used down to the filter, the butt is crushed out in the ashtray. He is not one of the people who toss half-smoked cigarettes onto the sidewalk. There is nothing so nonchalant about what he is doing. Another one is pulled from the pack, a flash of fire touches it, and the rite starts over again.
When a friend stops by his little table, or one of his undergrad students, there's a change, a pause in the routine. He leans back in his chair, his arms relax and drop back. The cigarette then becoming a prop, something absently puffed on now and then. The body language and demeanor change again when one of his professors comes around for an afternoon latte or cappuccino. Still relaxed, but not quite so casual. It isn't exactly a servile attitude, but more one of a fresh recruit to a seasoned veteran, looking for allies as he prepares for the battle of writing and defending his dissertation.
When the light starts to fade, or he needs to get to class, the ritual is put on hold. The ashtray and demitasse are returned to the shop. Books and laptop are gathered up, the chair neatly pushed back under the small table. Lastly, the cigarettes and lighter are carefully put away. The costs of grad school are measured in many ways. But he is establishing that name, that reputation, and he hopes that soon he'll be able to tear up the pact with the devil that has helped him through.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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