🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017
…continued from Three Days in Paris (Partie un)
You may know that the French were reputed to be smoking fiends until the last ten years or so. Just watch a French movie. They ALL smoke! Historically they had their “national brands”, the blonde Disque Bleu and Gauloises cigarettes, strongly aromatic and somewhat similar to the much milder American plain end “Camels”. I had smoked Gauloises when I first visited Paris. They seemed cool then. But I was fifteen.
Then there were the “Gitanes”, of many types, in my experience, made with black Belgian tobacco wrapped in slightly sweet tasting, yellow corn papers. I had tried a Gitanes just once after college at Lawrence and Pace Tobacconists. Those fat Gitanes monsters were a little squishy between the fingers, smelled like a bad cigar, and were known for driving away mosquitoes and other pests.
At least the smoke wafting over from the nearby tables was not that!
A Bleu Memory
It was 1978 and I was living in an extremely modest rented room near Harvard Square. In that dark room, the narrow mattress sagged nearly to the floor, which was littered with feathers and other debris of the pigeons that managed to come through the rafters at night. Why they came in? I don’t know, on that top floor it was ungodly summertime Cambridge heat and humidity, and there was no air conditioning. If I were a pigeon, I’d stay outside.
And we did. We stayed out as late as possible, those of us at the so-called “Lincoln’s Inn”. Waiting for the city to cool down. I’d watch a Fred Astaire double feature at the Brattle Theater, and then scrawl the exciting details of my new life in my journal at a table in a corner of the Casablanca coffee house. It was my first exposure to iced coffee, served there with a bit of Crème de Menthe and a dollop of whipped cream, it cut through the heat, and I could nurse one for an hour or two before they’d kick me out.
In the morning, I’d pull open the window screen and chase out the pigeons. And this was okay. I was fresh out of college with my degree in English, and was in no hurry yet to work as a teacher—which I felt was my destiny—or to go to graduate school, which might be required, and which I could not afford. I had managed to get all the way across the country from California, and I was pleased to have work in Cambridge. Working as a tobacconist seemed as good as any other job, and better than most.
Before the whole civilized world had quite sensibly turned against the cancer-inducing addiction, there was a certain romantic and literary allure to tobacco and tobacco products. Especially at “Lawrence and Pace”, which was known to have been the preferred local source for a number of current and historical celebrities who attended or visited Harvard. There was the Perkins shop in Boston, and Ehrlich’s too, on Tremont Street, but those were the domain of business men, old men. They didn’t have the hip Harvard Yard cachet of “L and P”, a living museum of Harvard sports and its own tobacco history collected in framed and yellowed news clippings, articles from Time to the New Yorker, and a tremendous collection of other ephemera. Plus, we benefited from the living book of colorful local characters who came and went, revealing their own stories or narrating the tales of others.
On an August afternoon, our Assistant Manager, Thomas, persuaded one of the local Cambridge “boys in blue” to sample a blue-boxed French Gitanes cigarette.
Bill stepped off the street into our air-conditioned store to escape the swampy New England summer heat. He was about 6’5”, a large slightly paunchy man in his late thirties with a pencil-thin black mustache. He walked the Harvard Square beat in shiny black shoes, with a holstered billy club, the usual blue uniform and a blue hat, tilted back. It seemed too small for his slightly bald, large, round head. He was mostly known for writing parking tickets and harassing the many buskers and pan-handling street people who hovered around the Red Line T- stop like yellow wasps circling a glass of Burgundy. He occasionally purchased Newport menthol filters, and not many of those, and this day, made the mistake of telling Thomas he would like to try a different brand, something “more interesting”.
Thomas turned on the charm, the whites of his bulging brown Peter Lorre eyes flashing. He described the romance of “the continental” cigarettes, peppering his spiel with French, German, and Spanish—all languages with which he had proven on previous occasions to be at least passingly familiar. Thomas loved to wax dramatic, and his show went on for 15 or 20 minutes. He pulled various brands in exotic boxes from the shelves, German “HB”, Swiss “Davidoff”s, even the weird papirosa Russians. He took one of those, crimped the long hollow “filter” at the end in the proper manner—pinching it at right angles—occasionally taking a puff from it, but mostly using it as a pointer. Six or eight different boxes lay on the counter top.
Thomas lifted his thick dark eyebrows dramatically as he painted a picture of the Paris scene of the 1920s—which of course included brilliant ex-patriots smoking Gitanes cigarettes as they piled up the color-coded café saucers on the tables where they wrote their stories or poems. (Of course L&P had facsimiles of these props as well, used for ash trays.)
In the end, Bill selected a blue pack of Gitanes, pronouncing the name, “Gee-tanes”, tapping his finger on the box. I watched in horror as he opened his wallet. Thomas took Bill’s money at the register, closing the deal with the explanation, “The French pronounce it softly, ‘Gee-tawn’,” then added his usual overly affected, “If you don’t like the cigarettes, bring them back and I’ll refund your investment. Bon appètit!”
(And yes, he did say, “investment”.)
Bill walked out the door.
There were no other customers for the moment and it seemed very quiet. I shook my head. Thomas leered his crocodile smile, glancing at me, sighing and leaning forward as if exhausted from his efforts, resting his arms on the glass top of the display case of hand carved meerschaum pipes.
He was smug. Laughing slightly, he said, “I think he’ll like those, but his buddies at the station house may not want him nearby!!”
Only moments later, Bill pushed his large frame back through the shop’s heavy front door, one huge hand wrapped around the door handle, clinging to it as if he needed the support to keep from collapsing. Like many of the furnishings at Lawrence and Pace, the door handle was unique, silver metal cast as an oversized briar pipe. At first, Bill just stood there. Even from across the store, in the walk-in humidor where I was stocking cigars, I could see the pained look on his dark green face.
Bill blurted, “I’m going to be sick…” and Thomas quickly escorted him back to our washroom, left him there, and came out to get him a glass of water, explaining, “The Gitanes were too much for him.”
Thomas’s eyes twinkled a bit. This had been his little joke, but things had gotten out of hand, and he quickly adopted a compassionate pout; he had not intended to hurt our friend and customer.
When Bill emerged, he was sheepish about the incident. Thomas refunded Bill’s investment and spent the next few minutes apologizing for overselling the smelly dark cigarettes.
For his part, Bill politely refused Thomas’s offer of more advice and a complimentary box of some other brand, explaining that he was now quite seriously quitting the dirty habit altogether. He was, he said, done with cigarettes, forever. “Nothing personal guys,” he proclaimed, regaining something of his normal commanding composure, “Newport, Gee-tanes, Gee-tawn, whatever. I’m done.”
— And I have to say, that although Bill still dropped in to the shop to visit once or twice a week, to my knowledge, he never smoked another cigarette, or consumed any other type or form of tobacco. In the end, for all the romantic expectation and comic drama, some good did come from that particular pack of Gitanes.
To be continued…