18 August 2009

OTGDY: Smoking Sudamericano

Soon to be published in the Yale Free Press (print edition), the first instance of my smoking column, tentatively titled "Only the Good Die Young":

I had been in South America for only ten minutes, and already I was disappointed. Two hours from New Haven to JFK, eleven hours from JFK to Ministro Pistarini International, five hours of checking in, security, and idly munching on stale Hudson News muffins—I needed a cigarette, and God damn it, I was in Buenos Aires. I expected to walk off the plane into a thick cloud of smoke, men offering me a light at every other step, fedora clad and winking. Alas, EZE (Aeropuerto Internacional de Ezeiza "Ministro Pistarini") was as smoke free as any Manhattan Starbucks. The city proper, however, was more welcoming.

The city's streets are dotted with streetcarts, selling newspapers, magazines, post cards, but thankfully, especially, tobacco. You could buy them by the pack or fish your desired number out of pre-opened packs perched nervously by the register. Familiar faces greeted me: the Marlboros, Camels, Lucky Strikes, even Benson & Hedges, my old standby—but the Argentinian cigarettes (dare I say, like the Argentinian people?) were far more enticing. My tour guide, Herrrrrrnan (if you don't roll the r for two full seconds you aren't doing him justice) smoked Jockeys, and so Jockeys I attempted to buy. Attempted, because I foolishly pronounced “Jockey” as one would in English, leaving the twenty-something woman trying to serve me utterly confused. Throughout most of my trip, cigarette vendors eventually resorted to pointing at each successive brand and variety until my exasperated, over-enthusiastic nod confirmed my preference, with one exception: everyone and his grandmother knows what a Marlboro Red is. But I digress.

I was born and raised in New York, and since high school have lived in New Haven. Buying tobacco in Argentina was like frolicking through Elysian fields. American brands, and upscale foreign brands, cost around eight Argentinian pesos a pack—roughly two bucks, back in May when I was there. I could've bought packs for one American dollar or less; I also could've bought large bottles of vodka (legally! Ten-year-olds probably make liquor runs for their parents in BA) for less than $4—in both cases, I refrained.

The real beauty of my South American tobacco tourism wasn't monetary, however—even at those shoddy little streetcarts staffed by leathery old men in newsy caps, the brand variety dwarfed most American drugstores. Bright blue and red signs scream “OPEN 25 HS” throughout the city; these stores, so like our 7-11s in every other way, have an almost laughable (in that nervous, hysterical, childishly excited way) tobacco selection. It was at such an establishment that I first purchased my second favorite cigarettes of all time—Harmonys. Strong and flavorful—in a way no smokes I can buy at the 24 hour Walgreens by my New England apartment could ever hope to be—affordable, and apparently Chinese (I know, I thought the entire nation smoked nothing but 555s too); to this day I regret having bought only two packs, both now long gone. Weeks later I found myself smiling as I gave a DC bum the best cigarette he'd ever smoke: normal length, normal filter, with nothing but the English word “Harmony” wrapped around its dainty circumference.

Exotic varieties of Virginia Slims (the Unos come in a discrete black or white box reminiscent of perfume packaging), kretek galore, all manner of superfluously upscale sounding brands (the Hiltons stick out in my mind as both exceptionally hilarious and bad)—Buenos Aires was FAO Schwartz Tobacco, at Walmart prices. However bad the US economy is, the ridiculous exchange rate made it clear the Argentinian economy was even worse, and yet these humble South Americans stood in the shadow of tobacco heaven, while I routinely made do with $5 Liggetts (you've probably never heard of them, with good reason, but I assure you they're among the cheapest cigs available at your local drugstore).

Oh brothers, in Buenos Aires, that land of milk and honey, you can smoke in bars. From my travel diary:

“...I was loud and vulgar and threw cigarettes in the faces of the non-smokers, pressuring them to join. The Argentinians loved me and called me The Russian. We talked about trains and bars and Peru and San Francisco. The Argentinians disappeared and an eternity later I was in a bar being offered a single cigarette by a bronze Argentinian with thick white eyebrows and no tie....”

The bushy-browed Argentine was the bartender; the joint was dark and beautiful. I'd ordered a vodka tonic and a pack of Marlboros, and he'd offered me one of his cigarettes while a waitress assembled my dinner. I felt like Hemingway, Camus, and a free lancer working for Vanity Fair. It was amazing. You can't feel like that in New Haven, not even at the Owl Shop (which I nevertheless encourage you to patronize early and often).

As for Rio de Janeiro, I offer a single vignette: I was standing outside my hotel around midnight, smoking and laughing at the Portuguese warnings of impotence illustrated (!) on my pack, when a shirtless young man approached me, gesturing “Please, miss, can I bum a smoke?” Never one to break the Smoker's Code, even in a notoriously dangerous city, I gave him one, and lit it for him. He beamed, completely shocked that I'd actually granted him this small blessing, just as a security guard from the lobby emerged to angrily shoo him away. “Stay right here, by the doors,” he brusquely said to me, “don't talk to them.” He stood with me as I smoked all the way down to the filter, bitterly, in his bleached white staff jacket.

The United States welcomed me home by banning cloves and raising taxes while I was still unpacking the cartons I'd bought tax-free at Guarulhos International in São Paolo. My stash finally ran out a week ago, and even that aforementioned Walgreens, which sells at the state-minimum, hasn't been able to console me. I'm back to smoking Marlboro 100s, Reds, of course, on my fire escape right above “Soul de Cuba”, a restaurant on High Street. Argentina certainly won't cry for me, but oh, to be a girl from Ipanema!

16 August 2009

Oscar Wilde is actually rather annoying

I first encountered Mr Wilde when I was 12 (perhaps 14?...), through his essay The Decay of Lying, which I still enjoy. It wasn't until now, however, that I've begun to read The Importance of Being Earnest.
"CECILY: I am afraid I am not learned at all. All I know is about the relations between Capital and Idleness--and that is merely from observation. So I don't suppose it is true.
MISS PRISM: Cecily, that sounds like Socialism! And I suppose you know where Socialism leads to?
CECILY: Oh, yes! That leads to Rational Dress, Miss Prism. And I suppose that when a woman is dressed rationally, she is treated rationally. She certainly deserves to be."
Which brings me back to an earlier scene from the same play:
"JACK: Is that clever?
ALGERNON: It is perfectly phrased! And quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be."
Likewise here, and here:
"CECILY: ... I hope that you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.
ALGERNON (looks at her in amazement): Oh! Of course I have been rather reckless."

"ALGERNON: ... Indeed, it is not even decent...and that sort of thing is enormously on the increase. The amount of women who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one's clean linen in public [emphasis mine]."
He knew exactly what he was doing! Shameless.

15 August 2009

"Superheroes don't smoke."

From the 2007 documentary about costumed panhandlers outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Confessions of a Superhero:
"Superman" and "Ghost Rider" are walking down the Walk of Fame.

Superman: Ya gotta remember there's a lotta dos and don'ts, ah, as a superhero... but if you abide by 'em, you do okay.


Superman: Well, just remember, superheroes don't smoke. [pause] It's an image.

Ghost Rider: Except Ghost Rider.

Superman: No. Ghost Rider doesn't smoke.

Ghost Rider: He's made of fire.

Superman: But, still, he doesn't smoke cigarettes. [pause] You can't make exceptions for something that doesn't exist. You'll never see Ghost Rider smokin' a cigarette walkin' down the street. It's just not proper.

14 August 2009

Sakhalin tired of Russian neglect, looks for country who will appreciate its personality, cooking, mother-in-law

"Nikolayevsk was founded not too long ago, in 1850, by the celebrated Gennady Nevelskoy, and that may well be the single bright moment in the town's history. ... But today, nearly half of all the homes are abandoned and dilapidated, and their dark, frameless windows stare back like the empty eyepits of a skull. The inhabitants lead a lethargic, drunken life, existing hand to mouth, on whatever God provides. They subsist by supplying fish to Sakhalin, pilfering gold, exploiting the non-Russians, or selling deer antlers, from which the Chinese make stimulant pills."
- "Sakhalin Island", Anton Chekhov
Over a century later, Sakhalintsii are trying to get the heck out of Dodge--to Tokyo:
"A group of Sakhalin residents, after a visit to Tokyo, are not only studying Japanese but also collecting signatures for a petition asking that Moscow hand over their island to Japan so that they can live and raise their children in a rich, modern country that is not at war with anyone.

This remarkable action surfaced this week when radical Moscow commentator Valeriya Novodvorskaya reported in her Grani.ru column that one of the organizers, who she indicated had to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, had approached her to ask to whom he should forward their appeal.

Novodvorskaya said she advised him to “send the signatures to the Japanese emperor,” for whom they could serve as “compensation” for the harm that Japan has experienced at Russia’s hands given Moscow’s continuing unwillingness ever to return the four islands Soviet forces seized at the end of World War II."
It's that anarchist thought experiment come to life-- governments competing against each other for citizens.
"One indication that these are not entirely frivolous pursuits, she says, is that those considering leaving are to be found “in the holy of holies of the regime — in the military and defense sector,” where some senior officers, “not having received the apartments they were promised, sent a declaration to the U.S. saying they wanted to serve in the American army.”

Thus, “the collection of signatures on Sakhalin is not a rarity. Soon they will begin to be collected in Moscow.” And according to Novodvorskaya, just one thing remains: “to divide up the territory and people of Russia among the United States, Japan and the European Union” so that the Russian people will be able to live better."
I'm sure everyone at Reason and Cato is waiting with bated breath for the outcome.

Khrushchev's Other Temper Tantrum

h/t Sean's Russia Blog:

“Just now, I was told that I could not go to Disneyland,” [Khrushchev] announced. “I asked, ‘Why not? What is it? Do you have rocket-launching pads there?’ ”

The audience laughed.

“Just listen,” he said. “Just listen to what I was told: ‘We—which means the American authorities—cannot guarantee your security there.’ ”

He raised his hands in a vaudevillian shrug. That got another laugh.

“What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there? Have gangsters taken hold of the place? Your policemen are so tough they can lift a bull by the horns. Surely they can restore order if there are any gangsters around. I say, ‘I would very much like to see Disneyland.’ They say, ‘We cannot guarantee your security.’ Then what must I do, commit suicide?”

Khrushchev was starting to look more angry than amused. His fist punched the air above his red face.

“That’s the situation I find myself in,” he said. “For me, such a situation is inconceivable. I cannot find words to explain this to my people.”

The audience was baffled. Were they really watching the 65-year-old dictator of the world’s largest country throw a temper tantrum because he couldn’t go to Disneyland?

Sitting in the audience, Nina Khrushchev told David Niven that she really was disappointed that she couldn’t see Disneyland. Hearing that, Sinatra, who was sitting next to Mrs. Khrushchev, leaned over and whispered in Niven’s ear.

“Screw the cops!” Sinatra said. “Tell the old broad that you and I will take ‘em down there this afternoon.”

Sinatra as quasi libertarian/anarchist hero, whisking Khrushcheva off to Disneyland? I'm gonna commit this story to memory.

05 August 2009

Russian Futurists in a Nutshell

From Featuring Talking Guinea Pigs:

Man: 1st generation of futurists
Guinea pig: everyone else