Friday, 2 March 2007

Lights Out, Light Up: How I Discovered the Joys of Smoking

It was dark when I got home.

It had been dark when I’d left in the morning too.

That was just one of the joys of working in a factory during the winter months. You left in darkness and came home in darkness. “From darkness we come; to darkness we return” – to paraphrase a line used at funerals: which also involve a return to darkness, come to think of it.

In this case, however, it was different.

It was 1972 and this was my first apartment in the big city of Toronto. I’d been living there for about six months, the last five with my girlfriend. She wasn’t home today, however. We’d broken up a week earlier and while I was at work she was to have taken her things, called a friend, and moved back to Hamilton.

So I was expecting her to be gone. What annoyed me was that she hadn’t left any lights on for me – irrational to be sure, I admit; but it was a break-up so I figured I was entitled to a bit of irrationality.

Still, as another saying goes, “It’s better to light one little candle than to curse the darkness,” and in the modern world that meant turning on the light. With a martyr’s sigh I flicked the light switch and finished walking into the living room while something niggled at the back of my mind – the first of many niggles that evening.

After a moment I realized the problem: it was still dark.

I went back, flicked the switch a couple more times (as though somehow I may have done it wrong on my first attempt), but the darkness stubbornly refused to give way to light. Figuring the bulb had blown, I put down my stuff and made my way to a table lamp. With a martyr’s sigh (I was getting good at those) I flicked it on.

Well, I flicked it. The “on” part ─ not so much.

I stood wondering what the odds were that two bulbs could blow out on the same day. Pretty slim, I concluded. Meanwhile there was another niggle I couldn’t quite place. Instead I methodically made my way around the living room, then on to the kitchen and bedroom trying light switches as I went. I ended up back in the living room and sat down at the table next to the window.

Perfect. My girlfriend had left me, and now so had my lights. It was shaping up to be a perfect night. With a martyr’s sigh (see, I told you I was getting good at them) I put my elbows on the table and rested my head in my hands. For a while I did nothing but stare at the stuff littering the table-top: a sugar bowl, salt and pepper shakers, a package of cigarettes someone had left a few days earlier, and an envelope. It was too dark to read the front of the envelope, but I knew what it was since I’d opened it when I first got it two weeks back. It was a bill from the electric company.

I sat up straight as the little niggle crystallized.

No lights. Unpaid electric bill.

It was beginning to add up.

Well, it was a fixable problem, but there wasn’t much I could do about it until tomorrow. In the meantime I couldn’t read, watch TV, or even listen to music.

“From darkness we come,” and all that.

With nothing better to do, I opened the package of cigarettes. I’d never been tempted to smoke before – I’d heard far too much about the nausea experienced by the first-time smoker – but I was depressed and at lose ends. With a “what the hell” shrug I took one out and lit it.

After about three drags I sat back and thought, “Why didn’t anyone ever tell me about this!”

It was ambrosia. It was rapture. It was – wonderful.

Although nothing had changed, suddenly it didn’t seem so dark anymore. Hope, expectation, optimism returned, and they brought with them an inner light of their own. I would pay the electric bill. I would enjoy my new life as a bachelor. I would face the future with a spring to my step and anticipation in my heart.

The cigarette wasn’t just making me feel better, it was actually making me think better, too. In a flash I realized that I could always read by the light of the refrigerator. It would add a bit to the bill, but at least I could feed my addiction to the written word.

With a cigarette in my mouth, a saucer by my side, and a book in my hand I opened the fridge door and sat in front of it, happy for the first time since I’d come home.

Except for one little niggle.

It was somewhere during my third cigarette that I had a sudden thought: if the power was off, why was the refrigerator light on? For that matter, since when did the electric company cut off your power for being two weeks overdue?

With that, the little niggle became a conviction that I was ignoring the most obvious reason for my predicament. I got up and took the elevator to the basement. After a few minutes I found the two switches controlling my apartment. One was for the stove and fridge. The other was for the rest of the rooms. This second one had tripped to the off position.

I switched it back on and returned to an apartment blazing with light.

I never did find out what had tripped the breaker, and it never happened again the entire time I lived there, but I did learn something very important about myself that night: I really, really liked smoking.

I still smoke, although I average only two packs a week.

But “getting a light” still has a special meaning to me.