Thursday, January 31, 2008

Coffin Nails

I quit smoking ten years ago, but before that I smoked for thirty years, starting at age 13. Like junkies and alcoholics, I'm a lifer. I quit because I was afraid of dying, but that's about the only thing that could have made me quit, and I continue to have a deep and convoluted relationship with nicotine and the forms and guises under which it travels.

I first heard Picayunes mentioned in Frank O'Hara's 1964 poem "The Day Lady Died." It's July 1959 and he's preparing to go to Easthampton for the weekend, back when the Hamptons contained more poets and painters than rich people. He's buying supplies and hostess gifts here and there in midtown Manhattan--recording everything in his seemingly casual diaristic way that's really as meticulously arranged as a collage by Braque, down to the all-caps names that are after a fashion glued in--and then he sees the NEW YORK POST with her face on it. The pleasantly hectic course of the day, ticking away like a taxi meter for 25 lines, is abruptly flicked off and he's thrown into memory. Billie Holiday has died.

He buys the Post from the tobacconist at the Ziegfeld Theater along with a carton of Gauloises and a carton of Picayunes. For years I had no idea what Picayunes were. By the time I was a teenage poet reading that poem again and again, wishing I could write like that and for that matter live like that, the New York of the poem seemed like a vision of glamour from the deep past, even though it was little more than a decade gone. I did smoke Gauloises when I could afford them, but there was no more tobacconist at the Ziegfeld and nobody I knew had ever heard of Picayunes.

Then, years later, I met George Montgomery, who had been O'Hara's roommate at Harvard. I learned many things from him--he was a fount of every kind of lore and custom and means of appreciation. One of them was that the perfect way to end a meal was with a cup of black coffee, a piece or two of crystallized ginger, and a Picayune. He bought his at Village Cigars, at the head of Christopher Street. They were made in New Orleans, where they shared a name with the local newspaper, and they were the only American cigarette still at that time made, like Gauloises and Gitanes, from black caporal tobacco.

I didn't visit New Orleans until many years after that, and even though I had by then quit smoking, I went off in search of Picayunes, but they were no longer manufactured. Their absence was conspicuous, because they went along with the city and its Afro-Franco-Hispano-Italo- Caribbean style, with the chicory coffee and the lagniappes and all the rest of it. It made sense that the most culturally distinct city in the lower 48 would boast a distinct local cigarette. Picayunes in their day were another symbol of the elegant separateness that would eventually provide the federal government with its excuse for sacrificing New Orleans. Anyway, nowadays local pride is reserved for team sports.

Thanks to Joshua Clover for reminding me.