Column: Cigarettes ease the awkwardness for an outsider in Camel City

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Daniel
Daniel Wirtheim

by Daniel Wirtheim

While the hot dogs sweltered on a small charcoal grill, the sounds of disco drums and acoustic guitar emerged from the walls as muffled noise. Facebook showed that 42 people were meant to be there, but there were only six of us at Reanimator Records, a vinyl shop near the Innovation Quarter.

I bought a record, drank a beer and tried to act like I belonged. Coming to these events is awkward when you’re the new guy. There’s a close-knit circle of friends so the conversation inevitably revolves around me not being from Winston-Salem.

“It’s not a bad place to be,” said Sturgill, a skateboarder covered in tattoos, sipping a PBR in front of the store. He had tried living in Asheville for a time and did his share of traveling, but he keeps coming back to Winston. He just got out of a three-month stint in jail, where he lost 17 pounds. The food was awful in jail, he said. But the food in Winston is not so bad.

Last month was the first time I put my feet down in Winston-Salem. I had never had a reason to go until now. A few months ago, I graduated from UNCG and landed an internship at Triad City Beat, which requires I make regular trips to the Camel City.

To my college friends and me, Winston was always the “other city” — a city built on cigarettes, a city that was just out of our way. One of my few encounters with the city was an indirect approach through cigarette branding.

The first cigarette I smoked was a Winston. That was thanks to a neighborhood friend whose stepdad would spend long hours working in a small shed behind his house, which he called his “shop.”

There were plenty of trinkets and even an alarm system, but there was nothing a person might note as markedly entrepreneurial about the man’s workspace.

There were broken-down lawnmowers, garden tools that might have belonged to Buffalo Bill and, above a mini-fridge full of Busch Light, a carton of Winston cigarettes.

“You ever smoke before?” said my redheaded friend, who looked like Opie might have if he had fetal alcohol syndrome. My mother had stopped smoking years ago, always reminding us kids what a nasty habit cigarettes were. But my friend helped me to understand that smoking was something that great actors and charismatic businessmen do. His stepfather was far from any of those things, but I blamed that on his drinking problem.

It was a less than ceremonious hunt. Opie’s stepdad would be passed out in the early evening, so we simply walked in the shop, grabbed a pack and walked down to a clearing in the woods where I lit my first cigarette. It was much worse than I had imagined.

I was comforted by knowing then that I had tried and loathed the taste of tobacco; that I was saved from growing up with yellow teeth and fingernails and whatever other ailments lifelong smokers endure. But somewhere between high school and college my obsessive compulsions worsened.

I would spend 20 seconds at a doorway, touching the handle two times with each hand and then once with both. If I made the slightest mistake, or something didn’t feel right, I would have to start over. I was searching for a sense of balance that was always beyond my grasp.

When I tried smoking again, in a more casual setting, I understood what others found so appealing about cigarettes; they gave my hands a better reason to exist than for satisfying my physical compulsions.

Instead of spending my class time rearranging pencils on my desk and touching the flour “one, two, three, four” times, I would politely dismiss myself from the classroom and stand with the other smokers — the manic depressives, the multiple-personalities, people with varying degrees of social ticks. Cigarettes became a rallying point for our social interaction, an even ground to meet on.

As I bummed a light from Sturgill, I could see the columns from an old tobacco factory on Fourth Street like a relic from the city’s golden era. I imagined that this was a time when smokers ruled, when a person could walk through the supermarket with a cigarette dangling from their lips and four out of five school children preferred Camels to Winstons.

I got the feeling that I was standing on hallowed ground, here in the Camel City. The place where they processed the state’s richest cash crop so that I could hold it in my hands, transcend it through my body and send it to the heavens in a cloud of carcinogenic smoke.

This gave my body the sense of balance I had always thought unattainable. This is the place I can thank for my smoking habit.

“I’m not the new guy,” I’ll tell them. “I’m a pilgrim paying my respects to the Camel City.”