The air conditioning broke. So Casa’s doors stood wide open to the smoky night.
Montreal is known as the ashtray of North America. It’s a fuming city. People mill about outside of drinking establishments and music venues huddled around cigarettes. There’s a way people stand when they’re smoking, as if searching for something to do while performing a perfectly acceptable task: smoking.
Cigarettes, much like the people who smoke them, are on a spectrum of pleasantness. Sometimes, cigarettes smell like the backseat ashtray in a taxicab, or of a 1976 department store cafeteria. Other times, cigarettes possess a luxurious warmth, deeper and unplaceable across history, a mossy autumn evening’s air spiced with Portuguese chicken and passersby’s musk. A smell you want to take your time with, get lost in, a smell that wraps its tendrils around you.
It depends on who’s smoking the cigarettes, though. You’ll have better memories than others of some smoking people, of the people as well as their cigarette smell. Bad cigarettes can have a way of grabbing you by the nostrils as would some ephemeral Three Stooges routine. The punch of hot smoke pumping through an air conditioner. Pleasant cigarettes, au contraire, gently caress the olfactory sense, an inviting scent. Addictive, even.
Nicotine is a stimulant, as long as it’s administered regularly. You can stay up all night smoking a pack of cigarettes. Or you can get that second-hand thrill and stay up all night watching someone else smoke their pack of cigarettes. In the olden days, when cigarettes were still allowed indoors as entertainment, we’d return home after a night out stinking of cigarettes and high as kites, not able to think of sleep until the new dawn’s first rays, whether we’d been smoking or not.
Live music is like audible smoke, wisping through the atmosphere, clearly discernible but ungraspable. Music, like smoke, is always moving, energetic when it appears (sounds) like it’s still. Layers of soundwaves accumulate like strata of smoke in a dusty old pool room. Recording is to music as film is to smoke, capturing but also subdividing the indivisible, preserving the beauty of fluid movement and losing something in its preservation.
Smoke is particularly cinematic as music is uniquely suited to audible reproduction in time. Music is a cigarette burning steadily in an ashtray, throwing off plumes and flares that always delight yet never entirely surprise, a comfortable unpredictability.
There is an undeniably sexy quality to smoke and smokers. They know something that others don’t. They can breathe fire. Smokers blow non-smokers away — literally — with the tough black leather air of hip rebellion, sneaking a puff behind the barn, or after a busy late shift. I love a smoking woman, like a Hitchcock glamour shot, glimpsed through gauze. It’s nothing if not romantic to watch a beautiful woman bring a cigarette tip to her lips.
We venerate smoking artists. There’s a rugged authenticity to copping wholeheartedly to addiction, to leaning in when logic and science say recoil. Leonard Cohen famously smoked, then gave it up, then rekindled his affection for cigarettes after age 80. George Orwell wrote a considered essay on his epic struggle between buying books and consuming cigarettes. The work was intended to defend reading as one of the cheapest and most rewarding forms of recreation. But today, George Orwell is just a number, and Leonard Cohen is a mailbox, transubstantiated in form as smoke — and capital — is: into the air, thick or thin.
A melancholy mood pervades the end of September, the gradual understanding that summer is as far away as it can be, with three full seasons between. As nights stretch out, cigarettes underscore the passage of time, and the inability to regain what is soon to be lost, spent, smoked. When the weather turns brisk, women tend to bend at the knees slightly and hurry through their cigarettes to rush back inside, to get elsewhere.
Because cigarettes aren’t the destination, they’re the journey, transient — what life’s about.
We can see the stub coming up ahead but can do nothing to slow its inevitable approach. There is no medium that faithfully recaptures sound and music and smoke.
Cigarette smoke is like the past haunting the present. There’s a reason that ghosts in the movies are always shrouded in clouds of billowing smoke.
I don’t believe in ghosts. But we are entering into the most haunted season, since smoke reveals the contours of what once was but can be no more. I do believe that smoke revives the dead, breathing life, if only briefly, into burning carbon and particulate matter. Our loved ones might return in spirit, marrying breath and body, reconstituting only to dissipate once more as clouds form and in an instant vanish above a fjord. It may be possible to conjure a memory sculpted in smoke.
Saint-Laurent Boulevard on any summer’s night late in the season is a choking vapour factory populated by scantily clad and curvaceous bodies that obstruct the sidewalk and divert the flow of pedestrian traffic out and into the street. The sidewalk smokers’ lives unfold as more lives glide by in cars with windows rolled down, trailing smoke behind them like a Cheech and Chong movie. Since marijuana was legalized, there is now the distinctive ubiquitous and pungent skunk aroma of weed that pervades the city’s moist and cool air, mixing with dead leaves and the burnt and earthy dust smell of baseboard heaters clicking on again for the first time of the year.
The smoke of a late summer’s night reminds us that we are simultaneously alive and dying, nudging us closer to home, closer to that biggest of sleeps.
And when we arrive, our sweaters will smell lightly of tobacco and vanilla, and maybe a hint of bourbon, and our memories as golden-age cinema and the wind-up recordings of yesteryear both preserve indelibly and sully our collective experience.
The Bible says from ash we’re born and to ash one day we shall return. In between, we smolder.◼︎
Cover image: Ky Brooks and Jessica Moss perform at Casa del popolo, 15 September 2023.