Smoking, Joe and Me
Sonya Voumard (University of Technology Sydney, Australia)
I learned early that Benson & Hedges were the right cigarettes when only the best would do. And wasn’t that all the time? Whenever we drove down Burke Road Camberwell in Melbourne, Stuart Wagstaff would smile at me from the billboard above. I, along with the tobacco company, liked his style. I fancied that I would be on the arm of a man like that one day.
My very first puffs were from one of my Estonian grandmother’s Peter Stuyvesants, sucked through her signature, long cigarette holder. One night while babysitting, she taught us to blow smoke rings and I got a headache. I can’t have been more than ten years old. My parents smoked before we were born. But they gave up with the first cancer scares of the fifties. Dad, who’d once smoked sixty a day, became an anti-smoking zealot. At thirteen I managed to put away the best part of a whole packet of Viscount, while playing spin-the-bottle in a tent at a barn dance. On the way home, my father had to stop the car so I could throw up. Our teenage smoking upset and infuriated him but after his own early death I took the opportunity to smoke my head off. Fresh is the flavor of Alpine; Come to Marlboro country; Join the club, join the club, join the Escort club; Ardath, Ardath you’re a star, beats the other smokes by far.
At high school, the cool kids would go “down the back” of the oval at lunchtimes to smoke and plot out the glamorous lives we had planned. Full of fifteen year-old bravado, we knew and liked the idea that to live fast often meant to die young. We wore our smokers’ coughs like anti-health badges that went with our punk sensibilities at that time.
My friend Joe smoked the high camp, extra long Marlboro Golds. He’d give me two or three of them each afternoon, once I’d finished my ham roll and apple. Since I planned to be a journalist, Joe called me Lois as in Lane. And because he wanted to be a star, I called him Josie after the early 1970s TV series Josie and the Pussycats. Everyone knew Joe was good for a smoke. Sometimes a tougher kid would march over to us, kick him up the arse, call him a poof and demand a cigarette. Joe would spit back some bitter words, throw one of his fags at the prick and tell him to fuck off. He was no wimp but nor was he, physically, a big guy.
The teachers knew we smoked. Their staff room was on the top floor of the building that overlooked “down the back”. Many of them smoked too. (One of my primary school teachers used to smoke in class.) The smell, if not the nicotine stained fingers, would give them away as they handed your essays back. Sometimes we’d compare notes with our English teacher about our preferred brands. His was Camel. Turkish tobacco was the best, he said, a slight lisp coming through the craggy, tobacco-yellowed teeth.
In a year ten science class we were sent to the playground to collect bacteria for cultivation in prepared agar plates. Joe and I raced downstairs to the back of the school building where we lit a smoke and cacked ourselves as we exhaled our concentrated smoky breath into the dish for maximum bacterial results. I’d sometimes save one of his Marlboro golds for the walk home. On the way, I’d stop off at MrRosten’s milk bar for a chocolate milk shake. MrRosten had a thin-at-the-bottom body of a goblin and an old, saggy face with sad eyes that gave him the look of a loveable, worn out dog, which was not surprising given his life story. He and his wife had smuggled their son to safety in a suitcase, while fleeing the Nazis during World War Two. He smoked the long, slender, cigar-like Mores. Some days I’d have a smoke and a chat with him and his eyes would twinkle with the devilishness of our pact.
During my hippie phase, I grew my hair long. Wild, curly and never brushed, it took on a Bob Marley-esque quality. For fashion and budgetary reasons, I smoked Drum roll-your-owns then. Although I owned a small, plastic, cigarette rolling gadget, I quickly became adept at rolling perfect ones by hand. It was part of the ritual. I’d carry my Drum in the zip-up-pocket of my green school skirt. Sometimes, while accessing a lolly during class, the packet would peep out and show itself if teachers had cared to look. I didn’t care if I got caught.
In Year 11, I read Albert Camus’ ‘The Outsider’ and in French we studied Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Les Mains Sales’. Inspired by those French existentialists, I began to smoke a pipe. People stared as I walked, pipe in mouth, down Bourke Street in Melbourne’s CBD one busy Friday night wearing black jeans and knee high lace-up boots. I imagined I would not be out of place in Paris. I was a bohemian.
That year, we went on a week-long school French excursion to Noumea. Joe bought a carton of soft pack Gauloises, which we smoked, wearing 1960s sunglasses we’d bought from Melbourne op-shops, while drinking short blacks at various cafes around the Place des Cocotiers. The only photograph I still have of Joe, apart from school ones, is on a hydrofoil in Noumea. He is wearing grey Lee jeans with braces over a grandfather shirt and thick white rimmed, cats-eye sunglasses that flare out of his dark, olive skinned face. He is reclining for the camera, Hollywood style in a statement of utter and unabashed schoolboy queer. With teachers nearby, for once there was no cigarette in his hand, although the shot does cry out for one.
While our illegal smoking club was the most visible expression of our friendship, our in-class hijinx was its logical extension. Joe’s camp theatrics complemented my prankishness and we spurred each other on, our addiction to laughter reaching dizzy heights that went largely unchecked as our teachers attended to more urgent troublemakers than we. An elderly, male relief teacher once asked us to draw an historical picture. Quick as a flash, Joe knocked up a pencil portrait of striking resemblance to the bloke himself.
In music we would be handed sheets with printed song lyrics, which Joe would amend to give them a gay theme. Thus “Down the way where the nights are gay” became “Down the way where the knights are gay” and a song about Samson slaying a thousand men turned into one about him “laying” those same men. Our stomach muscles ached from laughter. He attended the school social in drag and once formed a band called the Fruit Pastilles with fellow school student (now filmmaker) Shirley Barrett, who screeched their jointly written mockingly man hating track on ABC television’s Countdown in 1982 while Joe danced in the background like a Go-Go Girl.After finishing our HSC exams, Joe and I went to Sydney together. Staying at a friend’s place in Liverpool Street Darlinghurst, we slept on the floor of an old shop twenty years before it was to turn into celebrity chef Bill Granger’s first restaurant. The only thing I remember about the trip was Joe, cigarette in hand, posing in the shop window, his black silk dressing gown in full view of the passing crowds. He was, he said, an exhibit.
In the years after school, we went our separate ways – mine journalism, his film school – catching up occasionally for a smoke, a drink or a punk band at St Kilda’s Crystal Ballroom. Eventually we fell out of touch, although I’d sometimes hear stories through mutual acquaintances of his party boy antics, the loss of his driver’s licence and how he finally did make it to New York. He made a film called ‘Private and Confidential’, which won him acclaim and an award.
My early years in journalism gave new reasons to smoke. With stories to write and deadlines to meet, cigarettes and strong coffee went with the hard bitten lifestyle. Silk Cut was one of my preferred brands then, although I didn’t mind Craven A. As we bashed out our news reports on broken down typewriters, we smokers perched our cigarettes on the side of the desks’ mock wood laminate tops. Sometimes they’d burn down to the butt leaving small brown scars on the office furniture.
I burnt my own candle at both ends over those first two years and wound up in hospital with a life-threatening throat infection. The doctor told me to give up smoking but I was hooked by then. And it was part of my image. It would be another fifteen years before I’d give up for good thanks to a pneumonic bout of bronchitis.
By the time I heard Joe was sick, he was already in remission with lung cancer. I sent my best wishes through a friend and said I’d get in touch when I was next in Melbourne. Life’s distractions got in the way and a year or two went by. Then one day I got a phone call at work to say that Joe had died. He was forty four.
Joe did live fast and die young. I, more or less, cleaned up my act. Recently friends created a posthumous Facebook for us to share our memories of him. I posted my photo of him reclining on the deck of the hydrofoil in Noumea. Soon after, I learned—which none of his schoolfriends ever knew— he’d had his first love affair on that trip.Now I imagine I can see his secret making itself known to me in that faded old shot.
Sonya Voumard is a Sydney-based journalist, author and academic whose work has been widely published in major Australian newspapers, magazines and literary journals. Her first novel, Political Animals, was published in 2008. She now teaches non-fiction writing at UTS where she is doing a Doctorate of Creative Arts.