Wit for Bile

Ever since the Elizabethen days, pipe smokers have had to endure the self-righteous harrassment of the anti-smoking crowd. You would think, with five long centuries of periodic harrassment and ostracism, that we pipe smokers would be better prepared to respond to these puritanical busybodies when they take it upon themselves to publicly reprimand us for smoking our pipes. All too often, however, we are so taken aback by their rude and audacious behavior that we are struck speechless.

Most pipe smokers are gentlemen and deport themselves accordingly. We dislike aggressive behavior, and have no desire to engage in futile arguments with the nasty persons who confront us. I believe it is possible to act as gentlepeople without cowering meekly.

People who engage in this outrageous behavior are not really interested in our health or well-being. They wish to demonstrate their superiority to us. Their intention is to teach us a lesson. To humiliate us. There is no more sincere caring in their remonstrations than one would hear from an agitated rattlesnake.

Even in these Orwellian times, there are still a few, precious freedoms left to us. Where it is legal, we should be able to smoke our pipes in peace. We do not owe explanations or apologies to anyone who disturbs our peace.

Like Churchill and Twain, I have always taken a great deal of interest in the artfully crafted retort. I’ve developed a number of them so that I have one readily available in the event I am  confronted by one of these radical anti-smoking, meddling jackasses. In any case, I am prepared to give them wit when they give me bile. Sadly, I have more than a little experience dealing with this situation, but sometimes things work out better than anticipated.

There is a park near my home where, on nice days, I sometimes go to read and smoke my pipe. There is a trail, beside which are benches and a lover’s swing covered by a small, cedar-shake pavilion. I was sitting there smoking my pipe and reading when a fit, twenty-something young woman jogged up the trail. She saw me, ran over, and – while jogging in place – scolded me, declaring, “Smoking will kill you, you know!”

I looked up from my book, took my pipe from my mouth, and said, “You really DO need to work on your flirting. As lines go, that is one of the worst I’ve heard.”

She stopped jogging and stood there, agape, shaking her head slightly. Then, she started laughing – a response that almost certainly surprised her as much as it did me. She turned and slowly started jogging away, turning her head back once to look at me, grinning. That was that.

It has long been one of my strategies to use my wit rather than responding in kind to someone’s aggressiveness, but like most of you, I suspect, when someone confronts me, I am sometimes struck dumb. My mental faculties slow to a glacial pace. So, in this case I prepared mentally in advance. I wrote some responses – all of which I have memorized – and I draw them like a rapier when self-defense warrants a response. Some are gentler and some are pointed barbs; I have found that range is necessary because some people deserve colder retorts than others.

Seven Ready Retorts

  1. Look, I have to smoke here. They don’t allow smoking at the asylum.
  2. I take great comfort that smoking may shorten my life, especially since you came along.
  3. Thankfully, there are no anti-ugly laws or you could never go outside.
  4. Is the circle of people who welcome your company so small that you have decided to recruit me?
  5. My God, you’re psychic! You’re channeling my Mother-in-Law!
  6. My smoking here may be some small infraction, but practicing medicine without a license is a felony.
  7. Typically the people who nag me about smoking have earned the privilege by satisfying my carnal desires. If you’re going to keep talking, could you bend over?

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Reader Comments (9)

I've always liked "My doctor insists that smoking quiets the voices in my head that advocate causing actual harm."
December 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Goldberg
Excellent Neill!
I have used: "My parole officer says that it calms my nerves."
December 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLinwood
The first comment, about flirting, was one of the most delicious retorts I've heard in quite a long time.

In your list, #5 was rather funny as well. Though some of them (especially #7) were...well, I would not expect to hear them from Churchill.
December 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrigid
Brigid, you are undoubtedly correct. I think of this more in the spirit of his repartee than the substance.
December 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterNeill Archer Roan
During a trip to Cape Cod I decided to take a ride out on a long bike path that runs parallel to a beautiful, secluded beach. I rode several miles out on the path, found a nice bench facing the ocean, and started smoking my pipe. An older gentleman rode past me and was apparently so enticed by the opportunity to bother me that the looped back to where I was sitting. He came over and said, "I never heard of a cyclist smoking tobacco!" in the most condescending tone possible. I calmly responded, "I never heard of a corpse riding a bicycle, either. I guess we both learned something today." The man stared at me with a furious look on his face, got on his bike and rode away in a huff. I finished my bowl without further interruptions.
December 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel
Neill, I believe that no matter how many may add to your list of responses, what you said to the young jogger was sheer brilliance. I do not think that line can or will be improved upon!
December 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBigAl
I'm with BigAl ! That was and is priceless Neil
December 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTony Suvie
I cannot hope to top the line you gave the young jogger, nor to best that outcome, with both of you laughing. It demonstrates that she had some capacity to see herself as others saw her and to -- just maybe -- weigh her own self-righteousness.

You do a great service by providing a few ready retorts since, too often cases we conclude with us dumbstruck and suffering a severe case of l'esprit d'escalier, thinking only too late of what we ought to have said.

My best story along these lines comes from a recent trip to Wilmington, NC. My lovely bride and I were strolling the historic district and she wanted to visit a few shops that didn't interest me as much as a seat on a bench and pleasant smoke by the river. (This is wont to occur in historic districts and other environs populated by what she refers to as “darling little shops.” Twenty years along, we have developed a congenial plan: She shops, undistracted by my impatient schoolboy sighing and fidgeting; I get a lovely smoke.)

While I was so engaged this particular evening, a young woman happened by, accompanied by a man I presume was her husband. They passed, then she stopped them, and they had a brief conversation during which the husband mostly just shook his head. She disengaged from him. He stood with in a resigned and weary posture that suggested to me this sort of thing occurred with regularity, and gave me the slightest roll of his eyes. The young lady came back the few paces to me declared: "That pipe smells awful and it will kill you, you know."

I confess, Neill, with no pride whatsoever, that I had been awaiting this day.

I slowly took my pipe from my mouth, I looked at it a moment, then I turned to regard her, all very deliberately. And then I arranged my face in the best approximation of the Tragedy mask that I could.

“I know,” I said, putting a theatrical catch in my voice that Barrymore would have envied. “My but my doctor said that in the couple of months I have left, I might as well try new things.”

Then I put my elbow on my knee and hid my face in my hand. (I might even have let my shoulders shudder a bit, to suggest a sob.) I heard her make a couple of gulping sounds, and when I looked up, the couple was off again on their walk, she talking animatedly, he shaking his head.

When my darling returned with her packages, and I related the events, she told me I’d been cruel – once she’d finished laughing. I suggested that my alternate response – to ignore the young lady while loudly directing her henpecked husband to a “darling little shop” nearby shop that sold well-wrought, sturdy wooden hairbrushes of which he might make good use – would have been crueler, but likely done them both more good.
December 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert
"Smoking will kill you, you know."

"Yeah, so will birthdays."

A friend of mine had that exchange with a 7 year old boy, not realizing the next day was the boys birthday.
December 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

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