Lessons from a Park Bench

It was a beautiful Sunday morning here – as bright and crisp as anyone could wish for on a December morning. I decided to don my sheepskin coat, wool scarf, and fedora to take a walk in the park across the street. I took my small two-pipe and pouch carrier in my pocket, hoping to find a bench in the sun where I could sit down and enjoy a pipe.

There is a bench not far beyond the Arlington Boulevard overpass overlooking a creek there. I had my sights on sitting there as I figured I’d get plenty of sun since it’s out in the open and away from the trees.

As the bench came into view, my heart sank. Someone was sitting there already. I avoid smoking around anyone else, mainly because I hate the predictable dirty looks or lecturing that may come my way when I do.

As I walked closer up the path imagine my surprise when I discovered that the person perched on the bench was smoking a pipe! I couldn’t believe it. This never happens to me.

I picked up my pace a bit. As I approached the bench I could see that the stocking cap and overcoat-clad man in front of me was at least eighty, maybe older. He peered up at me over enormous and thick bifocals with a curious and somewhat suspicious gaze. His eyebrows – resembling two fat, white, and hairy caterpillers – looked like they might scuttle under his cap.

Peterson Mark Twain, Photo Courtesy of Smokingpipes.comHe pulled the old bent Peterson from his lips. “Do I know you?” he inquired, obviously hoping that no affirmative answer would come from me.

“No,” I replied, “I was just out for a walk this morning and hoped to sit down here and smoke my pipe for awhile. I was disappointed when I saw someone here, but now I see you’re a pipe smoker. Would you mind if I joined you? It’s a big bench. It looks like there’s room.”

“Well, you would require a big bench, now, wouldn’t you?” he parried, then resumed lighting and tamping his pipe, swinging his cloudy gray eyes up at me briefly. I thought he might smile, but he didn’t.

“If you’re going to sit, sit,” he said, not quite annoyed, but not warm, either. “I came out here for some peace and quiet and to escape my daughter and her daughter and her daughter. Too many bosses for me. They won’t let me smoke. If they knew I was smoking here, they’d complain.”

I sat down, pulling my pouch from my pocket, then removed my glove.

“They tell me I’m going to die from smoking,” he railed on. “I’m going to die from something. Might as well be smoking. At my age, what difference does it make? Dead is dead. They’d rather I died from something else…” He tapered off, took a long draw and gazed into the distance.

I had no idea what to say. So, I said nothing. I took my Jack Howell bamboo rhodesian from the little leather pipe and tobacco pouch, packed it with Old Dog, extracted my Zippo from its zippered enclave, then commenced lighting up. I couldn’t get to my pants pocket with my coat buttoned up so I stood up to dig out my tamper.

“Leaving?” he chirped, trying not to smile, but his hopeful expression dawned as brightly as an ocean sunrise. I could see loose dentures bobbing down from his gums. He put his old bent Peterson back and pried them up, back into place. A blue stream emerged from the corner where his chapped-lips met. He hadn’t shaved in at least a couple of days. A gray stubble dotted his upper lip like a few solitary cornstalks in a winter field.

“No, just getting my tamper,” I said as I sat down, wondering why I ever thought I was lucky to have encountered this cranky old man who was as devoid of briar-brotherhood spirit as anyone I could imagine.

“I thought it might be fun to talk pipes when I saw you. Or tobaccos, being fellow pipe-smokers.”

“Pipes?” he said in a tone that suggested I might have asked him about the particulars of his bowel rituals. He took his pipe from his mouth, glanced down at it, flicked an ember from a rim with more tar on it than the asphalted path we sat beside, then stuck it back in his mouth, puffed a couple of times, then stared down at his bouncing foot. A khaki cuff wiggled sideways, revealing a knobby ankle clad in bright red socks patterned with cap-clad grinning Santa heads.

“Nice socks,” I said wanly smiling, uncomfortable with the silence.

“My granddaughter gave them to me for Christmas. My daughter told me it would be nice if she saw me wear them today,” he said between puffs. “She’s a nice girl, but I like black socks. These aren’t black socks.”

“No, they’re not,” I agreed. “What kind of pipe are you smoking?” I asked politely, already aware that it was a Peterson.

“Kaywoodie,” he answered, quizzically pausing a moment. He grabbed the old bent from his mouth, turned it upside-down, and let a fine white ash sprinkle, like sooty snow, on the strangely still-green grass. “I’ve had it a long time.”

“Kaywoodie,” I repeated robotically. I put my pipe back in my mouth, took a long draw, then blew a steamy smoke-stream skyward. My glasses fogged briefly. I wondered; was he messing with me? I could see the Peterson logo clear as the blotchy, open-pored nose struggling to support his bifocals.

“I’d have sworn that pipe was a Peterson,” I blurted cheerily, wondering what response my observation might prompt.

“Ahhhh, yes. Right. Yes, Peterson, Kaywoodie, they’re all the same,” he declared, the faint traces of some Southern accent betrayed by his squeezing two syllables into the word “all.”

“What tobacco are you smoking?” I asked, trying to keep the sputtering conversation from stalling out.

“Not sure,” he answered. “I can’t recall. Could be Half and Half. Could be Prince Albert. I can’t  taste the difference any more.”

“I’m smoking Old Dog in a Jack Howell,” I volunteered. “I love this tobacco, especially at this time of year. The taste reminds me of Autumn and falling leaves.”

“Smells more like Wet Dog to me.” His face broke open. He actually smiled. It was a big smile with the perfectly even teeth one sees in dentures, albeit stained yellow and brown from smoking his pipes. 

As chilly as our conversation had been, that smile felt warmed by the morning sun above. I’m used to my friends giving me a hard time. Having a stranger do it was going to take some getting used to.

“When you think about it, who wants to smoke an old dog?” I replied. The strangeness of the blend’s name suddenly dawned on me. I felt embarrassed about my enthusiasm for it. I love it. Why did I feel I shouldn’t? I’d always been fond of the name. Now I was unsure.

We sat there smoking. The silence hung on me like a wet coat.

“My name is Neill,” I announced as I pulled the right glove from my hand and thrust it towards him. He glanced down, inspecting my hand as if someone had thrust a feral cat in his direction.

“Stanley,” he said, keeping his right-hand fingers firmy wrapped around the bowl of his pipe, his left hand thrust under his right armpit. “Stan-ley,” he repeated, as if I might be slow.”

I awkwardly withdrew my hand, each of us watching it retract like a doddering turtle’s head into its shell.

“Arth-a-ritis,” he volunteered. “I don’t shake hands anymore. It hurts.”

I could see that he was embarrassed, that my simple, unawares act of introducing myself in a ritual as old as manhood, itself, had unnerved him. I slowly slid my hand back into the warm recesses of my cashmere-lined glove, feeling like I should have known better, but didn’t.

“Neill,” he repeated. “That’s an unusual name. Whyever did your mother do that to you?”

“Who knows?” I said. “I suppose she thought it was a good start. I might have been named after my two grandfathers. When I think that I might have been named Floyd Roy or Roy Floyd, I’m plenty happy with Neill. If I had been named Floyd Roy Roan, I’d have been facing a life as a moonshiner, a bank-robber, or playing steel guitar in a country-western band.”

Naming is destiny, I thought. The great Lakota shaman, Black Elk, said, “True wisdom is knowing the real name of things.” Floyd Roy had a definite five-mongrels-under-the-front-porch ring to it.

“I was named after my father who was named after his father,” Stanley stated. “As the oldest boy, my name was decided before my father ever met my mother. That’s how things were in my day.”

“How long have you smoked a pipe, Stanley?” I queried. I tried to recall if I’d ever met an older pipe smoker than Stanley seemed to be. I couldn’t remember one.

“I was born in 1922,” he replied, stretching his neck down; his neck popped like a loud finger knuckle. “1940. Summer. My cousin gave me his pipe when he joined the Merchant Marine. Seventy-two, almost seventy-three years. Smoking will kill you, you know,” he cackled. “Someday it will kill me, I’m sure.”

Our conversation proceeded much along the same lines for another hour or so. I smoked another bowl while I asked him questions and listened to his quirky and occasional abrupt responses. I’d never had a chance to ask what it was like to be a pipe smoker during what we now think of as pipe-smoking’s Golden Era.

Although I was surprised at some of his responses, as I try to reconstruct the conversation for you now, I suppose I shouldn’t have been. In hindsight, they make more sense than I might have known.

It became apparent to me that nostalgia has me fully in its clutches. Like so many, I yearn for a time that never really was - one that I constructed in my imagination.

I sit here now, convinced that it is I who am the lucky one. I am living in the pipe’s real Golden Era when there is a kind of connoisseurship that may have been mostly absent in earlier days.

Here are a few choice snippets from our conversation. With Stanley’s begrudging consent, I recorded most of them on my iPhone. They are transcribed here in bits and pieces. I hope you enjoy them.

“We didn’t think too much about particular pipes or tobaccos like you do now. We’d just buy what we liked, pack our pipes, and enjoy a smoke. We enjoyed relaxing for awhile.”

“Everybody smoked then. Where I worked, nobody ever said anything about smoking. We didn’t take breaks to smoke. We smoked while we worked. Nobody complained. We all smoked. Who’d complain?”

“The girls worked up front. Only men worked in back. The girls smoked cigarettes and so did we…Nobody smoked cigars at work. It would have been ill-mannered.”

“You seem to think there were many pipe smokers then. It wasn’t like that. It wasn’t like that. There was just two other fellas at work who smoked pipes. People smoked cigarettes. You’re the first pipe smoker I’ve met in quite awhile. The fellas I knew…my friends…who smoked pipes are all gone. Everybody’s gone now.”

“Sure, we had favorite pipes, but in those days it seemed like there wasn’t all that much difference between one pipe and another. I liked all my pipes. If I got hold of a pipe I didn’t like, I just threw it away. Fellas didn’t sell pipes in those days, like you say they do now.  I liked all my pipes. Some better than others, but that’s true for everything. Shoes. Shirts. Everything.”

“I was a working man. Three girls. A wife. I had a good job, but there was never enough money. I never owned fancy pipes. I bought my pipes and tobacco at a newsstand.”

“My pipes all looked alike. Bent pipes. Nothing else. I smoked while I worked and didn’t think about whether it was a good smoke or a bad smoke. It was just a smoke….only time I ever noticed a bad smoke was when I’d suck juice in. Damn inconvenient. It was damn inconvenient. I’d have to go to the toilet to spit. You didn’t spit in front of people or let them see you do that. We were proper. I’d stop smoking for awhile when that happened….never occurred to me I had a bad pipe. All my pipes did that.”

“Yes, I remember Balkan Sobranie. I remember it. I didn’t like it much. There was a fella at the lodge who smoked it. He smoked Sobranie cigarettes, too. People complained about the smell. This never happened to me. When I’d smoke the last from my pouch, he’d give…Ralph, his name was Ralph. I smoked Half and Half. Smoked Velvet. Prince Albert. That lodge fella…Ralph…he smoked Sobranie. One time I forgot my tobacco and I smoked Sobranie with Ralph that night. We played cards.”

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Reader Comments (19)

For some reason, your conversation with Stanley brought to mind A. A. Milne's essay, Smoking as a Fine Art. If you haven't read it, I'd highly recommend it:
December 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTerry Carpenter
So Nostalgic, thanks for sharing such a wonderfull and warm experience, as I read down the lines, I felt like I was watching both from afar and a hint of the smoke had reached me. Happy New Year!!!
December 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSam R Vior
Quote from one of my dad's friends c.1960:

"I've smoked Condor all my life and it's never done me any harm (cough, cough, cough); I wouldn't thank you for a fill of that fancy stuff" (Balkan Sobranie Original).
December 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJimbo44
"It became apparent to me that nostalgia has me fully in its clutches. Like so many, I yearn for a time that never really was - one that I constructed in my imagination."

I think this is the lesson at the heart of your encounter. We tend to romanticize the past, rarely pausing to reflect that the here and now which is so mundane to us will eventually be romanticized by some portion of our posterity. (Woody Allen said this better in "Midnight in Paris")

We sometimes forget that the part of the pipe world we inhabit (the part that follows hot new carvers, artisanal tobaccos, innovative accessories, and for that matter blogs like P4P) bears little resemblance to the pipe world of the past, or for that matter to the pipe world of today for the vast majority of pipe smokers still left in America.

I also believe that the very concept of a "brotherhood of the briar" would be largely unrecognizable to our fathers or grandfathers. I suspect it's a defensive reaction to assault on all sides, combined with a sense of community driven by shared interests that are increasingly viewed as eccentric by society at large.
December 31, 2012 | Registered CommenterJon Guss
Any systematic contemplation of the past is an act of the imagination, no different than a poem or a string quartet. This is a good thing IMO.

Many thanks Neill and a very Happy 2013.

Your Condor OLC-in-a-Charatan friend,

December 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Myron
Thanks for the article, Neill. It made me think of my dad who passed away in 2001 at age 81 and was a pipe smoker for many years even before I was born in 1953. He would have made many of the same comments about his pipes and his tobaccos. He too could be just as cranky. I think he only ever owned and smoked cheap Kaywoodie drug store pipes and bought his cherry flavored tobacco at the same drug store.
December 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris
While reading this post, I thought of the works of Marcel Proust. His writings invoked the process of memory; a memory of a forgotten time or place, same as the pipe produces a feeling of nostalgia. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this!
Thanks Neil!

Elijah C. Hooker
December 31, 2012 | Registered CommenterMr Hooker93
I think we tend to look at the past through rose tinted glasses where pipe smoking is concerned. I encountered another pipe smoker recently. As his metal Falcon pipe hung from his mouth, I asked him what he was smoking. "Condor" came the reply. I thought I would keep the conversation simple and said, "I like St Bruno."

"I've tried that, I prefer Condor and just stick to that," he said. At that point I knew there was no point in taking my romanticized view of pipe smoking any further.

Where I live, if you were a pipe smoker, you owned one pipe and smoked one tobacco - simple as that. The pipe was just another nicotine delivery-device which is why it probably gave way to cigarettes as it did.

My father only had one Falcon pipe until my mum bought him a new Dr Plumb for Christmas one year, then the old Falcon was discarded. He smoked Gallaher's Sweet Honeydew. He told me about his uncle, a farmer, who smoked War Horse, a plug tobacco. He shaved a few bits off with his pen knife and stuffed it down the narrow channel that was left after a massive cake had built up. Eventually he would scrape some of this out using the same pen knife. If he felt his pipe needed cleaned, he took a piece of straw and pushed it into the mouthpiece. Pipe cleaners? They were never heard of. He filled the same pipe 10 times a day and the pipe continued to hang from his mouth long after the smoke was finished. A quick tap out and he was ready to re-fuel. If someone had suggested he dry out the briar, they would have got a look similar to the one you got from Stanley.

Yes, everyone has a romanticized view of the past, but in reality life was rarely ever like that.
December 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEstate Pipes
I am relieved that curmudgeons haven't gone put of style -- we're just smoking better pipes and tobaccos. Your story made me think we are a kind of hybridized pipe smokers. We smoke to enjoy many aspects that would have been lost on the everyday pipeman of the past. Like Stanley said, "We didn't think too much about it...everybody smoked." Today we are pipemen of many parts: archeologists, anthropologists, art fanciers, and tobacco hedonists enjoying an almost secret and forbidden pleasure. The camaraderie that your bench partner didn't need, we do.

I agree, we are the lucky ones. Thank you for the wonderful story and a happy chance meeting with our pipe ancestor. Happy new year Neill.
December 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Guss
A very interesting and entertaining encounter, Neill. We tend to think that all pipe smokers must be hobbyists like we are because of how drastically the number of pipe smokers dwindled in the past few decades. Unfortunately, I don't think the percentages change much. Most people smoke to smoke, just like most people consume bourbon, wine, etc without being connoisseurs of those things. When I started to enjoy pipes I went headlong into it, finding every scrap of info on the web, buying out-of-print books, following blogs, etc, that I could find. It didn't take long to exhaust all the outlets of information out there, short of conversations with knowledgeable smokers. But I've found myself dispensing nuggets of wisdom in forums or at the pipe club that is information I consider common (or required) knowledge for pipe smokers, and find myself amazed that there are other pipe smokers not in the know. It isn't a hobby/pastime/lifestyle for them. They just smoke pipes.

In your old friend's day the vast majority of people smoked something, at least some of the time. What you smoked was simply a matter of preference. Today, the majority of people still drink some form of alcohol, at least some of the time. Just because you're an oenophile doesn't mean someone that happens to prefer wine over beer or liquor knows squat about wine, or ever gets past the "house red". Most wine drinkers are that way. That's how it was for the old man and smoking in his day.

You know the most interesting thing to me about your encounter? I couldn't legally have the same encounter you did, Neill, because smoking in a public park is illegal where I live. We might truly live now in the golden age of pipe smoking, with better and more varied blends, pipes, etc. available for affordable prices today than ever before. But your codger friend on the bench did live in the golden age of smoking. So many people enjoyed tobacco that the thought of being forbidden from sitting in a park and smoking would have been crazy. It isn't nostalgia when thinking of or longing for those days. That acceptance and freedom (legal and moral) of smoking was real. That's what I long for.
December 31, 2012 | Registered CommenterChrono
Thanks for the chuckle. Nice reminder of what a fantasy these "good old days" can be. Some wisdom of old that comes to mind ..."Don't long for “the good old days,” for you don't know whether they were any better than today." (Ecclesiastes 7:10)
January 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Neisler
Another great piece, Neill. Really top notch.
January 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJack
Fine read, Neill. A very nice way to start my 2013. Up spirits Old boy!
January 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChuck Goodspeed
WOW, Neill. After reading your story, and all the feedback here, I'm starting to think that maybe we are making too much of a fuss over all things pipes and tobacco! I've been smoking pipes for the most part of 40 years encouraged by my father at the tender age of 16. Yeah, I did smoke a lot of tobaccos over the years, but at some point I smoked only one brand, Half and Half, for a heck of a lot of years. Kept things pretty simple too.

I discovered the Internet source for information, pipes, tobaccos, etailers galore, and my world opened up BIG time along with my wallet! I began to get fussy about my pipes, tobaccos, and only wanted what I could see as the 'better' tobaccos. All the while smoking H&H very regularly until it just wasn't cutting it for me anymore. Guess it was time for a change. After reading your blog I'm asking myself ,"What the hell am I doing?"

What I'm doing is finding out that there is more to the simplicity that Stanley had referred to? Or, are tobacco barons realizing that in our fast-paced, complicated world they can add to our complexity and insanity?

Looks like if we REEEALLY want to be nostalgic, maybe we ought to take a month off our ways and smoke only one blend and a half a dozen pipes. Then we'll have an idea what it was like back in 'the good ol' days.'

All kidding and silly stuff aside, I am seriously thinking of re-assessing my PAD and TAD for a while. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us.
January 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTony Suvie
A great read Neill! I laughed all the way through it, as it reminded me of some of the old pipesmoking codgers I knew as a know, the "man's man" type. There were several of these fellows in the factory where I worked during school breaks. They were totally content with one or two pipes purchased at the drugstore and for the most part smoked only one tobacco (usually an OTC), for years and years. One pipe was good for use from dusk til dawn, and maybe several days in a row. Pipe cleaners were fussy and not as convenient as just blowing through the stem. They just didn't see what all the fuss was about and I thought I would never live it down the first time they saw me use a tamper, rather than my pinky. They apparently thought I was "putting on airs"..... and they were totally unimpressed with that "expensive" tobaccy.

I believe we really are living in the "Golden Age" of pipe-smoking......"nostalgia isn't what it used to be".

Many Thanks for a totally enjoyable read.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Brill
I really enjoyed reading this. It reminded me of a neighbor I had growing up, Charlie. Charlie was born in 1908, was 6' 3",weighed probably 110, and lived to be 93. He had a thousand jobs, knew where the gangsters from Chicago visited when they drove two hours down to our town, and even built his own house. The first pipes I ever made; clays and corncobs, I made for Charlie when I was about 12 or so. He would casually smoke a cigarette, but purchased a pouch of vanilla pipe tobacco just because I made him a pipe.

I always liked his stories. It sounds like it took a while for this fellow to open up, but I'll wager he was very happy you were talking with him.
January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Davidson
Like most lessons, this one probably ought to be understood to have both a positive and negative upshot. Jon Guss, insightful as ever, once again hit the nail on the head: in romanticizing we often delude ourselves much more than we realize. We unwittingly falsify the past. The negative upshot is that in falsifying we rob ourselves of the ability to adequately appreciate the value of our present circumstance. We do indeed live in a golden era of the pipe. We should more fully appreciate that fact.

But there's also a positive upshot: nostalgia, even for a past that never was, can help us imaginatively envision a future we would like to see realized. We project onto the past our dreams of a world of congeniality and brotherhood, of artisanal excellence, of connoisseurship. Those are hallmarks of today's pipeman. I believe that we project what we have today onto the past because we yearn for a combination of today's pipe and tobacco making refinement and yesteryear's slower pace. With a slower pace of life naturally come things pipe men most value, things that today must instead be fought for -- time spent with family, free moments to contemplate life's grander questions, a relaxed Sunday with a pipe on a park bench.

I hope we continue to romanticize the past, but that we do so with sober minds. Nostalgia is helpful if it's aimed not only backward but also forward toward an even brighter future for the pipe and those who appreciate the world of good that it stands for.
January 4, 2013 | Registered CommenterSmoking Logician
Thanks for a great read Neill. It reminded me of a guy I used to work with, his name was Enrico and he was a pipe smoker. He had a chewed up piece of junk hanging from his mouth all the time and he smoked Borkum Riff. I used to ask him, why he didn't buy a new pipe, he would tell me that his smoked fine, I would say Rico, the thing is all chewed up and broken. He would just look at me and say, do you see smoke coming out of my mouth, this pipe works fine. I worked with him for a few years and he never got a new pipe, he just didn't care.
January 6, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercigrmaster
I must be getting thin-skinned in my old age, or just had my fill of grumpy cranks. I'd have turned around at his first comment and walked away. Worse still, it occurs to me that I'd have walked away at the sight of a human on the bench. I need to work on that, I guess. Your patience and gracious nature allowed me some insight into the old days, though, without having to endure the hostility of a misanthropic old-timer. Thanks!
January 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKevin M.

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