Furtive Smokers-and What They Tell Us About America
There are scenes—sometimes dramatic, sometimes quite ordinary—which can disclose the inner essence of an entire society. Thousands of people holding their breath in a Spanish arena as the matador, sword drawn, advances toward the bull in the moment of truth. A rainy evening in a Swiss city, with no cars in sight, as a few pedestrians patiently wait for the light to change to green before crossing the street. Now, with both Spain and Switzerland being sucked into the homogenizing culture of the new Europe, these two images may become obsolete, to be replaced by others more pertinent to the new realities.
In America the prototypical scene used to be the solitary cowboy riding off into the sunset, or alternatively, deputized as sheriff, riding into town to set things right. Despite the complaints of sundry communitarians about the excesses of individualism in America, that image too no longer seems pertinent. A new one suggests itself, and the recent harsh winter adds poignancy to it: a group of people huddled together in the snow outside an office building, furtively puffing on their cigarettes. Passers-by ignore them or make mocking remarks. The smokers do not respond, unless it is to apologize for not being able to kick the habit. The apologies do not seem to placate the contemptuous passers-by.
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