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For people who spend the day saying and writing things that others accept, while thinking things that are infinitely more interesting.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

I Want(ed) a Pipe

I can blame Tim-the-Freudian for the inspiration, but only me for the continuance. Tim was the only person I knew who smoked a pipe and many times I was able to find him around campus by the trail his particular brand of tobacco left behind.

Tim was a graduate psychology student, stocky of build and thinning of hair. He affected an almost comical seriousness to his role as embryonic brainbuster and it was often amusing to see him struggle to avoid jumping into a situation with both Freudian feet.

Our friendship was sporadic, with frequent meetings for two weeks then a disconnect that could last two months. One summer I sub-let the apartment he had in the old two-story house Miz Evelyn owned across from the Oxford Cemetery. I saw him four times that summer, always harassed, as his summer internship turned him from amiable gadfly to lumbering oaf, a process that became irreversible.

Tim smoked a pipe like some people get tattoos. He was fussy about tobacco and sometimes finicky about pipes, but it was the ritual that intrigued me: the selection of just the right amount of tobacco, the careful packing, the oddly-lengthened lighter flicking to life, the rhythmic puffing and careful nurturing until the pipe was well-lit and clouds of smoke began attacking the surroundings.

I marveled at the smoothness of the wood, the rich grain, the careful shaping of bowls and stems, the artistry of bringing together diverse materials to create an instrument so powerfully experiential. When Tim got a job at The Smoke Shop—wooden Indian and all—he turned the experience into his own little psych lab and I used his meandering theories to cover my intense scrutiny of dozens of pipes.

I even tinkered with the idea of making my own pipe, buying a kit as a way of spending quiet hours in careful craftsmanship. But though I spent many months lingering over the idea, the reality of actually smoking a pipe—and how I would look doing so—always stopped me. A pipe would be a burden and as useful a prop for me as a paintbrush to a monkey.

The day I let the idea die I was having lunch with Tim at a restaurant with a prominent salad bar. An elderly couple walked up to it, the woman muttering a mile a minute, poking at the salad items, the dressings, vegetables and bread, always criticizing. The man carefully carried their tray to a nearby table, his face a wooden mask of disinterest. The woman filled her plate, then one for her husband, words machine-gunning the air. They sat down and the pattern continued: her mouth, his mask.

Tim and I watched in silence. Finally, their meal ended, the man gathered the tray and disposed of the trash. They left as they had appeared: her mouth, his mask. Tim took the pipe out of his mouth and pointed with it at the couple. “You’d think she was the head case, but she’s not that off.” He puffed on the pipe, then pointed with it again. “He, on the other hand, is certifiable. He is way past normal. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up taking an axe to her.”

He tapped the pipe on the table. “I know these things.” I looked at the tobacco flakes and ashes sprawled across the tabletop. Maybe he was right; I sensed he was. But the pipe? Overkill.


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