Thursday, October 28, 2004

To Bidi, Or Not to Bidi:
What Was the Question?

By Douglas McDaniel

He quit smoking right after the war. One day he was tooling around, heading toward a casino on the other side of the Colorado River at Lake Havasu, Arizona, and he came to a dock and the dock led to a loading ramp onto a ferry that would carry him to his dicey destination. But then he remembered, shit, he didn`t have any cigarrettes. He thought about turning around. As a thoughtful guy, heading back down the ramp, he started to do some math. He calculated, probably as he was also thinking about the money he needed for gambling, that if he stopped smoking for 10 years he would have saved himself about $40,000. With that, he turned around. He never smoked again. However, he still gambles.

To bidi, or not to bidi? That is the question.

For a little more than eight years, I have been smoking a little Indian cigarette called a bidi. In many respects it has changed my life, not all for the better, mind you. After all, setting fire to one's lungs defies logic and contradicts the proclivity of human nature toward longevity (i.e., smoking too much of anything of any kind will eventually kill participants, willing or unwilling, myself included). I was not really a smoker before I started inhaling them. Some kind of existential dilemma, however, induced by a knock-down drag-out divorce, as well as the untethering from the old modes of behavior that such an event implies, led me to an era of unmonitored experimentation. Whatever the case, the pleasing aura of the smoke and its surprising effects made my life a lot more interesting.

What are bidis? Well, they are basically peasant cigarettes from India. A eucalyptus leaf wrapped around tobacco.

Various brands are available. Multi-flavored Darshan-brand bidis are dominating the market these days. Small Shivsagar Bidis are shaped like a hand-rolled cigarette, reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart's only accoutrement.

A larger version by Sher Bidis are longer and fatter than an ordinary cigarette and much more powerful, quite capable of making even an initiated smoker sick to his stomach. Indeed, when first smoked, a bidi can have a profound effect on the senses.

It's not the shape nor the smell but the almost narcotic sensation brought on by the leaf. A kick in the head, basically. Perhaps that is the reason why some smoke shops in the United States had trouble keeping up with the demand for the little buggers when they hit a trendy flashpoint two or so years ago.

I have always thought of this peasant's solace as a type of marijuana substitute since the two share many characteristics, except for the THC, which is too bad. Hell, it could be hay wrapped in a maple leaf, for all it matters. It's the skanky, sweet- smelling smoke from the eucalyptus tree that delivers a powerful feeling. For a hyper, overemotional sort like myself, it really takes me down a notch. Its slight, twisted body, too small to hold like an ordinary cigarette, needs to be held between your thumb and index finger. To enable you to take in the bidi's last offering, you can unravel the little threads at its base like a roach clip. Just one of several reasons why this organic device resonates with thoughts toward its illegal associate.

Sound kinda scary? Well, don't get too excited. They are novelty smokes in the truest sense, like cloves or quirky cigarillos. And though they will probably always remain a cult item, bidis have changed my life.

I tried them for the first time in a bar called the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon in Telluride, Colorado. Located in the dank basement of an old mining town building, the Moon is one of the more sultry nightspots in all of the Colorado Rockies' ski towns. One reason is because of Deejay Harry, a bleach blonde rastafarian who could turn"Trash Disco" Thursday nights into orgies of sampling at 100 beats per minute. The voodoo king of trance music, a kind of local celebrity, would induce his crowd into aerobic states of glee, turning the Yups into rhythm-possessed Yorubans.

The stage set, the mood was conveniently in place for the two young men. As they began to unwrap and pull slow drags of their strawberry scented Kailas Bidis, perhaps the most popular brand at the time, I watched as an amazing situation developed for the pair. Several women were immediately drawn, as if some animal magnetism were at work. The women ventured toward the illicit aroma and the increasingly enigmatic, though otherwise unremarkable, men. Obviously questioning, and soon requesting to sample the wares of the two young rich hipsters, nicknamed locally as"trustafarians" because they were most likely living at that elevations with the support of a trust fund. It wasn't long after that these strangers were dancing in a swirling rhythm of the young, the beautiful and over-exercised.

The next night I awoke savoring the previous night's indelible image. I was determined to conduct my own experiment with the little wonders.

Not that I have ever had any trouble meeting people, but the temptation to have an instant "in" with total strangers was too great to resist further investigation. I began to question whether it was the cigarettes or something about the combination of the mood in the bar, maybe the vibe in the room, that was intoxicating enough to bring such good fortune on these men. Curious if I would fare equally, I located the town's cigar shop (which has since closed), walked in, and stocked up on ammunition.

That night, I smoked bidis in bars from one end of town to the other, a stretch of about a half-mile. And yes, perhaps I did smoke a little too violently, but the results were amazing. I continued to move from one bar to another, wary of my initial findings and impressions, just as much as any good John Lilly of the West might try (remember"Altered States"?). Sure enough, everywhere I went people were asking"What is that?" ,"Where did you get it?" and, of course,"Can I try one?"

When I returned to my home at the time in Phoenix, Arizona, I was assured that I was carrying some kind of socializing magnet in my shirt pocket. The results were much the same in the urbane confines of mall-dressed Scottsdale. It was my experience that people, especially women, would invariably stop to inquire and eventually ask for one. Even if they didn't smoke! A couple of hours into a night I would reach for one only to discover that I was left with an empty pack, being able to account for less than half of them myself. They were the ultimate first line."They are Kailas Bidis," I would say with a certain jaded, half-closed right eyelid squint. As I said it, blowing out smoke to accent my exotic qualities, I'd add, enigmatically,"They are from Indjeeaaaaa."

Now fast forward: A year had passed since I first tried the cigarettes in Telluride. I had been working from my rented room the rural Massachusetts, trying to scrape out a living as a freelance writer after working for a year at the Robb Report, a magazine for rich bastards that was decidedly anti-peasant. I was climbing the walls of this sleepy surbuban hovel, Acton, maybe 20 miles west of Boston, and I was needing my smokes just a bit too badly.

The problem: You just can't buy bidis in rural New England, thus making my addiction to them a total nuisance. I didn't feel like quitting, because, after all, being a freelance writer meant being anxious about just about everything, and I had two choices in order to obtain more.

I could drive an hour and a half north to a New Hampshire mall, which was the last place I found bidis in ample supply, or, I could take a train to Boston, where there were sure to be plenty of bohemians about who could point me in the right direction to a cigar shop that carried them.

So I end up at Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a very crowded place bustling with its famous mix of chic retail franchises, coffee galore, lots of stuff to read, very old stone and brick and smarty pants liberalism for a select elite of people who can afford to be so. I looked down and saw half a spent bidi discarded on the street. I felt that I was on the right track.

I found them easily, in stock at the David P. Ehrlich Company on Tremont Street, which has been supplying generations of tokers with smokes since 1868, a considerable legacy of suffering for more than a century's worth of hacking and general git stupidity. I bought a carton for $27, which I could not really afford since I was a starving writer. But hey, I figured, the smokes would at least kill my appetite. The carton contained 10 red packs, a flavor called strawberry and that really means sweet, the first of which I peeled open practically before I was out of the cigar shop. I quickly found a seat on the patio of a Harvard Square pastry store, lit up, and watched the grey-templed professorial sorts and pretty people dressed in dot-com black passing by.

Cambridge was fairly unimpressed by the bidis smoky blue essence wafting between the tables by the pastry store. The guys playing chess didn't even look up when a cloud as big as a bus fart polluted their pawns. Worldly places like Harvard Square know bidis all too well.

A week before in Miami, my experience was very different, but still it wasn't the novelty that caught people's noses toward my smoking, it was the familiarity.

A woman from Spain sat near me at a bar in South Beach and wanted to talk about her experiences with bidis. A Haitian cab driver on the way to the airport recognized the smell as I let the smoke drift out the window as we listened to an angry political commercial broadcast into his car's radio from Haiti. The heavy accented voice ranted as I took another puff of my peasant's pleasure. A South African lawyer in the airport bar recognized it and wanted one. While waiting for the plane outside the entry to the terminal, where everybody tends to smoke in a nervous, frenzied way, a couple of people came up to me, saying,"Oh, I recognize that smell," recalling "I haven't smoked one of those since I was in Paris," or" May I have one?"
Lest I not forget the wary looks on the faces of the luggage staff who looked on in disbelief; wondering whether they should call security or not.

Indeed, it's always a good idea to keep the original packaging around in case somebody thinks you are smoking a joint.

Once, at a U2 concert, a security guy grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into the aisle, accusing me of smoking pot. He grabbed the lit cigarette, the last one I had, and in the darkened gloom of Foxboro Stadium it certainly looked like a joint. He was ready to lead me away as I fumbled in my pocket for the crumpled red packaging with the surgeon general's warning crudely stuck onto it. Fortunately, a half-dozen U2 fans sitting nearby saw what was going on, had seen me smoking for most of the show, and came to my rescue."He's just smoking those bidis," they all said. Even though I was set free, I felt like a criminal.

Three days after my trip to Harvard Square, I had seven packs left, so I was on a pack a day rate. At the time, I had a female visitor to share my fascination with, and she became so enamoured we got married. Though she claims she doesn't smoke, she has done her part in depleting the reserves. I was a little tired, strung out from smoking too many of the unfiltered tiny demons. I had this heavy feeling in my lungs, but I ignored the symptoms, as though bidis had lit my soul on fire and turned the self-awareness switch to"off."

Regardless of their obviously damaging effects they had seemed to have become an invaluable ice breaker, which had opened many new faces to me. They were a mask and a crutch and an everyday thing, like orange juice or bills in the mail. Payment due? Maybe 20 years, I'd say.


Postscript: In the time since these experiences were first recorded, about two years, I guess, I have stopped smoking, and then started again, then stopped again.

Right now I'm lighting one up, joylessly though, but I'm pretty sure these flavorful little flame sticks have passed their prime as novelty items. Arizona legislators were so incensed about their incense scent that they made bidis illegal to sell in that state (ck), known worldwide as a hovel of reactionary Americans. Too many kids thought they were candy, due to all of the cute flavors, and lately I've noticed that the cigar store salespeople are looking at me like some kind of 40-year-old juvenile. Once again, I think about quitting, and this mental exercise seems soul inflicting to me. But then, I keep going back to what a Cherokee shaman in Telluride once told me about smoking the peace pipe. He proclaimed the social importance of a good smoke, and said when you exhale, it's like sending out a prayer. That's the funny thing about this smoke: It's the shortest distance between you, me and big deep dark oblivion.