“The closing walls and the ticking clocks”

Studies have shown that there’s a powerful link between scent and memory. I have personally found this to be profoundly true. One breath in and suddenly I’m transported into the past.

I have smell triggers. Lilies remind me of funerals. The smell of matches reminds me of burning candles late at night in my room as an angsty teen. The salty smell of the ocean reminds me of going to the shore during summers as a child, which was one of the few truly happy parts of my childhood.

Today as I was leaving a meeting at a local conference venue, I was greeted by the heavy scent of cigar smoke, courtesy of a sheepish-looking gentleman who was having a quick smoke in the parking garage of a smoke free property. He needn’t have worried – I’m the type who snitches on people trying to enjoy a simple vice.

Cigar smoke is a smell that takes me back to 2002, when I was working in a cigar bar in New Jersey and generally hating my life. I spent my days inside a giant humidor; there was a cigar store attached to a wine shop, a perfume shop, and a bar/lounge, but the whole place was infused with the smell of the cigars. And the ash, too – I had to wash my hair with a special shampoo after every shift to get the residue out, because customers and employees were encouraged to smoke in the shop. In fact, employees got three free cigars per shift to encourage us to smoke. I would pace the floor when it wasn’t busy, smoking and plotting how I was going to save up enough money to get out of that place.

All of this loveliness was a large, sprawling building off of a busy highway, the sort of place discreet, high-paid escorts would meet clients who whipped out huge rolls of large bills to pay their bar tabs. There was a brand of Grappa we sold that had gold flakes inside of it; often, on Friday and Saturday afternoons, someone would walk around cradling the bottles upside down, so that the gold flakes would slowly disperse throughout the thick liquid. When we put it back in the case, it would look like the gold was suspended in the Grappa. There was a bottle of Remy Martin made of Baccarat crystal that had a diamond in the middle. It wasn’t unusual to sell bottles of wine that cost hundreds of dollars and up.

That place was an absolute parody of humanity – the high rollers and the women who pursued them, the male employees who spent their shifts smoking cigars and bullshitting with the customers, the female employees who wore push up bras and unbuttoned the front of our uniforms as far as we could get away with to increase the tips we got, the men who crowded the place whenever a Playboy model came in to do a cigar rolling demonstration (which she would be shown how to do an hour before) and the women who accompanied them, trying to be Cool Girls before Gillian Flynn gave us that phrase and its articulate explanation.

It brought me back to the winter months, when I’d drive to work in the snow early in the morning to work the opening shift, and shiver outside the door as I waited to be buzzed in. How I’d watch the snow build up in the parking lot and both look forward to and dread cleaning it off when my shift was done. How carefully I drove home in bad weather because I had no car insurance.

I remember that Coldplay was on the radio a lot – their song Clocks was big around that time. I loved it. I once sat in the parking lot before work listening to it and wishing I could just drive off and leave everything behind. I had to talk myself into going into the building that day.

There were a lot of times in 2002 that I wanted to just leave everything behind and run away. A friend tried to convince me to leave everything and run off to Arizona, and I damn near did, except that I let fear hold me back. Sitting in his car one afternoon, I struggled with myself. I wanted to say yes, let’s go, but I just couldn’t do it. I both regret and don’t regret not going – I wish I’d let myself have an adventure while I was young and had fewer responsibilities, but I don’t think that particular person would have been the right one to have it with.

Just one whiff of a cigar, and the closing walls and ticking clocks of that time slammed into me like a rogue wave. The tides that I tried to swim against…indeed. At that time in my life, I was swimming against the tides, but I didn’t understand why. I acted on sheer intuition, was driven purely by emotions.

And yet, I don’t hate the smell of cigars. I always found something warm and comforting in it; it’s easy to imagine warm fires and good cognac, smoking jackets and unread newspapers. Many of the customers were true connoisseurs who appreciated the subtleties of the many different brands we sold.

It wasn’t an ideal job, but it showed me that I could adult on my own, I could support myself, I could be responsible. Those years showed me that I could survive on my own – they gave me confidence to go charging into the future in an attempt to break free of the undertow that had been dragging me my entire life. So while those years were sometimes very hard, I wouldn’t trade them in for anything.

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