Wednesday, January 11, 2017
It flares with a sizzle, a sound fresh and new which echoes back old and frail. The sulfur scent lingers on my fingers and still hides in the corners of the room. The curious looking folded piece of thick paper filled with red-tipped paperboard sticks, its black, sandy stripe ominous, sits on the table. Curious, yes, yet also comforting. I can almost taste the vaguely familiar smell, fresher and greener than the acrid smokey scent that wafts up from them.
They were everywhere when I was a kid. I can't look around the memory rooms of my childhood and not see them. In someone's kitchen, maybe Earl Wayne's, there was a blue trimmed ceramic bowl of them. Jack's Auto Parts, The Grange, The Whippy Dip, The Bigtop Diner, John Deere, exotic hotel and motel packs, The Mason Bowl, Kings Island, an always rotating supply. I remember even at ten or eleven taking a pack and shoving them into my worn out Levi's.
They were the business cards of tradespeople. Plumbers had them, car shops had them, clubs and civic groups got them printed. Gas stations, architects, the eye doctor, honest, and every bar and restaurant ever. I can't imagine how many packs I handled in more than thirty years of tending bar and waiting tables. Ashtrays always had a pack in them, there were plates or bowls or baskets of them at the hostess stand and on that funny half door at the coat check.
I had for years a matchbook from every restaurant I worked at, but, I guess I sorta used them.
There were basically two types of business matches back then, the paper ones I mentioned earlier and boxed ones, the matches wood, which were highly coveted and more expensive. My mom had a collection of matches, in books as I recall. I only vaguely remember looking at them as a kid, but a tornado ruined our house when I was thirteen and those matches were everywhere in a back bedroom where they'd been in a closet. I can see them now, a crazy variety of colors and shapes and styles, like wildflowers blooming in a room with no ceiling, no roof.
My dad bought them, a white paper box of, maybe, fifty. He'd rip just a bit of the paper away to get at them one at a time. That box of matches sat on a shelf next to his carton of Camels in a closet just inside the kitchen so that when I stole a pack of cigarettes from him I could easily grab a light, twenty smokes, twenty matches. I remember buying a box of those matches when I lived in Queens and a lighter wasn't in the budget some years later. I opened them just as he had and put them in a closet, next to my Marlboro Lights. The covers were an odd almost Tiffany blue, I remember. A color I'd only just learned from a girl named Holly Golightly, who I loved.
There was a third kind of matches, "strike-anywhere" the were called. We kept a box in the camper when I was a kid and I've always had a box of them sealed up in my own camping box. They were the coolest, really. You could strike them on a log or the rusted burner of a white gas Coleman stove, anywhere really, hence the name. In chemistry class in high school, Mr. Hendricks did a lab where we learned how they worked and made some. I can still see and smell the smoke of them all hanging in the air under the stained acoustic tiles of the ceiling.
You know the cowboy who lit his match on his pants? I could do that by the time I was twelve with the stike-anywheres. By sixteen or seventeen I'd learned to snap one to flame with my thumbnail. By the time I was in college, I'd learned all the tricks and dangers and etiquette matches required. I spent a month figuring out how to light a paper book match with one hand... 'cause sometimes your other hand is otherwise occupied.
There is a way to sort of fling a match by holding its head against the striker and shooting it off with one finger. You can get it five, six, feet... or it sticks to your finger. This is a useful skill when one is lighting a gasoline soaked bonfire and needs a few feet of safety. It's also a good skill for a match fight - think five or six young men shooting matches at each other on outdoor patio at the student center, or anywhere really - the safety of which was always questioned by campus police and dorm reps and forest rangers. One time a lit match landed in my friend Bob's pant cuff and, because one tends to move around a lot in a match fight, the air lit it into flames. We just stared at it as though it had never occurred to us that someone might catch fire in our insanely ill-conceived game.
It's funny, we grew up being told "Don't play with matches!" Seems like for twenty or so years that was one of my favorite entertainments.
But, we'd also grown up watching people use matches. In our homes, on television, in novels and movies, rock concerts and campgrounds we saw them in use all the time. I mean, who among us hadn't stood next to their dad in a bewilderingly dark basement as he lit a match and waved it slowly down then up the rows of round fuses? We'd all seen candle and lamps lit in a scene in a movie - darkness, a match flares and the light is but a small circle around it, it moves deliberately to a candle, the wick catches, in the broadening light faces are revealed - to the point it was really a trope, an overworked device.
My friend Don dropped a his Zippo - which I have and shall always loathe - at a a J Geils concert in maybe '77 or '78. It had been his dad's or his uncle's and... Zippos always had stories behind them, drove me nuts. Anyway, we were down on our hands and knees, on the sticky, littered floor of a concrete stadium looking for that brass, bragging lighter by lighting matches and hoping to see it shine in the flare as they were lit. I remember, even then, noting the irony was rich in that. Of course the band was rocking and the crowd was rolling. I don't remember if we found it. I still don't care.
In a dark cabin I watched a drunken friend strike a Diamond Blue Tip on the box, he lit his cigarette and casually threw the whole box into the fire instead of the spent match which was his intent. We watched those matches spit and sizzle for a good five minutes. It was something.
So matches were ubiquitous and in nearly constant use. Easily, dozens of times a day we saw them. We saw the utility and power of them, recognized their importance and, well, we saw the romance in them.
Here's where I falter. You see, the most frequent thing we saw matches used for was, lighting cigarettes. I don't want to seem as if I am condoning smoking, but there was a romance around it that simply cannot be denied, and lighting a cigarette, yours or another's, was a practiced art.
She asks for a light in a crowded bar and steadies your hand with hers as the music plays and hearts pound.
A beach walk in November, Belmar, the wind wet, wild, cold. A girl, a breakup, a match lit against the wind. Her bending in to light her Benson and Hedges, cupping my already cupped hands. Her face close. A tear.
A party, a couch, six friends, one match, seven cigarettes. Laughter.
A band of boys, warriors all, lighting matches for each other, smoking and posing, outside Mason High.
I best stop there. I could write endless essays and stories around my love affair with cigarettes and smoking, they're good stories, good memories. I will someday.
Fortunately, cigarettes, aren't the point today. Neither, really, are the matches.
By the mid '70s, disposable butane lighters came into the market. My dad was an early adopter, we still had those matches in the cupboard, but dad's pack of Camels now lay on the table with an adjustable "Bic Click." I went to college at the end of the decade and my welcome box in the dorm contained, along with razors and shaving cream, pizza coupons and a condom, a "Cricket" lighter. We ran them out real fast and when we discovered they were, like, a buck-fifty at Woolworths where the cigarettes were six bits, we just used the free matches, for a while.
Within a couple of years, the price of the disposables came down and we were learning how convenient and versatile they were, and, well, the matches ended up in the back of a drawer, waiting for the lighter to run out or for a pilot light needing a re-light. By the last decade of the century, matches were essentially, replaced.
It is easy to look back at the ways and things of the past and see them as arcane, or quaint, if not inferior or even ridiculous. But, you know what? - matches worked, and they did with style, we used them with style. Matches were never broken, dysfunctional... things just changed.
The avocado kitchen phone with the twisted, twenty-foot cord, still made my plans and got me talking to the girls. The carburetor in my VW bug regulated the airflow just fine, no injection needed. Gas stoves had pilot lights or you just used a match every time you fired one up, no electrostatic starters around for decades. It wasn't hard, before the remote, to walk to the television and change stations, the channel still got switched. We wrote letters with photographs in them and sent them on a arduous journey and waited for a response, same as today just in the time-frame of days or weeks, not minutes or seconds. A cone filter in a pour-thru coffee maker or an old stove-top peculator still gave us a hot cup of Joe and took up less room and money than the behometh that sits on my counter today.
We didn't know all these things were coming. That's so important to understand when we look back. We didn't think getting up to change the channel sucked, we needed to change the channel, we needed to light the lamps.
Nick said something interesting a few years ago. I thought it funny at the time, but, today it seems relevant. He said: "Didn't you miss the internet when you were a kid, Dad?"
Thanks for coming along with me today, I appreciate it.