The Smokeless Smoke Break, and Other Forms of Staying Sane as the World Crumbles Around You

Spend several years in the workforce, specifically the food and beverage industry, and you’ll become sick of the workplace tyranny enjoyed by casual smokers. “What?” you say, face slack-jawed in disbelief, “Smokers are treated like the lowest form of life, below even journalists.”

You would be right in that regard, but when it comes to breaktime, smokers have that shit on lock. For instance, when I was waiting tables, every smoker had a fix they needed to fill every so often or else they ran the risk of smashing an NC Slab (shout-out to Darryl’s in Raleigh) of ribs into the faces of the next person who asked for extra ranch dressing with their french fries. This in mind, managers frequently consent to the smoke break, where the wait or host staff would step into the alleyway and get dosed up on tobacco (or often other substances, but that’s a different post by far). Meanwhile, those of us who don’t ingest carcinogens regularly into our bodies are left on the floor, trying to figure out exactly how table 37 managed to get an entire pancake (intact!) lodged under the base of the table.

Same thing at newspapers. My coworkers who smoke stand up every so often, take their train outdoors, walk briskly to the edge of the property (thank you new company protocol) and take their break. There’s nothing stopping the rest of us from joining them really, or from picking up the habit, or picking up a more elaborate habit where every hour we need to jump for 15 minutes on a moonbounce carefully placed outside the press building, for instance. But it doesn’t quite have the same sting if it isn’t a fix that you’re getting, if it doesn’t fill some need that must be sated or else your brain will turn to goo and drip out your ears.

There’s been times when I’ve needed a cigarette break, and took the plunge. I’m thinking specifically of my first week as an editor at the college paper, where I found out with about one day’s notice we had a special section to put out and somehow managed to get it together (this is why almost all special sections in newspapers are just advertising ploy BS, fyi). Oh sweet Marlboro filters. You’ve seen me through hard times.

But this is the reason we’ve instituted the smokeless smoke break at our newsroom. Well, this and several other reasons that relate to the general malaise of the industry and a particular strand of doldrums that render productivity a moot point on rote and repetitive Monday afternoons. But you know that story already.

The smokeless smoke break! Join us on the patio outside the newsroom, a lovely — and well-furnished — outdoor respite that’s rarely used, presumably due to the fact that most people who resign themselves to work in an office are generally scared of the fear of. The section of patio is conveniently off-limits to smokers, as it is part of company property.

Here in this smokeless smoke break we sit under the canopy of the impressive oak tree and soak up the typical 70-degree afternoon sunshine while singing songs of despair and plotting future drinking ventures, which may or may not be related to aforementioned songs of despair.
We watch and sometimes try to catch the lizards that run rampant around that courtyard like some sort of cheap Japanese monster film. Then we plot how the newspaper could be run better and compare notes on the most ridiculous web-themed trick of the week. Real example: “Let’s make an Oscar contest! With no prizes whatsoever for the winner! People will love that.”
Plus, you avoid this problem.

Then we taper off back into the newsroom and finish whatever mundane reporting needs to be done for the day, full of just a tiny bit more sanity from the few minutes in the sunshine. And no one had to ingest anything in their lungs to do it.

It should be noted that the smokeless smoke break is not sanctioned by internal management, nor are they aware of it beyond the possibility that they notice several employees sneaking out the side door on sunny days. But if they try to crack down on the SLSBs, we’ll bring a pro-tobacco discrimination suit so fast their menthols will spin.

But goddamnit sometimes when the weather’s nice and you don’t feel like the work you’re doing that day has any relation to the greater public good or the higher purpose you got into newspapers in the first place, take the smokeless smoke break and you might just realize that everyone else feels exactly the same way. Which gets us back to our original question: so now what?

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