Smokes, 1994

The summer afternoon thunderstorm left streams between the cobbles. They reflect the acidic green neon of the Hard Rock Cafe sign above my head. This Hard Rock Cafe is not one of the international chain of Stratocaster strewn designer hamburger joints from La Jolla to Abu Dhabi. This is a labyrinthine dinge palace replete with a jukebox playing Aerosmith, Nirvana, Metallica, old Black Sabbath and Alice in Chains. The bartender splashes Hurlimann beer into glasses and hands them to the adolescent customers who otherwise sit on their high bar stools, rolling long Euro-joints of hash mixed with tobacco shaken from eviscerated imported Marlboros.

When I go outside, the smoke follows me; I sit in my own layer of it, tobacco, beer, the heavy sweet hash smell. My first trip to Europe is an exclusive tour of Zürich’s post-adolescent hash bars, concealed park benches and castle ruins. I take a deep breath of fresh air, washed in the rain, the wind and the evening. People pass, earnest and young, in black clothing, everyone, and everyone is smoking.

Although I’m bored and depressed by the scene, by everything, I don’t think of leaving. My ride, my DATE, my LOVER is one of the teenagers inside, and it isn’t like he’s going to drive ME. He will certainly emerge so completely fucked up he’ll demand I drive HIM home. Besides, I have no idea how to get anywhere, either on the tram or in a car. Zürich is a maze, a scary, dark and twisted tangle of identical streets with no landmarks and no horizon. It’s a living Giger painting. Giger even lives here; he’s drawing from life. I sit on a bench and prop my feet on a flower box that has Switzerland’s only dead geraniums.

I stayed inside long enough to beat the local high-scorer on the Tetris game in the corner and then beat my own high score twice. As I played, I wondered what sense it makes to be in Switzerland playing Tetris. There is something very wrong with that. I’ve never been in Europe before.

To my left, down the street, only a little ways, is Zürich’s one McDonalds, a magnet for all the American-culture idolators of the Niederdorf. A Big Mac is about $7 US, fries $3, but the milkshakes are much, much better than any I have ever had anywhere. There is really something about Swiss cows.

A boy and his girlfriend sit down on a bench near mine. He lights her cigarette. She inhales deeply.

“Could I bum a cigarette?” I ask, in English.

“Are you American?” the boy asks, shaking  a Marlboro toward me. I take it and lean forward for a light.

“Yes,” I answer. “Danke.” Smoke rises between me and the green rivulets of light threading down these solemn cobbled channels to the river.


Part of a collection of autobiographical episodes, each centered on a cigarette. I’ve had a dozen  cigarettes in my life, each attached to a particular moment that called out, “This is one! Bum a cigarette!” So…my smoking is more in tune with the Native American tradition that treats tobacco as a sacred herb.

8 thoughts on “Smokes, 1994

    • That was my during first Swiss experience. I really didn’t know where I was. Very strange in every respect. I almost wish there were someone who could explain it all to me, but there isn’t.

  1. I can’t recall the details of my trip to Zurich so well. Mostly I remember snowy alps and trying not to wipe out on my shaky skies. I obviously missed the grandeur that was the ?MarionPlatz? is that what they called the civic center region of downtown? But your description reminded me of Kurfurstendam Strasse in Berlin at night with the tie-dyed hair and disaffected youth sprawled on the steps, smoking thin drags and exhaling ennui. As to Giger, I googled the man, he had issues–major lady-part issues from what I can tell. Don’t walk down his streets after dark!

    • Giger — I don’t like his work. He designed the monster for Alien…. Marienplatz is in Munich, also a very interesting place. Zürich’s main street is Bahnhofstrasse (fancy stores). It doesn’t really have a main square except the Lindenhof. It’s far less grand than Munich. Exactly the atmosphere you describe in Berlin — that seems to be gone now from downtown Zürich, but I’m sure it’s still somewhere in the city. 🙂

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