My Old Flame

I began the dalliance shortly after arriving at college. I was finally away from home, a young man itching to wear a tweed jacket and read scholarly works in my chambers. Syracuse University being a “dry” campus, I was not able to accompany my studies with a glass of port or sherry. Pipes, on the other hand, were legal, and interesting. Pipe-smoking seemed literary, comforting and homey. The romance of pipes and tobacco — Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes with his calabash and shag tobacco, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Merry and Pippin puffing in the Shire — spoke to me.

I found my first pipes at Manny’s on Marshall Street. Emmanuel “Manny” Slutsker was a former GI who had toured Europe with General Patton. He returned home and bought a smoke shop on Marshall Street in 1949. By the time I went to Syracuse in 1964, Manny’s was an institution, an emporium selling a little bit of everything. But he still had a display wall of pipes, held in place by clips, pipes of all sizes, shapes, styles, finishes. Manny was a friendly man with warm, sleepy eyes like a Bassett hound. He wore his glasses down his nose and he’d look over them when he spoke to you. I was curious about pipes and he was endlessly patient. He would swing the display boards aside and reach into the boxed pipes behind to illustrate a point, to show me something unique.

“This is a Sasieni Four-Dot, Italian, a very good pipe,” he said one day. I did not buy the Four Dot, but I did buy a small pipe with an apple-shaped bowl, medium brown finish, with beautiful grain and a black stem. I think it was a Comoy. I remember the way it felt in my hand. And a bulldog with a diamond shank, half bend and “birdseye” grain around the rim. And a churchwarden with its long curved stem that brought a smile to both our faces as Manny lifted it from the case. Browsing and buying pipes at Manny’s was a joy.

I also loved the accouterments. I had an oak humidor with dovetailed corners and a rack on each side; it held six pipes in all. A pipe tool, fuzzy pipe cleaners, wooden matches (Swan Vestas brought from England by my friend David Granite), and pipe tobaccos, John Rolfe that tasted like peaches, the ones in tins with names like Plumcake and Symphony. A strip of apple peel made the tobacco moist again.

My collection grew. My mother, traveling in Europe, bought me a white meerschaum in a leather case, too pretty to smoke, and a briar whose bowl was carved as the head of a Viking.

Of course, there was a downside. The loss of one’s sense of taste, the occasional burnt tongue, the La Brea tar pits that bubbled inside the stem. Not pretty, and eventually I abandoned pipe smoking to specialize in drinking, a pastime I judged more rewarding and one for which I needed my sense of taste. One vice was enough.

But I never fell out of love with pipes, the history, the beauty of the wood, the warm smell of pipe tobacco in a room filled with books, the wall at Manny’s. When I bade farewell to drinking last year, I began casting about for another vice, and, inevitably, musing about a return to the pipe.

However, I hate smoke. And it would be foolish of me to generate my own. There’s allergies, cancer, heart disease, shortness of breath, et al. And the fact that smoking would instantly void my “non-smoker’s special low rate” life insurance policy. If only life were simple.

So I compromise. I shall reassemble a small collection of pipes that I can clean and polish, putter around with and gaze upon, without actually smoking. I still have the Viking. The exact same oak humidor, long lost, was re-found on eBay. (There were two for sale.) Perhaps in a small way, you can go back again.

* * *

Photos: Sax Rohmer (Arthur Sarsfield Ward), author of the Fu Manchu books and many other thrillers; H.L. Mencken, essayist, editor and thorn in the side of the pompous; Rudyard Kipling, whose “The Maltese Cat” is probably the single best piece of writing, ever, on polo.

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