Douglas Coupland: Coffee & Cigarettes

‘Smoking indoors feels like listening to smuggled Beatles records in Kiev in 1965. It feels stolen’
Ken Mayer Studios © Douglas Coupland

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I don’t remember how I started drinking coffee. Yes I do. I worked at a Chevron station in high school and in the back area we had this hideous powdered coffee called High Point, which I’d never seen before except in a few TV commercials in which Lauren Bacall (who surely must have been cash starved) was its spokesperson. It burnt out my coffee taste buds forever and desensitised me to all coffees except for weak coffee.

I started smoking around the same time: peer pressure. But don’t get me wrong, I loved it. I may have stopped smoking on Halloween 1988 but I still consider myself a smoker and sometimes — for some reason cold, clear, non-windy days are best — I’ll be out of doors and inside someone’s second-hand-smoke slipstream and I fully experience all those same happy chemicals from age 17 all over again. I also have “slip dreams” at least twice a week. What, I just smoked a pack of Rothmans? But that’s not true — I quit smoking — I did. Oh no, what have I done? And then I wake up. A lot of people have these dreams. It means the chemical will never fully leave your central nervous system.

I miss smoking while driving. I miss smoking and talking on the phone but then, I don’t talk on the phone anymore — nobody does — so it’s kind of moot. I wonder what it must be like smoking while using the internet. It must feel holy.


The slowness and cluelessness of Starbucks staff drives me insane.

I want a brewed coffee, here’s two dollars, so come on, just pour the damn thing. Starbucks needs an express lane. Do they ever measure how many customers they lose because many people don’t want to wait for 10 minutes behind useless people ordering complicated useless beverages? I think they must have monetised some sort of algorithm that equates useless complicated beverages and their ridiculous preparation times versus people who just want coffee. And I know which side wins.


In the summer, some guests stayed over at the house so I tried to be a perfect host and asked if I could get them some cigarettes. I went to a local grocery and after being shamed over the loudspeaker system, a staffer came to a special zone beside the firewood pile and opened a black door and gave me a box with a photo of a diseased lung on it. “That’ll be $50” (or some other insane price). At some point you have to see that the writing’s on the wall for smokers in general.

I’m not sure if those warning labels make smoking even one tiny notch less desirable. Sex and death are the deepest emotional pairing we have as a species. Maybe those pictures of diseased lungs are, in some filthy, perverse, highly human way . . . cool. You’re not supposed to say it but smoking really is cool. It’s a fact, and how you choose to not believe it is possibly the last thing that stands between where you are in life now and becoming a full adult.


I once worked with a girl named Anne-Marie who was allergic to any chemical that ended in “aine”, which meant benzocaine, novocaine and cocaine. That always seemed like the sexiest allergy possible, like being allergic to glitter balls and to orgies where all the women have crimped hair and the guys have zodiac medallions.


Smoking in France is a real eye-opener. All the real decisions seem to get made by smokers during their cigarette breaks. I think that in France smoking is a social filter, and if you don’t smoke you’ll only ever make it to two rungs from the top, never the top. A very strong memory of France for me is of being in people’s apartments and hearing Carla Bruni’s music, and playing with bowls of Ai Weiwei’s ceramic sunflower seeds stolen from the Tate’s Turbine Hall, all within a miasma of indoor smoking. Smoking indoors — it feels like listening to smuggled Beatles records in Kiev in 1965. It feels stolen.


When did Nespresso conquer the planet — three years ago? I woke up one morning and every hotel I went to on earth magically had Nespresso machines. The capsules are so seductive and druggie looking — how can you resist? And for the same amount of electricity it takes to make the aluminium in one capsule you could probably fuel a suburban household for a week. In a thousand years we’ll look back on right now as the Era of Squandered Metals but then, they’ll never know the joy of a custom single hit of coffee which you also didn’t have to stand in some ridiculous Starbucks line-up to get.


In China everyone smokes, which is just sad. They should have a motto: “China: the Land where the Air Does Your Smoking For You.”


My grade seven gym teacher told us that if you quit smoking it took your body seven years to fully quit, so in my mind I wasn’t over the hump until Halloween in 1995. Since then the only anniversary that really registers in my brain is Halloween every seven years: 2002, 2009 and next year’s a biggie for me. I framed the last cigarette I ever smoked. I knew it was the last as I smoked it. If the house is ever on fire, it’s the first thing I’m saving.

Douglas Coupland is currently artist in residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris. He also has a museum show at Rotterdam’s Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art. Twitter @dougcoupland

Photograph: Ken Mayer Studios © Douglas Coupland

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