Around the middle of the summer, brightly colored fliers started appearing on the Lower East Side, strewn across coffee shop counters and discarded on curbs. “Island Smokes,” they said. “A healthier, less expensive alternative to smoking. Amazing!!!” There was a cartoon palm tree swaying on some exotic atoll to drive the point home, but more intriguing was the word “discount.” And then the details: this wasn’t really so much an alternative to smoking as a way to do it cheaper. Island Smokes went for $29.99 a carton. Three bucks a pack. Peanuts.
That’s less than what you pay in the south. Less than West Virginia, even. A price tag to win over any pack-a-day New Yorker. Our heartbeat quickened and our palms grew hot—as if a pretty girl had walked through the door.
The location, the flier claimed, was at that bustling Chinatown border corner of Eldridge and Broome (next to Vanessa’s Dumplings, in LES-speak). But surely this place, such a cost-friendly refuge from Mayor Bloomberg’s war on cigarettes, was some kind of myth. There had to be a catch. It was too good to be true.
Turns out is true, but it’s too good to be legal. On Nov. 14, the city filed suit against the shop and its Staten Island sister store, insisting that the Island Smokes is in violation of the Contraband Cigarette Trafficking Act. That edict forces each pack sold in New York to bear a stamp indicating that its price includes the government-mandated $5.85 tax—and Islands doesn’t collect a penny of that fee.
But the people behind Island aren’t panicking. The opposite, really: in 2012 they plan to open outposts in the East Village, Queens, and Brooklyn. If they can shake the feds, expect a total takeover of the city.
And at the center of the fight are the cigarettes themselves, the little paper tubes you fill up individually and place into a tin one at a time. It’s a personal, almost sanctified experience: You create each one yourself, only to burn it as a sort of divine sacrifice. To be a patron of Island Smokes is to get closer to your smoking.
It took a few months after salivating over that first flier for The Observer to seek out these legendary cigarettes. We walked across Delancey Street en route to the corner of Eldridge and Broome, and in the afternoon chill we lit a Marlboro—maybe our last brand-name cigarette. A few guys outside of the marigold-hued Spanish bodega shot the shit in spitfire Chinese, and after passing a man slurping up dumpling soup we saw a stoop on the right. “Island Smokes,” the sign read. The door was jammed, but we jiggered it and went inside.
“What do you want—mild, medium, full flavor, it’s all tobacco, natural tobacco,” a guy said. “You know the toxins in cigarettes, regular cigarettes, we don’t have those, it’s just the smoke.”
The attendant was pointing to a ten-page Wikipedia printout taped up on the wall. It was an addendum to Wikipedia’s “Cigarette” entry that listed, in full, the hundreds of life-threatening chemicals present in your normal plug of a Parliament or Marlboro. He repeated that his cigarettes have none of them. (He failed to mention, however, that they are still cigarettes, and they will still kill you.)
“Come on, let’s get you set up,” he said. In one hand was a plastic container stuffed yay-high with shards of that addictive leaf, and in the other a pocket-sized tin container. “Island Smokes,” the tin said.
On either side of the store sat pleased customers working the machines. Each device let out a whirr as the clumps of tobacco sifted from the hatch down to the guts of the thing. To make a cigarette, affix the pre-rolled tubelet to the nozzle at the bottom of the machine, press the magic button and watch the brown leaves scrunch nicely into the little paper pirouette. Then you have a cigarette.
“This working for you?” the man asked. His name was Kenny and his sparkly earring matched the glow of his cigarette’s cherry. Oh, yes, you can light up inside, and the ashtrays are placed at every seat.
We nodded, but we were lying. The first attempts at engaging with the future of cigarette addiction went horribly awry, one split cylinder after another. Could we attach the filter’s edge to the pursed lips of that rumbling machine? Not at all. Could we act cool in front of scowling NYU girls in vintage Hermès scarfs? Not at all. Could we ever condone a simple smoke joint that tried this hard to be hip? Doubtful.
But it was winning us over. With muscle memory we got the rhythm down, and making these cigarettes proved easy. And the noises the thing makes! There was a quick nudge onto the nozzle, the this-way, that-way insertion followed by a ramming of the button and a thrilling big desperate vroooovvvroo-oooom noise, and then the leafy wonderment packing the paper in a fast rush. It was all over pretty quickly.
The vibe was Summer of Love, enhanced by the unrepentant Beatles-Stones-Hendrix soundtrack. Strangers were met with a Heyyy you! A few customers discussed plans to join a march supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement. And those who asked how all this was legal (we certainly didn’t) were met with a simple explanation: It’s no different from picking up a pack of tobacco and rolling papers. But why roll yourself when you can hang out, listen to “Purple Haze” and have a robot do it for you?
Soon enough there were 20 little chimneys in our tin, mercenaries in the fight, and we left the place after smushing our third little monster out in the ashtray.
Immediately after, a friend’s birthday dinner offered an opportunity to see how the Island Smokes would go over with the uninitiated.