The scent of copper

My fin­gers smell of cop­per. And I like that.

I recent­ly took time to sort through a lit­tle jew­el­ry box I have, in which I keep my cuff links, my col­lar stays, and my exten­sive col­lec­tion of 4‑H lapel pins. Mixed in are a few oth­er assort­ed wear­able trin­kets, and buried beneath the whole mess was my Zippo.

I had quite for­got­ten about it. This has been just as well; hav­ing an excuse to own a Zip­po was pret­ty much suf­fi­cient rea­son for me to take up smok­ing a decade ago, and so, con­verse­ly, since I have no desire to go back to that par­tic­u­lar prac­tice, such an arti­fact serves lit­tle pur­pose aside from nos­tal­gic temp­ta­tion. So it has float­ed along amongst the unused detri­tus, an object of style that no longer fit my style of living.

I’m not sure why I nev­er noticed before that this par­tic­u­lar Zip­po was made of cop­per. I knew it was metal­lic, a met­al that was so eas­i­ly tar­nished that a dull brown pati­na was its nat­ur­al state. Occa­sion­al­ly I would attempt an ardent rub­bing, which would buff it to a short-lived gleam. I had nev­er real­ly used it reg­u­lar­ly; by the time I bought it my smok­ing days were pret­ty much over, and the work­ing part did­n’t fit snug­ly enough in the out­er case, so it was­n’t that great to actu­al­ly use.

But it was still a Zip­po, the third I had owned. My first, a sim­ple stain­less steel mod­el, I picked out at the tobac­conist, along with my first box of Nat Sher­mans, some­time in the ear­ly fall of 1999. It worked well, and was styl­ish­ly sim­ple, a piece of classy flash that fit per­fect­ly in my Cary Grant-mafioso appren­tice­ship. But in the spring of 2000 it slipped out of my suit jack­et pock­et and was gone.

Since I was then at the (very low) peak of my (extreme­ly lim­it­ed) career as a smok­er, it was with some urgency that I replaced this vital imple­ment. The shop was out of the mod­el I had pur­chased before, so I went with the least expen­sive one in the dis­play case. It was paint­ed mat­te black, with a com­pass rose on the front. It seemed vague­ly appro­pri­ate, giv­en my voca­tion­al wan­der­ings at the time. And, though not quite as high-class, it was in fine work­ing order. Yet I unwise­ly lent it out dur­ing a con­fus­ing evening involv­ing leather pants, a Lords of Acid con­cert, and far too many cos­mopoli­tans. Despite a pro­longed effort to retrieve it in the weeks that fol­lowed, I even­tu­al­ly had to write that Zip­po off as well.

I splurged on a fan­cy one the third time around, despite the sev­er­al warn­ing signs that its func­tion might not match its form. I mud­dled along for a bit, stopped smok­ing, and the dull met­al lighter float­ed along in var­i­ous draw­ers and shoe­box­es for most of the last decade. Until this past week, that is. When I came across it amongst my poul­try awards and ances­tral baubles, I had to sit down with it and enjoy the feel of it in my hand again. Flick­ing it open and closed — one of the most amaz­ing and beau­ti­ful sounds in the world. I turned the dull, tof­fee-col­ored thing over and around in my hand.

It felt good there. And for the first time, I felt able to enjoy the plea­sure of the Zip­po as an object, with­out any con­comi­tant urge to light any­thing with it. I start­ed to car­ry it with me as I walked to and fro, wor­ry­ing it between fin­gers and thumb, tak­ing solace in the feel of it. By the end of the first day the dull pati­na was gone, and the sur­face shone bright­ly. But it was not the col­or that I rec­og­nized first, it was the smell on my fin­gers. I strug­gled to place it for a bit, and then it hit me. They smelled like— pen­nies. They smelled of cop­per, the cop­per that my Zip­po was made of. It is a keen, vital smell; vital in every sense. There is an ani­mat­ing urgency in that scent, and a feel­ing of the elec­tri­fy­ing ener­gy it is so well suit­ed to car­ry. It is also a smell that set­tles on the tongue, where it is the famil­iar taste of blood. It has become a focus point for me as I nev­er thought a smell could be.

Who needs to smoke? Not me. I’ve got a Zip­po, and I’m doing just fine.


  1. Only you, my friend, could men­tion “poul­try awards” and “ances­tral baubles” in the same blog entry… Well done, you!

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