“Here. Take it.”
That’s what Tara Toppino said to me holding out her IM Corona Old Boy lighter. “You need a lighter.” It was a beautiful gesture, giving me something that she held dear, such a beautiful piece of hardware, done at a moment that did not call for a gift or reward. I did not do anything special nor was it a date that held some importance, and that really was the gift, and something I never forgot.
Fire is important. It is the basis of modern civilization, what separates us from murdering beasts and keeps us winning the odds against nature. It allowed us to survive in places we biologically couldn’t, to reach places that were not of our own planet, and to develop the brainpower by cooking protein to do everything we’ve done to this moment.
So yeah, a lighter is important.
There are few things I leave the house without; a bandana, my cellphone, and my IM Corona Old Boy lighter.
For me it’s perfect. Classy and understated, sophisticated yet simple. It turns heads but not at breakneck speeds, and it always lights, always. It has a secret plunger in the bottom that can be used to open the fuel screw, aerate a good cigar, or do a bump of cocaine off of. It has lit countless cigarettes, campfires, and birthday candles around the world. It’s my tool of choice and I never leave without it.
Which is why I will never go back to Shanghai.
Butane lighters are legal on planes, although that doesn’t ever stop me from having trouble with the TSA. They don’t see many lighters like this and think it’s a torch lighter, which it is not. Showing them that is difficult, because they don’t let you light the lighter, for fear it might end the world. They are also to ignorant most of the time to listen on how to operate it. Despite these hiccups its never been confiscated, even if I have to patiently explain the function of my Old Boy.
This does not apply in Shanghai.
“No lighters.” period. That was the last word. I pleaded and argued but “no lighters” was it. China isn’t really a place you want to fuck around with authority, but this lighter meant a lot to me, and it isn’t cheap to replace either. I took the fuel screw out and let out the butane as a gesture of good will, which didn’t go over well, and didn’t change any policies they had towards “no lighters”. I couldn’t send it home, and I couldn’t bring it with me. Thats when my friend whispered in my ear “my bag is open right behind you. Just drop it in and say you’re going to leave it with a friend outside.”
I did. He went into the terminal, I explained that someone outside was going to take it for me.
I started to walk out when I was stopped again. Seems like my traveling companion had bought an electronic lighter as a gift for his wife, which also wasn’t allowed. Now the guard wanted both lighters, in their hand, now.
Except mine wasn’t there anymore.
You think to yourself “don’t sweat” as in literally “do not sweat” as in “do not produce liquid out of your skin” not in a California circa 1980’s “don’t sweat man” way. It doesn’t work. You sweat. You smell the fear of a Chinese prison because you didn’t want to give up your lighter.
I ran through the possibilities. I could run, and get shot. Of course they were shooters. Everyone knew that. I could tell the truth and have a trial and go to prison and they cane here, of course there is caning involved. I could do the Scooby Doo “whaaaa?!” and play dumb and not know where in the world that lighter went, they could then look at the security tapes, of course they had tapes, then there is the trial and the caning again, possible shooting execution, of course the do shooting executions here.
“What?! Ok, ok coming!” I shouted pretending to hear an imaginary friend outside of security, “be right back guys…” I said, grabbed my friends electronic lighter, and I closed my eyes as I walked out of security waiting to feel the snake bite of bullets riddling my body. I walked slowly fast, down to the postage center, where two very bored men sat in a grey room. Seems like post offices are equally depressing around the world. I took out the electronic lighter and pointed to the sign that said “ship items to United States” at which they shook their head and pointed to the sign that said “No lighters”. What was this country’s hatred to lighters all about?! I nodded, worried now that I might miss my flight and have to live in China forever, without a lighter, and slid my friend’s gift lighter across the table.
“Gift. For you.” as the two men stared at me with blank faces I shrugged and left, double time back to security. The movement of truth was before me. They paused at my already stamped passport, said some words to a stern looking woman with a special hat, who then was called over by the guy that gave me the lighter trouble in the first place. They talked with severe eyes while looking back over at me. I was done. “That’s the American that tried to blow up the plane with the lighter. Said he was going to ship it downstairs. Likely story!” They probably didn’t say. Then the well millinered sergent got on the phone. She was calling the post office.
“Don’t fuck me guys.” I said to myself.
She hung up the phone and came over to me. I wonder if they could shoot canes at someone. The ultimate punishment. Instead she waved me through with a mixture of disgust and apathy that was greeted with a very subtle but humble “xie xie” from me.
“Man, you stink.” The B.O. from fear is not to be mettled with. It no longer mattered and I was through. Jerry casually gave me back my lighter. We made it Old Boy. We did it once again.
Back in the states I wrote IM Corona in Japan. My fuel screw was missing, left on a security counter at the Shanghai airport. Three days later they sent me one free of charge. Now that is service.
I have other lighters that I’ve collected. Table lighters from motocross rallies in Italy, old submariner lighters, WWI trench lighters, Hippie enamel lighters, trashy tourist lighters, even a 1922 silver Dunhill from London. I love them all, but it’s the Old Boy that you’ll find next to my hip everyday. It’s not the same Old Boy that lovely Ms. Toppino gave me nearly a decade ago; that lighter and three like it have been given away to friends who happened to admire the Old Boy just like it was given to me. Seems only right, and sometimes the ritual is more important then the action.
It’s times like this I remember the Lighterman’s Creed:
- This is my lighter. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
- My lighter is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.
- Without me, my lighter is useless. Without my lighter, I am useless. I must light my lighter true. I must light quicker than my enemy who is trying to get her number first. I must light her cigarette before he lights it. I will…
- My lighter and I know that what counts in life is not the butane we exhaust, the noise of our spark, nor the smoke we make. We know that it is the fire that count. We will fire…
- My lighter is human, even as I, because it is my life. Thus, I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its strength, its parts, its accessories, its flint and its nozzle. I will keep my lighter clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other. We will…
- Before God, I swear this creed. My lighter and I are the defenders of my country. We are the masters of our enemy. We are the saviors of my life.
- So be it, until victory is mine and there is no enemy, but peace!
Roberto Serrini is a professional traveler who records his adventures in word, photography and film. He is a staff writer for Get Lost Magazine, a senior contributor to Trip Advisor, as well as a commercial film director and drone pilot. His work can be seen at www.robertoserrini.com where he can be contacted as well.