In 1992 I was living and studying in Rome. In the first 5 weeks of the semester I made the transformation from T-Shirt American to far cooler than most people wannabe-Italian. I had all the pieces to the puzzle except the right sunglasses. I sported an old pair of Wayfarers which did not serve me well in disguising my already difficult to disguise pale 6’5″ American frame.
I had been eyeing these amazing POLICE brand sunglasses in a shop near The Spanish Steps which were 95,000 Lira, roughly 80 bucks. This was an enormous amount of money for a kid that had $1200 to live on for the entire semester. I needed to raise funds and had no idea how to do it.
In our 6th week or so in Rome we took a 10 day trip to Greece as a class. I was a about a 6 or 7 cig per evening smoker at the time and when I saw the killer prices on cigs in the duty-free shop on the ferry I had to stock up for the rest of the semester. I was even more amazed when I saw CHESTERFIELD cigarettes were $15 for 3 cartons of smokes. $15?! CHESTERFIELD was the brand my late grandfather had smoked and rather than think of it morbidly as a contributor to his untimely passing, I considered CHESTERFIELD smoking to be an homage to a great man, and I quickly purchased them.
It turns out I kind of hated the way the CHESTERFIELDS tasted so I cut way back on my smoking. I was never a day smoker and cutting back at night meant I developed quite a surplus.
Imagine my surprise when we returned to Italy and there was a cigarette strike. Italians will strike for anything at any time. There never seems to be rhyme or reason to the greatest of all Italian inefficiencies: lo sciopero. Train strikes, bus strikes, airline strikes, and various other public service nuisances paled in comparison to the great cigarette strike of ’92.
Within a few days of our return from Greece, the unsavvy and the unprepared UD students as well as 56 million Italians were out of cigarettes. African vendors normally scratching and clawing to sell trinkets while deftly avoiding the cops were selling $10 a pack smokes to crowds 4 deep on the streets. Cops would cut the line looking like they were going to bust the cunning tribesmen of Cameroon only to walk away with a smug look and a pack or two of counterfeit Marlboros.
On campus there was widespread panic among the addicted. Kids were worried they were going to have to sell their Eurail passes to get nicotine. People were phoning home claiming to have been mugged so mom and dad would send an extra $300 for extorted cigs. Where my classmates saw need, I saw opportunity.
I had 27 packs of CHESTERFIELDs and I knew there was no way I would smoke them all. I allotted myself 7 packs for the remainder of the semester, which would give me 3 smokes a day and I put the remaining 20 packs up for sale at $5 a pack. My classmates decried me as a usurer and a shyster yet they happily paid my discounted price compared to the street vendors. Marlboros may have been the brand of choice, but in late October 1992 the world was smoking CHESTERFIELDs.
I knew my grandfather would not have been proud of me as I slid the sexy new POLICE sunglasses onto my face for the first time and strolled out into the piazza to preen about like the locals. I knew he would have wanted me to have given my classmates those smokes at my cost so that they would not have had to fork our their travel money for a nasty vice. I knew all of this, but boy did I look good.