by Nic Rowan

Last month my tobacconist delivered the bad news. He finally had run out of Nat Shermans. The iconic brand of luxury cigarette had been discontinued the previous fall, but at the time he promised me that he had enough in store to last several years. I suppose he assured too many other people of the same thing, and word got around a little too quickly. Now he was out forever. 

I’m only a seasonal smoker, but this was a moment of crisis. I left the store and started calling other smoke shops. The answer was the same everywhere. They had been cleaned out for months. An hour spent trawling dubious websites left me dejected. I had trouble accepting that it really was over. Something that I had relied on for years simply did not exist anymore. Worse, it was my wedding anniversary.

I felt similar panic when Domino’s changed its recipe about a decade ago. And when Brooks Brothers announced its bankruptcy in 2020 after months of forced store closures. Or this year, when the grocery store near my house stopped carrying Cel-Ray. I drove all over Northern Virginia looking for it and only found one deli that still carried this vegetal soda—but even then, only occasionally. A friend on Long Island soon delivered a dismal report on the shortage: many drink distributors no longer bother to ship Cel-Ray outside of New York City.

Endings like these are wretched. I often make them worse because I refuse to let go of things, forgetting that they are just things. I still have several cartons of stale Nat Shermans in my desk drawers. I can’t smoke them, but I can’t bring myself to toss them out either. In my basement, there are stacks of old Weekly Standard issues and crates of magazine paraphernalia: branded notebooks, calendars, and pens. It’s unlikely that I will ever use them. I have an entire run of the American edition of the Catholic Herald in a box which I fear I will never open again.  

An old hand in the memorabilia collecting business once told me that he saved a brick from his former office building after it was demolished. He keeps it on the floor of his car. Sometimes he glances down at it and revels in its misery. Another friend, a great fan of Armand’s, at one time the cheapest pizza joint on Capitol Hill, stole his own brick when the Heritage Foundation wrecked the place to make way for student apartments. He keeps that brick in his bedroom and regards its theft as a bitter triumph. The most famous of the brick thieves was Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker staff writer who over the course of more than fifty years amassed a huge collection of knick-knacks from the ruins of his favorite doomed Manhattan buildings. 

Only rarely do these panics grip the population at large, and that’s always a spectacular occurrence. When the Washington Redskins became the Washington Football Team, for instance, scores of loyal fans fought to snap up the last pieces of official merchandise. People fought in department stores for the discounted gear. Wild bidding wars ensued on eBay. I remember cruising around local estate sales with my siblings in those few weeks after the announcement. We often found mementos from the first Joe Gibbs era arranged like little shrines around old television sets.   

One day I woke up early in the morning and drove half an hour south to pick up an ashtray commemorating the Skins’ 1991 season, on whose success they rode to their last Super Bowl victory. When I arrived at the house where its owner lived, he showed me an impressive stash that included commemorative Coke bottles, pewter steins, and unopened Wheaties boxes. 

He sighed when I asked for the ashtray. He would gladly give it to me, he said, but he wished that I would just let the past go. “They’re not the same team,” he said. “They never will be.” 

“I know,” I replied. “But isn’t that the point?”

As I drove away though, I started to see it his way. And anyway, the ashtray was cheaply made, a little dinged on the side, and altogether crude in appearance. When I came home, I tucked it away. I haven’t looked at it since.

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