I started smoking when I was fifteen years old, back when almost everybody smoked, shortly after the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health confirmed a causal relationship between cigarettes and lung cancer.
The committee’s four hundred page report claimed that an average smoker was nine to ten times more likely to die of lung cancer than the average non-smoker (and a heavy smoker was twenty times more likely), that while the risk increased with the duration of smoking it diminished with cessation, and that smoking also opened the way to chronic bronchitis, emphysema and coronary artery disease.
Apparently the report was big news, front-page news, when it came out in 1964. But I was not listening. I started using tobacco in 1968 while a sophomore in high school. We were living in Princeton, New Jersey at the time, a hectic time when the climate at northeast ivy-league schools began to shift from entrenched, conservative elitism to left-leaning activism.
Rebellion, revolution, crackled in the air we breathed. We artists and hippies at Princeton High pictured ourselves charging into phalanxes of helmeted cops with clubs and tear gas as we helped our comrades at the university organize demonstrations against the draft, against imperialism, class oppression and the war in Vietnam, against Dow Chemical (makers of napalm) and the presence on the university campus of the Institute for Defense Analysis and the Army Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC).
Inflamed by reports of nation-wide marches and sit-ins, we could be found sunning ourselves in open fields cultivating serene cosmic thoughts or skulking in dingy rathskellers strewn with Zig Zag cigarette papers and acid album covers, adding artwork and glitter to banners celebrating civil rights, free love and feminism, dividing our time between saving the world and wasting our minds on recreational drugs.
Although speed, cocaine and heroin were readily available, the drugs of choice at Princeton High were marijuana and LSD and there was no lack of either. Dazzled by the ecstasy of politics, drugs, sex and intense psychedelic stimuli, we were caught up, if not in sweeping historical events, then at least in our own elated sense of history.
The United Nations had declared 1968 to be the International Year of Human Rights. Same-day broadcasts from the other side of the world and the awesome quiet of the first moon shots gave new meaning and poignancy to the freshly coined phrase “global village.” We were part of something huge, a seismic shift in human consciousness, and cigarettes were a footnote. Tobacco was the lesser drug, the cheaper drug, no big deal but still cool.
The Surgeon General was Establishment. He was old and out of it. Out of what? The coming golden Age of Aquarius, the achievement of which we regarded as a sacred trust. A combination of crusade and chemical activity made us invulnerable. A crazed mix of affluence, arrogance and stoned and trippy, hormonal highs fueled the artificial immortality of youth. Nothing – nicotine least of all – could touch us.
I remember smoking in the hospital. I seem to recall smoking in the classroom at school. There is a black and white photograph of me seated in the front row of the school auditorium during a rehearsal for the Show-Off costumed in 1920s dresswith acigarette in my hand, taken moments after I had emitted a cloud of smoke so dense it obscures the faces of the people slouched beside me. Back then everybody smoked everywhere.
Not everyone, of course. My parents didn’t smoke. My mother tells me that they had given up cigarettes in order to be a good, smoke-free example to their children.
Come to think of it, I don’t remember anyone using cigarettes in my large, extended family on either side. My Croatian, Italian and Greek uncles brought out cigars on special occasions, like convening in the living room to watch football after Thanksgiving dinner, and my Grandpa Howe smoked a pipe so regularly that the smell of cherry tobacco still nearly conjures him up for me.
I am told that my Great Aunt Eleanor smoked but she lived in Birmingham and we never saw her.
Smoking cigarettes was my thing, mine.
My two younger brothers – ages eleven and eight – did not approve. One frosty autumn evening they sneaked into my room, snatched up my pack of Marlboros and dashed away, alternating between nervous twitters and triumphant guffaws while I followed, screaming murder.
A mad and merry chase throughout the house ended in front of a roaring fire, where my brothers giddily tossed my cigarette pack into the flames. I was furious, humiliated and completely unconvinced. I went out and bought another pack.
The Surgeon General’s report, while proclaiming its peril to one’s health, had overlooked the addictive properties of nicotine. Quote: “The tobacco habit should be characterized as an habituation rather than an addiction.”
It never occurred to me that I was hooked. I liked smoking. In the forty years that I smoked, I gave very little thought to quitting. I never once tried. I might still be smoking now if I hadn’t spent five days in the cardiology section at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center at age fifty-five. The small heart attack that was being referred to as my “wake-up call” urged me to attempt something I never promised I would do and never thought I could do. And never even wanted to do.
Occasionally, I would strike a bargain. I remember pledging to quit when a pack went up to a dollar. Or I would quit when I turned forty. Or I would taper down to “social smoking,” a sad misnomer considering the fact that by the time I made this particular bargain, smokers had been relegated to the status of medieval lepers, who were formally and publicly declared dead to the world.
In college, while I was stage managing and doing props for a production of The Threepenny Opera, the director asked me to go out and purchase cigarette holders for the prostitutes. It was not difficult finding cigarette holders in those days. Tobacco shops, wonderful, wood-paneled places with pipes and racks of newspapers and things that smelled like men, could still be found on Main Street and malls, along with a head shop or two.
When I showed up at rehearsal with a bag full of plastic cigarette holders, I joined the actresses as they practiced inhaling through them and flourishing them about. I loved it and after that never smoked without one. I got to the point where I could not tolerate the rough, round feel of a cigarette, even a filtered one, on my lips. The cigarette felt intrusive, leafy and dirty; the holder felt clean, sleek and prophylactic.
It might have been a form of denial. I could tell myself I wasn’t smoking, not really, because the foul weed was at a safe remove, although there was no denying the evidence of what I was taking into my body when frequent cleanings with pipe cleaners drew out gobs of sticky black tar.
At any rate, it was distinctive and slightly eccentric to smoke with a cigarette holder and I was always searching out new ones, collecting different lengths, colors and styles. I hated the ejectors and I would never buy a holder with rhinestones.) I scoured antique stores for holders made of ivory, ox bone or amber, tortoiseshell, bakelite or jade, holders intricately carved or trimmed with gold or sterling silver and preserved in small, silk-lined, leather cases.
It was all very vintage and flapperesque and it became my signature, part of my style, something for which I was known and admired. Cigarettes and their paraphernalia had grown integral to my image, even my self-identity and worse, vital to my functionality as a writer.
I came home from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in a heightened state of fear. I lived for a week with an unopened carton of Viceroy Lights stashed in a drawer of my desk. They were there, there for the taking, and my body was in shock for the want of them, but I did not touch them. That’s how scared I was.
After a week, my therapist asked what they were still doing there, why hadn’t I thrown them out? I responded with a blank stare, unable to answer. The thought was unspeakable. A house without cigarettes was like a body without a core. My therapist replied in that flat, grim tone he uses when he tires of our footwork around my capacity for denial: I wasn’t serious about quitting as long as that carton remained in my desk.
The next day, I asked my best buddy Michele to come over and remove the unopened carton from my house. As she took it from the drawer, she asked, are you sure about this? I nodded, speech-deprived and terrified.
I cringed and winced as I followed her to the door and in that moment when she crossed the threshold between the inside and outside of my home with my cigarettes in a plastic grocery bag, I experienced a sudden fell swoop of panic, a steep pang in the pit of my stomach and a plummeting sense of abandonment. My best friend (and I don’t mean Michele) was walking out the door. My best best friend was walking out the door and not coming back. Ever.
We had also rounded up all my chocolate stashes in the house and added them to the plastic bag. The dark chocolate covered almonds, the Nutella, the frozen mini Snickers bars. They were leaving, too, although not for long. Chocolate rather quickly crept back into my home and my life, but not cigarettes. We were done. We were done, I knew it, because I had been scared half to death and yet I could not could not could not imagine a future without them.
And so I made another bargain. I promised myself that I could start smoking again on my seventy-fifth birthday. Or eightieth, perhaps, if I wanted to live to be a hundred. And I do.
As for my Great Aunt Eleanor, she chain-smoked all her life. I am told she was the defiant kind of smoker who sat across from you at a table in a restaurant and, when asked to refrain from lighting up, lit up and blew smoke in your face. I am also told that when she turned ninety years old, she developed a slight cough.
When did you start smoking? When did you quit? I would love to hear your stories.
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