Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I Don't Smoke, Don't Ask Me

Yesterday, while running down the list of things I don't do, I mentioned that I do not, nor have I ever, smoked cigarettes. It's not that I'm a major no-smoking advocate, though I have to admit I find it nicer when they're not around. I just was never able to pick up the habit. Not my vice, I tell people who ask. Now that I think of it, there are few, if any, who ask.

My parents both smoked. Mom polished off her last butt on her way to the hospital, where she would learn that those debilitating chest pains she'd been having were, indeed, consistent with the experience of a 50-year-old woman who weighs 97 pounds but is having a heart attack. Dad followed a few years later, in support of Mom, through the mighty efforts of The Patch. Now they live in Arizona, where the air is always free of moisture. They are smoke-free, have been for several years.

Oh, but during the glory days of smoking, did they burn. Not only them, but both my sisters. Even Noodles' Mom, known now for her complete and total commitment to physical fitness, was known to light up on occasion. Marsi and/or Bud, of course, being a disaffected suburban youth, picked up the habit at 13, I think, much like her mother 30 some years before. Lucky Strike straights, if I remember right.

I also remember one night, having dinner with my family at Marie Callendar's, then shoving my chair as far back from the table as possible afterwards when all four of them sparked up for a relaxing after-dinner smoke.

Smoke was a fact of life.

When we were kids, we would drive from Orange County to Sacramento to see my grandparents. Someone was always smoking. "Please," we'd gasp, from the back seat, "open a window!"

"The air in this car changes every 60 seconds," my father would say, and since it was quite obvious to us by now that he knew way more than we did, about everything, we let it go. We sat in silence, choking on cigarette smoke. It wasn't until my freshman year of college that I realized what smoke-free air smelled like.

And still, I hold no grudge against cigarettes. In fact, though I am made dizzy by efforts to figure out EXACTLY WHICH subculture claims smoking as its own -- cool teenagers? trashy middle-aged bowlers? musicians? my father-in-law? - I still find smoking kind of cool.

When I moved to Seattle, in 1988, I found that everyone I knew suddenly smoked. Well, they didn't smoke, like my dad, leaving the cigarette burning up in an ashtray while they focused on a model airplane. Their cigarettes were much more of a prop, a schoolboy affectation. They smoked European brands, available in Canada and at tobacco shops in Seattle. Sometimes they rolled their own, something I'd seen field hands do in Australia.

And they only smoked two or three a day, usually at night when we were in bars. They could smoke away at night, then wake up the next morning and run full-court for hours. No problem. It seemed somehow sophisticated, and I was disappointed to find that my few lame efforts at joining them in no way made me a smoker. I just couldn't do it.

One time, alone in New York at age 23, feeling somewhat short on style, I went up to a bartender at 3:00 in the morning and asked for a pack of Marlboros. That was the only brand I knew. "Sorry, man, but I can lend you one," he said. "Thanks," I mumbled. He gave me one. I lit it and then wondered what to do. But it was cool to have it there while walking alone to the subway at 3:00 in the morning. Nobody messed with me. I know that much.

All the girls I dated back then smoked, too. Not habitually, but in bars. In fact, Sandra Bullock is the only girl I've "dated" who never smokes. My first girlfriend, the ex-Mormon, is now a smoker, and, of course, trying to quit.

Even the Rocket Scientist, until a few years ago, smoked. This guy is so clean-cut he basically bathes in apple pie each morning and still. Must have been a military thing. Sadly, he was perhaps the only person I've ever known who did not look cooler while smoking. He looked like a 10-year-old trying to look cool, which is ironic, because if there's one thing the Rocket Scientist has never done in his life, it's try to look cool.

Time passed, and many of the casual smokers I knew became habitual smokers. The Legendary Dr. Bandeau turned into a guy who lit a cigarette after meals, and in the morning, after shaving. His car, by now a Dodge truck, began to smell like a man's car: smoke, cologne and tools.

Amazingly, we have all but legislated cigarette smoking out of existence. Even more amazingly, high school kids continue to smoke. Smoking was a big deal at Blanchet High School, where I taught from 1996-1998. I didn't get it, but I also felt we had more important ways to spend our time than to police teenage cigarette smokers and besides, we were giving them free promos of Coke's new extra-caffeine cola after school. I mean, why single out one vice and promote the other?

I wonder what's become of those teens. How many of them now smoke like hod carriers? And what of the parallel worlds of smoking -- the downtown hipsters and the rural cowboys? If they found themselves in the same room (a laundromat? the grocery store?), jonesing for a smoke, would one approach the other and ask to bum a cig? Smoking (and being a carbon-based life form) is the only thing they have in common.

And they all want to quit. Except my little sister, who never wanted to quit and did.

My dad always said he was going to start again if he made it to 70. Well, he'll be 69 this year, but he just got out of the hospital after having lung surgery, so I doubt he'll make good on that promise, which is just as well. As good a prop as a cigarette is, and as cool as it looks, I am learning that addictive vices just don't wear that well as you get older.

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