Cigarettes, dinosaurs, and calming blue smoke.

Today I was conducting some business at the bank, and my heavily bearded, perfectly coiffed teller had his Vape sitting at his station. I think the intent was for it to be out of sight, but I was just short enough that it fell in my eyeline. I had already been thinking about the subject of smoking that morning, after reviewing a piece about great marketing and one of the examples of killer marketing (pun intended) was the Marlboro man. Just seeing the Marlboro ad made my mouth salivate for that lung biting inhale off a Red.

Hello gorgeous. I’m talking to the cigarettes. Mostly.

My first foray into the land of the rolled tobacco was on the park playground. My next door neighbor was an older girl, much more experienced in the world, as children from my neighborhood tended to be. I remember swinging on the swings, her lighting up and goading me into taking a drag. I wasn’t hard to convince, even at a young age I had a proclivity towards rebellion. I don’t think I’d quite lived a decade at this point. I still remember her one piece of advice. “Never smoke and chew gum at the same time, it will give you mouth cancer”. To this day I still prefer to smoke and chew minty gum at the same time, but I always l think “good lord I’m going to get mouth cancer from this”.

It wasn’t until middle school that I took a renewed interest in smoking. A bowling alley sat situated between my neighborhood and the one where my “rich” friends lived. I took quite the delight in stopping and buying a pack of smokes from the vending machine. I can only imagine how this 60 lb. pre-pubescent version of myself looked dragging off a cigarette outside the bowling alley, trying to be a bad-ass. Probably as absurd as it looks in my head. I was scrawny and as uncool as you can get with my Sears garanimals baseball style t-shirt with the iron-on glitter swan and rainbow combo on the front. My coke-bottle glasses and unstyled long blond hair.

My allegiance for many years was to the Marlboro. We could pick them up at the mall, or the bowling alley, or really about anywhere. They were easy to ask for. Nothing would trip you up faster with the little old ladies working the register at the drug store than to ask for the wrong type of cigarette. You had to ask for it like you meant it, or tell them they were for your mother. Either way, mess it up, and they’d deny you. This was the early 80’s and no one really cared about kids smoking. We smoked IN THE MALL. Sometimes I simply forget that people smoked everywhere. If you went to the mall on any given weekday, you’d find a handful of kids chain-smoking away while ditching school. Eating cheap pizza in the food court, playing Pac-man inside Aladdin’s Castle. Shoplifting sunglasses and pins for our jean jackets. The omnipresent cigarette burning away in our fingers.

In my late teens, after I had graduated from high-school the roommate of a co-worker at my new “adult” job at the home improvement store took a liking to me and my friends. He offered up his apartment as a place to hang out, do our new college homework, drink. He gave us a key. He kept his fridge supplied with wine coolers and lite beer. Cartons of cigarettes on the counter. All the pot. This is when menthols entered my life. Salems to be exact. Pack after pack of free smokes. It was only in retrospect, sometime after he introduced me to his young children, that I realized that he wasn’t just a kindly older dude who was being nice to some college students. After a few months I got the clue. I also failed out of my first semester of college, and got kicked out of my parents house. It was time to get my own place. And go back to my trusty Reds.

Not too many years later, I got married and settled down and started having kids. I quit cold turkey when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. I never smoked around my kids. I’d have a smoke with my sister-in-law at the holidays. I’d buy a pack if I was going out with my girlfriends. I’d have one here and there, but not much. I had switched to the ultra popular 1990’s classic, Virginia Slim Menthols. It seemed classier for a mom to smoke those over Reds.

Then one day, I decide to get divorced. And my habit started again in earnest. I would sneak out to the porch and smoke. A lot. As soon as the kids would go to bed I’d sit outside and chain-smoke and drink wine. I can still feel my eye twitch from my anxiety, then I’d take a long drag. Filling my lungs with blue smoke, exhale. Something to focus on other than my world imploding. I would find this to be a pattern that would repeat. With each subsequent relationship, and subsequent end to the relationship, I’d find myself, on my front steps. Breathing in, breathing out. Letting it drift around me, envelope me, my sadness.

I took a job in radio sales. Everyone smoked. You smoked with your co-workers. You smoked with your clients. It was the martini of the early 2000’s. A socially acceptable bonding ritual. Sure you had to go outside to do it, but that’s where you would take your break. Flirt with the Dj’s, chat up your co-workers, convince your boss that next big sale was right around the corner.

Then somewhere along the line, everyone quit. Even I cut back to 1 or 2 a day, more on the weekends. People weren’t bonding over smoking anymore, it was becoming taboo. You couldn’t smoke anywhere. It was a relief, to go to a bar and not chain smoke, it was gross to go outside to the cattle pen with the other smokers. It smelled bad. It looked worse.

Flash forward to 2015. I was up in Chicago and I was back up to about a pack a day. After a series of devastating life events I had gone back to my old friend. I walked out of a bar in Old Town to have a smoke. I got out to the street and there was no one else out there. The ‘Hawks are playing their final game for the cup and there is not a single smoker on the street. I had a full fledged panic attack. Was I the last smoker? Was everyone just inside vaping away? Had everyone quit?

I had to sit down on the curb. Arms crossed over my knees. Head on my arms. My trusty American Spirit (the healthy cigarette), dangling between my fingers. “I am a dinosaur. I. Am. A. Dinosaur”.

A young man sits down next to me. “Can i bum a light?” I look up, into his fresh face, with his ridiculous beard. “I thought I was the last one. You still exist. We still exist. The last two smokers in Chicago”

He looks up and down the street. Then back at me. “Everyone's just in watching the game.”

And a handful of people come out of the bar and light up.

I tend to be overly dramatic.

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I recently decided I was no longer going to be a slave to the habit. I cut back from about a pack a day to about a pack a week, if that. I’ll go days at a time without one at all. I know that if I’m ever coupled again, it’s likely my partner won’t smoke and that is probably when I’ll quit for good. When I have someone who wants to kiss my face and doesn’t appreciate the mint/tobacco combo. And I’m good with that. Or maybe I’ll get to the point where I’m just done. I feel close.

Cigarettes and I. We have a long history, longer than any friendship. Any boyfriend. We go back. Back even farther to memories of my own mother, sneaking out to the back porch to smoke her super thin cigarettes. (Capris — do you remember Capris?!)The way my dad would smell after coming home from the theatre, hanging out with his actor friends, where of course, everyone smoked. Stealing his Pall Malls, or Winstons out of his jacket pocket. My first boyfriends who all smoked by middle school. All the tv bad boys kept a pack rolled up in their shirt sleeve or in the front pocket of their leather jacket.

I’m glad it's becoming a thing of the past. I know on the long list of things that might kill me, it’s pretty high. But I don’t regret my relationship. It’s a part of my past. It’s gotten me through a lot of dark days. But I’m leaning into new, healthier, less anecdotal vices. I feel like that should make me happier than it does.

(originally written in November of 2016). I quit about 6 months later, and I’m actually pretty ok with it. Most days.

Sally

There are a lot of things I learned from Sally. The older I get, and the further away I’ve gotten from that special relationship, the more those lessons resonate and come into focus. Here is my Sally story:

After my ex-husband and I separated in 2002, I spent a year cleaning houses as way to generate income. After being a stay-at-home mom for so long, I was heartbroken to consider putting my kids into daycare on top of the rest of the upheaval we were all going through. I had mentioned to my daughters teacher that I was looking for cleaning jobs, if she knew of anyone looking for a housekeeper. She connected me to Sally.

Sally lived in a condo, just minutes from my new apartment. To this day, I don’t have a clue how old Sally was. She was simply, old. She was quite short, clocking in at under 5 feet and carried close to 100 pounds more than her frame was built for. She had a host of health problems that made getting around and staying on her feet a challenge. Despite her health issues, Sally was a very active woman. She volunteered for multiple organizations, with the Children’s Zoo being at the top of her list. She also loved to entertain, hosting her friends for card night, book club, special dinners and holiday meals with frequency. Because she maintined such an active volunteer and social life, she had no energy for general housework. This is where I came in.

At the time I had about a half dozen cleaning jobs and adding Sally in once a week was going to be the key to keeping my head above water. We met for the first time and she showed me around her place and talked to me about what she was looking for. I was completely overwhelmed. Her house was a wreck. Honestly, if I had any other choice at the time I probably would have politely declined the challenge. As it stood I had three mouths to feed and really needed this job. This started a 5 year relationship that fed and nurtured us both.

It took 4 consecutive weeks to gain control of the chaos. I learned her behaviors and habits and came to know what to expect.

She faithfully received the newspaper, but rarely had the time to read it. Every day when she arrived home from whatever excursion she was on, she would stop at the mailbox, retrieve the paper and her mail, pull into the garage, waddle into the front hallway, and promptly drop any mail that wasn’t deemed important (most of it) and the paper.

Most weeks there would be multiple bags of groceries strewn about with the cold items (usually) removed and put away, but the rest left for me. She shopped like many of her generation, using coupons for items she really didn’t need. She had enough food at all times to survive the apocalypse. A few months into our arrangement, I decided to clean out the pantry only to find some items a decade old.

Her method to dealing with dirty laundry was to pile her clothes in her closet or in the bathroom outside the shower. Each week I would strip her bed and replace the sheets, collect her clothes, and do that weeks laundry. It wouldn’t seem like a weeks worth of laundry would be much, but she often went through multiple outfits a day. Incontinence is a bitch.

Shoes and jewelry could be found anywhere, but was most often on the TV tray next to her recliner where she ate her meals, on the back of the toilet or occasionally on top of the microwave. It almost became a game, to find all of the strung about earrings and necklaces and put them back on her holders. We had some good laughs about it.

The kitchen was always a hodge-podge of pans and dishes piled around the sink and counters. Sometimes I’d have to remove a whole stack of items from the oven, her favorite hiding place when company was coming before I was. She’d forget to tell me they were there until weeks later. I learned to check.
I’d occasionally have to deal with a pan that had all but caught on fire as she’d sometimes start dinner, and then fall asleep with food on the stovetop. I bought her a fire extinguisher.

Despite the chaos of the house, Sally was very particular about certain things. I might find it more pressing to clean the rotten food out of the refrigerator, but she would want me to feed the birds first. That was her priority.

I learned to dread the changing of the seasons because it meant the switching of the closets. Every 6 months she would ask me to remove everything from the closet in her bedroom and move it to the guest room closet, and everything from the guest closet, containing the upcoming seasons clothes, would go into the closet off of her room. I dreaded it because it took hours, I’ve never known anyone with that many clothes. On top of that, her closet was always a disaster, that was one area I hadn’t even started to tackle that first season. It always felt like a huge waste of time when the two rooms were 20 feet apart, but that was part of her routine.

One of the more enjoyable tasks was holiday decorating. She celebrated every holiday with gusto. She possessed 60 years of accumulated decorations for holiday and they were meticulously organized in boxes in the garage. She knew where every last piece went. Every holiday we would pack up all of the normal house decor, including the pictures on the walls, all of the Hummel figurines, the 20 miniature tea sets that sat on the table in the living room and get out the Easter eggs, Christmas decorations, 4th of July flags, Valentines hearts, or whatever was the theme of the particular holiday. Three weeks later, I’d undo it all and put back the everyday decorations. Every holiday.

Sally loved to entertain her friends and it was always a BIG event. She had special plates, special decorations, napkin rings, cups, for every single type of gathering. Card night, Valentines Ladies night, Summer gathering, 4th of July party, holiday gift exchange. All themed. She taught me what it meant to entertain old school with tables that were set with precision. She was the consummate hostess. The following day I’d go back, clean it all up, and hear all the stories about who came, who didn’t show, and who was having what health issue.

Not a single holiday or birthday went by that I worked for Sally that she didn’t surprise me with a gift, not only from her, but also from her dog Murphy. Cute quirky items that a broke single mom often had little use for, but they were thoughtful and sweet and almost always made me cry at her kindness.

About a year after I started working for Sally I went back to work full-time and she asked me to stay on. I dropped to every-other weekend and would spend that Sunday morning working as fast as possible to get her caught up. She’d follow me around as best she could from room to room updating me on her last two weeks and asking about mine. Apologizing for having done no laundry and leaving it all to me, and me explaining that I didn’t mind. Sometimes I timed my arrival so we would only have a short time before she left for Church. I knew how much she looked forward to our visits, and often felt bad about my impatience. There was twice as much work as there was when I was going weekly, and I was always exhausted from my full-time job. Sometimes I just wanted to get done so I could get home to my kids or home to my bed. Those were long days back then.

Despite or shortened time together, we developed a nice friendship. She was a passionate Michigan fan and was very proud of the fact that Michigan was one of the first major universities in the country to allow women to attend. I can't tell you how often she told me this. She had the picture of her class hanging in her bedroom. She had gone to Michigan to become a teacher, and taught school for somewhere around 35 years. In the 1980’s she had a partial mastectomy from breast cancer. This story was told as I walked in on her in her room, buck naked, as she was struggling to get dressed for church one Sunday morning. Sally wasn’t shy.

She did find some of her other physical ailments more embarrassing, and would call me from time to time in the middle of a week and ask if I would come clean up some accident or another that had happened. She hated these episodes, they frustrated her, they embarrassed her greatly. Not only to lose control of her body, but also to have to call for help to clean up the mess. The sheer number of medications she was taking wreaked havoc on her digestive system. If you know me at all you have no idea how hard it was for me to handle these incidents. But you can’t hear the voice of a woman who is embarrassed and upset and not run over and take care of things, as awful as they sometimes were. It was life.

Sally had never married and had no children of her own, but she had adopted several families over the years that she became a surrogate grandmother to. Every holiday season I would help address and stamp hundreds of cards and mail piles of Christmas gifts to people all over the country. She was a generous soul.

Even when I was tired and dreading going to clean, I found my visits to Sally to be a respite from my life at the time. I had lost all my grandparents by the time I was in my early 20’s and she filled the role nicely. She told me stories and anecdotes and gossiped about her friends. She talked about the ones she liked, the ones she found to be irritating and phoney, but that she had known for 45 years . . .she distracted me from my own angst.

One Sunday morning, I timed my visit a little later than normal. I was short on time so I headed over when I knew she would have left for church.

As soon as I walked in the door, I felt uneasy. The entry way had its usual amount of newspapers and mail strewn about.

In the living room her “important mail” was piled up on the TV tray. A pile of earrings sat on the tray next to her can of coke. She knew she wasn’t supposed to drink it, but she loved it so much.

The kitchen was surprisingly clean. No pans in the sink. I headed to her bedroom.
The mattress was missing from her bed.

I hadn’t even noticed, Murphey hadn’t met me at the door.

With shaking hands, I flipped through her address book to the number of the woman who had introduced us five years ago, my daughters teacher.

“Mary? It’s Heather. I just came to clean Sallys . . .”
Pause. Breath. “Oh my god Heather. It never occurred to me to call you. Sally passed this week”

I sat in the living room I had dusted for the last 5 years, completely stunned. And just cried. Deep wracking sobs.

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One time when I was cleaning, Sally gave me 6 large insulated cups with cards in the plastic, her old cards night tumblers. At the time I remember thinking “what in the world will I do with these?” But I took them home. After she died I was grateful for those silly cups. I would use them for years, and think of her.

I regret not asking her more. Did she love someone once? A man? A woman? Who was she when she was young? She told me what she wanted to tell me. This is what I learned:

Be brave.

Family is who you surround yourself with.

No matter what life hands you, keep moving forward.

Do what you love.

Feed the birds.

Give your heart generously and you will receive more back than you can imagine.

Entertain even if the dog pees on the carpet, your friends won't mind (except that bitch Edith, she ALWAYS has to make a comment!).

Use the nice dishes.

Drink the Coke even when your doctor tells you to stop.

And when you get the the point in your life that you have to chose between volunteering at the zoo and cleaning your house, hire a young single mom to do it for you. You wont regret how you spent your time, and she will never forget you.