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.
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.