Monday, February 3, 2014

Day 22: Enough camel cash to purchase a Turkish Harem…my twenty year tryst with tobacco (a)

Growing up it was verboten. It was evil. It was icky. It was almost a sin, except that our relatives in Chicago all smoked, and we were related to them so we knew they wouldn’t be going to hell. Their houses were impeccably clean but there was always a den that was dim-lit lotus shaped ashtrays  made out of petroleum jelly with a waft of smoke curling like a stage curtain near the ceiling tiles. Our noses would burn when we inhaled. When we came back home mom would have to do an extra-load of laundry to exhume the stench.

My father despised people who smoked and my father was the most humble man I have ever known.  He taught fourth grade and would list facts, such as every cigarette takes seven seconds off your life.
Both my parents never smoked. My  grandfather was a 2 pack day and died from a heart attack at around sixty My uncle Larry claimed that if he ever caught any of us smoking a cigarette he would make us eat one.
They were cigarettes and they were evil.  More so, none of my parents’ friends were smokers. Their track records were as clean as tissue paper used to print diminutive Gideon bibles. No one we knew smoked. No one at our church smoked except for the high school kids who listened to weird music and went out partying in the corn chip teenage confetti to stage two the night before.

On our street we knew who all the smokers were. They looked rough. Their visages had a rubicund yet ruffled hue attached to the pigment, like stretching a laytex glove over a rumpled edge of a torn block of cardboard. They looked defeated. They had grease in their hair and wore undershirts when they mowed the lawn. You would always seem them outside on their porch reading the paper on Sunday night flicking their butts into a Hillsboro coffee can overflowing with corks and stems. When you saw them out, they there was always a pack of cigarettes in their side pocket. Nine times out of ten we weren't allowed to play with their kids. They would be bad influences. They would teach us swear words. The would show us movies on cable networks late at night. They would lurk into their parents' bedroom and come out with items involving batteries.

They had to.

Their parents were all smokers.

I was eleven years old when I watched my best friend Patrick “the-better-than-you ass-fucker”  McReynolds smoke a cigarette he had filched from his mom’s pocketbook. We were behind the cement path in Bradly park down the slope from the Columbus statue. Over the years Patrick had grown quite adroit into skulking into his mother's bedroom, purloining a few Benson & Hedges, removing the menthol filter before pedaling off to a secluded vector of the park to smoke. I watched with awe as my seemingly precocious friend lit a match and nonchalantly inhaled, shrugged, removed his cigarette, tapered the ash, before pressing repeat. It’s also comical to reminisce over it.  He offered the cigarette in my direction as if offering me a joint. When I declined, a sour looked still glued to my face, he  again nonchalantly shrugged as if  conveying to me its your loss man, with the hint of his smoke-filled eyes.

In restaurants we all sat in the non-smoking section bowing our heads praying before our entrees arrived giving gratitude to the nourishing vittles we were blessed to receive. Even McDonald’s and Hardees had ashtrays and signs indicating appropriate vectors of the establishment where smoking was permissible. McDonald's even had signature aluminum ashtrays that were gold with a giant M planted in the center that looked like you just one gold medal in the inaugural Smoke-a-thon at the Philip Morris Olympiad. Show Biz even has a section in back where adults would congregate like half-tiled bowling pins. When you walked into the old Mister Donut (now dunkin’ donut) with the crooked teal neon sign that looked like teeth flashing over the static of Western avenue  24-7 you walked inside a cumulus vat of smoke.

In high school there was the smokers’ cadre across the street, in the alley near Schepke’s flower shop. They formed a huddle of shoulders, biting into their butts, tightening as one amoebic blob during the winter.  If you had balls you smoked in the bathroom and you knew which bathroom to smoke in. But the majority smoked across the street, before school. The majority where semi-white trash. The kids living in brick houses above the bluff also smoked, only they didn’t have the balls to do it near the school.

It would tarnish their reputation.

Freshman year of high school I vowed I would never smoke. I was to athletically astute, to focused on shaving decimals off my mile time. Freshman year the only friend I had who smoked was Patrick McReynold’s and he transferred and went to Limestone with the fellow smokers after the first semester. Freshman year there was still an area in Northwood Mall,  wooden pentagon of connected benched you could smoke on both floors, though not in the concourse of the mall itself and certainly not at one of the duel end fountains that looked like an iridescent blueberry jello mold. There were designated smoking areas in Carver arena as well. You didn’t have to step outside and flash your ticket stub to get re-admittance. You could just get a beer and fire one up as you walked along the parabolic concrete terminal immediately outside the seating section.

Thus I completed freshman year of high school with a burgeoning yet keen addiction to caffeine and a demonic aversion to cigarettes, which at the time, cost a walloping $1.92 per pack of Marlboro reds. My body was a temple. I was an athlete. When the State Speech champ who was three years older and had the largest vocabulary of anyone I had ever met told me that she started smoking because of the stress I gave her the equivalent of a pedantic 7th grade DARE lecture on the perilous ramifications of tobacco.



 The summer of ’93 I traveled to South Dakota and Montana with my family, missing the Steamboat Classic for the first time in six years to camp at Grand Tetons in Wyoming, running at a higher elevation, mountain peaks erupting in triangular bursts as I would sprint down desolate roads, contemplating about the glory of the pending cross-country season. Friday nights I would go out with my friends to Willow Knolls (it was always Maid Rite and a movie with a stop at Schuncks, because Phar-mor, because Phar-mor had the CD cases displayed where you could peruse though the cover and linear-notes prior to purchasing the disc at the counter).  At Maid-Rite we would clamber into the side corner booth and I would force Patrick to swivel his gruff chin and blow his smoke in the antipodal direction, feeling that one hit of exhumed wafting  second hand smoke would prove perilous when it came to my attempt to reach the State Cross country meet.  My second attempt to make state would prove futile. At the outset of ’94 I faild my first driving test (took it in the snow, aced the second) and was still a devout, vehement anti-smoker, yet, in the tumble of months that would all somehow change. I would go to Europe again. Kurt Cobain would (purportedly) blow his brains out and I would venerate an autodidactic  slacker named Troy, who was to me, the coolest human being ever to puff away on the scalp of this planet we all found ourselves nicotine-fitting across the empty ash-tray of time.

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