By Van Smith
Published in New York Press, Feb. 17, 1999
I wish I could remember what was going on in my mind when I decided to start smoking. My reasoning escapes recollection, though, perhaps because I was too young and those memories are lost somewhere in my mind’s dark and dusty attic. The circumstances, though, I recall.
I was in third grade at the time and attending a public elementary school in suburban Baltimore. I would pilfer packs of Kent Multifilters from my dad (who apparently made no attempt at keeping an inventory) and take said contraband to school, where I and a small group of similarly bad-minded tykes would stoke up as many as possible in the nearby woods during recess or while playing hooky. If we lacked matches or a lighter, we would intensify the sun’s rays though a magnifying glass to light up.
We rarely inhaled, just held the smoke in our mouths the requisite second or two before blowing it out. When I on occasion did inhale, though, the rush of narcotic sensations to my brain would cause exquisite disorientation and numbness. This high spurred me to continue smoking experimentally. By sixth grade, unbeknownst to my parents (they must have been in denial), I was a regular, though secret, smoker.
Perhaps it was the Ritalin that contributed to my enjoyment of preteen smoking. Since I was loath to sit through an entire elementary-school period without causing some sort of disruption, the school officials, my parents and a psychologist conspired to put me on a regular regime of the potent antihyperactivity drug. These doses, I presume, inured me to the shock of chemically induced altered states; in fact, I grew to desire them. Somewhere I still have a school picture from those early years. I looked like a seven-year-old pothead, heavy lidded and mouth agape. I looked like I could use a cigarette.
Even at my young and confused age, though, I probably should have recognized the ravaging effects smoking has on the lungs. One of my grandfathers, a college track star in the 1920s and a World War II hero, died of emphysema brought on by a lifetime of smoking. He smoked right up to his dying breath. The other was given to wheezy, cough-ridden fits of laughter between sips of cocktails and drags of non-filter Chesterfields until he quit the habit when his wife died, a year before his own quiet, lonely and purposeful demise in the early 1980s. His wife, too, smoked Chesterfields. The two would buy boxes of cartons, rip them open for the coupons and stuff the bounty of fresh butts into tin cans they kept in each room of their house. That way they never had to know the unpleasant reality of precisely how many they smoked each day.
Despite my grandparents’ ill health from smoking, though, I persisted. My habit became an adventure, almost a competition with myself to see how far I would go. In junior high, I got into smoking clove cigarettes. Swisher Sweet cigars, even pipes. I’d buy fancy European cigarettes like Gauloises. In high school, I got to know the tobacco geeks who worked at the three fancy tobacco stores in the Baltimore area. I tried to participate fully in the local tobacco culture and economy behind my parents’ backs and, for the most part, I succeeded.
My father, a physician and for much of his life an avid smoker, was acutely aware of the health risks of smoking. But he continued to puff away happily until after I moved out of the house at the legal age of 18, by which time I was already a hopeless addict. Dad successfully kicked the habit in the mid-1980s, using a combination of nicotine gum and increasingly clean filters in a special cigarette holder designed for quitting. After he quit and once he realized that I had picked up the habit, he became relentlessly self-righteous about my smoking problem. A visit with him was never complete without a zealous admonition to fight my addiction.
When I was 19, shortly after moving out of my parents’ house, I had a little scare that caused me to quit for a while. My first year of college had been a doozy, with lots of hard drinking and drugging that lead to weight loss, freaky hairstyles, perpetual bags under my eyes and – this was the puzzler – a voice that degenerated over a period of a couple of months into nothing more than sequences of raspy, guttural sounds.
Before my voice became so mysteriously afflicted, I had been smoking Merits in the morning (setting my alarm clock to an hour early just to have a pre-waking cigarette), Marlboro reds in the afternoons and evenings, and any of a number of brands of non-filters while carousing late at night. When short on cash, I sometimes rolled my own from tobacco scavenged out of discarded butts. To regain that nicotine rush I had come to love in elementary school, I learned to do ‘chillums,’ the popular name of a clay tube with a fluted, ribbed core that was used to smoke an entire cigarette in one hit. The doctor’s diagnosis was infected cysts on my left vocal cord, a problem that required corrective surgery.
After the vocal-cord surgery, I was told not to speak for a month. That wasn’t the hard part, though. The hard part was following the doctor’s instructions not to smoke. The surgeon told me my chances of throat cancer had gone up exponentially with the arrive of the vocal-cord cysts, so any more smoking and I might as well start digging an early grave. I believed him and quit.
And I stayed quit for about two years until I had spent three months in Bologna – in Italy, where it seems everyone smokes without any apparent adverse affect on their health. What the hell, I figured, and settled happily and comfortably back into a moderate habit of about a pack a day, which habit I brought with me back to Baltimore months later.
My father was supremely disappointed in me and continued his campaign to shame my addiction back to the penalty box for the duration of the game. Eventually, he found a line of argument that worked with me. He told me that men who smoke have a pretty good chance of rejuvenating their smoke-ravaged lungs as long as they quit while their bodies are still developing, which happens, he said, up until you turn 27. Once you turn 27, he said, your body will start its inevitable decline toward the Great Hereafter and your lungs will never really pink up again even if you quit.
His theory sounded like a bunch of well-intentioned balderdash to me. It reminded me of a theory his mother, also a doctor, had conveniently invented to justify her continued habit of smoking non-filtered Chesterfields; once she reached her 70s, she would say with great authority that it had been scientifically proven that it is not healthy for women over 70 who smoke to quit their addiction. Despite my misgivings about Dad’s facts, I took his advice to heart. On my 27th birthday I quit again, cold turkey.
Once again, I quit for about two years. This time, though, it wasn’t the fashionable smokers of Northern Italy who wooed me back. It was merely this: the sight of my good friend’s Swedish girlfriend having a long drag from a delicious-looking Marlboro red – the first taken from a freshly opened pack – in the dark, angst-ridden atmosphere of the now-defunct D.C. Space in Washington, D.C., where a group of us had gone after a many-course meal with lots of wine. While watching her smoke, I ordered a shot of whiskey, which I gulped down before asking her for a drag. Then I asked the bartender to please give me change for the cigarette machine, which he obligingly did. I was back where I began.
Round three of the quitting game was on my 30th birthday, when I hinged my hopes of staying quit on the idea that smoking was something I did before I turned 30 – an idea that I thought would become more precious to me the longer I stayed quit. Lo and behold, after about 18 months, I took a drag off a friend’s cigarette during the course of a long night of cavorting around Baltimore. Within two weeks I was buying packs again.
Now I’m into round four. It started early last November, shortly after moving to New York. My lungs already hurt and thoughts of quitting had already been nagging at me when I grew sick from an upper respiratory infection. The pain and suffering from this sickness were bad enough that I couldn’t smoke a cigarette. As I got better, my desire to smoke lessened, so I decided to just quit.
I can’t say I have much confidence anymore that I won’t start smoking again, but in the meantime I take comfort in the fact that I’m taking some time off. At the very least, resuming smoking will be a pleasure worth the wait.