Smoking III

Last May 14, I published a piece about how, as a young man, smoking cigarettes and any other form of consuming tobacco seemed to me to be obviously disgusting and stupid behavior that I had rejected with ease. When I was 23 years old I began to defy my own knowledge and instincts. Many people that age or a bit younger, having survived the traumas of childhood, puberty, and young adulthood, become arrogant. Overconfident. We are not exactly indestructible, but we welcome every new challenge. I was a junior college student who also worked 30 hours a week as a cashier at a convenience store and, being recently divorced, I liked to party.

 

Athletes who excel are no doubt susceptible to the same illusions. I can’t picture Madison Bumgarner worrying about what might happen when he got on that dirt bike last Spring any more than I can picture Bryce Harper deciding to take it slow running to first base on a very wet field last August. That bad shit happens to other people. As a species it has probably been good in the long run that young people take foolish risks because, otherwise, we may never have accomplished very much at all. There was no doubt in my mind. I repeated it often. I can quit any time I want within two weeks. So, with final exams coming up and reports due and there not being enough hours in the day, why not go ahead and do it? What “it”was meant saying yes when a friend offered me a couple of his “whites”, apparently amphetamines, to keep myself going. As a teenager, I had heard stories about truck drivers using those things to stay alert during long hauls and I had also heard that the results were often not good. However, before too long there were not any real problems in the world at all except, perhaps, that there just wasn’t enough to do. In my classes, I suddenly changed from the quiet note taker I had been to the guy who knew the answers to questions before they were even asked. At work, it was great to be busy. The stores were set up so that two cashiers could work at the same time with two separate cash registers. My shifts were at night, which meant that I was usually left alone with both registers and I could spin around from one to the other and keep the lines moving quite well. The main sellers were milk, beer, and cigarettes, at least in the late hours. The first couple of hours would include soft drinks, candy, and other poisons for little people. Adult poisons dominated the night hours. For that reason, the smokes were also just above the cashiers’ heads, lined up neatly in racks according to popularity. This was 1969, so restrictions on sales to minors and other attempts to limit tobacco sales were not yet really in place. Suddenly, I had another thing to do. It was okay to smoke in the store and who didn’t?

I don’t know why (somebody from Madison Avenue could probably tell us) but I chose Marlboro 100s. It was spur of the moment, just as most things were those days. There were not endorsements from Tom Seaver or Frank Robinson to motivate me, I just did it. The sore throat was nasty but I could quit at any time.

There was another feature. Once a month on a weekend, and for two weeks every Summer, I was a radio operator for the Marine Corps Reserve. Even though about half the Corps were junkies of some kind by then, drugs like marijuana were still strictly forbidden and it was not wise to be found holding or using them. Some of the guys in my unit liked reds (downers, usually Seconal) and others favored amphetamines but almost everybody smoked weed. My romance with whites was brief but a new romance had bloomed with weed. In the field, it was not a good idea to light up a joint, even at night, because the odor was strong and specific. So the trick was to take a small piece of hashish, remove a bit of tobacco from your cigarette, replace that with the hash, twist it closed and puff. It smelled a bit but you were smoking tobacco if anyone wanted to check. Then, as you smoked more of the cigarette. the hash high seemed to get even better.

In 1970 I had a strong fling with LSD. It’s not really the same thing as a drug that makes you want more and more, but at the time it was like going back to school for me. That substance, if you could trust that it was what you thought it was, was mostly benevolent but one of the side effects was that it was difficult to remain calm. We learned that controlling the breath was important. In a bit of madness, I figured that puffing on a cigarette would enable me to do that. One memorable day I went through two packs of Benson and Hedges menthols while tripping.

When I finally separated from the Marine Corps for good in 1973, one of my goals was to stop smoking. I went on a no ciggies backpacking trip toYosemite right after discharge. When I got back to San Francisco I had pneumonia. I puffed on a Marlboro 100 on the way to San Francisco General.

There were no serious attempts to stop after that until I became a father for the second time in 1984. I promised myself that my son would not see me me smoking and so I waited until he was in bed for the night. Even after he grew and knew, I kept waiting for nightfall as if that made it okay. I got down to six, then four, but never none. Until last winter, when the diagnosis of COPD was made. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disaster. That finally scared me into quitting.

There have been brief relapses in moments of high stress, but all that does is reveal what a painful, ugly, habit it had been. Addiction to whatever it is lowers the self esteem, drains the pocketbook, and harms the body all at the same time. You get angry at whoever mentions it, at whoever boasts about overcoming it, at any suggestion that something should be done about it. You totally forget that, one day, in fact for a long time, you may have done without it. Like many others, once I was very fond of, probably addicted to, cocaine. I left that behind many years ago and never wanted to have some more. That will probably never happen with this one, tobacco. I don’t like thinking about death when I wheeze or my throat hurts but from now on I always will. Here is my message to anyone reading this who smokes and isn’t ready to stop: it’s fun to breathe, and every puff hurts.

 

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