Tobacco Road Copyright 2011 by Peter A. Teeuwissen. All rights reserved.
My parents did not smoke. My mother, a cautious and rather refined woman, disliked the habit because it had killed her father several years before I was born. My father never said anything about smoking, good or bad. It didn’t seem to interest him, and he wasted no time talking about it. It was something that some people did, and he was not one of them. In the face of this opposition and indifference, I developed a fascination with smoking that bordered on obsession, and couldn’t wait to do it. My preoccupation with tobacco was stoked by the wonderful cigarette commercials they had on television in those days. They competed to convince the viewer, jingle by jingle, of the taste benefits of their brands over all others, or of how much cooler and milder they were, or even how much healthier they were compared to other brands. Among my personal TV favorites were the ads for Kools, which featured a puffing cartoon penguin. Like Chilly Willy, but with a cigarette. “Smoke KOOLS,” he chirped. The same brand had a man ascending out of a cloudy inferno of smoke and heat, while the voiceover urged the viewer: “Come up, come up, come all the way up! Switch from hots to KOOLS.” Then there was the uplifting spot for Tareytons, with a hip jangly jazz quartet singing, “Du-al fil-tered TAREY-tons!” Baba do wabba doobie. And Parliaments, with their innovative recessed filter, kept “a neat, clean, quarter inch away” from your lips, as well as the brand—I think it was L&Ms—that boasted of its filter that “only pure white touches your lips,” a subtle warning against miscegenation. Or the bizarre androgynous little bellhop with his hat askew, walking the hotel lobby shouting out, “Call for Philip Morrrrr-iii-sssss.” But the standard by which all cigarette commercials had to be measured, in my judgment, was the Winston song. Winston tastes good, like a cig-a-rette should. Winston tastes good, like a [clap-clap] cigarette should. Winston gives you real flavor, full, rich tobacco flavor. Up front, at the tobacco end, Winston gives you filter blend. Boy, they just don’t write ‘em like that any more. So smooth, so refreshing, so informative, so persuasive to the young would-be smoker. My best friend Jimmy and I had reached a time in our lives when we were determined to smoke. But his parents didn’t indulge, either, so the problem for both of us was finding some cigarettes. Kids whose parents smoked had it made, as far as we were concerned. They could steal cigarettes anytime they wanted. But what were we to do? We were ready to embrace the habit, with no way to get what we needed. Fate had dealt us some bad cards. Jimmy had already tried going down to Walker’s Market and telling them that his mother had sent him to buy a pack of cigarettes, but Mr. Walker, the fat, red-faced butcher, knew Jimmy’s whole family and knew damn well that his mom didn’t smoke. He sent him away empty handed after threatening to tell on him next time. As usual, I let Jimmy run this risk first. For me the result would have been the same, so I didn’t try. So there we were, nine years old, smokeless and desperate. But a solution soon presented itself. To those foolish enough to believe that we inhabit a random, chaotic universe, I say read on. The people across the street had a schizophrenic son, several years older than us, who smoked like a chimney. Although it had not been proven scientifically, the prevailing thinking of the time was that tobacco smoke had a calming effect on everyone, and especially on those who were of a nervous disposition, which included crazy people. The neighbors’ son definitely belonged in this category. Most days when he was home from the state hospital you could see him standing in his front yard, often leaning on a rake, rocking back and forth and talking to himself, or to whomever was dwelling in his head along with him. His parents prevailed on him not to smoke out in the front yard, as they felt this to be unseemly. I think it had to do with the fact that he was only about fifteen or sixteen and that they were abstemious, church-going folks who felt guilty enough about having a nut for a son, without having a smoker in the family to boot. It was summer, and the people across the street had gone on vacation. I had been entrusted with the job of watching their house for them while they were away. I was to feed the animals (I think they had at least a dog and a cat, as well as some rabbits in a pen in the back yard), water the plants, and bring in the mail. I had the key to the house. One day while going about my appointed rounds inside the empty house I spotted an unopened pack of cigarettes. They certainly belonged to the schizophrenic son, and had apparently been left by accident. There they sat, beckoning. They were Kents, which had no snappy ad that I can remember and carried no caché of hip worldliness or promise of smooth taste, but what the hell, beggars can’t be choosers. The important thing is that they were cigarettes, as scarce as hen’s teeth to Jimmy and me. I put the pack in my pocket and locked up the neighbors’ house. It was about the middle of the morning. I ran over to Jimmy’s to tell him that I had at last found what we’d been looking for all this time. Real, honest-to-God cigarettes! He was ready. The only logical place to go to smoke in our neighborhood was the Hut. The Hut had been built by my older brother and his friends behind our garage, and was attached to the back of it. It was the width of the garage, and extended about four feet, constructed from a collection of scrap two-by-fours, plywood, and tarpaper, nailed together with a vengeance. Originally the Hut had been a one-story affair, but a couple of years after the initial construction, a second floor had been added. Together these two floors rose about seven or eight feet off the ground, which is to say that an adult or even a big kid couldn’t stand up in either one. I could go fully upright on the second floor, if I kept my head in the peak of the roof, being careful not to get stabbed in the skull by a roofing nail (which had happened). The principal entrance was through a porchlike crawlway at one end of the first floor, through which only a child could squeeze. That was the real beauty of the Hut—no one bigger than about a hundred pounds could comfortably squeeze in or remain inside for very long. By the time of this story my brother and his friends, the original architects and builders of this magnificent structure, had outgrown it, and Jimmy and I had inherited it—a new generation of Hut dwellers. The interior of the Hut had been lavishly decorated. The ground floor was spread with the cushions of some old couch, dark green and permeated with so much mold that to this day certain dank places give off an odor that takes me immediately back to that wonderful place. Because the floor of the Hut was not raised much above grade it wasn’t impervious to ground water, and because there were no windows on the first floor, the cushions never completely dried out. Still, it never occurred to us to toss out those cushions and get something else. That would have been an insult to the original builders—like reshaping the Pyramids or painting the Taj Mahal a different color. The second floor had a window or two, as well as a doorway direct to the outside, and it was comparatively dry. But it had been added after the original part, and for that reason had never acquired the plush and homey touches of the downstairs. There was a trap door and built-in ladder connecting the two floors from the inside. Outside, if you climbed on top of the little crawlway, there was an exterior entrance to the second floor. To the best of my knowledge no parent had ever done more than stick a head through the doorway of the Hut, and then only when it was new. The thought of any adult being in there was as absurd as the idea of the Queen of England going into an outhouse. As a result, the Hut was the exclusive realm of us kids, and just about the safest place we knew in which to perform forbidden acts. Jimmy and I took the unopened pack of Kents and some matches from a drawer of my kitchen into the Hut. We opened them and took out two, after first tapping the unopened part of the top of the pack to make a few of them stick up the way they did in the commercials. (Many years later I learned that the idea for the construction of the Sears Tower in Chicago was inspired by the way cigarettes protrude at different heights when you shake them up out of the pack.) I can still remember the slightly sickening smell the moist tobacco and paper gave off when they were opened but not yet lit. Then came the magic moment. We each lit a cigarette and drew smoke into our mouths. It tasted nasty, but it was so cool and sophisticated to be sitting there on the moldy cushions, holding the cigarettes between out first two fingers and blowing out that smoke, that it was worth the inconvenience of whatever natural attempts our bodies were making to reject the smoke, such as the tightening in our throats and the dizziness we were feeling. We smoked the Kents down until only respectable butts remained, then snuffed them out into—well, into something. I don’t recall what we used as an ashtray. Maybe a pop bottle. Feeling the lack of fresh air, we decided that it might be time for a break from smoking, so we crawled out of the Hut and into the morning. It was at this point that we learned something important about smoking that hadn’t occurred to either of us before. Our usual habit in the morning when we didn’t have school was to get a ride with the milkman from the top of the short dead end street to the bottom. The top half was taken up by a church on one side and the church parking lot on the other. The bottom half had five houses on it, including Jimmy’s, mine, our neighbors’ with the schizophrenic son, and two others. What we would do, if we were lucky enough to be at the top of the street when he came, was to jump into the milk truck and ride, standing up, down to the bottom. The milk truck was a thing of beauty. It had floor-to-ceiling sliding doors, and a driver’s seat that swung back or folded somehow, so that the milkman could drive standing up. The rest of the inside of the truck was open. When it was warm outside, both doors were open, too. There was a vertical metal pole to hold onto, like on a bus. Riding in the milk truck was cool in a way that riding in a car could never be. The milkman was a hunchback named Keith. Not just a guy with bad posture, but a real honest-to-God hunchback. (Today, of course, they probably have a kinder, gentler way of describing that deformity, along the lines of “differently spined.”) He wore a uniform and a snappy officer’s hat with the name of his dairy on a patch in front. He knew us and our parents, and had been delivering milk on our street long before Jimmy and I were born. We were at least the second generation of kids he had given rides to. Jimmy and I ran away from the smoky Hut and into the fresh air. One of us spied the milkman turning the corner onto our street, and we raced up to hop onto the truck and clambered in, breathless. Keith said good morning as usual, then, quite unexpectedly, added, “Have you boys been smoking?” What? How did he know? We were momentarily mystified. Then it hit us. The smell! We had been puffing away in an unventilated space the size of a large packing crate. Suddenly we knew something about smoking that no television commercial had prepared us for—it left you reeking of smoke! Why hadn’t we thought of that? Quickly, with coordinated mental energy born of nine years of shared experience, we scrambled for a response. I was the first to hit on just the right answer. “No! Smoking? Uh-uh. We weren’t smoking.” Then Jimmy, feeding off me with practiced smoothness, added, “My dad was smoking and he blew smoke on us!” It was a stroke of near-genius. Of course. The old someone-blew-smoke-on-us gambit. How could anyone doubt it? It was airtight. Keith looked a little askance at us, but said nothing. But the look said more than words could have. The hunchback was on to us. Quickly we alighted from the milk truck as he slowed to take my driveway. “Bye. Thanks for the ride!” We ran down between the houses as Keith got out to put the clinking bottles in the little tin-lined compartment cut into the house next to the side door. When we got out of sight of the milkman we stopped to regroup. Now what? Would he tell our parents? Did he know that Jimmy’s dad didn’t smoke? Would we get in trouble? Was this the end of our brief smoking careers? All we could do was wait. Now that we knew how conspicuous the smell of cigarette smoke was, we had to stay outdoors for as long as possible. We ran around extra fast, hoping the air would knock some of the stink molecules off of us. Every minute or two we smelled each other. It seemed to be working. Meanwhile we waited for the other shoe to drop, but it never did. The hunchback had decided to keep his own counsel. After that learning experience we were careful to smoke only when we had plenty of time afterwards to air out before having to go indoors. In a way, Keith the milkman had done us a favor by tipping us off to the danger of being detected, before one of our parents caught us instead. Over the next week or so we finished off the pack of Kents, two at a time, down in the bottom of the Hut. But at some point during the second half of the pack we learned a second important thing about smoking, which was that people didn’t just draw the smoke into their mouths and blow it out, Bette Davis style. Instead, against all reason, they drew it into their lungs. This information came from an improbable source. Some time before Jimmy and I had finished with the stolen cigarettes, the neighbors came home from their vacation. The schizophrenic’s younger brother, a boy two years younger that Jimmy and me, came over to the Hut and wanted to hang out with us one day. We decided to confide in him that we had taken his brother’s cigarettes. He didn’t care and didn’t think anyone had noticed that they were missing. Good deal, we thought. We offered him a cigarette, but he turned it down. The kid was all of seven, and not nearly as grown up and sophisticated and we were, so we were hardly surprised. But he did hang around with us while we were puffing away, flattered to be included with the older guys. As he watched us, he mentioned that his brother did something he called “taking a drag,” which consisted of breathing the smoke into his lungs after he drew it into his mouth. He pantomimed the process for us. Jimmy wasn’t so sure. I wasn’t either. We both figured that what we were doing was cool enough and didn’t need to be improved upon. Still, it was something new. I was a few months older, and in a higher grade at school, so it seemed incumbent on me to be the first. The smoke hit my lungs like a hammer. It was shocking, really. Of course I coughed for quite a while, and as I was hacking and retching I felt my hands and feet get numb and my head become light. I lay back on the moldy green cushions in the Hut to catch my breath. My initial thought was how could this be? How could I have missed this important part of smoking, after watching all those commercials and movies on TV? I guess they had inhaled so subtly that I had just completely failed to notice it. In hindsight I’m not surprised I missed it. I hadn’t focused on the narrowest part of smoking itself, that is, the taking of the smoke into the body. That wasn’t the information meant to be conveyed by all the cowboys, cartoon penguins, and bellhops on television. Instead I had concentrated on the more important aspects of smoking, as I saw them in the ads—the placement of the cigarette between the fingers, the casual flip of the wrist, the knowing laugh, the obvious bonhomie produced by the whole process of being among fellow smokers. As I would later learn, these facets of smoking were far from frivolous or peripheral. In fact, they constitute the elements of cigarette addiction that are most difficult to overcome. It’s obvious that the people who invented nicotine gum and patches never have smoked, or they wouldn’t be perpetrating such an expensive and unnecessary fraud on those who do by selling them on the idea that addiction to a chemical substance is their primary concern. As all smokers know, nicotine may be the thing that reminds you that you want to smoke every hour or so and that makes your skin crawl the first day or so after you don’t have it any more, but it is not the thing, five days or two weeks or two months after you’ve quit, that makes you bum one from a friend or break down and buy a pack. Instead, it’s that gigantic bundle of reinforcement behaviors you’ve come to associate with smoking, what psychologists call conditioned responses, that make the act of taking a cigarette out and lighting it and smoking it, repeated thousands of times at thousands of important and unimportant moments of your life, the thing you’re really addicted to, and not some silly alkaloid in the tobacco plant. And of course it was all those wonderful moments of life that the great old cigarette commercials were selling, and not the chemical response to nicotine. The gang of happy friends who’d rather fight than switch, the rugged western individualists, the dancing animated sticks of tobacco. Smoking was to be yet another thing in life that I didn’t fully understand, in spite of having seen it done thousands of times on the tube. It joined the list of other seemingly straightforward processes I’d witnessed in black and white in my living room, like kissing and drinking stuff that came in brown bottles and was poured over ice a tiny bit at a time, which contained much more complexity than I could discern from the actions of the people on the screen. So I inhaled and then Jimmy inhaled, after which we both felt sick. The schizophrenic’s little brother observed us, bemused. Watching his hallucinating sibling chain smoke for hours on end evidently had given him a less starry-eyed view of the whole phenomenon. And then, as always happened when we convened in the Hut, the time came when we squeezed out the door and went back to playing at other things, like baseball and bicycles. But the smoking bug had bitten me hard, and this was just the beginning. Like all good tobacco users everywhere, I didn’t let my body’s obvious attempt to reject the poisonous substance keep me from trying again. At this point we had to deal with the fact that it had only been a stroke of luck which had put us in possession of cigarettes in the first place. Where would we get more? After this pack was gone, as it soon would be, what could we do? One of the things we had discovered was a phenomenon that persists to this very day in retail establishments everywhere, and that was that cigars were always much more out in the open than cigarettes. Cigars, chewing tobacco, pipe tobacco—almost everything but cigarettes—were arranged in display racks right next to the cash register and in front of the counter, where anyone could get their hands on them any time. Only cigarettes were tantalizingly out of reach, or at least so close to the cashier as to be somewhat protected. Jimmy and I realized, not long after our cigarettes ran out, that we could, if we wished, take advantage of the availability of these other forms of tobacco with relative ease. Since we weren’t real crazy about inhaling anyway, why not smoke something that didn’t need to be inhaled? After the assault on our lungs out in the Hut that day, we had kept our eyes and ears open and had discovered that people didn’t generally inhale cigars. This suited us fine. We went down to Miller’s Market to steal cigarillos, the kind with the plastic tips. Jimmy talked to Mrs. Miller, the butcher’s wife, down at the end where the meat was, while I slipped a pack of little cigars from the display stand next to the register into my pocket. Soon we became like a well-oiled machine. A pack here, a pack there. Don’t hit the same place twice in a row. Spread out, switch roles. Miller’s one time, the drug store the next. Kroger’s and the A&P were harder to work, because everything was closer to the cashiers, and there were generally too many people around. In the small stores, at certain times of the day, we’d be the only customers. And the only thieves. So tobacco was indeed a gateway drug, as the latter-day moralists insist. For us it lead quickly into shoplifting, rather than other drugs, but the moral slide was there all the same. Jimmy and I didn’t really care, mind you. We’d long since decided that a life of vice was infinitely preferable to one of goodness and innocence. But at what price? What was waiting for us down the line—treason, murder? Well, time enough to contemplate such things, while casually puffing on a cigarillo in the Hut. Around this time we also persuaded our parents to let us start sleeping out in the Hut. It was equivalent to being in a tent in the back yard. This worked out well, because we were pretty uncomfortable about smoking during the day, after the milkman had nailed us that first morning. So we figured the best thing to do was to go out into the Hut at around twilight, then lie low until the middle of the night, when we could wander around and do our smoking in the cool outdoor air. That helped cut down on the smoke inside the Hut, which, with the pungent cigars we now had, had become a bit heady. Even the trendy cigar bars I frequented half a century later usually had overhead fans to cleanse the atmosphere. We couldn’t push it too far, but we were able to sleep out in the Hut once or twice a week during that summer. The culmination of our smoking came one night in August. It was dark and late, and the heat of the day was just beginning to abate. I say it was late, but in reality it was well before midnight. We couldn’t stay awake long enough to really walk around in the real middle of the night. Out in the Hut, once the sun went down there was nothing much to do except wait, and the longer we waited the greater was the likelihood that we would fall asleep until morning. So after we had talked in the dark for what felt like half the night we would venture out, being careful not to make too much noise around my house, where the lights often would still be on. To the shrill sound of crickets and the occasional howl of a Grand Trunk freight train whistle a half-mile distant, we sallied forth with our smokes and our matches in our pockets. Up behind the church at the top of the street we stopped to pull out a cigarillo and cast off its cellophane wrapper and light it. Ah, the smell of the burning weed, redolent at once of sweetness and dung. It must have been like this for Sir Walter Raleigh the first time he put fire to a twist of fresh Indian leaf. Minus the soft plastic tip, of course. We know now that the white man’s relationship with tobacco was a love-hate thing from the beginning. Raleigh and others felt the stimulating power of the nicotine and believed it to be medicinal. But in 1604 Sir Walter’s monarch, King James I, quite accurately nailed smoking’s less attractive qualities, calling it “a custome loathsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomlesse.” In other words, it was pretty much like being in hell. Nicotine was named for a Frenchman, Jean Nicotin, who in 1559 sent tobacco to the Medicis in Florence as a medicine. Very soon the addictive properties of nicotine were realized and felt, as well. (I imagine this guy Nicotin holding whatever he was smoking in that ineffably fruity manner of the Europeans, with the fingers and thumb pointing upward, like Kevin Spacey when he played the insidious Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects.) Among the American Indians tobacco often was used as a psychoactive drug, like marijuana or peyote, because in very high doses nicotine can cause hallucinations. Substances like this are said to be “entheogenic,” a word derived from Greek that means, literally, “creating God within.” Some Indians believed that exhaled tobacco smoke sent prayers up to the heavens. Jimmy and I were not trying to bring God into our brains by smoking. On the contrary, we were sort of attempting the opposite—to exorcise the good spirits from ourselves and invite in the wickedness and sophistication we associated with what we were doing. Our sights were set more on King James’s “pit that is bottomlesse” than on the realms of the divine sought by the noble red man. On this particular August night we puffed long and hard as we plied the dimly lit streets of our little town, carefully avoiding the direct glare of occasional passing headlights. It must have been after about the third cigarillo that I began to feel seriously sick. First, I inadvertently inhaled smoke and began to cough violently, retching and spitting between paroxysms. In my sudden misery, under the glow of a neon sign in the window of the hardware store, as I spit a glob onto the sidewalk, I noticed that it contained something dark, which I realized was blood. I was nine years old and spitting up blood already! This wasn’t supposed to happen until you had been smoking for a lifetime! I felt my body tingling and began to lose feeling in my legs. Waves of nausea washed over me. At this point perhaps, like the Indians, I did send up a prayer. I sat on a concrete curb and put my head down. Gradually the worst of it passed. Jimmy had noticed my wretchedness and come to my side, and seen the blood. “Maybe you should tell your mom,” he offered. That was often Jimmy’s suggested solution for a situation that involved extremities of physical discomfort or in any other way seemed larger than life. Maybe you should tell your mom. I don’t know if he was in the habit of telling his mom every time something major happened to him, but I sure as hell wasn’t. Tell my mom that instead of being safely ensconced in the Hut I was wandering around downtown at God knows what hour of the night, smoking cigars and spitting up blood? Not fucking likely. If I died out here on the curb, so be it. But getting into trouble? Now that was something to be avoided at all costs. Situation comedies like Leave It to Beaver were dedicated to the proposition that when kids tried to hide their screw-ups, they invariably got into even bigger messes. Pure adult propaganda. My own experience told me that more often than not, you could in fact successfully cover things up, and no one would ever need to know. Whether the blood I coughed up actually came from my lungs or was only from a ruptured vessel in my throat caused by the intense retching and coughing itself, must forever remain a matter for speculation. I can say this, however. That was the only time that has happened to me. At least so far. As for the smoking, I wish I could say this event put an end to that, too. But it didn’t, at least not for me. Years later Jimmy told me that he thinks our little soiree under the streetlights might have been the last time he ever smoked--in his life.Lucky guy. There are stories about kids who get caught smoking by their parents and are then forced to smoke cigarettes until they get sick, after which they never touch another one again. In fact, that’s exactly what happened to my wife. Jimmy didn’t even have to personally get sick. I got sick for him—for both of us. But I proved to be one of those hard cases—the ones who get back up, dust themselves off, and smoke again until they get it right. Perhaps this persistence arose from something inside me that made me wish to prove to the world that I could take a little punishment and come back for more. Or maybe it was because my life at home was so lacking in vices that to smoke seemed a way of entering the larger world as presented in the media of the day, where people threw back their heads with reckless abandon and pure guiltless joy, blowing smoke into the air as liquor clinked in tumblers filled with shiny, jeweled ice cubes. A wondrous world where church and prayer and the knowledge of sin were nowhere to be found, and only fun and laughter and suavity and sensuality existed—a heaven on earth if ever I could conceive of such a thing. My world was small, but it was already bigger than the prim confines of my own home. There were the tough kids on the playground, fifth and sixth graders who bragged about smoking. I know for a fact that a few, like Ricky Rourke and Mike Donovan, started smoking before they hit puberty and never stopped. Then there was the time I saw Bobby Spencer, one of the youngest in a large family of hillbillies who lived in a tiny house in the field behind Jimmy’s, walking up Sashabaw Road in front of the church smoking a fat cigar, at the age of about six. The utter freedom that scene embodied—freedom from parents, from teachers, from society, from all artificial boundaries of behavior—captured my imagination as few images have done since. So while that night did mark the end to my prodigal puffing as a nine year old, it was only the precursor for me of a serious lifetime love affair with tobacco. Like all such affairs, there were bumps in the road—lover’s quarrels, if you will. But where the attachment is strong and enduring, love does find a way. By high school I was back at it with renewed vigor. I still had to hide it from my parents, or at least not bring it too much to their attention. Finally, in college, far away and liberated from all parental restraints, I embraced my inner smoker. And my first serious brand of choice, having reached the point of expressing my own preference instead of bumming or buying or stealing whatever was handy at the moment, was Winstons, the cigarette that tasted good like a cigarette should. In time I quit smoking for a few years, started again, switched to Wintons’ mentholated sister, Salems, quit again for another few years, started again, switched to Salem Lights, quit again, started again, then finally quit for good, thirty years or so after that first foray into the enchanted land of tobacco back in the Hut behind the garage. Quit cigarettes, that is. Then came the pipe, with its aromatic smoke that everyone loved to smell, and the funny little tools and filters and paraphernalia. After that came cigars, which burst into respectability in the busy affluent 80s and 90s, still stinking, but smelling now also of money and pleasure and discernment. At last I’ve left smoking behind for what I hope is the final time. It’s been a long bumpy ride, starting from the day Jimmy and I took that trip with the hunchback milkman down our dead-end dirt street. Smoking has found its way to my list of former vices, which grows longer as I get further from my misspent youth. The seductive ads are gone now, as dead as the rugged cowpokes and carefree sophisticates who populated them, the victims of cancer or common sense. Changing mores have rendered such direct appeals unthinkable and outmoded, almost as quaint as the idea that nicotine is a gateway to the gods. Tobacco is down, but not out. The same can be said for my interest in the weed. When my children visit now they go out onto the front porch to smoke, conditioned to the idea that smoking is exclusively an outdoor activity, a far cry from the way things were when I was their age. Sometimes I go out with them and wish I were smoking, too. Not at my age, mind you, but at theirs, when my sense of the end of my days was not so acute. Forget what the public health people tell you about the dangers of youth smoking, and how we have to make sure no one under the age of eighteen buys cigarettes. Never mind the claims by the manufacturers that smoking is a lifestyle choice for adults. That’s all backwards. Smoking is for the young, and the younger the better. Smoking is for people who have no sense of their own mortality—whose lungs are pink and strong and able to withstand the hourly assault of toxic fumes. Smoking is for high school sweethearts and college dreamers and soldiers and ambitious young people on the make and on the go. Smoke while you’re strong and healthy and invincible I say, because there’s nothing more pathetic than old smokers, wrinkled and full of phlegm and croaking with the dust of a hundred thousand cigarettes in their throats. The ones who thought they’d quit some day—next week, next month, next year—and never did. The ones who know they’ve crossed the invisible border between splendor in the grass and the inglorious field of the deadly payoff. Children still play on our little street, where Jimmy and I rode bikes down the uneven sidewalk and ducked between the houses and into the shady backyards. My house is gone, torn down by the church that owned it, leaving an impossibly small patch of grass where it once stood tall and spacious in my young eyes. Oddly, though, the little white one-car garage remains, now used for storage, but without the Hut behind it. Somewhere along the line it, too, was demolished. Years after my childhood one of the men who had helped tear it down remarked to me that they’d found some cigarette and cigar butts under the floor boards. He smiled and looked me in the eye when he said it, and I smiled back and nodded. It was too late to care about being caught. The house and the Hut and the days of my youth are up in smoke. New kids are on the block now, sneaking new brands of cigarettes and cigars, still lighting up in secret behind bushes and out along the street in the dark of night. In my mind I hear the scraping of a match. I see it flame up and then I see the glow of burning tobacco. It brightens as someone draws in the smoke, coughs a bit, and exhales. A new generation of smokers is born.
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