BECOMING A SMOKER

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After the application interview at the small girls’ college I eventually attended, I was offered a post-interview lunch in the college dining room. It was the spring of 1948. What I noticed at once was that the attractive well-dressed girls who seemed the most sophisticated stayed on after the meal for coffee and a cigarette.  I therefore devoted the whole of July and August to learning how to drink coffee.  My practice sessions took place, with the help of milk and saccharin, at the Horn & Hardart Automat on 57th Street during the lunch hour of my summer job.  I needed the extras because black coffee tasted terrible to my virgin tongue, and I chose milk because it had fewer calories than cream, saccharin because it had no calories at all.  [When I later reached Europe for the first time in the summer of 1950, Europeans I met all asked why saccharin, the wartime sweetener, now that sugar was available again.  Having gone hungry for five years, they just didn’t understand American calorie-counting.]

But what good was coffee for my image without its necessary accompaniment?  Although somewhat timid at seventeen about crossing this bright line into adulthood without a parental imprimatur, before Thanksgiving I had already dared enter the drugstore near campus to buy a pack of Chesterfields, my mother’s brand.  (A cardboard book of matches came free with every pack, paid for by the advertising on its cover.)  Imagine!  No hassle. No questions.  That’s what college girls did. I walked out finally feeling like a “real” college girl myself.

Learning what to do with what I had bought was another matter. It required some help from my new boyfriend. The girl across the hall with whom I shared a bathroom was not a smoker. The new boyfriend was not a regular smoker either, but knew that when you held the struck match to the tip you had to pull in your breath at the same time, possibly two or three times, until the end of the cigarette that was not in your mouth caught fire and glowed. Only when you were sure the cigarette was lit could you then shake out the match and drop it into the ashtray.

So that’s what I did until the end of the academic year — after meals in the dining room and sometimes on the train going home for a visit, because it looked good and train rides were boring. I also lit up on dates when cigarettes were offered. But I couldn’t really understand what the fuss was about, or why it was considered so sophisticated. Pulling unpleasant-tasting smoke into your mouth and then blowing it out again wasn’t anything I would have missed if cigarettes had vanished from my life.  It even burned the tongue a bit. The boyfriend did explain that I would have to inhale to understand what was so good about it.  But I couldn’t make myself open the back of my throat, and he didn’t care what I did about inhaling.  (He was more concerned with another thing I couldn’t make myself do.)

My mother, on the other hand, was absolutely thrilled and bought me several ceramic ashtrays for my room at home and my room at college.  Like mother, like daughter at last!  (Not really, but she was still hoping.)  I have no idea why she didn’t tell me I was doing it wrong, but she didn’t.  She cared much more about appearances than what was really going on.

So the teaching job fell to Ginny, my second-year suite-mate until Christmas.  (The room arrangement I had that year, in a more desirable dorm than my Freshman residence, was called a suite  because each of two girls had her own room with its own door, linked by a shared bathroom in between the two rooms.)  Ginny was asked to leave after our first semester together because she went to no classes, did no schoolwork, skipped most meals, slept for most of every day, and stayed up most of every night smoking, eating cookies, and reading novels not on any course reading list.  Although from an extremely wealthy family, she had a terrible home life, including a father who was liable to descend the curved staircase into the living room drunk and stark naked whenever she was there with a friend — which she told me about, since she had practically no other day-to day life to share. But I guess the college couldn’t concern itself about that, especially as they probably didn’t know about it.  However, when Ginny set out to do something, she did a terrific job.  As in teaching me really to smoke — and thereby hooking me for twenty years.

Armed with several packages of Chesterfields and a glass from the dining room, she sat me down on my bed, filled the glass with water from the bathroom sink, told me to light up a cigarette, pull in a mouthful of smoke, and immediately take a swallow of water before blowing the smoke out again.  Eureka! The water forced the smoke down into my lungs — the thing I had never been able to do before!  When I at last blew out the smoke, it was dilute…and looked like everyone else’s exhalations!  I also felt a trifle dizzy.  Ginny explained that was why I was sitting on the bed.  She urged me to continue. Encouraged, I did.  Puff by puff, swallow by swallow, I sank deep and then deeper into expertise.  After three or four cigarettes, I was also very full of water as well as even more dizzy. But by hanging on to the walls, I was able to make it to the toilet and then back to the bed, where I intended to finish the pack, as if it were a box of chocolates that needed to be gone by tomorrow so I could start dieting again.  By the fifth cigarette, I no longer needed the water.  By the fourteenth or fifteenth cigarette, I lay down on my pillow, triumphant — head spinning from lack of oxygen — and was out like a light.

In the morning, there was a foul taste in my mouth.  Ginny was asleep, exhausted by her labors with me.  I brushed my teeth, “borrowed” a swig of her mouthwash, and made my way down to breakfast in the building at the bottom of the campus hill.  Never mind orange juice, eggs or cereal: I craved coffee and a cigarette!  I was a smoker  — all too soon a confirmed smoker — at last!

And thus began my twenty years of exquisite pleasures and pains. The pleasures at first were multiple.  A whole new world of hitherto unfelt needs!  Shopping expeditions galore!  A lighter — but what kind?  The cheap and reliable Zippo, seen in the hands of movie tough guys, and also movie soldiers and sailors — with its one-thumb flip-up top and dependably sturdy flare of flame, even on a windy day?  It showed you were a no-nonsense sort of girl.  Or a more elegant and expensive number, almost akin to jewelry — such as a small gold-plated lighter with vertical ridging that looked wonderfully feminine when extracted from an envelope purse, but often failed to do its job without strong-thumbed masculine assistance on the striking mechanism?  And for either choice, the essential lighter fluid — right up there at the top of the grocery list!

Alternatively, there was the lowly matchbook or matchbox  — made less lowly by the social distinction of the restaurant, hotel or cafe from which it was pinched.  Some of us, including me, kept collections of such classy matchbooks and matchboxes in open bowls as a final decorative touch to the room.  Although if you did that, you couldn’t actually use the matches (except perhaps once in a while to light a romantic candle) because when they were all gone, you’d have to throw the prestigious cover or box away.

[And while I’m on the subject of lighting up, let me mention the big no-no:   lighting your cigarette from the kitchen stove at home.  Try that — and hair as well as cigarette might catch fire. Sometimes, though, in the absence of a match or lighter fluid for your lighter…. Besides, I could always truthfully say I learned this risky maneuver from my mother.]  

What about cigarette cases — to keep tobacco crumbs out of your pockets and purses?  They ran the gamut from gold-initialed leather ones that held a whole pack, ten cigarettes on each side, to gold or silver monogrammed ones, which held fewer and I thought better suited to men.  Not everyone coveted a cigarette holder, but I did.  They came in black, red or tortoiseshell, with a gold or silver tip opposite the mouthpiece end.  The tip unscrewed so that you could insert or remove the crystal filter that was supposed to keep twenty cigarettes worth of tar from your lungs.  However, possession of a cigarette holder required that you also possess boxes of crystal filters, packages of pipe cleaners, a tin container of cleaning fluid.  The upkeep involved in smoking stylishly could be imposing!

Other pleasures? Becoming an active contributor to the blue smoke in which college seminars were conducted.  My Shakespeare professor, who I adored, went through three Lucky Strikes in a ninety-minute session, and it certainly behooved the eleven of us sitting around the conference table with him to do likewise.  I even switched from Chesterfields to Luckies just for him, although I don’t believe he was actually aware of my conversion. They were supposed to taste “toasted.”  Belief is everything in such matters.  Maybe the tobacco was toasted — to make it more carcinogenic as well as “tastier.”  Who really knew?

After college, smoking was of course an important element in courtship rituals.  The man offering the woman one from his jacket pocket or cigarette case before taking one himself.  Or leaning protectively over her to light her cigarette in a breeze. And by the time matters progressed to the bedroom — lovemaking or sex or whatever you wanted to call it just wasn’t complete without an ashtray on the naked stomach of the man afterwards, and both lovers smoking happily together, united in the afterglow of passion spent and clouds of fragrant nicotine.

If you had no one to smoke with in the bedroom, cigarettes were nevertheless a great assist in acquiring such a someone.  At cocktail parties — the necessary bane of the single girl’s existence — you didn’t have to stand forlorn against a wall, doing nothing and hoping someone would come over to speak to you.  You were doing something.  You were smoking.  Evening bag in one hand, cigarette in another, you could inhale, coolly survey the room, and exhale dramatically, perhaps sardonically.  Even better, evening bag under one arm, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other, you were already fully, and attractively, occupied. How could you possibly be expected to work the room?  Alternatively, if you saw someone with potential, you could put out the cigarette somewhere, take a fresh one from your bag, and approach.  Did he by any chance have a match?  Then you lowered your head over the proffered flame, looked up smolderingly from beneath your eyelashes, and hoped the cigarette was not the only thing that ignited.

It worked in reverse too.  The man who, perhaps inadvertently, became my second husband was sitting on East Hampton Main Beach in the summer of 1963 on a towel not too far away from mine when he felt the need to smoke and leaned over to ask if I had a match.  Did I ever have a match!  At the ripe age of thirty-two, what was I on that beach for anyway, if not to offer attractive single men matches?

You could smoke at work, in elevators, in the balconies of movie theaters, in restaurants, in bars, on the street (often leaving accidental cigarette burns in the clothing of people you passed). You could smoke at the zoo, in the playground while watching your tots in the sandbox. I even smoked while nursing my long-awaited first child:  it made the happiness of it complete.  When a bit of ash fell on his downy head, I brushed it off tenderly.  The pediatrician said nothing.

It’s true the fingers between which you held your cigarettes turned yellow (unless you went on using a holder, despite the advent of filter tips).  Your teeth became yellow.  Even if you had teeth without cavities, as I did, you could develop gum disease from heavy smoking. Which I did.  [There were partial gingevectomies and deep scaling. The periodontist used to joke that when my teeth fell out because my gums were shot, they’d be in perfect condition.]  You and your clothing smelled of nicotine, despite heavy applications of Arpege.  Some people developed a smoker’s cough, although I didn’t, except when I had bad colds.  I moved on from Luckies to KIng Size Kents, with the “Micronite” filter tip that allegedly “refined away hot flavor, refined away hot taste.” My consumption mounted as the filters removed some of the poison.  I went from a pack a day, to thirty a day, to finally burning two packs a day, although I probably only really smoked thirty.  I had to put some out halfway through to hurry off somewhere; I left others burning themselves out in ashtrays while I took showers or washed dishes.  When out to dinner, sometimes the waiter came with the entree while you were smoking after the appetizer, and you then either had to extinguish the cigarette you had just begun or leave it in the ashtray while you attacked your lamb chops.  Some people even took puffs between bites, but I never did that.  However, I did hurry through dinner so as to be able to smoke again — and never mind dessert.  It was a great way to stay slender.

[More tomorrow.]

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8 thoughts on “BECOMING A SMOKER

  1. annie

    What a trip down bad memory lane! I had to laugh, though because it was/is all so stupid to get hooked in the first place and then believe that it’s attractive/smart/cool/sophisticated — whatever. You’re right: choosing the lighter to ignite the carcinogens was all-important. I even had a small ashtray that could be carried in the purse (can you imagine!!) for those emergency times . (Cough, cough) I’m so happy that I’m not longer that prisoner/slave to tobacco that I was. And I’ve saved so much money. 😉 Life is good!

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    • Really such bad memories? Looking back, I think it was all rather silly. (Not silly of you and me, silly of everybody — buying into social pressure and advertising like a flock of geese.) Let’s forgive our young selves, and be grateful if we escaped without too much damage to our health!

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  2. NIce piece! And, yes, this was another t ime and place. I would not ignore, too, the corporations behind the behavior, as they seem to be behind every behavior these days. If there’s money in removing our limbs, they’ll convince us its fashionable to remove our limbs. Best, Wm. Eaton, Montaigbakhtinian.com

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    • What we would not ignore today I was completely oblivious of at eighteen. But thank you for the “nice piece” anyway. Also nice to see you (as they say around here) “stopping by.” Best right back.

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    • I should think much of what I write about comes from a world, even now, different from yours. We are of different genders, different generations, different ethnic and educational backgrounds. Nonetheless, we are both sentient human beings who are (judging by your comment and blog) both literate. And isn’t discovering commonalities what reading good stuff is all about? Glad you had “fun” though. Come again…. 😀

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      • Absolutely. 🙂

        I’ve always approached society as something to compete with, something to beat into compliance.

        In that sense, I never really felt tempted to smoke even though all my friends were. I did stuff like very dangerous automobile/motorcycle stunts precisely because other people weren’t doing them.

        I have never really experienced social life from the “inside” as you seem to have done. Very interesting.

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