STOPPING SMOKING FOR GOOD

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In 1967, 1968 and 1969, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued Supplements to the initial 1964 Surgeon General’s Report on the health hazards of smoking — each of which was publicized and analyzed in every newspaper, magazine and television news program I saw. The cigarette companies denied everything, but of course they would.

By the last of these CDC Supplements, I was nearly thirty-eight and five months pregnant with a second child. At that point, I had been described by a friend as having an eleventh finger.  It was not quite twenty years since my second-year college suite-mate had taught me to inhale.  Was twenty years some kind of outer limit, beyond which it would be foolhardy to pass? On the morning of June 6, 1969, I woke up very early, thinking I heard a cry from the crib in the adjoining bedroom where our two-year-old boy was sleeping.  I got up to see.  It was nothing.  Then I tiptoed into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee, in order to justify my first cigarette of the day. As I sat there inhaling at the scrubbed oak kitchen table next to the stove, it suddenly occurred to me I was going to die of emphysema.  I still didn’t know what emphysema was.  (Lung cancer I did know about, and couldn’t face.)  But I knew emphysema could kill.  And if I died, who was going to raise my darling little boy in the crib and the new baby inside of me, whatever gender it turned out to be?

My mother hadn’t done such a great job with me, her only child and a girl.  How would she ever be able to handle two, at least one a boy? I hated my mother-in-law. (The feeling was apparently mutual.)  There was no way I was going to let her get her hands on my babies and ruin their lives.  I had a nice sister-in-law — the wife of my husband’s older brother.  But they had very little money and two little girls of their own; I didn’t think she would appreciate two more children to feed and raise properly.  Besides, she was religious and kept kosher — which was definitely not for me!  I stubbed out the cigarette I was holding, emptied and washed the ashtray, and put the pack away in a high kitchen cabinet.

I don’t think I had really decided to quit forever.  I was probably just trying it out, “to see.”  Within an hour, I was uncomfortable.  I had had to leave the Hungarian therapist who guided me through my first attempt at quitting when I stopped working a month before my first child was born and could no longer pay him.  But I remembered everything he had told me during that attempt.  I drank water all morning.  I took deep and presumably healthful inhalations of air to fill myself with oxygen.  Then I bundled my little boy into his stroller and pushed him up and down Broadway for at least two hours in the morning, and then again in the afternoon, clutching the stroller handles as tightly as I could by afternoon because it was getting hard to walk straight without weaving.  I tried to chew gum, although I hate gum.  (I stayed away from Life Savers, though;  this time I was not going to gain weight!)

As I walked, I told myself, “You are not going to die from not smoking.  You may very well die from smoking.”

I told myself, “You can get through twenty-four hours.  Just twenty-four hours.”

I told myself, “I want to see my babies grow up.”

I told myself, “Other people have done it.  So can you.”

Then, when I was too shaky to walk any farther, I went home and drank more water and ground my teeth and drank more water.  I was feeling much worse than the first time, five years before, which had been bad enough.  That evening, we had a sitter because my husband had been given free tickets to the races.  We had never been before, and never again had another opportunity.  But all I remember of this interesting event was noise, confusion, and a horrible headache that sliced clean across my forehead as if my head were in an iron vise that someone was tightening as I sat.  I told my husband I didn’t feel well.  I wanted to throw up, although I couldn’t.  It was just as well:  there was nothing in my stomach because I had been unable to eat dinner.  Even if I had wanted to, I would have had trouble chewing; it was difficult to move my tongue and jaws.  As soon as we got home, I fell into bed and slept for thirty hours straight.  It was the beginning of the weekend.  My husband said later he had tried to wake me but I pushed him away, so he left me alone to sleep off whatever it was. (He thought it was the flu, or a virus.)  I have no memory of that.  I woke up finally, more than a day later, to urinate.  As when I had first learned to smoke nearly twenty years before, my head was spinning; I had to hold on to the walls to get to the bathroom.

I was lucky to have been able to sleep through what was probably the worst of it.  Although what came after I woke was still pretty bad. Perhaps not quite as bad as Frank Sinatra rolling on a cell floor in agony when forced to kick his heroin habit cold turkey in Man With a Golden Arm (my one point of comparison).  But I was as good as useless for the next eight or nine days.  There were no patches, no Nicorette gum, no groups.  I had trouble controlling my hands well enough to dress myself and my little boy.  Thank goodness he was old enough to feed himself, because I probably would not have been able to hold a spoon steady enough to feed him.  I couldn’t type at all.  My hands shook on the keys, the letters transposed themselves, and I couldn’t think clearly enough to correct what I had done.  I couldn’t read; my concentration was shot.  Oddly, I had no appetite at all.  I drank peppermint tea, and water, and chamomile tea, and water, and finally had to explain the oddities in my conduct by telling my husband and a few friends what I was trying to do — which I had wanted not to reveal, in case it turned out I couldn’t do it and had the shame of a public failure.  Anyone who says a cigarette habit is just psychological is wrong.  Nicotine is a drug, and a body accustomed to a drug will protest its sudden removal with physical symptoms.  My symptoms may have been more severe than average.  But then I had been a savagely dedicated smoker for nearly two decades.  None of this selective social smoking for me.  Smoking had been my life, and I had now stripped smoking from my life.  My whole self was protesting.

After ten days, the physical symptoms began to recede.  The nicotine was clearing from my system.  That’s not to say that the yearning departed.  But I decided I was going to hang on until the baby was born.  Just until then.  And if the intense, intolerable yearning persisted……Well, we would see.

Finishing meals was awful, because there was no cigarette afterwards. Speaking on the telephone, writing something on the typewriter, talking to anyone on the street or in the park — anything I had ever done that needed to be preceded by a cigarette still needed to be preceded by a cigarette, and now there were all these gaping holes in the course of every day of my life that I had to learn to circumvent.  For the next three or four months, I really didn’t do very much at all except not smoke. And cough.

During all the time I had smoked, I never had a smoker’s cough.  When I got colds, or bronchitis, I would cough up thick green phlegm, but when I got better, the coughing went away.  Now — beginning about ten days after I had crushed my last cigarette in the ashtray — the morning coughing began.  I ran to the toilet to spit out what had come up.  A large black viscous blob floated on the surface of the water.  I fished it out with a wad of toilet paper to examine it.  It was that oily black stuff that the crystal filters in cigarette holders used to trap.  Tar.  Loosening after ten days of not smoking and and beginning to come up from my lungs.  That was scary.  They said at that time if you managed not to smoke for seven years, your lungs would return to their original pink condition.  But I hadn’t realized they would be encased in this disgusting black gunk before that happened.  If anything kept me on the straight and narrow throughout the remainder of the pregnancy, it was the sight, every morning, of globs of oily black tar on the surface of the toilet bowl water.  Coming out of me!

By the time I went to the hospital for the birth of the baby, the globs were beginning to turn dark grey. There was of course no smoking in the hospital.  I came home with my baby — a second boy — and continued my morning expectorations.  Month by month, they grew paler grey, but still with coal black flecks in them.  I didn’t stop coughing up those black flecks in increasingly pale grey gook until March 1970 — nine months after I had quit.

You might say I was now clean.  I wouldn’t have said that.  Every time we went to a restaurant or a party and someone lit up, I inhaled the second-hand smoke with pleasure, envy and regret — despite what I had learned about oily black tar in the lungs, and agonizing withdrawal symptoms, and the likelihood that all those lucky smokers at some time down the road could get very sick.  It might have been a risk I wasn’t going to take — I still wanted to see my babies grow up — but that didn’t keep the desire at bay. It wasn’t until a full twenty months later that we walked into a room where people were smoking, and I found myself wrinkling  my nose in disgust because suddenly I didn’t want that stinky stuff in my nice clean lungs. How dare those people pollute my air?

Twenty months after June 6, 1969 to make me a non-smoker again.

That’s not to say that if I ever had even one cigarette, for some stupid reason, I wouldn’t be back to thirty in no time.  That’s not to say I didn’t inflict some permanent damage to my lungs.  (They were wrong about the seven years.)  I do have mild traces of emphysema at the bottom of the left lung; it showed up when they were doing a CAT scan for something else.  In the life I presently lead, it doesn’t limit any activity I might choose to undertake.  And hopefully, it won’t spread, or spread far. I also have hypertension, controlled by medication, and a heart that shows some signs of perhaps presenting interesting problems for cardiologists (and me) at some time in the future.  But I consider myself lucky.  It could have been worse.

Every generation has some sort of particular trial by fire, I suppose.  I would hate to be a young person with tattoos everywhere. (Even a non-smoking one.) At some point in the future, that young person will have become an older person, and the tats may have become embarrassing, undesirable, an impediment to obtaining something or other, or just an indelible marker of a fad-crazed youth.  They won’t look so good either — on sagging, wrinkled or fat-stretched skin.  But that’s the next generation’s problem, not mine.

As for the 18% of adult Americans estimated still to be smoking, what can I say? In four posts, I’ve said it all.  Although I might add I realize now there’s almost never such a thing as “I can’t.”  I “couldn’t” for myself, but  “could” for my children — even for the one still unborn.  Their arrival then brought into my life that classic of positive thinking — “The Little Engine That Could.” (After I’d given up cigarettes.)  Remember how the Little Engine managed to bring toys to all the children in the village on Christmas morning, even though there was a big hill in the way?  “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…..”  And by thinking that, the Little Engine could.

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STOPPING SMOKING: THE TRIAL RUN

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The Surgeon General’s Report linking smoking with lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease was released in 1964.  But for quite some time before that, I had already realized that smoking was gradually becoming more a burden than a blessing. Even without actually trying to stop, I was aware that I couldn’t not smoke.  If I sat downstairs at the movies, where smoking was not allowed, I could hardly wait for the picture to end so as to rush out and light up. I couldn’t sit for very long in the stacks at the library where I was doing research for my master’s thesis without stopping work to go down and through the library doors for a cigarette.

I couldn’t lock the door when I came home in the evening without making sure there were enough cigarettes in the house to get me through to the next morning.  I didn’t ever wake up at night to smoke, but if I woke up for some other reason — loud noise in the street, for instance — I was unable to get to sleep again without smoking at least part of a cigarette.  And first thing in the morning, even before brushing my teeth, I had to rush to the kitchen, make a cup of coffee and take a sip so I could light a cigarette without feeling guilty about smoking “first thing in the morning.”  I needed to light a cigarette before getting into the shower, before putting a piece of paper into the typewriter, before picking up the telephone, either to make a call or answer one.  If going into some one else’s office for a meeting, I went with pen, pad of paper, and package of cigarettes — glasses on top of my head.

My wooden furniture at home had cigarette burns where cigarettes left in ashtrays had fallen from ashtray to table surface.  A white synthetic leather pullout sofa bed in the studio apartment I rented after the end of my first marriage featured a burn mark on one cushion, where a flying spark had melted the synthetic leather. (And no, I couldn’t turn the cushion over.  There was no synthetic leather on the other side.)

I was also realizing I didn’t really enjoy smoking. I knew people who professed to love it.  What I experienced from the first deeply inhaled draw of a fresh cigarette was not pleasure, but immediate release from extreme discomfort.  I was smoking to relieve feeling not good.  When I smoked I felt normal. Not anything special.  Just normal.  When I didn’t smoke, I felt more and more uncomfortable, edgy, in need of my fix — until I could barely stand it.  I remember asking myself what my life was really about. It seemed I was existing to smoke — all the time I was awake — and was smoking in order to exist without misery.

Now and then I would discuss these feelings with the Hungarian — the entirely supportive shrink who was helping me put my life back together. We talked about the addictive properties of cigarettes (using the word “addictive” in the non-legal sense, of course, as neither of us were then lawyers).  The Hungarian said he stopped for two weeks every year, to prove to himself cigarettes were not his master, and that he was in control. [Today, forty-five years after I was finally able to stop, I would maintain two weeks wasn’t really “stopping.” But at that time two weeks without cigarettes sounded like eternity to me.]  He told me a story about hiding in a bomb shelter in Hungary during the war. Next to him was an older man who had managed to stop smoking twenty years before.  As the Hungarian extracted a cigarette from its package and lit it, the older man asked for one, too.  “If this is the end for us,” he said, “I want one last cigarette before I die.”  We both puffed companionably together during these conversations.

Then came the Report. Well, everyone knew, in a general way, that smoking wasn’t exactly good for you.  But lung cancer, emphysema (whatever that was), heart disease?  How long could you smoke with impunity before those kicked in? The Hungarian kept encouraging me to stop if I was so concerned.  Just to make sure that I could, if I really wanted to.

“I can’t stop,” I said.

“Of course you can stop,” he said.  “We will stop together.  Starting at midnight tonight!”

It was a Thursday in May or June of 1965 that he made this entirely unforeseen offer.   I was paying him for this?  Yes I was.  So how could I say no?  Having taken me by surprise, he outlined the deal:  Beginning at midnight, neither of us would take a single puff until we met again on Tuesday evening.  After that, we could each do what we wanted. But for nearly five days, we would hang in there.  There were also some guidelines, supposedly to make it somewhat less difficult:

  • Avoid coffee and tea — because caffeine would intensify the craving for nicotine.  (It perked you up, whereas nicotine calmed you down — both by shrinking the capillaries and thus reducing blood flow, and also by depriving you of oxygen with every puff.)
  • Drink lots of water, to flush nicotine out of your system.
  • Chew gum, if you have to do something with your mouth.
  • Take walks, inhaling deeply for healthful infusions of oxygen.
  • Distract yourself with activities during which you normally don’t smoke.  (I had no such activities, but didn’t argue the point.)

I was fearful and unwilling, but  the transference was too strong.  I  walked out of his office at eight in the evening, managed to smoke ten more cigarettes (making myself nauseous) before the appointed hour, stumbled to the incinerator in the hall at three minutes before midnight to throw all my remaining packs down the chute so I couldn’t retrieve them from the garbage pail in my apartment — and then gulped down a glass of water and slid between the sheets of the pullout sofa bed with the cigarette burn on one cushion as if I were climbing into my coffin.

I don’t know how I survived Friday at the office; I could not possibly have got anything done. I spent Saturday and Sunday mainly in the sofa bed, reading trashy magazines and sucking Life Savers like crazy in between long headachy naps and frequent trips to the bathroom to evacuate the quarts of water I was drinking. I may have called in sick on Monday in order to put away several pints of ice cream. (Ice cream is supposed to help everything. Wrong.) But Tuesday was coming.  Blessed Tuesday, when at last I would be able to light up!  Mainly what got me through all this were thoughts of the Hungarian’s similar suffering.

Tuesday evening, he congratulated me, declared he felt fine, and lit a meerschaum pipe.  “That’s not fair!” I cried.  I hadn’t even brought a fresh pack of cigarettes with me.  Somehow I thought he would offer me one and we would light up together.

“You can smoke too, if you want.”  He smiled.  “And you can continue to not smoke, if you want.  It will get easier, because you’ve done the hardest part.  It’s up to you.”

When I left him after the session, I paused in front of the drugstore near the subway stop.  Should I?  Shouldn’t I?  I went in, still uncertain — and bought three candy bars to carry me over until I got home to my cigarette-free studio apartment.

We were approaching the summer before my second wedding.  I munched my way through it — wearing one of three drop-waisted Pucci-type-print “sack” dresses that managed to look chic while also disguising the fact that I was rapidly losing my waistline and gaining about two pounds a week.  All foods were wonderful, all the time — and the more fattening the more satisfying.  I also discovered packages of little cigarillos in the drugstore:  they tasted terrible but you didn’t  inhale them, so you got the awful (but now also wonderful) taste of tobacco without injury to the lungs.  Also they looked rather sophisticated, if you were well dressed and coiffed when you put one between your lips.  A trans-gender activity by a feminine-looking woman!  Why hadn’t I thought of it before?

I was virtuous, and plump.  And then plumper.  And then had to buy a wedding dress.  The Big Day was September 12. There was a store on Broadway in the 80’s, the name of which I no longer remember, that would make up your choice of dress style in the fabric of your choice. That seemed the place to go, as I wasn’t sure what size I was anymore, and didn’t want to know.  They could measure me and do what had to be done.  I chose a slenderizing dress and jacket combination, to be made up in ivory colored silk.  (Such a purist! I considered white inappropriate for a non-virginal bride.)  The seamstress who was measuring me said I was a perfect size 14.  What was so perfect about that?  I also needed a dinner dress and a couple of sportive outfits for the Bermuda honeymoon.  In size 14?

No, no, no.  This was my fresh start in life. This time I was going to get it right with a brand-new husband. Fat had no part to play in such a future.  Three weeks before the wedding, I smoked a cigarette.  Before the week was up, I was back to smoking thirty.  After two weeks, when I returned for the final fitting of the ivory silk dress, they had to take it in quite a lot.  The taken-in dress was even somewhat loose on September 12, but I was a happy bride.  Everyone said I looked beautiful.  Stopping smoking would have to wait.

[More tomorrow.]

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.]

SMOKING

Standard

As I was driving into town yesterday, I had to stop for a red light behind a dark BMW.  Although the temperature was below freezing, the window on the driver’s side was open. I knew this because from out the window snaked a woman’s gloveless left hand with a cigarette gracefully lodged between the second and third fingers. She then raised her left thumb to replace the the second finger while she tapped ash with the second finger into the road.  The light changed, she drove on, I turned left and realized it was a long time since I had seen anything like that, and even longer since I had done it myself.

Nobody I know smokes anymore.  Nobody I know knows anyone who smokes anymore, if they ever did.  My children, who are in their mid-forties, don’t smoke, and neither do any of their friends.  My grandchildren are all under eight but almost certainly never will.  [That is, they won’t smoke a cigarette with tobacco in it. Other exotic substances I can’t speak to.  And won’t be around to find out about.]

The last time Bill and I were in Europe, five years ago, there was still plenty of smoking going on.  So I don’t know what the situation is over there by now, or in South America, or in Africa, or the Far East.  I understand that the American tobacco giants, like Philip Morris, are still doing very well — but they must be doing it by selling overseas, because there sure isn’t much puffing going on around here.  It’s not allowed in public buildings, most office buildings, most offices, theaters, movie theaters, restaurants, bars — nor in many homes.  You can’t even do it in the office bathroom. When all this prohibition first went into effect, there used to be huddles of cold, wet unhappy smokers hunched together near the doorways of buildings, snatching their nicotine fix in the rain, sleet or snow.  I don’t work in a big city anymore, but I bet those huddles are much smaller than they were ten years ago, if they still exist at all.  According to the latest estimate from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention), in 2012 just 18% of adult Americans smoked.

This is truly remarkable, because I grew up in a world where almost all adults smoked.  I mean, that’s what they did.  As far as I could tell, if you were an adult, you smoked.  [And if you smoked, maybe that was enough to make you an adult.  A lot of kids thought so.]  Although I have read some statistics that in 1964, the percentage of Americans smoking was 42%, that couldn’t have been true in the urban Northeast.  Just about anyone you asked on the street could give you a light, if you needed one.  Learning to smoke was a rite of passage; twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys shared a ciggie after school, trying hard not to cough so as not to look like a novice.  All right, nuns didn’t smoke, and very prissy ladies apparently didn’t (except maybe once in a rare while), and people with lung diseases weren’t supposed to, but sometimes did anyway. In any large business organization, you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people in your department or group who didn’t smoke.

Indeed, years before I was born Lucky Strike was advertising, “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet,” and women who were trying to keep their figures did just that — as did the fat ones, to get their figures back.  There was “Marlboro Country,” with a manly cowboy smoking a Marlboro cigarette on the billboard or the ad page.  Word even had it that the light brown illustration of a camel in profile on the package of equally manly Camel cigarettes was intended to suggest a male scrotum and always erect appendage — yours, I suppose, if you inhaled a sufficient number of Camels.

In the space of less than one long life, all that has changed.  It’s partly the effect of tobacco taxes, which in my time have driven the price of smoking through the roof.  In 1952, the year I emerged from college, a pack of Chesterfields cost 20 cents — less, of course, when bought by the carton of ten. Now?  It depends where you live (and therefore what the combined federal and state taxes amount to).  The cheapest state in which to smoke is Kentucky, which in 2013 dropped its state tax on tobacco by 26%, making a pack of cigarettes $4.96.  The most expensive is New York.  As of July 1, 2010, New Yorkers began paying the highest cigarette tax in the country when the state tax increased from $2.75 per pack to $4.35 per pack. In New York City, which levies its own municipal taxes, the total combined state and local tax on cigarettes increased to $5.85 per pack.  According to the New York Post, this pushed the price for one pack of cigarettes up to $14.50 at some New York City stores.  Sneaking ciggies is certainly no longer an affordable after-school act of daring for little boys anymore.

There are also the warnings that Congress eventually required on each cigarette package and cigarette ad.  [Although I must ask.  “Smoking may be hazardous to your health?”  Is that really going to stop a teen-ager who believes he or she will live forever?]  In addition, tobacco companies can no longer recruit smokers on campus by hiring young folks to distribute free three- and five-cigarette welcome packs to incoming freshmen, as they were doing when I went to school.  There’s also the hassle of having to ask for cigarettes to be brought up from behind the counter if you want to buy them.  Time was that you could just take what you wanted off any grocery shelf, drugstore shelf, or supermarket shelf in the country and bring them to the counter yourself.  And not have to worry about any minimum age requirement, either. Cigarettes also used to be in vending machines everywhere — in the subway, lobbies of movie theaters, restaurants, coffee houses.  Also at newsstands, in tobacco shops.  (Tobacco shops?  Are there such things anymore — except as expensively exotic places to shop where the very rich congregate?)  I haven’t seen a cigarette vending machine in years.  All this is the result of the right of citizens to breathe clean air finally trumping the right of individuals to smoke wherever and whenever they want.

But probably the main reason that cigarette smoking is dying out in the United States is not that it’s become so societally difficult and economically very expensive to smoke.  I think it’s because it’s no longer so smart/’cool/whatever to start.  And if you don’t start, you don’t have to stop.  The fact is:  once you’re really a regular smoker — and by that I mean not just one or two, once in a while  — stopping is extraordinarily hard.

I used to work for a law firm that represented Philip Morris in the Northeast.  We had all the “scientific” jargon down pat.  So I could tell you that nicotine isn’t really “addictive.”  Why not? Because it doesn’t require you to ingest more and more and more of it to reach the same level of satiety, as is the case with “addictive” substances.  (Think heroin, for instance. As time goes on and your body becomes used to it, you need more and more to “feel” it.)  In legal parlance, nicotine is just “habit forming.”  That means once you reach a level of satiety — by smoking ten, twenty, thirty, forty cigarettes a day, whatever your individual requirement may be — then that’s all you ever need to feel satisfied. More and you begin to feel sick.  (But woe is you if you don’t get your daily fix.)

For a smoker, that’s a distinction without a difference.  Once you’re hooked, you’re hooked.  Even after you’ve become sick, and have been warned, and are being treated, you’re still hooked — physically and psychologically, and may go on sneaking cigarettes until you die.  So it could be that we have much less smoking in the United States than we used to, not just because of the factors I’ve identified above, which discourage the young from starting  — especially now that there are newer excitements, like “body art” and piercing and doing drugs, as well as that old and reliable standby, getting drunk.   But also because the confirmed smokers of my generation and just afterwards have now got old and/or sick, and are dying out — either from age alone, or lung cancer, or emphysema, or heart disease, or some other smoking-related ultimately fatal condition.  And anyone younger who’s seen a friend or family member slowly and painfully dying from inability to pull enough air into the lungs, or from chemotherapy and radiation that fails, is not going to say yes to smoking. Or if already smoking, is going to make renewed and determined efforts to stop, however hard that may be.

But I digress.  In 1931 when I was born, my mother and father both smoked.  (I was a nicotine baby!)  My mother brought the habit with her from Russia; at eighteen, when she arrived on Ellis Island, she was already smoking papyrossi, with long white cardboard mouthpieces built into each cigarette that doubled its length between the fingers.  By the time I came along, however, her brand of choice was Chesterfields — then short, and without filters.  I remember her tapping each one on the table, to pack the tobacco more firmly in its paper tube, before putting it in her lipsticked mouth to light it. (And then daintily removing a tobacco crumb from her tongue.) Once a pack was opened, it always left more crumbs at the bottom of her pocketbooks.  She would shake them out periodically over the kitchen sink.  Her possessions were always as clean as her home, inside as well as out.

I also remember that ashtrays and ceramic cigarette boxes were an important decorative element at our house.  For show, she had several very beautiful hand-painted but rather small ashtrays from France and Italy — and for everyday use, other larger industrial glass ones with indentations in them, where she could leave her cigarette burning while she went to do something else that required two hands. She carried these bigger ones around with her from room to room;  they were less aesthetically pleasing but more serviceable than those kept in the living room for company to use.

My father smoked Lucky Strikes. They came in a dark green package with a red circle outlined in gold and white in the center.  I don’t know when he began.  I do know he stopped when Lucky Strike Green went to war.  (That was the advertising jingle you heard on the radio:  “Lucky Strike Green Has Gone to War!”)  The green coloring for the packages was advertised as having been requisitioned for military use late in 1941 or early in 1942.  Lucky Strikes, when you could get them, then began to be sold in a white package.  They still had their red circle, now rimmed in green, black and white.  But they became very scarce, even in their new package, and my father took their near disappearance as an opportunity to stop smoking.  He never talked about whether he found stopping difficult or not.  Based on my own experience twenty-eight years later, I think he must have been a very light smoker.  He was also a man who did what he decided he had to do.

My mother survived the war with whatever unknown brands the local drugstore at the corner was able to procure.  She pronounced them terrible, but continued her smoking.  She never went beyond twenty a day; usually it was fifteen or sixteen.  When the war was over, she abandoned Chesterfields for Parliaments.  They were long, had tips which allegedly “filtered” the smoke, and came in an elegant white package.  She continued to smoke for almost all of her life.  Eventually, in their sixties and seventies, my father complained;  as a result, she had to smoke in the bathroom with the window open so he didn’t know (although of course he did; he could smell it) — but she went on smoking until she was 79.  At that point she managed to quit all by herself because, she said, she didn’t want to die.  Luckily, she escaped every disease then known to be directly related to smoking, and passed away ten years later of colon cancer, probably induced by extremely poor and roughage-free diet choices but now also alleged to be smoking-related.  She might as well have gone on smoking until the end; after my father’s death when she was 81, she wouldn’t have had to hide in the bathroom and exhale out the window.

Well!  When I went off to college in 1948, all of that was still ahead.  Our recently deceased president had smoked — with a long jaunty cigarette holder from Alfred Dunhill clamped between his teeth.  Everyone in the movies was smoking.  Catch the black-and-white film classics from the forties and fifties on television and you’ll see it:  Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford — all  romantically wreathed in smoke, all dramatically drawing poisonous tar into their lungs.  Was there a movie hero in that period who didn’t place two cigarettes between his own lips by moonlight (preferably on an ocean liner), light both between cupped palms, and then tenderly insert one between the moist parted lips of the heroine?

Clearly, one of the first things I was going to have to learn when I got to campus was how to light up myself.

[More tomorrow.]