I wanted to be cool like those guys in the old movies

I wanted to be cool like those guys in the old movies

“If the end of the world really is coming,” said my friend over a wonderfully chatty lunch, “I want to know, so I can grab some smokes.” It must have been the year the ancient Mayans predicted to be the end of all things. It didn’t happen, and we didn’t get any smokes.

Just to be absolutely clear: smoking tobacco is infinitely stupid and foolish, and never starting is the best way to avoid quitting later. There’s no doubt smoking is a tremendous detriment to good health, to say the least. So don’t do it.

I grew up in the time when the American Heart Association was just beginning to press people to quit the habit. Everyone smoked cigarettes, it seemed, and they smoked them everywhere. In crowded restaurants, at the bowling alley, at the movies, in stores — everywhere. There were ashtrays in churches, in libraries and in most public restrooms. My parents both smoked, and car rides were a choking affair. They cracked the window most times and tried to be discreet, but it still smelled bad.

I must have been 12 years old when I discovered the babysitter my folks engaged to watch me stealing mom’s smokes from the top of the fridge. I don’t think I was more than 15 when I started doing the same, and I wish I could visit myself at that time and give my head such a smack.

My freshman year at college, I really started smoking in earnest for the dumbest of reasons. I wanted to be cool like those wisecracking high pants guys in the old movies. A trench coat and a pack of Luckies and I was ready to be suave and a little dangerous. A pattern began in which I would go long periods of light smoking, followed by longer periods of not after an easy quit. I gave the whole business up for good about four years ago, and that’s that. I pay for all that foolishness with a daily morning cough, which I hope is the worst of it.

In the 1990s when the cigar boom hit, I bought a humidor and kept a few sticks in it. They were great with a little bourbon after dinner. I still have the humidor, and I imagine what’s left in there is well aged. I just don’t want them anymore.

All this is to say we are fortunate now that so many of us have wised up to the dangers of the habit and that the whole thing is so effectively stigmatized. Every place smells better, me included, and I know I feel better than I did before quitting.

But I remember heavy dinners after which smoking was the perfect ending. It was something to do with my hands. It was a social crutch, a statement of stubborn false elegance and something to help keep thoughts together in a pinch.

At long-closed fancy places like Leonard’s in Dover, Luminko’s in Navarre or Bonvechio’s in Wainright, the dining rooms were thick with smoke and the smell of stale ashtrays. Though they were such a part of everyday life at the time, did anyone really notice? Of course they did. Nonsmokers must have been silently sickened through all those years when they were defenseless before sections were divided and the justifiable stigma of lighting up really started.

We were encouraged to keep smoking everywhere, with cigarette-dispensing machines a common sight and every business offering a free pack of matches by the cash register. Nobody gives out advertising matchbooks anymore, and cars haven’t even offered ashtrays in a couple of decades. Restaurants and taverns have gotten all the yellow off the walls, and everything isn’t foul and sticky.

I don’t miss the stink, I don’t miss the fussing with making sure to keep lighters everywhere, and I especially don’t miss the expense. It’s more than a grand in my pocket every year not being ignited and burned. Over a lifetime smoking wastes enough money to buy a Mercedes with enough left over for a Fiat.

“Yeah,” I answered my friend, “me too. If the world were ending this week, I’d go get a pack of smokes. One final salute to a misspent youth.”

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