Wednesday, February 01, 2006
My Mother says that since I started doing this blog she's found out things concerning me that she never knew before, with the implication being that she didn't want to know them. Uh, Mom? Turn back now!
I've been a cigarette smoker for 34 years. That's a long time. 34 years. I should probably be dead by now, huh?
I smoke about a pack a day, usually Kools. If Kools aren't available, I'll take any menthol. I sometimes think I might be as hooked on menthol as I am on nicotine. The odd times when I've bought packs of non-menthol smokes, I find myself smoking more. It's as though my body is saying, "Hey! Where's that minty stuff that makes me breathe easier? Smoke another one and get me some, NOW!"
What has smoking done for me? I almost never go more than 5 minutes without coughing. I hack up lovely greenish-brown phlegm after any sort of exertion. I can't run more than the distance between home and first base without feeling as though I'm going to pop a lung. My right hand smells. My breath probably stinks. I'm sure my clothes aren't springtime fresh. My bedroom smells like a particularly vile ashtray - even I can smell it, after I've been out of it for a couple of days. I've probably spent more than $35,000 on cigarettes; the sort of money that could have bought a very nice house, at the time I started. I have a continually nagging worry about some sort of disease eating away the tools of my livelihood - my tongue, my throat, my lungs. I know I'm not doing my heart any favors and, considering the history of heart disease in my family, I could just as easily be dropping dead in the middle of this sentence as completing it. When I wake up, I have to have a cigarette before I feel normal. I spend extra hours out in the snow in winter and the broiling heat in summer because I can't smoke indoors where I work. My teeth are at least a couple of shades darker than they should be - even my implants. And, when I get down to two or three left in a pack, I plan my itinerary around getting to a store to buy more.
Other than that, it's been good for me and I really enjoy it.
I had my first cigarette when I was 14. It wasn't a Kool; it was a Marlboro.
I had been playing hockey on the Neponset River in Dorchester, Massachusetts, with a bunch of my friends. The game actually took place on a small inlet of still water off to the side of the main body of the river. We called it "the lagoon", and I guess that's what it was. It was surrounded by grass, dirts and reeds on three sides and a railroad bridge, under which the river itself flowed, on the fourth. You gained access to the lagoon by following some train tracks from Central Avenue, going as far as the beginning of the railroad bridge, and then climbing down the bank. The lagoon froze solid much sooner than the river itself ever did.
Except, this time, it hadn't quite frozen solid enough to completely handle the weight of eight teenage boys in skates. I was playing goal. After we had been on the ice for about three minutes, there was a rush towards my end. As the teams battled for the puck in front of my net (that is, the two rocks I had set up on the ice and between which I was standing) there was an ominous creaking sound. Anyone familiar with frozen ponds or rivers knows that sound and knows that it isn't good. We all looked at each other with alarm in our eyes and then started scrambling for shore, but the ice gave way and we took a dip into the frigid water beneath the ice.
Everybody made it to shore safely, none the worse for wear aside from being sopping wet. I was soaked from the waist down, but had been close enough to the riverbank to gain shore, among the reeds and dirt, without going deeper than my waist. It was the same for everyone else except the other goalie. Being at the far end of the ice, he had gone in up to his chin.
After we all caught our breath, we took off our skates and exchanged them for the boots we had left on the bank. We walked back up the railroad tracks, wondering what we were going to tell our parents. Most of us were under orders to NOT skate on the river. Looking back, this seems like a reasonable enough request for parents to make of their kids - don't drown yourself - but to us it seemed silly. We knew enough to not skate on the actual river, for goodness' sakes, unless the temps had been below freezing for a month solid. Anyway, the lagoon was shallow enough that, even if we fell in, we wouldn't be in any real danger - so long as we weren't right out at the edge where the current might sweep us under the railroad bridge, down the river to the falls, where we would go flying over, dropping 20 feet onto the rocks and discarded shopping carts in the water and getting mangled beyond all recognition.
Still, here we were, all wet. We were all facing at least a tongue-lashing, if not an outright beating for those of us with less-enlightened parents than myself. We had to figure out some way to get into our houses without our folks finding out how dopey we were. We figured the best way to do this was to stay out until our clothes dried and then go home.
The problem, of course, is that wet clothes do not dry when you're outside on a freezing day. What they do is freeze. We were now not only in peril for our lives (sort of) but in extreme discomfort. Our pants, our socks, our underwear were all starting to become stiff and causing us no small discomfort. This was especially true in some places that teenage boys really don't want discomfort of that sort, having not had the opportunity to use the affected equipment to full advantage yet. I, personally, had visions of my stuff freezing and breaking off.
(Even so, I was still more concerned with what my parents would say. I imagined myself standing in front of them, a tragically underused pink popsicle in my hands, and my father telling me, "Well, let that be a lesson to you! The next time you've got a dick, you'll think twice before disobeying us and skating on the river!")
At the other end of the railroad tracks, back by the Central Avenue station, was the Hendrie's Ice Cream factory. One of us remembered that there were these huge industrial exhaust fans that blew out from the factory and he got the idea that maybe we could sit in front of these fans and actually have a shot at drying off. This sounded reasonable. Just about anything, aside from facing our parents or having our nuts freeze, would have sounded reasonable just then. So, we headed for Hendrie's.
Thing was, the fans blew out from the second floor of the factory. In front of the fans there was a ledge where we could sit. However, to get to the ledge, we had to climb onto the roof of the station, make our way over to the edge, and then hop onto the ledge. What the hell. We were already wet, freezing, facing the prospect of frostbitten genitals, and we had parents waiting for us at home who might or might not lop off our heads, so what was the additional risk of a broken neck to that? Luckily, it was a Sunday afternoon in Massachusetts during a time when the blue laws were still almost wholly in effect. There was almost no traffic on Central Avenue and nobody at all in the station. We hopped up onto a couple of newspaper boxes and from there boosted ourselves up on top of the station. From there, we clambered across the roof and hopped onto the ledge in front of the fans.
The fans weren't blowing particularly warm air, but it was warmer than we were so it was better than nothing. We didn't give any thought to what sort of noxious gases the fans might be expelling. It was an ice cream factory. What could be unhealthy for you there? We sat, shivering and miserable, and I didn't know if I was actually getting drier or if I was just losing the feeling in my extremities.
After we had been there for about an hour, and as the sun was beginning to set - bringing the temperature down a bit more as it did - Ricky Feeley pulled a pack of Marlboros from the inner pocket of his coat. He had taken his coat off prior to the game, leaving it on the riverbank with his boots, so it wasn't wet at all. He took a cigarette out of the pack and, with a pack of matches advertising the exciting possibility of earning your high school diploma at home and never having to attend school again, he lit it.
This was something new and astonishing. We stared at him with unbridled admiration. Until now, none of us had ever seen anyone but our parents smoke. His stock continued to rise as he blew out huge white clouds, occasionally making a ring appear. He appeared contented beyond belief. The rest of us were now not only cold and wet, but envious as well.
To Ricky's everlasting credit, he saw our looks and decided to share his joy. He took out the pack again and extracted seven more cigarettes, handing one to each of us. One or two of us were hesitant, but he assuaged any fears we had by explaining that it would make us warmer. Well, this made sense! It was something that was on fire, after all, and if we sucked it into our bodies, we'd have to get warmer, right? So, we all passed around the educational matches and lit up.
Of course, none of us knew the actual mechanics involved in really smoking, except for Ricky, so we puffed a bit of smoke into our mouths and blew it out, the smoke never reaching our lungs. Ricky saw this and got mad, explaining that we were wasting his cigarettes by not getting the full advantage of the experience. He showed us how to inhale the smoke, saying that you pulled the smoke into your mouth and then, before blowing it out, you inhaled sharply, propelling the smoke down into your lungs. Then, you blew it out of your mouth - or your nose, if you were really cool and which he demonstrated.
We all tried this. And we all hacked our heads off. Looking back, it's amazing to me how anyone ever gets hooked on these things. You have to make a concerted effort to poison yourself; it doesn't come naturally at all. We coughed, and our eyes teared up, and if we were getting warmer it wasn't without the added excitement of feeling as though we were going to upchuck, but we soldiered on, learning the intricacies of such things as French inhales and generally feeling very sophisticated and grown up, even though we were sitting on a second-story ledge in wet clothes avoiding our parents.
As it turned out, we never completely dried off, but we got dry enough to not drip all over our floors and carpets when we finally went home, so we avoided whatever punishment we so richly deserved. An added benefit of sitting in front of the fans, of course, was that we also didn't stink of smoke when we went home, otherwise we would have no doubt received a punishment even more severe than that we would have gotten for falling in the river.
As I lay in a warm bed that night, a good dinner digesting in my belly and my folks watching Mission: Impossible downstairs, I made plans to acquire my very own pack of smokes the next day. And, here I am 34 years later, not one hell of a lot smarter than I was then. The only difference is that I now smoke menthol cigarettes.
I've come a long way, baby.
Soon, with more better stuff.