Friday, June 24, 2011

Smoked out...

Spade's thick fingers made a cigarette with deliberate care, sifting a measured quantity of tan flakes down into curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they lay equal at the ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper's inner edge down and up under the outer edge as forefingers pressed it over, thumbs and fingers sliding to the paper cylinder's end to hold it even while tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb twisting their end and lifting the other to Spade's mouth. -- The Maltese Falcon
HALLIE: Any author can tell you why so many characters smoke in books - because a cigarette is a great prop. Your character can lean back leisurely and shoot a stream of smoke to the ceiling, or mash that butt into his girlfriend's grapefruit. In The Maltese Falcon we never once get inside Sam Spade's head, but Hammett shows us his mood by how he rolls a cigarette.

Most of us have smoked at one time or another. When I was in my 20s, everyone did. We might not have been so foolish if we'd seen the new warning labels the FDA announced this week, graphic pictures (a cadaver; a tracheostomy hole...) that drive the message home. Quite a change from early cigarette ads. Can you believe, they knew cigarettes were lethal and still the ads featured Santa Claus and babies.
I smoked, sort of, until I was in my twenties and got asthma so bad I had to stop or quit breathing. Fortunately I was a social smoker. Meet a friend "for coffee" and bum a cigarette. Then another. So it wasn't all that hard to quit and I truly don't miss it.
It's hard to remember when EVERYONE smoked. The other day I was in someone's house who still smokes, and even though they weren't smoking when we were there, the smell was overpowering and I could smell it on my clothes when I got home. My father and especially my mother were chain smokers. It never bothered me then. Did we all just, for decades lose our senses of smell?
ROBERTA: My mother smoked Kents all my life too Hallie, I believe even through 4 pregnancies. Times were different. Now we would be horrified if someone lit up in a restaurant, or even a bar, but back in my twenties, we all smoked everywhere. We thought we were too cool. Unfortunately, I did get hooked for a while--Salem lights. ick! then I moved to Nicorette, which you had to get by prescription, which made you feel like an addict. (which you were!)
RHYS: I grew up with two parents who smoked. In fact when my mother was pregnant with me the doctor urged her to keep smoking to calm her nerves. How far we have come! I tried a few experimental puffs in college but since it was polite to hand around the pack every time one smoked, I could see it would be an expensive habit, so I never got hooked.
John smoked then quit when one of our daughters proved to have bad allergies. When our kids were teenagers we promised them $500 if they were not smoking at 21. All four collected the money and nobody we know still smokes. The smell literally makes me sick. Can you remember those college parties when the fug was so thick you could hardly see across the room? I have to remember in my 1930s books that all the characters would be smoking.
I hate to see young people smoke these days (any people really.) It's so clearly awful for the human body, hard to see how someone overlooks that. Except nicotine is terribly addicting. THAT I do get!
HALLIE: I hate to see young people smoking too - and I wonder why is it that so many nurses smoke?

JAN: Luckily, I never smoked much, and my father was always bribing me to stop smoking so it was very much on again and off again. Into my thirties I would have an occasional cigarette if I was out at a bar with my cousins (who still smoke), but for the most part I gave it up in my mid twenties. I could never smoke again - but I love the smell of it outside on a summer day. It reminds me of my wild youth.
ROSEMARY: Guilty. I smoked when I was a teen - Marlboro, box. Parents and sister did and all my aunts and uncles. My dad smoked Camels, which I snuck as a kid. Non-filtered, of course. I loved the package and loved the mechanics of it. We were so cool.
Like Jan, quit in my twenties. Inspired by a foreign boyfriend I picked it up again briefly in my thirties, I think they were Gauloises/Rothman...something foreign... and haven't smoked for years.
Just got back from the movies (Midnight in Paris.) Marion Cotillard looked great with a cigarette holder but I'm not rushing out to buy cigarettes.
I think I just stopped doing it and never really missed it.

HANK: You know what? Never. (My stepfather smoked Kents. Died of mesothelioma. Story was--that micronite filter? Asbestos. But that's another blog.)
Anyway, in college? I tried one day. My pal Hallie (yes! Another Hallie. Marjorie Hallahan was her name) and I went out to buy the coolest package of cigarettes we could find so we could start to smoke like everyone else did.
We chose Montclair, very sleek, navy blue with a gold crest.
Marjorie took right to it. I gacked, gasped, gagged, coughed, eyes watered--and that was without inhaling. I started choking, put the cigarette down to get water. I somehow missed the ashtray and burned a huge hole in my dorm room bedspread.
And that was the end of that. Never again.
DEBS: My mom smoked cigarettes, my dad pipes and cigars--until he got throat cancer. Fortunately it was operable, and they both quit after that. Funny, but my strongest memory of climbing into bed with my parents when I'd had a nightmare as a small child--the smell of smoke.
As for me, I starting sneaking my mom's cigarettes when I was about fourteen. I loved hanging out my upstairs bedroom window on summer nights. I smoked off and on through high school and the beginning of college--everyone did, it seemed--but I always hated the smell on my hair, in my clothes, on my hands, and I could not STAND dirty ashtrays.
I guess there are some benefits to being a BIT obsessive compulsive, because I quit when I was twenty-one and have never been remotely tempted to pick up a cigarette since. I always have a hard time in books remembering to have characters smoke, even though my husband smoked until just last year. He was terribly, terribly addicted, and did a lot of research on the biochemistry of nicotine addiction. Very scary stuff.
JULIA: I'm the other never-did-it, Hank. My mother smoked throughout my childhood (didn't everyone's mother?) but developed serious pleurosy/emphasema when I was about 13. I would help pound on her back while she coughed and coughed, trying to clear her lungs. I remember hiding her cigarettes, running packs under water, doing everything I, an obnoxious kid, could do to get her to quit. (Happy ending - after her doctor told her she had to choose between smoking and leaving her children orphans, she stopped cold turkey. That was over 30 years ago, and now she's an incredibly healthy woman who walks miles every day to keep fit.) That experience, at an impressionalbe age, innoculated me against cigarettes allure for life.
My dad quit at the same time, although in his case, he transitioned to a pipe for a while to make it more palatable. I confess to loving the smell of pipe tobacco and pipe smoke (even though I know it's not any safer than anything else.)
My favorite tobacco-related memory: tucked into bed upstairs in my grandmother's house while the grownups talked and smoked and played cards in the dining room below. The smoke would curl up in wisps through the old-fashioned floor vents, and I could hear quiet bursts of laughter. It made me feel all was right with the world.
HALLIE: Fess up... did you smoke? Inhale? And how did you give it up (please, tell us you have!)


  1. My mother started smoking at 16, when her parents were splitting up--her little rebellion. Sixty years later she died of lung cancer. It's not a pretty way to go.

    My father smoked until he contracted nicotine poisoning from carting around open buckets of the stuff (pure, liquid) at a chemical plant where he worked. Never smoked again, although he lived with my mother for thirteen years.

    When I was growing up, there were cigarette boxes, lighters and ashtrays on every table. And cigarette burns on half the furniture.

    I did try it a few times, just out of curiosity, but I think I absorbed enough second-hand smoke for a lifetime. Still, every time I smell cigarette smoke, I think of my mother.

  2. All those additives!! Boggles the mind. Heroin addicts will tell you it's easier to kick smack than tobacco. And it's legal. Things that make you say "Hmmmmm."

  3. What a thoughtful post, Sheila -- wow. Lethal stuff.

    Cigarette burns... My father would start a cigarette and leave it burning on the edge of the ashtray until the butt end fell out onto the table. Maybe that's why he never got lung cancer--he didn't finish smoking enough of them. I remember the cigarette burns in the sofa and rugs. Scary.

  4. True, PJ -- so glad I never got truly hooked.

  5. Never even picked up one. The only relative I had who smoked was great uncle who smoked pipes. He died of lung cancer.

    I do have one slightly funny/bad story with smoking. My husband's parents were chain smokers. They died before I met them. My husband and I inherited their house and one day a representative from Marlboro called asking for my FIL and even after telling the guy he was deceased, the rep said, "We're trying to override the ban on smoking in restaurants. Can we count on your support?" I said, "You called for my FIL who DIED from smoking. No you can't have my support." Sheesh!

  6. Never smoked. My mom smoked until she was pregnant with my middle brother. My dad quit when he came back from a combat tour in Vietnam but took it up again 15 yrs later when he had to spend a year without us in Thailand. He found it MUCH harder to quit the second time around and I did Julia-type things to discourage him. Love Rhys's idea of the $500 if kids aren't smoking at 21! (When we passed a local business a couple years back, my then 9-yr-old asked why people were smoking out front. We explained they probably worked for the business but had to leave the building to smoke. In all seriousness,she asked, "Why would that business hire stupid people?" Maybe we and the schools have gone a bit too far with the brainwashing . . .?

  7. Melissa, "Sheesh!" indeed! Fortunately times have changed.

    Laura... out of the mouths of babes. Such a smart comment.

  8. Boy, this blog evoked strong memories of my childhood and youth! My parents smoked once-in-a-great-while cigarettes, socially, although my dad smoked a pipe once in a while. Mostly, he just had a collection of pipes. I used to open his humidor to deeply inhale that manly smell of pipe tobacco.

    I never too it up, myself; the threat of smoker's breath was enough to keep me from it. Plus, and I've never heard anyone else say this, but the initial puff of a cigarette--just one--always made me feel as though I was high. Does anyone else get this? Because my dad was an alcoholic, I was always especially wary of losing control in any way, and that little bit of altered state never appealed to me.

    My first (of two) stepdad and my grandfather both died of emphysema, literally drowning to death. My grandfather lived with an oxygen tank next to his favorite chair for the last couple of years of his life, but when he died in 1971 there was still a huge denial of tobacco smoke causing lung disease. My stepdad denied this, too, with his last, gasping breath.

    We have a farm in rural Kentucky, and all around us are heavy smokers. Most of the county is on some kind of public assistance, and even though cigarettes are at around $5 a pack, we see two-pack a day users everywhere, including one guy, 50 years old, on disability for his asthma. Boggles the mind.

  9. I started smoking in college, although both my parents had the habit (my dad gave it up after a bout with Menere's)and back in the day it was considered "the grown up" thing. Like a rite of passage or something. However...I can tell you the day I quit.One month and one week before my daughter's wedding. I caught a bug that sent me and my lungs straight to the ER because I could not breathe! After four hours, three breathing treatments and a $200 Rx bill (not to mention the ER charges) I figured it was time to quit. (Flash back to an aunt who died from respiratory disease and also smoked...when you're lying on one of those ER tables, it's a scary picture) By the time I saw my doctor, four days later, I was done with the cigarettes. He asked if I wanted a nicotine patch and I looked at him as if he was crazy. I'd been four days without the stuff. Who wanted it back in my system? Geez. Anyway...after the first week I did one thing that ensured I would never light up again. I told my daughter I'd quit and "gave" that to her as part of her wedding present. It's been 14 years and I still live with a smoker(who out of consideration smokes in the basement), but although there are still times when the smell is so tempting I would rather NOT have to face my daughter's disappointment. Best preventative I've ever found :o)

  10. Yesterday was my husband's 3rd anniversary for the greatest gift----he quit.

    Here's one of my "letters" to Pittsburgh paper:

    One hopes that the efforts to improve patient safety in our area hospitals will have the UPMC administration taking a serious look at the uniformed staff smoking on the sidewalk and then returning to the hospital. Yes, there are folks in every color uniform, white coats and even wearing stethoscopes.

    And for goodness sake, what about the folks who "ride" their IV stands to the street to smoke and then return to units where even the most conscientious staff person is exposed to the street pollution? Getting serious about hospital no-smoking policies is a step forward.

    My thought:
    It is hard to quit but you get to live!

  11. I haven't smoked in many years but did back in the day. It's amazing to recall the places people felt free to smoke. When I was in college, smokers (myself included) lit up in the classroom. Some profs asked that we sit on the window side of the room, but none forbid smoking in class.

    In newsrooms where I worked the air was gray, especially as deadline neared. Reporters and editors alike fired up butts to help 'em race the clock. The air in bars was even worse, and restaurants not much better. And airplanes! Remember how people smoked in flight?

    I am so grateful to have had the good sense to quit when I did. I was out to breakfast one day this week and the middle-aged server carried on her clothing the odor of cigarette smoke. She also wheezed like a broken accordion. Sad. Very sad.


  12. Rhys, you'll know what pubs in the UK were like. I still can't quite believe that I can go in a pub and not choke on the thick, blue air. And not have to wash hair and clothes afterwards . . .

    I don't know the statistics, but I haven't personally seen the pubs and bars suffering. But a new smokers' pavement culture has developed.

    Funny how almost no one takes up smoking past their teens or twenties. It's only when you think you're immortal.

    My mother smoked a pack a day when she was pregnant with me. I've always been convinced that if she hadn't smoked, I'd have been a genius:-)

  13. These stories are amazing. Mary Alice, that's great about Richard! Love your outrage at hospital's laxness around their own rules.

    I remember faculty meetings at the college where I worked back in... the early 80s. Two male faculty would sit in the back and light up.

    I'd raise my hand first thing in the meeting and ask for a vote on whether to allow smoking. More and more hands went up, over time, thumbs down on smoking.

    Once one of the smokers offered to sit near and blow smoke out an open window. I said sure, ok, fine, as log as he stuck his head OUT the window, too. Got a big laugh, but I'm sure it didn't endear me to him.

  14. Debs, my mother smoked, too. At least a pack a day, pregnant with me. i think I'd have been at least 5'10 if she hadn't. And a musical prodigy.

  15. And now, when someone smokes, can't you ALWAYS smell it on their clothes?

  16. I smoked for 19 years - finally at 3 packs a day I realized that if I was always feeling bad because I was craving a cigarette while I smoked, I couldn't feel worse quitting. Really it was my job that made me quit - being a biologist put me in too many pristine locations where lighting a cigarette just wasn't the thing to do. It was the worst year of my life...I cried, I was bad enough that I knew I never wanted to start smoking again. 21 years quit. I feel bad for folks who haven't.

  17. My father was a chain smoker but decided during WWII that it was too expensive and gave it up. Then my uncle the Colonel in the army arrived for a visit, not knowing my father's decision, with a gift of a carton of Chesterfields. My father didn't want to hurt his feelings, so he smoked them, and then kept on going until he got lung cancer and died.

    When I wa 14, my heavy-smoking aunt who was a commercial artist in NYC invited me in for a weekend. One of the first things she did was offer me a cigarette. She told me to inhale deeply, which I did and ended up choking and feeling ill - which was the point, I think. As a result, I never smoked. She eventually gave it up and lived to be 89. I've always been thankful for her wisdom.

  18. Rhys, my grandmother's doctor also thought smoking would "calm her nerves." Truth was she was high on life and wasn't nothing could bring her down.
    I started when I was 14, continued till I was 54. Quit every day of those four decades, and started again the next. Then came across a book titled "How to Quit Smoking in Three Days With Self Hypnosis." I bought it and gave myself five days--lack of confidence? Six days later I didn't even think of lighting up. It was so easy, I felt guilty for cheating.
    Love the word, fug, Rhys.

  19. Hallie, I could have sworn you were 5'10" :-)

  20. I don't smoke and I don't chew, and I don't go with the girls who do.

  21. My Mom went started smoking at 15 and went the same way Sheila's Mom did at age 75. Dad smoked a pike but quit at 70 when he had a heart attack. Hubby smoked but quit 22 years ago.

    Me. I tried it when I got out of high school. a)too cheap. Mom and Dad said I could smoke as long as I paid for my own cigarettes. b) I worked A&W at the time and it killed the taste of the root beer. Needless to say, my choice of drug us sugar.

  22. I did smoke for over 40 years. It was the ,"cool", thing to do in the 50's, especially in southern California where I grew up.
    Several years ago I was hospitalized with bronchial pneumonia.I couldn't breathe, and it scared the bejesus out of me! I haven't smoked since!

  23. I have a friend who loves smoking. He got pulmonary diseases so he decided to stop it. Now, he never gets sick even just a simple cold.

  24. I started in my teens, at first only at parties and then more in my 20s. My habit increased when I joined the military. My mom, a heavy smoker herself, would buy me a carton when I was home on leave.

    Fortunately I was only a smoker for a few years and quit 15 years ago. Shortly after quitting I unpacked clothes from storage and couldn't believe how much they smelled.

    My mom still smokes. My step-father died from complications of smoking and it was enough for her to cut back temporarily, but she still hasn't quit. I worry about the health effects. And it's not very pleasant either. My clothes smell after only a few minutes in the house. Everything that comes out of the house- cards, boxes, food containers- smells like smoke.

    I think when most people start smoking it feels glamorous or cool, but it rarely ends that way. Even if you don't die of it, huddling in the cold or smelling like smoke isn't very elegant. My heart goes out to all those struggling with it.