Wednesday, February 20, 2008

the last pack of candy cigarettes


Kings. Cools. Lucky Lights. The packs looked so similar to the real thing, even seeing them stuck between the slim jims and the abba zabas, I had to pick them up to double check.

We had stopped at a gas station (one more place where it’s impossible to buy anything organic) in North Carolina and went inside to look over the selection of junk food. Inside I found what might have been the last store on earth selling my favorite childhood candy: cigarettes.

When I was little, and smoking was still acceptable, I’d walk to the dairy mart down the street with my dollar’s worth of change and pick out candy with Katie, my best friend and neighbor. I always went straight to the candy cigarettes.

I wanted to smoke. Candy cigarettes gave me an opportunity to practice. Tips died with red food coloring looked like they were already lit. Faux tax stamps on the outside of the packs helped with the authenticity, too. And if you dug through the packs and found the really fresh ones, they had powdered sugar inside that you could blow out to simulate exhalation.

We’d tramp home, sit cross-legged on the wall in Katie's backyard, and gracefully smoke our candy cigarettes. Waving them around, punching the air for emphasis, the cigarettes were one of many secrets we wanted to learn about growing up. We fashioned cigarette holders out of straws, and with elbow length gloves and trilling laughs that came out like little girl giggles, we were Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, drinking martinis poolside.

When I was 12, and smoking was still acceptable, I’d go downtown and buy cigarettes from the cigarette machine in the atrium. Though it displayed a small sign stating minors were prohibited from purchasing cigarettes, the cigarette machine sat in a lonely, dark hallway near the restrooms and the payphone. It was as easy to buy cigarettes as it was to sneak into the unrated art house films.

When I was 14, and smoking was still acceptable, I’d hang out in the smoking section at my Oregon high school smoking clove cigarettes. The official rule was that only 18 year-olds could smoke in the quad; the unofficial rule was everybody and anybody smoked and I only got in trouble when I smoked in a non-smoking area. (A kind of funny, kind of uncomfortable story that maybe I’ll write about one day.)

I smoked a pack of Jakartas a day, seduced by the scent (sickly-sweet and still instantly recognizable today) and the unabashed sex appeal of smoking an unfiltered cigarette. Jakartas complimented everything I wore, and when I saw myself standing, cigarette in hand, I thought of Marilyn and Jane and felt I did them justice with my limping smoke rings. A friend at a local convenience store willingly sold us Marlboros, Players and Kools and I loved the heady buzz from the menthol almost as much as I loved the smell of an unlit cigarette, the feeling of smoke in my throat and the deep release it gave me.

When I was 15, and smoking was still acceptable, I moved to the Midwest and found cloves were unavailable, so I switched to Winstons. The school smoking section had just shut down, so we smoked in between classes in the bathroom, with a pre-arranged signal to thwart hall monitors: Do you have any lipstick? *Flush* emerge from stall: No, sorry, all out. When I went home to Oregon for the next summer (sitting in the plane’s smoking section, swilling beers), my friends had moved on to Marlboro Lights 100’s, and when I went back to Ohio, that’s what I smoked too.

When I was 16, and smoking was still acceptable, I laid out on sunny days to work on my tan, cigarettes by my side. My dad had quit smoking at this point but still looked at me enviously when he saw me on the back deck oiling my legs, cigarette clamped between my teeth. He excitedly told me about the ups and ups of his RJ Reynolds stock night after night at dinner, smiling at me like I was personally responsible.

When I was 19, and smoking was still acceptable, I’d pick up my little nephew and take him places between classes and work. I smoked in the car, with the sunroof and windows open, so the smoke wouldn’t bother him. I laughed when he smoked imaginary cigarettes, pursed lips inhaling and dramatically exhaling, to keep me company.

When I was 23, and smoking was no longer acceptable, I got the patch and quit for a year. My ex-boyfriend quit with me but after a year started smoking again. I soon followed.

Little has changed in the rural Ohio town were I went to high school. I went to a baby shower there recently and though pregnant women and babies were present, several women smoked. Seeing men and women smoke in the Midwest is as natural as seeing cowboy boots, plaid shirts and trucks- it’s still acceptable, even if not allowed in some of the bars. Feeling overwhelmed about being right back where I started, I think, I went upstairs and sat outside to quietly smoke by myself.

There’s a lot of information available about the physical and psychological addiction of smoking. I think it’s sociological too; at a party, drift outside for a smoke and you’ll soon be joined by a large group of people looking for the smoking section. Conversations with strangers are easy, when you’re bitching about standing out in the cold. A common bond forms quickly as we huddle together and remember the good old days, when you could smoke anywhere, even in hospital waiting rooms.

Kentucky, one of the last bastions for smokers, has been a hold-out for inside smoking, and it probably won’t go away anytime soon. It’s still acceptable here. It’s still acceptable in most of the southern tobacco-producing states, too.

I know a lot more about smoking now (and tanning, too, which I gave up several years ago). I know you can’t smoke around children. I know it’s bad for me and bad for others around me. I know I should quit, too. But I never wanted to pretend that I was trying to quit or that I wanted to quit smoking. Truthfully, I like it too much. And the one time I did quit, I missed it every day.

The only smoker’s guilt I really have is when I hear that my nieces and nephews were caught sneaking cigarettes. I wonder what they think about when they smoke. I hope they aren’t imagining a laughing, confident blonde auntie who made smoking seem natural… or glamorous.

My Midwestern doctors, who are “cool” about my smoking (“Eh. You’ll quit when you’re ready.”), have been giving me flack about moving my habit west. “They’ll string you up in the town square and throw stones at you,” laughed my ENT. Even my laid-back brother told me, smoke in Portland, and people will give you dirty looks.

And I think I’m ready now. Recent health problems forced me to gain weight last year, but I can tell I’m on the path to better health already. Maybe not smoking should be a part of that. I'm getting stronger and stronger, and trying to do what’s best for me and for my well-being.

I know my family hates it. They put up with it because they love me. But just barely. And I’m tired of looking at old photos, in beautiful places like Tahoe and Maui, marred by the ever-present cigarette in my right hand (and a beer in the left, but that’s another blog).

For the first time ever I’m starting to think, it’s just not acceptable anymore.