May 28, 2024, 06:27AM

Pick Your Poison

Cigarettes are the classic choice.

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One of my earliest memories is of a babysitter named Peggy. I was four or five and she was pretty and feminine. She was a smoker. I remember sitting at the kitchen table as she unwrapped a pack of cigarettes and thought that the smell was pleasant. I still enjoy the smell of a freshly-opened pack. It seemed like everybody smoked when I was a kid. The next-door neighbor was in his 90s and still walked up to the corner store every week for a carton of unfiltered Camels, usually smoking on his way there and back.

I walked by my elementary school long after school had ended that day and my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Collins, walked out the front door smoking a cigarette. I was stunned. It wasn’t smoking that bothered me, but it was the first time I’d seen a teacher smoking.  Back then, teachers were respected as moral role models and their students didn’t even consider that they might have habits like smoking and drinking. They hid it well.

My mother never smoked and hated cigars, cigarettes, pipes, all of it. She ran a bar for 50 years and was nauseated by the smoke. But she sold cigarettes, cigars, and loose tobacco across the bar and cigarettes from the machine by the door. A doctor told my dad that if he kept smoking he’d die from it. Dad was 40. He said he walked out of the doctor’s office, crumpled up his pack of cigarettes, and never touched another. That’s discipline. He died of emphysema nonetheless, perhaps due to secondhand smoke from the bar.

A favorite song on the jukebox then was “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” by Tex Williams. My dad would sing some of the lyrics to us when he cooked dinner. “Tell Saint Peter at the Golden Gate that I hates to make him wait, but I just gotta have another cigarette.” I’ve heard lots of parents say that if they ever caught their kid smoking, they’d make them finish the pack right then and there, believing that overconsumption would deter them. My dad said if he ever caught me smoking, he’d make tea out of the tobacco and make me drink it. I believed he would.

My older sister took up smoking and nobody made her any tea. She’d toss her butts into half full glasses of milk and leave that cocktail on the kitchen table for someone else to clean up. When I worked at a Pizza Hut, it wasn’t uncommon for customers to extinguish their butts in uneaten pizza or salad on the table. Right next to the unused ashtray.

In the late-1980s, my mother Esther and I were in the Lexington Market and stopped at the Serio and Sons produce stall. Esther asked the young lady at the stall if So-and-So was there. She said yes and went to their back area. An elderly man came out looking annoyed, saw Esther, immediately brightened and said, “Jesus Christ! Esther!”  They hadn’t seen each other in 10 or 20 years so they caught up for a few minutes. He had a cigarette stuck on his lower lip. I don’t remember the conversation but do remember that cigarette bouncing up and down without falling from his lip. He never removed it to draw on it. He closed his mouth, tilted his head up to draw or exhale, and kept his hands free. I’m sure it was the lifetime habit of smoking while working.

If you’ve ever been in the garage workshop of a smoker, the workbench usually has an odd-looking ruler on the edge along the top. The marks are a quarter-inch wide and random lengths concentrated on one end or the other. They measure nothing. It’s where the smoking tradesman put down his cigarette while working. Cigarettes were so cheap long ago that it wasn’t considered particularly wasteful to let one burn out in the ashtray or along the workbench. In some homes the same cigarette ruler might be found on laminate kitchen counters, a cigarette set down and forgotten when the pasta was drained.

Cigarettes are so expensive now that nobody would waste one letting it burn out. I’d argue that because cigarettes are so heavily taxed, smokers are sucking down more nicotine. Go outside, light up, and suck as hard and fast as possible. We used to call that “hotboxing.” Now it’s the norm and hotboxing means smoking a whole pack in one session.

When I was in high school, I got my hands on a nearly-empty pack of Marlboros that someone had forgotten or discarded. I went off to a secluded corner of our property and tried one. Hated it. Made me nauseous and dizzy. I still don’t understand the “satisfaction” others claim. I like the smell, not the taste.

You could get a pack of cigarettes for 20 cents in 1950. As the price went up, the vending machine by the Wigwam door would be adjusted to require more coins, more quarters. I liked tinkering with the insides of the machine and the coin operation mechanism. There were lots of springs and levers and spots requiring dry graphite lubrication. Pulling out the cashbox of change and counting it was always rewarding. Loading fresh packs of cigarettes was a simple task I enjoyed, like a commercial grade PEZ dispenser. The packs had to be loaded in a certain way so that when they were ejected they’d land in the tray face-up. Patrons don’t like to be bothered with turning the pack over themselves to verify their purchase of the correct brand.  Heaven forbid.

I think Esther started selling across the bar when the machine needed eight quarters. It was still a good watch when somebody who’d had a bit too much liquor tried putting a handful of quarters in the machine. Over time more and more packs were sold over the bar than through the machine. People who checked payphone slots for forgotten coins would’ve loved the cigarette machine at the old Wigwam. I found dozens of quarters in that tray. A number of coins also ended up under the machine against the shoe molding. Dark bar. Drunks. Change on the loose.

When my family acquired the bar in 1951 the ceilings were almost 20 feet high. Originally the building was built with a flight of steps up to the first floor, what’s now considered the mezzanine level. At some point before 1951, the first floor was dropped to street level, but the ceiling wasn’t dropped to match, making the ceiling nearly 20 feet high. In the early-1950s, a plaster drop ceiling was put in place, a C-channel grid with expanded steel mesh covered in plaster. It would support a man’s weight. This dropped the ceiling in the bar to a little over 13 feet, still a high ceiling, but it was hoped that the heat and the smoke would stay up there over the patrons’ heads. You could crawl into that space between the two ceilings and run wires or HVAC ducting. You could also surreptitiously observe the bar below from one of a few holes left behind by removed fans, etc. One Halloween I threw lifelike rubber bugs on people from the biggest hole.  

Before security cameras were cheap, I had a bartender I felt was untrustworthy so I needed to crawl into the ceiling and physically observe her on-shift from above.  Luckily, I didn’t often have to do that. This bartender was giving out packs of cigarettes over the bar and neglecting to collect for the house, but happily collecting the big tips generated by the free cigarettes. Most bartenders give free drinks to elicit big tips. Neither’s acceptable. When I confronted her, she was mostly angry I’d watched over her like that. Her thievery and dismissal was secondary. Her remorse was non-existent.

In the late-1970s the Wigwam interior was painted what appeared to be an industrial green, but was actually a pastel celery color with a brown stain applied imperceptibly and meticulously over the years, cigarette by cigarette. It might’ve been 10 years since it was last painted; it might’ve been 20 or 30.

I started working there between military tours of duty and Esther decided we needed to repaint. Before we could repaint, I had to scrub the walls with Soilax (strong stuff, discontinued in 2005) or TSP (trisodium phosphate.) Degreasers. Paint doesn’t stick to a greasy nicotine stain. I started above the backbar by the front wall with a five-gallon bucket of hot water and Soilax. I didn’t clean more than a five-foot square before I had to change water. It had become the color of dark maple syrup. Down the ladder, new bucket of water, move the ladder, up the ladder.  I made six buckets of nicotine syrup just doing the small area above the backbar.

If you’ve ever been close to a heavy smoker, you might notice their thumb and forefinger are stained a golden brown from the tobacco. The bar’s bums almost always had that stain. After scrubbing the Wigwam walls, my forearms were stained that same golden brown from the nicotine syrup. Not being used to nicotine, I had the jitters. I had tremors and jerky motions that probably helped with the scrubbing of the walls. I didn’t sleep for three days. The stains on my arms stayed a month.

We ended up painting the walls a warm pastel peach color and then hung six portraits of Native-American chiefs painted by George Catlin. I’m sure those prints were already nicotine-stained by the time they were removed when the Wigwam became the Club Charles just a few years later in 1981. The predominant paint color used in 1981 for the Club Charles was Algerian Red, once described by a Baltimore magazine journalist as “the color of dried blood.” It was.

A lot of young women used to complain that their sweaters always smelled like smoke after a night at the Club Charles. I appreciated using them as smoke filters, but only said so once. Cashmere and mohair make the best wearable smoke filters. Eventually we put in a Smokeeter™ (smoke eater). This is a device that uses fans to draw smoke through itself. The smoke passes over charged plates and the nicotine builds up on the charged plates. Every so often you had to remove the cubic frame of plates and powerwash the nicotine off (with Soilax). That’s another way of making nicotine syrup if it’s ever necessary. It worked, but not perfectly in our bar and the maintenance was a major pain in the ass. We replaced it with a huge rooftop fan that made a ton of noise but would suck all the smoke out in about 60 seconds. It could also suck out all of the heat or all of the conditioned air depending on the season.

They used to say, “Kissing someone who smokes is like licking an ashtray.” Some ashtrays are lick-worthy.  Getting used to the taste of a smoker’s kiss was far easier for me than smoking itself. I used to joke that I preferred women who smoked because if they were willing to put those nasty things in their mouth then my nasty thing had a better than even chance itself.

I worked at an after-hours place in Fayetteville, Arkansas and the head bar server was known as “Trish the Dish.” She was a pretty and skinny blonde with a history of mental illness and a four-pack-a-day smoking habit. I didn’t know her backstory or how heavy her nicotine addiction was until we started sleeping together. She had to wake up in the middle of the night at least twice to have a smoke.  If her inventory dropped below four full packs, she’d drive like an insane person to the nearest gas station to top off her smoke supply. When I stopped seeing her, she came looking for me with a .38 revolver pilfered from one of the bar’s owners. That’s when someone finally shared her history of mental instability with me and I hid in Joplin, Missouri for a couple of days.

In the military in the 1970s and 80s, smoking was common. We were regularly put to work “policing” the area. That meant picking up cigarette butts. It was just busywork. I always felt it was unjust that a non-smoker would have to clean up butts, but then I dumped plenty of ashtrays in my life, too. A sergeant once commanded, “Pick up anything that isn’t alive.” A wiseguy in the platoon pulled up a “Keep off the grass” sign.

It wasn’t a good idea to smoke Kools in the Army. It was generally assumed if you smoked Kools, you were also smoking cannabis. If you smoked Kools and drank grape Nehi soda, it was concluded that you were abusing drugs. If you then went even further and parted your hair down the middle, you were crowned “Zipperhead” and could expect random drug tests on a weekly basis.

Every workday morning we’d go for a run. Monday mornings my first sergeant would make it a long run to see who’d partied too hard over the weekend. Normally six miles to start the week, but once we went 10 miles. Fifty men would start out and we’d lose two or three. On that 10-mile run through the beautiful German farmland, we lost more than half the platoon, falling out to barf.

We’d run in formation, four men in the first row and a dozen men lined up behind them. We’d do what’s known as the Airborne Shuffle, barely lifting our feet as we ran. Jogging. When we finished we’d still be in formation. The instant we broke formation, a cloud of cigarette smoke rose over the unit. We were taught to field strip a cigarette butt. The Army believed in regular and frequent training sessions. The instruction was meant for the smokers, but we all endured it. Take your finished cigarette and twist all the remaining tobacco into the wind. Put the filter in your pocket and find a trash can for it. Don’t be caught with a pocket full of butts.

I also learned that cigarette ash is an abrasive perfectly suited to cleaning dry erase marker and also china markers, sometimes known as grease pencils. We marked enemy positions on laminated maps and erased them with ash. Cigarettes also make a reliable timed fuse when improvising munitions. Five minutes to ignite a matchbook.

We had our war games in the Black Forest of Bavaria. Boy, did we tear up a lot of countryside playing Army. After about two days into a two-week exercise, everything would be mud. We’d put our cots out in a muddy field and collapse into a deep sleep. I had one sergeant from backwoods Maine who’d hit the ground fully motivated, “Get up! Get up! It’s a beautiful MORNING!” Another sergeant I bivouacked with made very little noise upon awakening. All you’d hear was his lighter, a Zippo. Click open, clink shut. Then a long draw on a cigarette. He didn’t move again until he’d finished that cigarette. But I knew it was time to put my muddy boots on. And then go pee. I never understood how the need to smoke could outweigh the need to pee in the morning.

“Pick your poison!” Nobody wants to die of lung cancer, but if one continues to smoke that’s the poison they’ve picked. Drug addicts and alcoholics don’t want to die of cirrhosis, but that’s the poison they’ve chosen. A sweet tooth boosts diabetes. A fatty, meaty diet might get you a coronary. Ask your doctor about the worst way to die. “Sin” taxes are imposed on certain products to discourage use. They should call them “Cause of Death” taxes instead.  And the taxes collected on smoking should go to lung cancer research.

For a long time, I’ve suggested that since tobacco can cause such terrible damage to the human body, surely there’s a cure concealed. We should research therapeutic uses for those things that kill us. I should suggest this research to someone involved in research and policy. I’ve wondered why such research had never been seriously undertaken previously. The answer is that so much money was made from the nation’s nicotine addiction that there was no pressing need.


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