Jul 17, 2023, 06:29AM

Society’s Misfits

Back of the line, buddy. What year is it (#298)?

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Not for the first time, I’ve been kicked—hard—to the curb. Completely unjustified, even if I sometimes wear polo shirts with holes around the collar from too much wear, and my sneakers are stained with traces of blood from a stumble several years ago. Only a hobo, smart alecks might chortle, but that ain’t the case, Rod the Mod and Elston Gunnn.

I recently wrote about the closure of an Eddie’s supermarket in Baltimore’s Mt. Vernon, which was consequential to me because that’s where the sweet-pea ladies behind the bulletproof plexiglass lottery ticket center would order my brand of cigarettes, Merit Blue, every several weeks. At the time, I was a bit nonchalant, figuring I’d find a new outlet to satisfy my vice. Get this out of the way: ditch the lectures about the dangers of tobacco use; I’m familiar with the warnings, and remember when the Surgeon General’s report changed, at first gradually, a subset of American life in 1964. Not too long ago, after seeing the wretched Wes Anderson film Asteroid City, I lit up outside the theater, and a nosy pedestrian butt in: “You shouldn’t smoke. It causes cancer.” Do tell! I could’ve, but didn’t, parried that alcohol, fried and junk food and texting while driving aren’t too smart either.

(My favorite smoking anecdote is from 1986, at the long-gone Cultured Pearl Mexican hangout in Baltimore’s Pigtown, when—this was before smoking was banned in restaurants and everywhere else—a woman five tables away said, “If you plan on finishing that cigarette, I’ll have to leave and skip dessert.” My friend Joan, a Lark smoker, didn’t waste any time: “Judging by the size of your ass, no dessert is the judicious option”.)

In any case, as legal marijuana shops are popping up on every corner in most states around the country—not interested in that product, although the blowback is pretty curious—the other day I walked up and down Charles St., figuring a gas station or liquor store might have my brand. I gave up drinking 25 years ago, so liquor or “package goods” stores aren’t on my beat, but though I should’ve known better it was eye-opening to see five of them outfitted like fortresses, all plexiglass, two with outside signs reading “No firearms allowed inside!” Good thing I’d left my Glock at home. No luck.

That afternoon, I played telemarketer and called 20 or drugstores and big-box monstrosities and asked if they stocked Merit Blue. With one exception, I was treated rudely, as if I was giving off leper vibes over the fucking phone. The next day, my indulgent wife, an ex-smoker, took me on an odyssey to find a carton of cigarettes, and we went from York Rd. near Towson, several stops, and then the cartoon Quick Draw McGraw lightbulb goes off and I direct Melissa to Hampden where I’d purchased cigarettes years ago. I was certain the game was wrapped up, but like a Kenley Jansen blown save, the Rite-Aid had morphed into a Walgreens and I was laughed away.

I suppose my predicament isn’t completely devoid of humor: a 68-year-old who’s smoked since I was a teen—first Kools, because I was copying my brother Gary (an ex-smoker), then unfiltered Kools when I arrived in Baltimore for college (cigs were 35 cents a pack in ’73, as opposed to four bits in New York), Alpines (that name will tug the memory of some), Newport, Merit Menthol and then, during a trip to Dublin in 1986, where only stale, and sort of girly menthols were available, I gave into peer pressure from new buddies at a bar—not a common occurrence, Scout’s Honor—and switched to Major. When I got back to Baltimore, I stayed true and went to Merit Ultra Lights, which at some point a decade or so ago just became Merit Blue. An ominous sign that my brand will soon join the likes of more illustrious names like Chesterfield, Tareyton, Old Gold, L&M and Luckies.

The picture of me above, inside a London hotel suite, doesn’t foreshadow my current dilemma. The New Prohibition was dawning in America, but you could still smoke on international flights until 2000, and the very idea that tobacco use would be outlawed in London drinking establishments—let alone cafes in Paris and Rome—was, if not laughable, like a still from George Jetson’s Pneumatic tube. Nearly-ancient history for a Western world that doesn’t want smoke (unless it’s cannabis) to get in your eyes, and honestly, I’ve adapted, no chip on the shoulder, except when I can’t find my damn brand.

Look at the clues to figure out the year: Republic of Macedonia admitted to the toothless United Nations; World Health Organization declares tuberculosis a “global emergency”; Ariana Grande is born and River Phoenix dies; Unforgiven wins Best Picture at the Academy Awards; Toni Morrison wins Literature Nobel; Long Island Rail Road massacre takes place in Garden City; Buffalo Bills lose another Super Bowl; WACO; Ruth Bader Ginsburg joins Supreme Court; Byron Buxton is born and Audrey Hepburn dies; and The Virgin Suicides is published.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023


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