The Litter of Quitters

Every now and then, while picking up trash in the front yard, I find a pack of cigarettes, almost full. I do a quick scan of my limited Biblical knowledge to remember if Revelation mentions anything about a plague of Pall Mall’s, but I know what really happened here. I live on a busy highway, which means my yard is the receptacle for the garbage our mouth-breathing motorists believe simply vanishes from existence when they toss it out of the window. And sometimes, among the Burger King and Trojan brand refuse, there is a fresh pack of smokes. This indicates that someone just “quit smoking.”

I’ve done it, maybe you’ve done it, too.That desperate, late night trip to Citgo to calm the shakes, only to succumb to self-hatred even as the first cigarette fills your soul with sweet relief. You need a dramatic gesture to signify your determination, so you hurl the remaining 19 cigarettes out of the car window and into oblivion. You’ve Quit Smoking. This time for sure.You’ll find yourself quitting this time for sure again next week sometime, but perhaps with the foresight to hold 3 or 4 cigarettes aside before you “quit” the rest of the pack.

I know this unsavory routine. I started smoking on a regular basis when I was 11 years old. Our neighborhood being a little on the seedy side, the kids got involved in all sorts of vices at an early age. Some on the playground were already addicted to PCP and my friend Larry ran a prostitution ring out of his 7th grade math class. Okay, neither of those things were true, but we did smoke at a young age. In fact, I was so obsessed with cigarettes in elementary school that I used to roll fake smokes out of notebook paper and pencil shavings. I even colored the ends to look like Marlboro red filters. My teachers would begrudgingly critique these as “very creative,” while silently mourning the lost innocence of childhood past, with its rock candy and hoop skirts and polio.

The attraction isn’t so hard to fathom. The simple, undeniable truth is this: cigarette smoking, in spite of all efforts to propagandize the contrary, is cool. Causes emphysema, low birth weight, and stank mouth, yes, but cool nonetheless. And my boyhood crew, chain smoking our way through recess, didn’t need any kiddiefied Joe Camel ad campaign to sell us on this idea. Bogie smoked. Rod Serling smoked. Popeye smoked. Why, it was nearly impossible to identify coolness UNLESS it came with a smoldering cigarette attached. “So,” the schoolmarms among you will ask, “does that mean the risk of developing blackened, cancerous lungs is cool?” Unfortunately, yes, in the same way that Russian Roulette, five finger fillet (Google it), alligator wrestling, and flaming Tequila shots are cool. That which does not kill you makes you stronger. Except for maybe a stroke.

An adolescence and young adulthood spent lighting up prepackaged coolness every day creates an alternate reality. Eating becomes unimportant, since any biological urge is mistaken for nicotine craving. Sleep is something the smoker simply decides to do when he runs out of cigarettes, since any vague feeling of fatigue can be instantly negated with another cigarette. In fact, the smoker who manages to quit can be alarmed by any non-nicotine-related impulses, thinking mere sleepiness is the onslaught of some fatal, flesh-eating virus. The newly non-smoking individual may become acutely aware of previously unknown sensations, like being able to feel one’s hair growing. I recommend developing some repetitive, meditative exercise until these feelings subside, such as jabbing oneself in the thigh with a dull pencil until completely exhausted.

When I tell smokers I’ve been on the nicotine wagon for 20 years, they drop their fa├žade of Marlene Dietrich cool and begin to stare sheepishly at their feet. “Yeah, I really should quit,” they mumble, as if confessing to a lifelong habit of dismembering nursing students. But then I relate to them the horrifying story of how I quit smoking, the one where my body rebelled from the sudden lack of nicotine and quickly developed from a bad cold to the worst case of strep throat in recorded history. I tell them how I couldn’t eat for a month, and lost so much weight that my nearly non-existent muscles atrophied to nothing, leaving me barely able to roll over and heave.

And I advise them, as I’m advising all you cool kid smokers out there now, that if there’s any chance you’ll have to go through what I did to quit smoking, by all means, keep lighting up. You look unbelievably cool, after all, hacking up green phlegm like that, and oxygen tanks are becoming a trendy accessory these days, just like Coach purses, skinny jeans, and crack pipes.

But if you do decide to “quit smoking,” in the traditional drive-by manner, I’ll hang on to them for you.


HemlockMan said...

Sorry about the trash in your yard. I didn't put any of it there, but sorry just the same.

I never smoked (cigarettes). I never understood the appeal. Coolness aside, I just could not dig the impulse to put a burning tube of tobacco into one's gob. It never made any sense to me, despite the fact that Bogie made it look cool.

I have had some friends who were terribly addicted who were able to quit. Malcolm X used to say that when he was ministering in prison he found it easier to get inmates free of opiates than from nicotine. Heroin was easy compared to cigarettes. But it can be done, apparently.

Pinkhamster said...

Nice essay.

"Bogie smoked. Rod Serling smoked. Popeye smoked."

Wait, did you grow up in the '70s or the '50s?

Ashley Holt said...

That's a good point, Pinkie. As I tried to recall "cool" influences contemporary to the '70s, I realized that the campaign to remove cigarettes from popular culture was already underway by that time. Fonzie, for example, came to represent coolness without lighting up a smoke the way you'd expect a leather-clad biker to do. I don't think even Dirty Harry smoked (but I may be wrong). So we had to look to the reruns for our bad influences.

Pinkhamster said...

No problem -- I wuz just teasin' ya for your lovable cultural tastes.

Zina said...

I quit smoking 24 years ago, and I'm very glad I did. Even though I was a 3 pack a day chain smoker for 20 years, I had a very easy time quitting. I think it's because I (unwittingly) hypnotized myself into doing it; here's how and why: my heavy-smoking pal had just quit, and I took that to mean that the jig was probably going to be up for me, too. So everyday on the subway to and from my job, I used to say over and over to myself, "Make me WANT to WANT to quit smoking" (because I didn't actually want to at all).

After about 2 months of doing this every day for half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening, one morning I woke up and before reaching for the smokes on the bedside table, I took a shower. I didn't make a decision to stop, I just, apparently, stopped. I brought my 3 packs of cigarettes to work with me, but I never lit any of them. I felt high for the first few days, I think because I was getting more oxygen into me than I had in decades. And though I sometimes missed it, I was just so amazed that I wasn't smoking -- that I didn't HAVE to smoke in the middle of the night anymore, that I could conduct my daily life without a cigarette glued to my mouth -- that I didn't give in.

As I said, I'm real glad I stopped. And I'm also real glad you wrote this blog post.

Ashley Holt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ashley Holt said...

Thanks, Zina. I could write a whole book on the subject if I gave it enough thought. Smoking consumed my identity. I still think of myself as a smoker the same way people in AA still think of themselves as alcoholics years after they've quit drinking. Going through the motions of my daily life has never felt right without cigarettes. There are times when I've had to utilize an unlit cigarette as a prop just to satisfy the urge to pose and gesticulate with it.

Amy W. said...

Since everyone in my extended family smoked and I was the youngest, I did some furtive experimental smoking in my early teens. Not much, maybe three cigarettes total, and the first one I ever tried was a menthol- BLEAHHAARGGGHH. And with all the coughing and everything, I thought "Nah, this isn't for me."