Sunday, July 15, 2012

Up in Smoke

Mom and Dad in a rare smoke-free moment
Growing up, we lived in a section of Manhattan called Stuyvesant Town. During the summer, we children slept on the apartment floor with box fans aimed at our bodies, and still we sweltered. In lieu of hydrant-opening, Stuyvesant Town had giant sprinklers resembling shower heads that we could run under (and run we did) on the hottest days. 

Lenz’s Deli was a brief refuge from the boiling temps. On the door was a sign decorated with a cartoon penguin cavorting on the ice: “Come on in, it’s Kool inside (air conditioned)!” The ad beckoning folks indoors was sponsored by Kool cigarettes. That was the smelly, smoky era of cigs, and similar ads were everywhere—on TV, billboards on buses.  

I was born into a family with several chain smokers, including both of my parents. In his heyday, Dad managed to puff 4 packs a day (that’s 80 butts, people). To accomplish this feat, he smoked from dawn till bedtime, often lighting the new cigarette from the old one. Mom was no slouch either (2 packs a day). Her beloved Pall Malls accompanied endless cups of tea, and endless telephone conversations with friends. The main household chore for my sisters and me was to empty brimming ashtrays every morning before school (ashes had to cool down overnight). It never occurred to anyone involved that this was a dangerous habit.  When I realize that, from birth on, I was exposed to six packs of secondhand smoke daily, it is a miracle I am not hooked up to oxygen.

Dad in fact did die from smoking, at age 67. He had a massive stroke one April morning, and when my Mom found him, he was sitting on the bed, cig in one hand and lighter in the other. Mom had quit 6 years before, cold turkey, after continuing to puff, even  when diagnosed with emphysema. She was visiting us in Philly after Rosie’s birth and caught the flu. In the hospital, a pulmonary specialist finally scared her enough to stop, saying she wouldn’t otherwise live to see her new grandchild’s first birthday. That, thank God, did it, and gave Joanie 16 smokeless years with us.

Unbelievably, I tried smoking briefly myself in my teens (nasty things called Virginia Slims), but didn’t get addicted. Given what we now know, I am saddened by the number of young people smoking still. 

We are, all of us, creatures of habit, and some of those habits are very bad. It’s human nature, and it’s a shame—especially a shame when teenagers have such a sense of invincibility, and are convinced nothing can hurt them.  Though prices climb through the roof, Big Tobacco is demonized, and smokers are banned from lighting up indoors…there are still cigarettes, and still cigarette addicts. 

This summer, as I watch people on the boardwalk, wreathed in smoke, I say a little prayer. May I, may we, have the courage to change our own bad habits, whatever they may be. It’s never too late.

1 comment:

  1. Elise, first off, I enjoy your writing voice so much. You capture moods, people, and moments with eloquence and economy. I've just been in Paris and because I love to eat outside, I tried to sit where the smoke wouldn't get me, but there's no escaping it there.

    My dad quit when his first grandchild was born 22 years ago and that's probably added years to his life. Nothing like a small human life to help drive home the point that what we have is too precious to gamble on tobacco.