Monday, February 11, 2008

I remember smoking.

Remember when everybody smoked? I miss smoking. I suppose it’s not exactly the smoking that I miss but all the stuff that went with it. Edward R. Murrow smoked. My mother revered him for being smart and intellectual. It seemed to me that there was some mystique of the intellectual in which smoking played a part. All the smart people did it. In the 1970s, my analyst smoked during my fifty-minute hour routinely. It was weird when he quit, as if he somehow wasn’t there anymore.

In boarding school sneaking cigarettes was both fun and sport. We’d smoke in the lounge of the girls’ dorm, our heads stuck into the fireplace flu, stuffing our cigarette butts down the ash chute, occasionally setting it on fire.

After lunch we’d run down the hill behind the dorm to catch a quick one in a little lean-to that was equipped with a bench and a coffee can filled with sand for our butts. It was on a property that was adjacent to the school. We spent a lot of time in that yard. We never once discussed why the structure was there or what the owners thought about us being there. How odd. But we were kids and we were entitled, invisible and immortal.

Afternoons, in those precious hours between end of classes and dinner, we’d go to the Red Bull Inn and sit on spinning stools at the counter and eat English muffins dripping with butter, drink black coffee and smoke cigarettes. Our crowd. The smokers.

Miss Berry was our gym teacher. My lesbiaphobic mother told me to stay away from her, but, then again, my mother said that about all my gym teachers. Since I played field hockey and soccer, staying away from Miss Berry was impractical, and besides, she was a nice woman. Take the night I smoked a cigarette on the ten-minute break at study hall. I walked too close to Miss Berry afterward and she smelled smoke on me. Rather than have me thrown out of school for the offense, she screamed at me for being so stupid and told me to stay the hell away from her after I’d been smoking.

Once Miss Berry’s brother came to stay with her for a few days. He was retarded, the term we used for someone like him in 1964. He was an overweight kid, real clumsy, nothing like his sister. It was touching to see her with him, protective and sweet, qualities she didn’t exhibit with us, hard-ass that she was. She brought him to the gym every day. She let him jump on the trampoline and mess around with the gymnastics equipment. One day he was trying to swing on the rings and I looked over to see him fall off, thump, flat onto the hardwood floor. At least that’s how I remember it. Chances are I didn’t see him fall off at all, memories being what they are, but I distinctly remember the look of pain on his face, and his flaccid arm turned purple. Broken. And his powerless, guilt-ridden, horrified sister by his side. It was one of the saddest things I’d ever seen.

It’s been twenty-five years since I last smoked a cigarette. I can still remember the click of my stainless steel Zippo lighter, the smell of the lighter fluid, the feel of my brown leather cigarette case. And the nights sitting around smoking and talking. We all did it. It would get later and later but we’d carry on, eating potato sticks out of a can and drinking cokes. We’d finally get too tired to stay awake but we’d always decide to have one last cigarette before going up to bed. We’d light up and have a smoke and then get talking again until twenty minutes later when we’d decide to have one last cigarette before going up to bed.

4 comments:

Nora Christie said...

How much I can relate to this! Everyone smoked, even doctors. We went to a lot of parties in those days--mine much further back, in the 1950s--and the rooms were filled with a gauzy haze held onto by countless ravelings. Lacking ashtrays at a coctail party, people let their ashes fall on the floor. Smoking was a way of life.
I enjoy your blog and your writing.

Alice at Wintersong said...

I'm one of the few people I suppose who've never smoked. But I grew up on a tobacco farm, and worked in the filty stuff from spring to fall from 5 in the morning until 8 or later at night. When I went home at night I had to scrub the tar off my hands. No amount of scrubbing would get the yellow stain to go away until it finally wore off, or faded away, weeks after school had started. With that experience with tobacco, there's no way in hell I'd ever inhale smoke from it into my body. Guess I was lucky and didn't know it!

Chris said...

I used to hire staff on the basis that he (usually a he, of course) both smoked and drank. One poor fellow didn't smoke, but he did drink. So, he did OK. We worked for the New York Power Authority in those days. Worked on small hydro plants. So, we would leave our aerie tower at 10 Columbus Circle, now replaced by a modern all glass building, to go down to a bar we called the lower reservoir, to load up on beer, pretzels and smoke! We thought we would never die.

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