When I was a kid there was a huge billboard in downtown Philadelphia with the Marlboro Man on it. You remember him, the rugged everyman who apparently smoked a pack of reds every day before lunch, and he somehow maintained his brilliant physique and eyes that could pierce steel. And out on I-95 there was another billboard dedicated to a caricature of a camel, also smoking a cigarette. In very small print on both signs was a warning from the U.S. Surgeon General saying something about smoking being harmful to your health. I, of course, saw neither one of these signs, but I knew what they looked like because they were everywhere.
We rode the subway to church most Saturdays, and in the underground world of the subway there were huge billboards lined up on both sides of the tracks. It was funny sometimes when a train was on the opposite track and I could see just a partial billboard through the gap in the train cars. When I first saw a Marlboro Man sign I was waiting for the El at 30th Street Station and there were two posters of him flanking a billboard for the film CB4, which also seemed to celebrate smoking as a lifestyle choice. And I wasn’t interested. It had nothing to do with the Surgeon General’s warning, and everything to do with how I was raised, to think my body was the temple of God, and to avoid anything that would ruin that temple.
So, why did I start smoking three years later? Easy. I wanted to fit in. I was in college and all the “cool kids” were smoking, so the one thing that I said I would never do kind of got forgotten in the crosshairs of peer pressure. I remember the first time I held a cigarette, and funnily enough, it was a Marlboro red. It was handed to me by a girl I had a crush on while we were on break from our work-study jobs. Her name was Nipa, and I hadn’t realized up until that point that she was even a smoker, but she invited me to join her so I did. And when she lit up, she offered one to me as well. I didn’t even hesitate, although my hand trembled as I held it the same way she did, so as not to appear like a smoking virgin. Then I put my lips to it…
And had a coughing fit you would not believe. Yeah, I was a smoking virgin, and there was no getting around it. Amazingly enough, though, Nipa was really cool with it, showing me how to draw it in, to hold it, and then to blow it out, nice and smooth. I’ll tell you a secret, too. It felt good, that nicotine sliding its way deep into my lungs and giving me a sensation I had never felt before. And it didn’t hurt that it meant I could spend more time around Nipa, either. So it was that every weekday for a month we would meet in the courtyard and smoke for fifteen minutes. But I was never addicted.
Which is really the interesting thing, in my opinion. I became a social smoker. And for the next year that’s what I did, I socially smoked. Whenever I was out with my friend Ken who smoked, or my friend April who smoked, or even with Nipa, I accepted cigarettes from them and smoked to my heart’s content. But when I wasn’t around people who smoked (which meant people who had cigarettes to let me bum off of them) I never smoked. At those times I never even felt like smoking. I felt like the ultimate fake, but it seemed to be the cool thing to do in public. So I did it in public, and that was all. In fact, I never bought a pack of cigarettes for myself. I’m thinking now that maybe I should have given my friends some money in exchange for the cigarettes I bummed.
Then I moved and stopped socially smoking. None of my new friends smoked so I didn’t smoke either. It was really easy. One day I was a social smoker, and the next day I wasn’t smoking. I felt no withdrawal from the smoking, but I did feel withdrawal from my old friends. Amazingly enough, I fell in with a different group of people from school who smoked in the time between classes, and I hung out with them in those down times. At first they offered me cigarettes, but I found I wasn’t really interested in them. When I realized they weren’t going to judge me for not smoking, that made things a lot easier. I was done, and I’ve never smoked since, never even been tempted to smoke since.
But that’s when I became a secondhand smoker, which I hear is even worse. Oh boy.