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Black Lamb

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Up in smoke

November 1st, 2006

BY TOBY TOMPKINS

marlboroman.png“Went to my doctor yesterday,” as Paul Simon sang. “She said I seemed to be OK. She said, ‘Man, you better look around. How long you think that you can run that body down? How many nights you think that you can do what you been doin’? Who… who you foolin’?’”

Well, my doctor wasn’t referring to gaudy nights, which I don’t have many of anymore. She was talking about smoking, to which I have been addicted for almost fifty years. She doesn’t nag me — she’s my physician, not my wife — but she’s crystal clear that the habit is going to kill me, sooner rather than later. And she says that even if I quit at sixty-three, my body will recover in a remarkably short time from its decades of abuse, and I’ll enjoy glowing health as a Golden Ager. Unless I already have lung cancer and/or emphysema and it just didn’t show up during her routine physical examination (the blood tests results aren’t in yet, and I haven’t had a chest X-ray in years). But if I don’t already have a death sentence, and if I kick tobacco, I can look forward to ending my days a couple of decades hence in the usual warehouse of the living dead, drooling on my slippers because the physical vehicle is more or less intact but there’s no one driving.
Alzheimer’s doesn’t seemed coded in the Tompkins DNA, but I have always been terrified of losing my mind before my body packs in. Recently I attended a memorial service for an uncle by marriage who finally died after several years of thickening mental opacity. He still knew his wife, but he couldn’t recognize his children. I was told by one of his daughters, after the service, that it wasn’t Alzheimer’s but a series of small strokes that wiped his memorious slate clean, and I thought, what’s the diff? The man had had hip and knee surgery, but he was otherwise in remarkable physical health. Never smoked, of course. Ex-Marine WW II aviator, dedicated athlete, brilliant lawyer, ending up spang in Shakespeare’s Last Age of Man: “second childishness and mere oblivion.”

I’d been talking to my cousin on the porch of the family house on Cape Cod, smoking a cigarette. She’s not particularly fond of me to begin with, and she was raw with mourning for her father. I kept my evil smoke from blowing on her, of course, but she eyed my cancer-stick and said, “Of course you won’t have to worry about dying like my father.” It was a rough remark, almost as if she were laying a curse on me, but the reason for it ambled onto the porch at that moment. My cousin’s husband and the father of her children is a fit man in his mid-fifties who looks twenty years younger, tanned and lankily muscular, with a trim reddish beard and hair that have barely begun to gray, and a charming manner. He delivered a report on all the groceries that had been bought for supper. I’ve known him since he was a child. He had absolutely no idea who I was. Nor did he remember that he used to be an accomplished physician. He still knows his wife and his kids, and his very short-term memory functions tediously well: my cousin cut him off in the middle of his detailed list with a quiet comment of approval, and he ambled away, after giving me a slight nod and a heartbreaking smile. Early-onset Alzheimer’s got him in his forties. My cousin had watched her father die without a mind and still had to face the prospect of a husband inexorably going the same way. Her harsh comment about my smoking reflected, more honestly than anything, the double grief she bore. That tough-minded, reticent New England woman was suggesting that if I died an agonizing death from lung cancer, but at least with my mind intact, I’d be luckier than her father and her husband.

I agree with her. If I do develop a cancer, or some other dreadful consequence of my smoking shows up to guarantee me a horrible end, with a functioning brain I’ll be able to make decisions that might make the process less ghastly, not only for me but for those who care about me. My cousin’s husband is still in radiant bodily health, but Alzheimer’s is incurable, and he’ll get physically sick and he’ll die, sooner or later. The worst irony my poor cousin must endure is that the doctor her husband used to be would certainly have made the hard final decisions about the Alzheimer’s patient he’s now become. But he’s not a doctor anymore, and my cousin, as tough a Yankee as she is, is overwhelmed by the responsibility of making the choices he can’t.

My wife has recently started using the phrase “Russian roulette,” applying it to all manner of situations, many of which aren’t necessarily matters of life or death. For example, we’re about to make a trip to Wyoming with a change of planes en route, and given the tough new security restrictions on carry-on bags, we’re going to check everything. “We’ll just play Russian roulette with the luggage,” Patsy says. She’s even begun using the words to describe the uncertainty of the weather, or whether or not she’s left enough sugar-water in the hummingbird feeders at our New Hampshire cabin to tide them over for the month we’ll be absent. She’s never come right out and said that my smoking is a form of Russian roulette, but she has a subtle mind, and I can’t help thinking that the sudden ubiquity of the phrase in her conversation, applied to just about everything but my smoking, is far from accidental.

But “Russian roulette” doesn’t really apply to what I do with my cigarettes. After all, a man who plays Russian roulette as a game of solitaire is simply prolonging his suicide. Perhaps Patsy feels that she is playing Russian roulette by staying married to me: if her luck holds, the hammer will come down on empty chambers until I quit smoking. If it doesn’t, the chambered round — the cancer diagnosis, the heart disease, the emphysema — will kill me a lot more messily and slowly (not to mention expensively) than a bullet through the brain, and force her to clean up after me, quite literally if I linger for any length of time. And the fact that she hasn’t opted out of the game by threatening to leave me unless I quit means that she keeps on passing me the revolver, “enabling” me, in the psychologists’ and addiction-counselors’ jargon. Needless to say, Patsy isn’t exactly happy about being an “enabler.” For a woman, especially, the word connotes weakness and co-dependency (another useful neolocution), and Patsy is a lioness in every other aspect of her life.

So my smoking makes her miserable. It makes me miserable, too, though not for the same reasons. Mine, I fear, are entirely selfish. Smoking is goddamn inconvenient in today’s society. It’s banned in offices, stores, and all public buildings generally, even, in New York City, in bars. (When Mayor Bloomberg prohibited lighting up in taverns the bar owners howled about losing business, but it turned out that there were more than enough non-smoking tipplers who began frequenting the smoke-free boozers for the first time, to make up for any disgruntled puffers who stayed away; and in any case the smokers generally didn’t boycott their waterin -holes, and a whole new code of barroom etiquette has grown up over reserving one’s place at the bar when stepping out for a smoke.)
Of course you can’t smoke on planes, buses, trains, or subways. Some train and bus stations have smoking rooms, and so do a few airports. I recall landing at Denver’s vast airport at Terminal A and almost missing my connecting flight from Terminal B because the smoking room was in Terminal D. But I suspect that in light of the latest terrorist threat involving liquid explosives, book matches will join lighters on the banned list, and the airport smoking rooms will be closed. The nicotine fiend will just have to tough it out, and serves him right, weak-willed passive-aggressive air-polluting threat to public health that he is.

For another inconvenience which attends smoking is public shaming. A while back I was sitting on a bench on one of Upper Broadway’s median strips puffing a cancer-stick, and a bag-lady — sorry, homeless woman — sitting at the other end of the bench and upwind of me, rared up from her reeking cocoon of portable trash, pointed a filthy claw at me and said, “Do you mind? Other people breathe this air too, ya know!” My smoke wasn’t going anywhere near her, but I guess she was proud of the fact that cigarette smoking was the only vice she lacked. I wonder what her reaction would have been if I’d been smoking a doobie or sucking on a crack-pipe.

But mostly I get withered by more respectable citizens when I light up in the street. Young Mommies have rounded on me at bus-stops for deliberately endangering the health of the precious infinks in their $6,000 strollers. I’ve been verbally abused by passersby outside the Metropolitan Opera House for having a smoke during intermission, even in winter with a howling gale blowing across the bleak tundra of the Lincoln Center Plaza. A couple I used to know broke with me forever because in the course of a long and bibulous luncheon I was heedless enough to light up at their table.

For the record, I do try not to kill other people with my second-hand smoke. The drive from New York to the New Hampshire cabin takes about four-and-a-half hours, and I don’t smoke in the car, or even during stops for gas, food, or the bathroom. In New Hampshire I take my filthy habit outdoors; in fact I forlornly hoped that the rule would wean me of smoking, if there were a January blizzard going on when I wanted a cigarette, but I just became a little more cold-adapted. I certainly don’t smoke in other people’s homes, unless they are smokers themselves; and because almost all of my friends are smarter than I am, few smoke. Or admit that they do.

But tobacco is an insidious weed, and many of my health-conscious friends, particularly in New Hampshire, are closet puffers. When Patsy and I have a party, after eating, even in winter, I’ll leave the warmth and camaraderie of the table to feed my habit, shivering, on the screen porch. And in short order I’ll be joined by several guests, usually women. They will all tell me they don’t smoke regularly — code for “you’re an addict but I’m not” — and they will bum cigarettes from me. And when I go to their own houses for a party I will always take an extra pack, because sooner or later I’ll be outside with my cigarette and the host, hostess, or some of the guests will show up. “I don’t usually smoke, but…” Perhaps it’s true that none of these good people really have a tobacco jones like mine, but I suspect that every one of them keeps a pack of butts in the house, in some inconvenient location so they don’t light up unless, well, you know, they, uh, have to.

Patsy’s unhappy accommodation to my habit has a curious side to it. I smoke Marlboro Reds in the box, always have. I began smoking at prep school when I was sixteen, back in the Fifties. Everybody smoked, and for adolescents it was a mark of adult sophistication. Cigarette ads were everywhere, but the only objection to them at Andover came from one of my English teachers, and it had nothing to do with health. One brand boasted, “Winston Tastes Good, Like a Cigarette Should.” The teacher regarded the slogan as an example of the ad industry’s creeping assault on decent English usage. But I doubt if the butt-company would have accepted his correction: “Winston Tastes Good, As A Cigarette Ought To Taste.” Prissy and pedantic, befitting a guy who smoked Parliaments, which gave you “Extra Margin,” whatever that meant, and were for weenies and women.

After getting nowhere with the inane radio and TV jingle “Filter, Flavor, Flip-Top Box!” Marlboro’s ad company hit the bigtime when it touted the brand as the cowboy’s choice. Smoking Marlboros made you John Wayne, the fake cowboy who died of lung cancer after smoking all his adult life, although I’m not sure Marlboro was his brand. The last Marlboro Man, a real cowboy who did use the product, died of lung cancer, too. Of course back at Andover I knew only that Marlboros were regarded as manly and even a little dangerous. They were cool, although smoking unfiltered cigs like Camels or Luckies like a TV private eye or a jazz musician or Jack Kerouac was even cooler. But I never liked having to pick flecks of tobacco off my lips.

So Big Red became my toxin of choice, and Marlboro has stuck with the Western image, even reviving the Marlboro Man in their print ads (nowadays paintings in a sort of goopy Leroy Neiman-ish style instead of photos of cowboy models). Patsy and I go out to Wyoming to ride on dude ranches, and we actually need a bit of cowboy gear. Marlboro’s marketing people cater to that taste, and a couple of years ago they began printing coupons on the sides of their packs. The coupons were labeled “miles,” perhaps to evoke cowboys covering vast distances a-horseback, riding fence, herding dogies, or getting back to the ranch in the throes of nicotine withdrawal because they’d left their damn smokes in the bunkhouse. But if you rack up enough “miles” you could exchange them for quite serviceable goods. So for years Patsy has asked me to save the coupons from the ammo magazines of tobacco bullets I fire into my lungs, and we’ve gotten some good stuff. My Marlboro jean jacket (without a company logo) is sturdier and better cut than any I’ve ever had; Patsy has a couple of Western-cut shirts which are long on function and short on frills, and a quite nice fleece-lined barn coat; and we’ve reaped many other useful items from Marlboro’s system of rewarding its serious slow suicides. I note, however, that the company has abandoned the coupons recently. I guess there are so many new Marlboro smokers worldwide, mostly kids, that the outfit no longer has to bribe people to light up.

So why don’t I quit? I’m making my wife unhappy (despite the nice stuff from the old Marlboro cowboy catalogue), and my habit is a pain in the ass, generally. My doctor was honest with me: tobacco is more addictive than heroin or crack, and I’ve been smoking for a very long time. I’d have to go into a rehab program, complete with special drugs, in order to quit once and for all. And even if I did, my doctor said, her hospital’s quit-smoking program is less successful than its alcohol and drug rehab clinics. What she didn’t say, as she gave me a last slightly pitying look, was that I may be too old, or too weak-minded, to change my life. She’s young enough to be the daughter I never had, and that look was a dismissal. Up to you, Toby. Don’t blame me.

One last anecdote, which relates to the bag-woman on the bench and different flavors of smoke: back in the late Seventies and early Eighties I worked with an inspired director-producer on a cable television show called The Henway Company. It was a half-hour program of sketch comedy featuring some fine actors and good writers, and it was aired on a Manhattan public-access TV channel every Friday for two years. We got a bit of underground buzz, and right about that time HBO ramped up. The company was in its infancy, and mostly aired old movies; it was desperate for filler material, and because of the success of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, sketch comedy was hot.

So the Henway honcho (OK, I’ll get the hoary joke over with: “What’s a Henway?” “About four pounds.”) contacted the hungry producers at HBO and they asked him to submit a ten-minute demonstration tape. My man had hours of material to work with. But when the request came from HBO, he’d decided to quit smoking. Tobacco, that is. He’d get up in the morning and make his coffee, and when he felt the nicotine itch, he’d light up a joint instead. As a result, by about ten ayem he was no longer living on this plane of reality.

The demo he made was utterly incomprehensible to the people at HBO, and The Henway Company disappeared. I have a copy of the tape, and in retrospect my friend was ahead of his time: it’s a collection of lightning-short segments of pieces from our sketches, with a driving rock score underlaid: exactly the kind of thing MTV would come up with a couple of years later. Coulda worked… yup, coulda, shoulda, woulda. But it didn’t. And aside from the fact that I can’t afford marijuana any more, I don’t think the reefer cure for cigarette smoking is the best choice. Of course if I lose my smoking Russian roulette, and if I have time enough to suffer, I will howl for medicinal marijuana, which unconcentrates the mind from the body’s travail and seems to alleviate some of the pain.

Meanwhile I will buy a lot of Nicorette Gum to chew on our flight to Wyoming, to keep me at least semi-civilized so that I can stay friends with Patsy, and I will pretend that all is well with me. So far. And when it finally isn’t? I still have a mind. And by mentioning Russian roulette above, I brought a gun into this tale. Chekhov remarked that if there’s a gun onstage in the first scene of a play, the unspoken contract between playwright and audience requires that it be used by the last scene. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Smoking & Drinking Issue, Tompkins | Link to this Entry

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