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Black Lamb


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You don’t have to S&D to have fun (ha-ha)

November 1st, 2006


I started smoking when I was twelve but waited another year to begin drinking.

My first smokes were butts stolen from ashtrays. My mother smoked Winstons, so those were my brand for a while. Soon I was stealing a cigarette or two from the packs she would leave lying around. I hung out after school with a couple of other pathetic little hotshots from the block passing around the stolen cigs. Since my house was the only one with no stay-at-home mom, it was our den of sin.

Once I started serious hanging out, my friends were older than I, and I was exposed to different brands. One friend, about fifteen, smoked Helmars, a pseudo-Egyptian brand, non-filtered and oval-shaped rather than round. Cool box, with bizarre illustrations and decoration.

Helmars were the first cigarettes I inhaled. No coughing and no vomiting, just a kind of lightheadedness I didn’t experience again until I began smoking weed. In a short time, I was cool as a moose, and perfecting the French inhale.

One drawback to Helmars was their general unavailability in most stores or any vending machine. I switched to Parliament because it had cool ads, it had a filter (good for the health, don’t you know), and the filter was recessed, unlike the nasty Winstons.

I smoked them for about three years. Then, the night of my junior prom, I found myself standing in front of a cigarette machine which had no Parliaments. One of those life-changing moments. I pulled the lever for Lucky Strike and never looked back.

I really loved Luckies. Much milder than the Winstons or Marlboros, which were just gaining in popularity then, and much more flavor than Parliament, or any other of the sissy filtered brands.

My mother discovered I smoked when a pack of Luckies fell out of my jacket pocket.

“What are those?” she asked, ignoring the obvious. I was busted.

After a perfunctory lecture about the evils of smoking, she told me not to smoke in front of her. When I was sixteen, my aunt Kitty said to my mother, “You know he smokes, why not let him do it in front of you?” Mom shrugged, and I lit up.

Gasps from my mother and aunt. “What?” I asked
“You smoke just like your father,” I was told.

Because Luckies are unfiltered, I curled my lip slightly to avoid wetting the paper. My father, who died before I was born, had done the same. We were all a little spooked by that.

In college, I smoked like a condemned man. At least two packs a day. I had necrotic yellow stains on my fingers and teeth. We had a Lucky Strike cult among my friends. The cigarettes were manufactured at three plants, and the factory of origin was noted on the carton and the pack. Durham or Reidsville in North Carolina, or Richmond in Virginia.

Like wine snobs, we would compare the cigarettes from the three plants as though they were vintages. We whored after one kind or another, with favorites shifting over time. More than once, someone would rush into the student union and yell, “They just got a shipment of Reidsvilles at the bookstore!” The cult members would decamp en masse to the store and buy every carton in the place.

To this day I have no idea whether we were on to something or just nuts. I do know that if I had put that much effort into school I would have graduated on time.

In the hippie days we were always smoking something. I was hooked only on nicotine. First thing in the morning, before my eyes were open, I would be groping on the night table for my cigarettes. If I got up to pee in the middle of the night, I usually lit a smoke.
The worst thing was waking up and having no cigarettes. Of course, in those halcyon days, we were never without rolling papers and ashtrays full of butts, and a hand-made was soon fashioned. Never mind that the old tobacco tasted like smoldering goat shit. I had my fix.

I quit for the first time in 1970. I saw a television show about lung cancer, during which a frozen section of a smoker’s lung was displayed. It looked like a black-lace doily. The victim had been smoking for twenty years. At the time, I had been indulging for seventeen years at least. This included my year on amphetamine, when smoking was tantamount to breathing. I finished the pack and didn’t touch another cigarette for more than four years.
My ex-wife, to whom I was married at the time, hadn’t started smoking until she was twenty-two, but she couldn’t quit with me. It was hard to stay off the stuff when she lit up around me, but I did it.

I fell off the wagon after we broke up, cigarettes going real well with booze and self-pity, but I never really got back into daily use or buying packs. I chipped at this for years, going months without a cigarette, or smoking a few in one day, until New Year’s Eve 1980, when I smoked my last one. Haven’t had one since, though I’ve smoked a few cigars over the years. Don’t like them much, though.

My ex-wife died about four years ago from lung cancer. She quit the day she was diagnosed but it was way too late.

I have had my troubles with drugs and alcohol, but cigarettes took hold harder and were harder to quit than anything I’ve ever run into. My sympathies lie with smokers trying to give up, and I lament that anyone still acquires the habit. Surely they can’t think it’s cool or makes them look sophisticated. We were seduced by Bogart and Bacall, Paul Henreid lighting two and giving one to Bette Davis, Sinatra with a mike in one hand and a Lucky in the other, smoky jazz clubs, after-sex and after-dinner smokes, and the one with that first cup of coffee in the morning.

Sure, they called cigarettes “coffin nails,” but we were so ignorant and naive. Can it still be that way?

Drinking is more problematic. One may use alcohol without abusing it. The variety of wines, beers, liqueurs, and exotic hard liquors available to us in the global village is greater than any time in the history of the human species. Very few cultures in the world don’t have a native fermented drink of one kind or another.

You might be a hard-shell Baptist, a Muslim, or a Mormon and not drink alcohol, but it is not the way of the world. Humans make local skull-pop out of sugar cane, grains, cactus, potatoes, grapes, apples, elderberries, and what-have-you. Jailbirds and teenagers in dry counties make hooch out of raisins and stale bread. A drink called ratafia is made from peach pits in its classic form.

You grow it, we can ferment it.

The Pacific Northwest is famous for its microbrewed beer. The Germans and the Czechs are justly revered for their superior beer brewing history, a long tradition. But the millet beer brewed in Africa is just as satisfying to its drinkers, and the effects are the same.
My most intimate circle of friends and family are imbibers of wines, beers, and other strong drink. My preference is for Oregon porters and stouts, English ales and German or Czech lagers/pilsners. I prefer red wines, potato vodkas, and Irish whiskeys (a wee drop of the creature).

We also frequently drink expensive tequilas (a growing vice) and single-malt scotches and will try anything else once. In a trip to France and Spain last year, we developed a hankering for orujo (a sort of Spanish grappa), absinthe and, for me, the aforementioned ratafia.

While it is absolutely true that alcohol can enhance meals and provide cheap attitude adjustment, it is equally true that much of my drinking is for achieving an altered state. My drug use over the years, now exclusively coming out of a bottle, has been leading the chase for that condition. However, in many ways, booze is the perfect drug for mainstream religion: sin and you will suffer.

The only reason I gave up excessive drinking in my early thirties was that I couldn’t stand the hangovers any longer. That, and a late-night drive home after a night of carousing when I spent way too much time in the wrong lane of a divided highway. Scared the crap out of me. If it hadn’t been two in the morning on a weeknight, I might have killed or been killed.

At the time my drink of choice was the vodka martini. Ah, James Bond, what had ye wrought? I still love them but do not prepare a pitcher of them in the morning so I can go right to them in the afternoon. I realized that I was consuming a half-gallon of vodka a week, and a jar of pickled onions.

A sobering thought, literally and figuratively.

Since then, I have managed to avoid becoming dependent on alcohol. I like my beer, etc., but have lived without it, and I still could.

And yet one misses the insouciance, the tipsy repartee immortalized in Thin Man movies and New Yorker cartoons, the beery evenings with friends, the “in vino veritas” deep conversations, the glib seductiveness of one’s own palaver. Alas, some of the best times of my life have been abetted by the booze.

True, the goofy stoned conversations on weed were often funnier and stranger, but the judicious application of alcohol is the best social lubricant we humans have discovered. It releases inhibitions, so our true and secret self is liberated.

It may be that our true and secret self is a violent pig, a sexual deviant, maybe stupid enough to drop his pants and Xerox his ass, or a weepy drag, but that’s the chance we take when we dance with John Barleycorn. How many sad stories start with, “We just went out for a few drinks…”?

But enough of that. Cocktail? •

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


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