I begin my battle with nicotine when my lungs are still pink, my teeth still white, and my fingers stained only with peanut butter and dirt. It is a battle to fit in, to be cool, and nicotine is fated to be my partner. For life.
I am about ten when my parents send me and my brother to summer camp for the first time. I am a quiet and withdrawn kid, so not so many friends. I tend to sit and watch, keeping my mouth shut and my eyes open. This does not earn me friends any faster, but I’m not a nose picker. I’m not a “retard”—a non-pc term we use back then to describe the kids who are nose pickers—and despite my less than fashionable dress, kids eventually gravitate toward me as someone who is a fairly safe bet. It is safe for me too. I never have to face rejection head on. If I am rejected, I don’t know it. I can ignore it. If someone does take a chance on me, I make sure not to let them down, either by actually picking my nose or doing something retarded like crying for my mother when I step in shit. It is a good system. It works for me anyway. It also means that I tend to be accepted by the socially rejected dregs of society. I can tell. I recognize my own kind when I see them.
A Fool for Kool
I spend the first day and night looking sullenly at everyone at camp, reluctantly participating in activities, and grunting non-verbal vocalizations at camp counselors who try to pull me out from under the rock I crawled beneath. When two bigger boys try to befriend me, I don’t care any more than I do about singing Kumbaya around the camp fire. That is all it takes. I am accepted by these two without further reservation as each of them goes all in when they add picking me up at the little kid’s cabin to their morning routines. Neither of them are bad boys per se, but they certainly are not the kind of kids my mother would have approved of which suits me just fine.
The larger boy smokes, which really is not all that uncommon back in the 70’s, and, of course, he asks me if I want to try a cigarette. If he had not asked me, I never would have thought to try one, but since he did, I had to.
“Yeah, gimme one.”
He shakes one out for me and hands me a lighter. He begins talking, but I’m not paying attention. The mostly white pack has a shiny gold foil sticker across the top and on the front panel, set within a green box, are white letters that say KOOL with o’s that interlock in the middle. It is a sign. I know it. This is the key. To what, I don’t know.
“No, you can’t smoke that in here. They will have a shit-fit. You gotta go smoke it in the outhouse. That’s where I’ve been smokin. Here, hold it like this.”
He shows me how to palm the cigarette and lighter, a skill that would later become useful when I started shoplifting cigarettes and cassette tapes.
At dusk, I make my way up the trail to the wooden outhouse that sits on top of the hill and let myself into the one place I had so far avoided visiting since I’d got here. Somehow I know which end is supposed to be lit and which end is supposed to go in your mouth—maybe it’s the color coding—and I puff two cheek-fulls of what smell to me like spearmint smoke. Then I inhale it.
That pack should have said FOOL. Since then, I’ve thought long and hard about that first experience with a menthol cigarette and how best to describe the sensation. The best I can say is that it was like smoking an ice cube that made super-freeze, silly-smoke that deep froze every exposed mucus membrane in my digestive tract and burned like chili peppers. Especially in my eyes and nose. It is not too unlike the tear gas that I would be exposed to later in life if that tear gas had been mentholated.
I cough. I gag. I flick a rope of snot off the end of my nose into the exposed hole in the floor as I smoke almost half of that cigarette before I feel like I’ll soon be kneeling over that hole in the floor, perhaps falling in even, if I don’t stop. So I do, flicking the rest of that shtick stick into the hole and killing it with one last draught of phlegm and tears.
Perhaps it was the methane-menthol combination, I don’t know, but I’m stoned. My feet never touch the ground as I stumble back to the cabin and my two new friends who hadn’t done me any favors today. But that’s me talking now, not then. In any case, it would be awhile before I’d get the nerve to try another cigarette.
Meet the Red Man
I spend the next few summers working on my aunt and uncle’s dairy farm where I am introduced to smokeless tobacco. My older cousin is a god sent to earth to keep dorky kids like me from killing themselves (intentionally or accidentally) during puberty and adolescence. He is very patient, taking extra time to show me how to do things on the farm, and he is kind. He never makes me feel like a stupid kid. He gives me his old Schwinn bike with a banana seat, a long and high sissy bar that was more like a roll bar, and a three-speed gear shift on the frame that threatened to knock all my teeth out if I ever wrecked on jumps, and he gives me his old boom box—which is what we call those ten-pound “portable” stereo systems with the big handles that take ten D-cell batteries and blow your hair away from your face when you sit in front of them.
But the most valuable thing my cousin gives me is his friendship. He includes me in all of his extracurricular activities and makes sure his friends do the same. If he goes somewhere, I go with him. If his friends come over, I hang out in the basement with them. And if they chew tobacco while they were doing it, so do I.
It is on one of these occasions that the two older boys are passing a pouch of Red Man back in and forth in the basement and spitting into a glass juice jar. I watch for a while and when they don’t offer me any, I ask for some.
“Let me try that.”
My cousin hefts the pouch up into the air.
“You wanna try this?”
He and his friend look at each other, and then he turns and hands me the bag.
I ignore him and take the bag, again white, but with big red letters and a shiny foil interior that contains what looks like moist, black leaves—which is exactly what it is—and smells like the back-end of a cow right before it whips its feces encrusted tail into your nose, eyes, and mouth, and completely blocks both of the former senses as it simultaneously overloads the latter.
I make a tripod with my thumb, forefinger, and middle fingers like I’d seen the older boys do, stab, and fish a golf ball size hunk of dead, smelly leaves out of the bag. Both of them are sitting on pause, leaning forward slightly. Silent. Staring. Grinning. Watching. Waiting. I’d watched them enough times to know that you do not shove a wad of leaves into your mouth so much as you maneuver your mouth and lips around them and your fingers. Picture grabbing a handful of spaghetti and trying to get the entire thing into your mouth at once. With noodles oozing from between your fingers and hanging below your fist, you would not shove the entire thing toward your face, but rather you would hold it up above your head, open your mouth, and, as you slowly lower your hand, move your head around so your mouth is in position to receive. Same thing with leaf tobacco.
I perform the “load” without making a mess, and the boys lean back as they skip forward a frame or two, their play buttons not yet quite pushed all they way back in.
I sit there cross-legged on the floor with my left cheek blown out like a winterized chipmunk’s and fight the immediate urge to swallow as my salivary glands begin production in overtime as some sort of disaster recovery plan. I can’t help it. I swallow. Not all of it, just some, but it is enough. I begin to feel very, very, sick and start to sweat ice water. The boys notice and now their play button is pushed back in as they resume their conversation. Only now it’s about how green my face looks. Even as I am reaching for the juice bottle to spit, I swallow a second time and then again. I can’t take it, and I run outside to spit the foul leaves out as I lean and retch over what now looks just like a miniature pile of cow shit.
That doesn’t stop me. I have to try again. The Pennsylvania Dutch restaurant in the center of town has a candy rack by the front door. The top of it is for gum and mints. The middle is for bags of lemon drops, root beer barrels, and horehound candy. But the bottom of that rack? That is reserved for the Red Man. A two-year-old could have snagged a pouch, stuffed both cheeks full, and popped his pacifier back in before his mother finished paying the bill. A bit farfetched I know. What two-year-old have you ever see that can spit past their lower lip?
The first time is hard. I feel silly, like a kid wearing a fake mustache so he can get into a bar.
The lady at the counter eyes me carefully, then looks at the pouch of Red Man I’d just laid in front of her, and then, back at me.
“Are you going to chew that?”
“Uh, yeah,” I mumble.
She eyes me a moment more before shrugging and accepting my money. It was easier, much easier, after that.
Since the restaurant doesn’t sell cigars or cigarettes, I decide to try making my own—out of Red Man. I make a nice size tube out of typing paper and tape it closed with masking tape. Walking to the school behind our house, I prop my back up against a tree, and fire that thing up.
Have you ever smelled burning masking tape? If you have, you’ll know that this is something you probably shouldn’t be inhaling because poisonous chemicals are the only thing that can produce a smell like that. And the masking tape is the only thing that burned when I lit this hillbilly cigar as I’d had the foresight to tape the end shut when making it. Attention to detail. I was nothing if not a fastidious child.
Just a Pinch
When I reach seventh grade, cigarettes are 80¢, and they are sold in vending machines at, well, everywhere. This is when I am introduced to nicotine in her most seductive figure yet—snuff. I had been off all forms of tobacco for a while, mainly because I had no money and no one to impress, but it is about at this point in time that I think I develop my addiction.
I know cigarettes cost as much as they do in the early 80’s only because I play a joke on one of my friends by sneaking the pack from his jacket, hide in a bathroom stall, poke holes in all of his cigarettes, and return the pack before he notices (I’d read about someone doing that in a book). Well, he notices, he is not my friend, he definitely is not amused and proves it by head butting me in the back of the head as I walked to class. I smooth things over with him by replacing his pack by proxy of the eighty cents I pull out of my pocket as soon as I can see straight.
We must have had a lot of free time in this school (it was private and church-run) because most of what I remember about my two years here are all the bad things I learned to do—like how to properly throw throwing knives and stars to get them to stick in the partitions, the mechanics of sex (not a bad thing really and another long story), female anatomy (also, not a bad thing), how to not hit yourself in the balls when twirling nunchaku, and how to chew snuff in the bathroom among other things.
One of my friends, a real one this time (not only did he not laugh when I told him what I thought sex entailed, he explained to me where I’d gone wrong), introduces me to these little hockey puck size, green cans of what looks like wintergreen flavored dirt. Over the course of a school week, we sit for hours on the counters in the bathroom, spit into the sinks between our legs, and just talk about everything. Until we get caught that is. A week of out-of-school expulsion, the beating I get from my father, and the fact that I did nothing but read and memorize chapters from the book of Psalms, and get beaten more when I fail to give a shit about it, cure me of the habit—for a time. Until I go back to school anyway. I am more careful after this.
Butt Bonds & Fool’s Tools
In high school, a public one now, I quickly find a circle of friends with whom I fit after I go to the guidance counselor’s office the first week and tell her I want to drop every single advanced class I am enrolled in. My kind smell failure and swarm. Sensing my own kind, I let them in. And all of them smoke. Soon, I do too.
I work at a restaurant after school and on the weekends with a few of them every night and cigarettes become a social bond between us. After school, a few of them hop into my car or I hop into one of their cars with a few of them, and whoever has smokes on them today, pulls them out. We pass a pack around, lite up, kick back, and ride, exhaling the stress of being losers, failures, and doing virtually nothing all day along with the blue-white smoke that just carries our cares and failure out the window and away.
During breaks at work we do the same thing. We share what we have with everyone. It shows you give a shit. Sitting on the loading dock, legs dangling, kicking idly, bullshitting, we let the smoke from our cigarettes carry our stress of working a shitty job in a shitty restaurant past a shitty dumpster that smells far worse than burning masking tape that is presently masked by the smell of co-mingled smoke.
I am now hooked on her physical as well as her social lures.
But, here’s the thing; it is far from over. Tobacco is only the tool, a fool’s tool on his quest for cool. It really is only the embodiment of nicotine, and she’s a jealous bitch. Sure, she’ll smack you around the first few times and make your head spin, but eventually you start to enjoy it, ask for it even, and pay her for the privilege. It’s the worst sort of bondage. We become sadists who enjoy inflicting pain, misery, and suffering on ourselves even as we become masochists because we wouldn’t have it any other way.
And that bitch nicotine laughs. She wraps her noose around our hearts, our lungs, our mouths, our arteries—all our soft tissues—and slowly squeezes them until we are dead. Who looks KOOL hooked up to a ventilator? Not me; not you. And definitely not the Red Man.
And she’s fickle. She can take us before ten, or after twenty, thirty, or more years of abuse, or just plain leave us alone, and there is not a damn thing we can do about it. Nothing, except kick her to the curb and hope she doesn’t hold a grudge. Hope she doesn’t come back after twenty years and lay us horizontal out of spite.
If you asked me to pinpoint the moment she seduced me, I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know. But I can tell you when she had me in a headlock. When I no longer cared about anything else.
In my senior year of high school, as soon as I turn eighteen, I enlist in the Army. The recruiters make it easy. They sit in the hallways and molested us between periods like greedy salesmen. At least the Marines do. The Army recruiter does take “no” for an answer unlike the other recruiters, so I start telling the Marine recruiter “Army,” every time he starts talking to me. Eventually I believe it myself and sign up for the delayed entry program in the hallway of my high school.
I think I know stress at home, at school, at work, but I don’t. Not really. Basic training is stressful—until I eventually figure out the game. But it doesn’t matter. Smoking is strictly prohibited, all tobacco products are here. But while smoking has a funny way of ratting you out with the smell, chewing tobacco does not. Snuff is easy to hide, and there are plenty of guys willing to risk the horrible consequences of getting caught at the PX after lights out and there are even more of us willing to pay them to do it.
The oldest guy in my company, at thirty-nine, is too old to quit or care if he gets caught. Well, he gets caught. With a whole carton of cigarettes. I’m not sure where exactly he thought he was going to hide them, but he never even got that carton out of the bag before they were taken and he was banished to the kitchens for a fate worse than death. I play it a bit smarter.
A few of us share one can of snuff and carry it with us most of the time, rotating the responsibility. Then the drill instructors start to make us randomly empty our pockets. So I buy several tubes of lip balm, empty them, and pack them full of wintergreen snuff. It is genius. Hold it up to your mouth, twist the bottom, and get a pinch without anyone knowing. I do this in front of the drill instructors even. I don’t care anymore.
This was the point I where I made a turn. I could have quit. I had in fact quit for over a month, but I didn’t want to. Like in the seventh grade bathroom and the loading dock at the restaurant, we sit in the laundry room cleaning our weapons or with our backs against a tree on a break, shoot the shit and spit. It wasn’t the glue, but rather a solvent that broke down barriers and allowed bonding, even if it was a chemical one.
We eventually get caught. The designated carrier leaves the can sitting on the ground next to him as we sit with our backs against some rocks during lunch at a basic rifle marksmanship course. The last drill instructor I would have wanted to see it, does, and since we all claim ownership when he asks, “Whose can of ‘worm dirt’ is this?” he punishes us all by making us pull our pants down.
So there we all stand, in a loose circle, at the entrance to the range, with everyone coming and going, and us with our pants around our ankles. I don’t think the drill instructor quite got it that none of us cared. We’d been sleeping, showering, eating, shitting, laughing, and crying together now for months now. I knew what my buddies’ asses looked like by now and they mine because we’d been watching them for each other for some time figuratively and literally. So what? After a few minutes he starts to become agitated and after ten minutes, he gives up.
“Pull ‘em up and get your asses over to the bleachers.”
He takes our can, but never says anything else. I share my tube of lip balm until we buy another can to replace the confiscated one. At this point, if I have to choose between food or tobacco, I choose tobacco.
After basic training, I am assigned to the Battalion reconnaissance platoon at my permanent duty station. This means more schools and several more weeks of training in the field in a job where smoking is not exactly conducive to the job. Through it all, that little hockey puck sized can follows, school after school, field exercise after field exercise, through a deployment or two, back home, to my wedding, and to the hospital for the births of each of my four children. It is safe to say, it isn’t going anywhere. I am solidly hooked with a five-can-a-week habit now.
Battling the Bitch (Eat Me)
After the birth of my last daughter, who’s now eight, I decide I need to quite. I don’t want to, but I feel I have to. I do not want to die over something as stupid as snuff, to be snuffed by snuff. This is also about the same time I come to the realization that I am mortal. From age six on, I’d never believed that I could actually die, and nobody had told me otherwise. I know better now. Using tobacco just doesn’t make sense to me anymore.
It was about this time that nicotine gum is approved for use without a prescription. I’d tried patches before, but I ended up doing what I imagine most people do—using tobacco with a patch (or two) attached to my upper arm. It kind of defeats the purpose. So I try the gum. It is good enough, but as the only flavors they have at the time are the original and mint (and I hate mint and the original is very stiff and hard to chew), I use the gum only as a means to reduce my intake. I chew both. Perhaps the only benefit is that I develop such a tolerance for nicotine that should I ever happen to fall asleep in a greenhouse when they spray, or gas, or whatever, I probably won’t die. Probably.
But then they come out with some new flavors. Orange is good, but still so stiff it hurts your jaw. This is followed by Fruit Chill, Extreme Chill, Fresh Mint (still nasty), Winter Ice, and the Holy Grail, Cinnamon Surge. Here, finally, is a worthy substitute for snuff that could finally kick that whore nicotine in the teeth and allow me to quit. It took a while, five years to be exact, but for more than two years now, I have not had any tobacco. At all.
I started with the 100 piece boxes. These last me more than a week, almost two. But before too long though, it’s not enough to last even one. Fortunately, someone at GlaxoSmithKline has the foresight to create a box with 160 pieces in it. This lasts almost two weeks—for a while. Now I have a sixty dollar a week habit, an addiction to chewing gum, a mental map of all the Walmarts in upstate New York, and a tolerance for nicotine that surpasses my tolerance for the common cold. But I’m still not using tobacco.
Yes, I still look at the cans lying neatly in their racks behind the cashier with wistful longing for those days filled with camaraderie and spitting, but I don’t give in. Nicotine, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter. That bitch just won’t let me go. I won’t let her.
I tried. I did. I do without her once for a couple of weeks until, while cleaning out my car, I find a piece of gum that she’d hidden under my seat. I carry it around in my pocket for two whole days while she whispers in my head.
Eat me. Eat me. Eat. Me.
I pull it out, look at it, turn it back and forth, look up, look down, and stuff it back into my pocket, my ears once again deaf to her pleas. Until one time I don’t.
I just don’t want her to leave. Not yet. Maybe someday, but not today.