I remember visiting a friend in the hospital many years ago. He was having something removed. Tonsils, a kidney, an appendix — I don’t exactly remember what, it was that long ago. But I vividly remember lighting a cigarette for him as we both smoked and talked about his soon-to-be-missing organ in his hospital room. Down the hall there was a sign in front of one room that said, “No smoking — oxygen tent in use.”
It was probably in the early ‘80s and, unless the patient you were visiting was under an oxygen tent, you could smoke in the room. Without asking permission. It wasn’t that long ago that about the only place in this country where you could absolutely, positively not smoke a cigarette was in a high school bathroom. That would get you expelled. You’d have to bring your parents to school with you to get back in and pretend to be sorry each time.
I haven’t had a cigarette in 25 years, but I remember smoking on airplanes, in airports, in elevators, in movie theaters, at restaurants and at ball games. I think some churches even had smoking sections. This was a good 20 years after the “Mad Men” era of the late ‘50s, when “everyone” smoked and drank martinis for lunch. It seemed so glamorous then.
The fact that so many movie stars (and writers) died in their 40s, 50s and 60s never seemed connected to their smoking — Humphrey Bogart, Nat “King” Cole, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rod Serling, Edward R. Murrow, Robert Taylor, Ian Fleming and Gary Cooper all just drew the short straw. Too bad, what can you do? When your number’s up, it’s up. Now we know that’s not true.
Today, I wonder if 10-year-olds even know what an ashtray looks like. They probably wonder why there is an empty round hole near the cup holder in the family car with an oddly shaped plug in it that doesn’t seem to do anything. They don’t know that it’s the space for a cigarette lighter. (Some countries still allow cars to have them.) Have they ever seen a BIC lighter? Have they ever seen a cigarette machine? They used to be everywhere except the home. They were as common as ATM machines are now.
Now, of course, you cannot smoke anywhere. Can you imagine lighting up in a hospital today? After you recovered from being Tasered, you’d be taken for a psych evaluation in a straitjacket and then receive a good, long waterboarding. They may let you go, they may not.
The thing that puzzles ex-smokers like me the most is the price of cigarettes. In some states, one pack costs $7, $8 or more than $11. Who can afford to still smoke? Many of us measure how long ago we quit by how much we were paying for cigarettes then. It was $2.25 for me. When I was a boy in Virginia, they were 23 cents a pack. You put a quarter in the machine and there would be 2 cents inside the wrapper when the pack slid out on that shiny metal tray. Why wouldn’t you smoke? It was cheap and impressed the other sixth graders. Or, at least, my 12-year-old self thought it did. Showing off would have been more accurate. It only took 30 years to figure that out. I’m a slow learner.
Now that I’ve had friends my age die of smoking-related diseases, I wonder if I’ve dodged the bullet or it just hasn’t hit me yet. No one we know smokes anymore. The only place I see smokers regularly is in front of the local convenience store, and it’s usually one of the staff on break. How they can afford to smoke? Maybe the Gas and Go Away pays better than I thought. More likely, they have two jobs, like all the rest of us.