Phantom Cigarette

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After sharing an account of a particularly intense situation, my friend Lisa will sometimes punctuate the last sentence by taking a long drag off a phantom cigarette.

Mind you, neither of us have smoked in decades, but for anyone who has ever smoked, the image reflexively brings you back to that pre-cigarette stress followed by the release that comes post-first-drag.

This morning, I realized that the sound of my three teenagers getting out of the minivan is my responsible, middle-aged mom’s version of first-drag-euphoria.

My response got me thinking about my smoking history, which through today’s lens is beyond absurd, cultivated by a permissive smoking attitude that is almost impossible to believe ever existed.

I know I’m taking a great social risk by talking about cigarettes and it goes without saying that I do not condone smoking. But I grew up in the last generation when smoking was no big deal.

When I was a child, most of the adults in my life smoked. I inhaled enough second-hand smoke to qualify as an infant, toddler, and elementary school smoker.

My first actual cigarette was given to me by the popular teenage babysitter from our neighborhood. She convinced me to steal a pack from my parents. After my little brother went to bed, she called her best friend, from our rotary phone, and invited her over to smoke the stolen cigarettes in the garage.

Although light-headed and nauseated, I was hooked on the group intrigue. I was either twelve or thirteen.

The public high school where I attended my first two years had a smoking area for teachers and students out in back of the cafeteria. Half my cross-country team and I would meet there to smoke before practice. Sometimes our coach would join us.

When I went to boarding school for junior and senior year, the smoking accommodations were upgraded. Each dorm had a smoking room in the basement so we could exercise our right to smoke Marlboro Lights and the pretentious clove cigarettes that we bought when we hitchhiked to Amherst.

In the winter, when the weather was bad, a teacher would organize a cigarette/junk food run into Greenfield – again, this was teacher sanctioned and organized.

I loved the smoke rooms. They were the most egalitarian places on campus. People freely shared cigarettes and conversation. Your social label didn’t matter. We passed around the well-used face book – that’s what it was actually called – that included each student’s ID picture along with grade and dorm information when the discussion needed a visual.

Today, Northfields Mount Hermon’s official policy on smoking reads as follows:  The use or possession of any tobacco/nicotine product by students is prohibited. Violations may result in disciplinary action and mandatory consultation with health services. Repeated use of tobacco will result in major disciplinary action.

Things have changed.

I went to college in New York City and all my friends smoked. Even non-smokers would light-up when they went out and during finals, the Olympics of Self Abuse. It was a badge of honor to log sleepless nights fueled by coffee, cigarettes, and Entenmann’s chocolate-covered donuts.

In the mid 80’s, personal computers were just beginning to be a thing but everyone still typed their own papers on typewriters. I have mild dyslexia and typing before spell check was a nightmare. I would pay my friend’s eccentric roommate, Delores, to type my papers. Along with cash, she required cigarettes, a couple of six-packs, and a listening ear to her monologues on life as payment, which meant long hours holed up in her dorm room smoking.

Unlike today, smoking was more social and every venue had a smoking area, even planes. We used to go to the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam and 110th street, smoke too many cigarettes and drink too much coffee, spinning us off into manic laughing fits and rapid fire conversation.

There is none of that in today’s coffee tech-caves. My favorite coffee shop in Austin is chocked full of hipster guys with beards and earbudded women slumped over computers.  They all look so serious and worried.

Nobody talks.

I apologize for sounding nostalgic about smoking, but it’s less about the act and more about remembering the camaraderie of long ago and friendships lost to time and distance.

I never was a consistent smoker. My habit would rise and fall.  By the time I graduated and moved to Austin, smoking was not cool anymore and the health risks were well understood. I was fortunate to be able to quit without a struggle, which is not usually the case.

My last cigarette was at twenty-six and I’ve never picked up another.

So this morning’s surprise smoking connection had me shaking my head. As I pulled away from the school, I thought of Lisa, took a long drag off my phantom cigarette, and drove off into my day.

5 thoughts on “Phantom Cigarette

  1. Love your post. Especially “The surprise connection with smoking.” Reminds me of:

    A writer cannot really grasp what he has written. It is not like a building or a sculpture; it cannot be seen whole. It is only a kind of smoke seized and printed on a page.

    ~ James Salter, Burning the Days: Recollection (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. 2011)

  2. Wonderful piece, Liddy!! I agree about the social interaction being a huge plus and remember actually looking forward to time with friends, holding a cig and a drink…. Those were the days…. What I remember about NFSG was a little different though – the “new rules” you shared used to apply when I was there, and one day, when a faculty member drove a group of us to Amherst, we stopped for coffee and cigarettes. When we returned to the dorm, we were informed that we had broken some sort of 11th commandment, and would heretofore not be allowed to use the senior sacred spaces,etc. I don’t remember the details, just the feeling of being punished for something I did with direct permission from a faculty person who herself smoked!! I believe it was at that time that I deepened into a non-trusting, non-conforming person who saw the world differently. Now it seems so petty and unimportant, but back then it hurt!

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