I’m often asked by different people if I’ve ever smoked, i.e. doctors, dentists, optometrists, insurance people and a Walmart greeter. (I think the greeter was just being nosey.) The truth is I smoked for a little over a year starting when I was eighteen. By the time I was twenty, I was no longer smoking, but I was chewing snuff, the original nicotine gum. As is often the case, the cure was worse than the disease. I chewed tobacco far longer than I smoked, until one day I realized I didn’t even like the taste of tobacco. I had never ordered tobacco-flavored ice cream from Baskin Robbins or sprinkled tobacco over meatloaf to enhance its flavor. The only reason I was chewing tobacco was to get rid of the nicotine urge that plagued me. After a time it occurred to me—genius that I am—that if I stopped chewing, the nicotine urge would eventually go away, and I wouldn’t have to put up with a taste in my mouth I didn’t even like.
I’ve been tobacco-free for years now. I can’t even remember exactly when I stopped, although at my age it could have been yesterday. But I know I never paid a buck a can for Copenhagen, and I spent twenty-six years in law enforcement without chewing, so it’s been a few decades at least.
When I was young, I once lived in an apartment with three smokers. It was a short term thing. We all knew we would be moving out in six months. The only guy I knew before I moved in I’ll call Abe. Abe had put the whole thing together and had invited the other two, Dawg and Pinkie—don’t worry about Pinkie; he’s not important to the story. If we had been four women, there would have been about a hundred and twenty-three different apartment rules, and that would just be for the bathroom. There would be silly things like: take off your shoes at the door; don’t fart in the living room; flush the toilet every time you use it; don’t use someone else’s toothbrush to clean out the toe jam on your feet …
The women would go grocery shopping and sit down with a calculator to make sure each woman paid the same amount for everything. We threw some money in a pot at the beginning of each month for food. If it ran out, you were on your own. We only had two rules: Don’t burn the place down, and no alcohol allowed in the apartment. Abe was a recovering alcoholic, and he thought his fragile sobriety would be better protected if he didn’t have to be tempted by twelve cases of beer beckoning to him every time he opened the refrigerator door. The rules didn’t bother me. I’ve never been a pyromaniac or a booze hound. Dawg on the other hand was an un-recovering alcoholic. It became clear within the first couple days that Abe had asked Dawg to live with us so he could put him on the straight and narrow.
After a couple weeks of nagging, Abe finally talked Dawg into going to an AA meeting with him. I was sitting on the couch watching TV when Dawg walked into the apartment.
“How’d the meeting go?” I asked.
Dawg looked at me with wide eyes and an absolutely stunned face. “They expect me to stop drinking … FOREVER!”
It was the last meeting Dawg went to and by the end of the six months, he was hiding a bottle in his room where he would go every now and then to have another swallow or two. They say to give something up, you have to want to. Dawg wasn’t close enough to Want-to to hit it with a sniper’s rifle.
In case you’ve forgotten—I know I did for a little bit—this is about smoking. All three of my roommates smoked and I did not. This was a time when people could still smoke indoors, and our apartment was normally filled with a thick cloud of blue smoke that sometimes made it hard to see the TV, the other people in the room and whatever was on my plate that I happened to be eating. Which since we cooked our own meals was probably a good thing. New research has shown that secondhand smoke isn’t nearly the danger they once thought it was, but there were times after sitting in the blue cloud for a few hours that my lungs would hurt.
I often wondered why the smoke detector didn’t go off, until one day I tested it, and it didn’t work. Dawg said it had been constantly chirping so he pulled the battery out. I guess we were okay because we had the rule about not burning down the apartment.