I’m now 36 years old. I’ve been a smoker for well over 20 years. No more. As I sit here, somewhat normalized with a 14mg nicotine patch on my arm and slight, but constant, feeling of annoyance I’ve become reminiscent of just how the hell I got here.
On a cold, very clear, and blustery day when I was 12, my friend Brett and I stole my mother’s Vantage Ultra Lights from her purse and high tailed it to Fort Tilden’s gun emplacements in which to smoke our catch of the day. Fort Tilden was chosen as it was at least 20 blocks from where I lived and had been more or less abandoned by the Park’s Service and the Army when it was realized that the Russians aren’t going to be sending battleships into NY harbor and its unlikely the Nike Hercules rockets that were kept there would ever be used as they would most probably iradiate most of the Tri-State area. There I was in a huge gun emplacement, literally a concrete church of high powered former 16 inch glory, never thinking that it would become a defining trait of mine, that there would be forever more a cigarette dangling from my lips and a greenish pallor to my skin, I gleefully lit up my first cigarette from the wrong damn end! Should have been a warning sign there, right? Yeah, 12 year old me was a bit of an ignorant schmuck..
So, having fished out another cigarette from the soft pack, I finally managed to get the thing to light up. And it was glori… who the fuck am I kidding, it was fucking horrible! I smoked it. I puked. I’m sure those of us that tried it remember the puking part clearly, those that don’t either have cast iron lungs or were born smoking. But, 12 year old badass I be, I saved the pack. Over the course of the next few days I’d sneak one in now again when I thought no one was looking. Garage working on my bike? Mom at the store? Lets light em up boys! Mom went in to the city for the night to be with boyfriend? Smoke ’em if you got em! Bike ride to Fort Tilden? Cancer stick a go go!
The math worked like this; We stole a full pack. There are 20 cigarettes to a pack with one lit from the wrong end and two others successfully smoked, leaving seventeen for me to “enjoy” at the pace of two a day for the next week or so. Then the unthinkable happened. I ran out. What to do, what to do? Ah, I know I’ll just go down to the local store and “buy” my mother a pack of smokes! See, where I grew up it was common for kids of a certain age to walk to the store for their parents to get whatever sundries they had forgotten at the supermarket. Milk, eggs, cheese, and yes even cigarettes, were purchased and brought back home, nothing shocking, nothing major.
12 year old Corey was unawares that smokers generally only smoke one brand, one type of that brand, and one flavor. My mother’s was Vantage Light’s 100’s, my wife’s (when she smoked) was Marlboro Light Kings.. and so on. I excused myself from the house to go to 129th street where all the shops are, arrived at Sand Harbor, Belle Harbor’s version of a 7/11, got a frozen Milky Way out of the stand up freezer and promptly asked for: “one pack of Marlboro Reds, please”, which got a very concerned look from the store’s owner. “Uh, Corey, did you mean Vantage Ultra Light 100’s for your Mom?”.
See? He was no dummy. 12 year old me was though: “No, uh, Patty smokes Marlboro Reds now, so I’ll just have the Marlboros, please”. What’s the guy do? He gives them to me and charges me the 2 bucks or whatever the price back then was.
Secure in the thought that I had gotten away with my clandestine purchase I sauntered all the way back to my house a few blocks away. Made it all the way through dinner that night before I just “had” to have a smoke! So, being the conscientious shit head I was, I stole an ashtray from the living room, and high tailed it up to my room to come to where the flavor was…
Not the very damn second I open the windows and light up, my mother barges in the room (a major breach of child smoking etiquette) and immediately informs me that 1. “‘You moron, don’t you know that I smoke Vantage! 2. You’re even dumber for not realizing they have telephones at Sand Harbor! They called me and told me you had bought Marlboros, idiot!!”
Caught. Red handed. Nowhere to go. Nothing to say. Simply busted. My mother had a mean temper and frankly I was mortally in abject fear of what was going to happen next. Which was a whole big stinking pile of nothing. Not an eyebrow raised. No yelling. No punishment. Nothing. All that was needed to right the wrong was to simply come downstairs and sit in the kitchen with your mother and have a cigarette. Since I was to be a big boy now, I shouldn’t hide my tobacco habit in the dark. Sure, she was disappointed, but what are you gonna do?, Kids grow up so fast these days…
Did I mention I was pretty dumb at that age? I go on downstairs for my first legally sanctioned smoke break and quickly find that I don’t have the willpower to light the thing and the more I delay, the higher my mother’s eyebrow gets on her forehead…normally the warning sign that bad shit is about to happen. I gave in and said I couldn’t do it. Fortunately, my mom was a highly skilled and practiced smoker. She had zero difficulty in lighting my Marlboros for me, one after the other… and rather green in the face I never smoked another for as long as I lived or about 2 years later..14 year old Corey turned out to be even less bright than 12 year old Corey. And so, 22 years later I’m on my 2 or 10th attempt to quit this year.
Over the past 22 years I’ve started to notice some things about my smoking: Forget about the chronic lack of breath, the stench on my clothes, the yellow stains on the teeth. All that shit you can probably survive with. Not happily to be sure, but you can get by. Then 14 years ago my grandfather died of lung cancer, True Blue Kings, leaving behind his wife, three children, his grandson, and 3 great grandchildren. Three years ago to the day of this post, my friend died of lung cancer, Merit Ultra Light 100s, leaving behind two granddaughters, his wife, his two kids and his friends that continue to grieve daily for the loss. Just this year another friend’s mom died of COPD brought on by a lifetime of smoking. I’m seemingly not getting any younger and the likelihood of dying a painful death is becoming more and more real to me. Made even clearer by the amount of black and grey stuff that I have been coughing up the past few weeks. I will die someday. It will happen. Cancer runs in the family, but, I’d like to hold off on that as long as possible. As Woody Allen said: “Its not that I’m afraid of Death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
C. Kleiman, Marlboro Red Kings, Ret. October 14, 2013
In memory of:
Richard Kleiman 1927 – 2000,
David Wehrheim 1953 – 2010