I started smoking when I was about six years old.
My grandfather, Sam Adler, would frequently come to visit us on weekends from his brownstone home on Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn. He’d sit comfortably in a chair as he assumed the coveted role of unpaid babysitter.
Grandpa was, perhaps, the best babysitter in the world. He would play cards (usually Casino or War) with me for hours. For some reason I never seemed to lose a game of checkers when playing against him.
In addition to the games, he would core and peel apples for me on demand. I don’t know why. I probably didn’t eat an unpeeled apple until I was a teenager.
Together, we would watch Lawrence Welk. (Hey, my Grandfather was Polish.) My favorite part was when two or three of them played their accordions—one was a tall blonde lady; I probably had a crush on her, but didn’t know yet what a crush was. Sadly, my mother would never let us “roll up the carpet” for dancing as Lawrence advised. (We had wall-to-wall carpeting.)
But the coolest thing my grandfather did was to take a metal cigarette case from an inside pocket of his dark blue, pinstriped, double-breasted suit jacket, insert an unfiltered Camel into an ancient amber cigarette holder, and light up. He had barely put it all together before I was there at his side.
“Can I have a puff?” He would hand the setup over to me and I’d suck the smoke into my mouth and blow it out. I never asked for more than one puff—that was enough.
In the 1950s most everyone smoked. They were smoking on TV, in the movies (and in movie theaters), in their living rooms, during every meal, on planes and trains, in bed—everywhere. And why not? According to both television and real doctors, smoking improved your breathing capacity and settled your nerves. It was sexy, and was often paired with sexual intrigue. Cigarette girls in short skirts famously carried their trays in night clubs and on movie screens.
As I recall, free packs of cigarettes were distributed to American GIs and even included as part of their food rations. Many World War II movies featured a mortally wounded soldier in a trench asking his buddy for a cigarette, often with his last dying breath. It’s no wonder that returning GIs all smoked (rates of smoking had tripled during the war). A pack of unfiltered cigarettes in those days cost 20 or 25 cents—or even less if you bought a carton. No one thought of it as addictive; it was just a thing you did.
My father was a smoker for a time. But at some point, when I was a young boy, he developed a cough and his doctor made some mild suggestion like, “Maybe you should quit smoking.” He quit cold and never smoked another cigarette for the rest of his life. That’s the kind of man my father was, and there’s a little bit of that behavior in myself, as you’ll soon see.
A skillful card player, my dad played pinochle and bridge during his Long Island Railroad commute five days a week. This necessitated him sitting in one of the smoking cars. In the winter, the men wore their fedoras and long overcoats on the poorly heated cars during the 50 to 60 minute commute to or from the New York City, and that’s why my father’s clothes always reeked of tobacco even though he himself didn’t smoke. When I would occasionally accompany him to his office in Manhattan, I was the innocent beneficiary of the second-hand smoke. Like other things in life, I didn’t like it—hell, I could hardly breathe; but I endured it.
In the early sixties, as I entered my teenage years, smoking was still cool, and if you wanted to look cool yourself, you smoked. I owned a genuine Zippo lighter and would carry it everywhere. Often one of my friends and I would walk down the sidewalks of our suburban neighborhood with cigarettes in our hands, displaying our rock & roll haircuts and other fashions of the day. On weekends my friend Ronnie and I would often go to an air-conditioned movie for an early show to escape the hot summer day. We’d light up and no one would bother us—it was permitted.
Often, when I’d come home from high school, my mother would be sitting at the kitchen table with her friend Frieda, each smoking Kents as they talked about whatever stay-at-home wives talked about—probably either sex or the lack of it.
Frieda was a tall woman. One time I asked my mom how I could get taller and she said, “Ask Frieda.” When I did, she took a long drag, slowly blew out the smoke, and shared with me the magic formula for attaining tallness: “Cheese. Eat a lot of cheese.” And I did. For about a week. Getting taller was just taking too long.
Ironically, my mother never smoked otherwise. And, unlike Frieda, she never inhaled.
And neither did I. Why would I want to do that? I could never understand what benefit my friends got from their constant smoking. Two of my good friends from high school, Roger and Jim, each died in their fifties. To this day I still regret the carton of Marlboros I gave Roger one year as a Christmas present. (Once I asked Jim why he smoked and he told me he liked the taste. But that’s how Jim was.)
Then there were the cigars. Could any young boy imagine anything more sophisticated, suave, and macho than smoking a cigar? (Think George Burns, or Danny DeVito. Groucho Marx! I rest my case.) Frieda’s husband, Fred, was never seen without a cigar in his hand. And although there’s no proof that he actually uttered the statement, I still like to believe that Sigmund Freud, rarely photographed without a cigar in his hand, once remarked, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
My own favorite cigar, of course, was Romeo y Julieta. The box was a work of art, and even then I was an incurable romantic.
Thanks to a scam, I once got a box for free. One of my friends suggested that if you write to the cigar company complaining about a box of stale or damaged cigars, they’d send you a new box. I wrote and they did!
There I was, sixteen years old, with a box of premiere cigars and nowhere to go. I gave cigars to all my friends with the comment, “It’s a boy!” (No one ever refuses a free cigar.) And, of course, an empty cigar box has a million uses. I remember sitting and smoking a cigar with my friend Neal in his black 1949 Cadillac (I believe he paid 50 dollars for that car). At the time, we were parked on the driveway of his mother’s house. After an hour we could barely see each other through the haze. It seemed fun at the time.
In 1964, I went away to college in Boston. Being a college freshman, I felt obligated to buy a pipe. And then there were the necessary pipe accessories—a humidor, pipe tools, cleaning supplies, and loose tobacco purchased at a smoke shop in Copley Square whose smell I can still recall. I even had my initials engraved on the small brass inlay of the wooden humidor. It was a really great setup, but the nausea was even greater. I’m sad to say I was a failure as a pipe smoker.
Due to a serious illness (not smoking related), I missed my second year of college. When I returned to school a year and a half later I rented a studio apartment in a small building overlooking Commonwealth Avenue. My neighbor Steve, whose roommate had recently died in a tragic car accident, became a good friend, and we would often eat dinner together. A couple of months after his roommate’s death, Steve started looking for someone to share his apartment and the rent. Enter Pete, a genuine hippie. He had long hair and some interesting friends who always seemed to be laughing about inappropriate things, especially after short trips to the roof.
One evening Steve and I questioned him directly about what was going on. That was the first night I got stoned. It was also the first night that I inhaled, which I had to quickly learn how to do.
I am both embarrassed and proud to say I stayed high for the next six years. During this time I graduated from college, got married, moved from Boston to California, enrolled in science and math classes so that I could gain entrance to an optometry graduate program, and was accepted to one of the top universities in the country.
I really loved smoking dope. For me, it was the most wonderful and perfect escape.
But one April night in 1973 it all came crashing down. I’d had another argument with my then-wife and reacted as I normally did by escaping to my study with a joint. But during this particular moment, a light bulb went on in my head, and I realized this could not continue. How long could I continue to seek escape from the reality that was my life?
By fate or coincidence, I was then enrolled in a class at Cal called Drug Use and Abuse, and something compelled me to call the professor, thinking that he might help me during this personal crisis. His name was Hardin B. Jones and he was listed in the telephone book. At nine o’clock on a Friday night I called and his wife answered the phone. I explained that I was one of Professor Jones’s students and I needed his help. She called him to the phone. He was gracious, calm, and non-judgmental as he talked me down from my anxiety and explained that every time he taught the class several students would approach him, often in a crisis. His words did help.
His online obituary features this paragraph:
In his contacts with students Jones became aware of an increasing indulgence in hallucinatory drugs. The contradiction between scholarly pursuits and mental abuse by drugs troubled him and led to an exhaustive study of the drug question and the characteristics of users of sensual drugs worldwide. A course of instruction he developed on the use and abuse of drugs proved extremely popular.
I’d obviously chosen the right guy to call. I never smoked dope again. (Years later I stopped drinking.)
A few other smoking-related incidents come to mind.
While driving through Ojai, I dropped in to see the dean of the optometry school. Monroe Hirsch was an erudite and self-possessed character with whom I had a love-hate relationship. The dean offered to guide me around the Ojai Valley if I would drive—his wife was using the car. I got into the driver’s seat of my 1961 Volkswagen Beetle and noticed as he folded himself into the passenger seat that he was still smoking his cigar.
I held my breath—literally and figuratively, and gave him the news.
“I’m sorry, Dean Hirsch. You can’t smoke in my car.” Those very words.
He gave me a look, took one more puff, and threw the cigar out the window.
“Can we go now?”
“Absolutely. Once you fasten your seatbelt.”
He grumbled, fastened the belt, and saved his payback for a couple of years later. (All I can say is that I wasn’t sure I’d be graduating up until the final week of classes.)
The second incident was when I was one of four guys in a car driven by my cousin Eddie (not to be confused with the Crazy Eddie). I was in the back seat next to the driver’s side door. While he was tooling down an L.A. freeway he lit a cigarette.
“Eddie, don’t smoke while I’m in the car.” I’m three years older than my cousin, in case that matters.
“Oh. Sorry, Bobby. I’ll just open the window,” which he did.
“No, Ed. You can’t smoke while I’m in the car.”
“Look! My arm is out the window! You can’t smell it.”
“Eddie, pull over.” We were in the left lane and driving at least 55 mph.
“I can’t pull over. We’re on the freeway.”
“Pull over,” I said, as I opened the back door.
The other two guys in the car started to freak out and began to plead with him.
“All right, all right!” He threw the cigarette out the window, and I closed my door.
That was the night we visited Club Lingerie. But that’s another story.
I also recall a strange evening I spent with my high school friend, Ron, who was visiting me in Berkeley during a year I was separated from my ex-wife. It had been a particularly stressful time. Ron and I, who’d known each other since we were 14, decided to go on an eating frenzy. We started with Mexican food, moved on to a Chinese restaurant, and then hit a joint in Berkeley (Kip’s) for pizza and beer. I’d been bitching and moaning the entire evening.
Ron, who was smoking in those days, tried to calm me down, saying, “Here, buddy, have a cigarette.” I took one, and he lit it. I still didn’t inhale, but took a few stupid puffs of the damned thing as we walked to the men’s room on our way out.
When I started to flush I had a thought. As Ron watched me, I threw my cigarette butt into the urinal.
I turned to him. “I’ve always wanted to do that!”
He laughed. “Feels good, doesn’t it?”
It did, and I don’t really know why.
In 1976, I graduated from the Optometry School at Berkeley and accepted a job in Maryland where I would be directing a technician program at Howard Community College (in Howard County) and seeing patients at the Optometric Center of Maryland in Baltimore. At the time there were only about 225 licensed optometrists practicing in Maryland. The folks running the Maryland Optometric Association, recognizing me as an “educator,” quickly appointed me the Director of Continuing Education for the MOA. This was a brilliant decision for them and a mixed blessing for me.
In anticipation of the first Continuing Education event I organized, I announced to the doctors on the MOA Board of Directors that there would be a strict no-smoking policy during the lectures. They went berserk. This idea was obviously a travesty and an injustice. The most ardent of those objecting were, themselves, non-smokers.
One of these esteemed doctors actually suggested, “How about if we make one side of the room smoking and the other side non-smoking?” Brilliant.
“No,” I said, simply. “If someone needs to smoke that badly, they can leave the room.” I think they realized that I would quit over this issue, so they backed off. Somehow, the doctors survived the educational programs smoke-free, and a fair number of braver souls congratulated me on instituting this new policy. The MOA also started to make a lot of money thanks to my changes in curriculum and promotional efforts. I guess money spoke louder than smoke.
The college where I taught required us to have a community service element to our teaching position, so I joined the nascent Group Against Smokers’ Pollution (aka GASP). The group soon introduced some radical “No-Smoking in Public Places” legislation, and the battle began. At one point a number of us picketed the county courthouse in favor of the upcoming bill. I carried a sign that said, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Our photo made it into the local newspaper and my sign looked great!
At the hearing held by the County prior to the vote, I was one of a number of expert witnesses, and had put together some scientific-sounding testimony about cigarette smoke and irritation of the conjunctival layers of the eye. It went okay.
But the best line of the hearing followed our opponents’ statement reminding those present that “Maryland has had a rich history as a tobacco-growing state.” The next witness was from our side.
“Yes, it is very true that Maryland has had a long and rich history as a tobacco-growing state. I might also remind you that Maryland has a memorable history as a slave state.”
The courtroom went nuts with applause.
The non-smoking ordinance soon passed, and a few days afterwards, on the occasion of our wedding anniversary, my then-wife and I made reservations for dinner at the best restaurant in Columbia.
“Can you please seat us at a non-smoking table?” I asked the hostess, who had our reservation.
“Certainly, doctor!” And she did.
As our main course was delivered to us, another restaurant employee seated a large group of people at the table next to ours. As he did, he deftly removed the no-smoking signs from the table and replaced them with ashtrays. When some people in the party sat and lit up, I saw red, and angrily approached the restaurant manager. The argument proceeded with me telling him that he should move the other patrons because we had just received our food. His response was that he would be happy to move us. Even though it was our anniversary, I wanted to leave. Unfortunately, I was not supported in this effort by my wife, and I had to endure the embarrassment of losing this battle. I can still feel the pain to this day.
Of course, things are different now. You can no longer smoke on airplanes or in most public places, especially in California. I know hardly anyone who smokes, and those who do tend to be sensitive to non-smokers.
Sadly, many foreign countries have yet to get the message, so tobacco growers and cigarette manufacturers haven’t totally lost their market. I remember a long-ago trip to Paris, and they hadn’t even heard of a “No Smoking” section. A few years later, this same restaurant found a non-smoking table for us, surrounded, of course, by smokers. Several years after that, we returned and there was, indeed, half of a room set aside.
Today, as we confront the proliferation of the cannabis and vaping industry, for me the irony is palpable. But I’m too old to worry about all this. On more than one occasion when the subject has come up, I’ve told people in their thirties and forties that “I stopped smoking dope before you were born.”
Over a lifetime I discovered that not smoking cigarettes or grass and not drinking alcohol can often be as problematic as partaking. Imagine parties or other social events where you are the only one not drinking or smoking or being otherwise stupid. In my thirties I began to have this experience frequently. (There was at least one woman who refused to have sex with me because I wouldn’t share a joint with her.) I guess you just have to choose your poison and pay the consequences.
While my mind is clearer than ever, I can tell you that it is a great burden to be sober all the time. Some might say it’s my cross to bear. Mostly I can handle it.