Song 69: Stuyvesant – “Dirty Looks”

November 1, 2020
Song #69: Stuyvesant – “Dirty Looks”

I started smoking when I was 15 years old.

It was easy. Both my parents were smokers. One morning I was getting picked up for school by a friend with a Corvette; I wanted to be cool and tough and so I grabbed one of my mom’s Vantage 100s, lit it, and waited in the driveway. The first one was tough to inhale, and by the end I was sick to my stomach, my hands shaking and my extremities tingling. The next one made my extremities tingle but no shaking, and so I kept going.

After a week of this I went to visit my father at his house for a weekend. He smoked Newports and left half-empty packs all over the place, so it was easy for me to steal one and bring it home. From that point on, I smoked Newport because they weren’t “lady cigarettes” like my mom’s.

By the time I went away to college I was a full-blown smoker; by the time I graduated it was a pack-a-day habit. I had switched to Marlboro Lights, thinking I was doing myself a favor, health-wise, by not smoking the heavy menthol Newports, but even then I treated cigarettes like I do pizza – loyal to one brand, but occasionally grabbing something different, just to change it up.

My freshman year in college there was a guy on my floor that we called “Vex,” because someone had figured out that “Vex” meant “to annoy,” and Vex annoyed everyone. Vex’s family owned a diner; when the diner went out of business he emptied the cigarette machine and brought a huge trash bag of cigarette packs to school, selling them for a dollar a pack. For a while, we all smoked buck-a-pack Marlboro Light, Marlboro Red, Parliament, Newport, and Camel. Eventually, we moved on to Winston and Kool and Parliament when the good stuff ran out. Soon, all that was left were the “Vex-rettes,” stale packs of Viceroy, Salem, L&M and Pall Mall, the shit nobody would buy. Vex could’ve thrown them out, but I think he liked the fact that desperate smokers would come knocking at his door at 2am, looking for a pack of Viceroy to get them through til morning when the student union would be open. Eventually he was giving them away; free, stale Pall Malls for anyone who was drunk enough to stomach them.

My first business trip was to San Diego; I met up with the guys from Silver Girl Records, a small label that some friends of mine were on. They took me to a restaurant in La Jolla for dinner and I was shocked to learn I couldn’t smoke inside – smokers actually had to stand outside the parking lot, by the road. But I did it.

I got a job as a Product Manager for a company in Westchester County where the owner and his wife smoked. Because they were smokers, employees could smoke in the building, during the day, while working. The office was so nasty-smelling that it was impossible to work there if you were a nonsmoker; eventually all the employees but a handful smoked. We’d have meetings, all sitting around the conference table in the executive suite, everyone with their own ashtray. I’d go home each day, reeking like stale cigarette but with no clue I smelled like that. I didn’t use the ashtray in my car, but there was always a soda bottle filled with ashes and butts in the cupholder. I’d use the same bottle until it was full, and occasionally would look at it and think “My lungs look like that.”

When we had kids, Sandy outlawed smoking in the house, so I’d go outside. All winter long, in the rain, in the snow, in the wind, standing outside, smoking cigarettes. Sometimes I’d be driving somewhere with the kids when they were babies, and I’d look in the rearview mirror and realize the kids were sleeping – so I’d carefully pull over into a parking lot and light up, sneaking drags while the kids slept.

As the kids got older I didn’t want them to see me smoking, so I stopped smoking at home. My daughter was a loving, snuggly kid who didn’t like to be alone, so at bedtime she’d ask for one of my shirts. Every night she’d fall asleep clutching a t-shirt, “because it smells like you,” a blend of deodorant and smoke that she couldn’t identify but brought her comfort.

By the time my oldest was a teenager I had limited my smoking to the ride to and from work, plus my time at the office. I bathed in Purell and ate Listerine Pocket Packs like they were peanuts to try and get the smell off me before I got home; by the time the kids were that age, they could surely identify the smell of cigarettes and I did not want them to know I was a smoker. I’d read that you’re entirely more likely to pick up smoking as a teenager if one or more of your parents smoke, and my own anecdotal evidence supported that, and so I continued to hide it from them.

By then I was playing basketball once a week, coaching youth baseball three seasons a year, and cycling somewhere between 50 and 80 miles a week. On the bike, hills killed me – my legs were generally strong enough to pull me up, but my lungs couldn’t take it. I’d shift into harder gears to transfer more of the work to my legs, but then my legs would run out of steam.

There was this one hill in particular where I just couldn’t drag myself up to the peak. I’d get two-thirds of the way up, heaving and gasping for air, and would have to pull over and catch my breath. It was immensely aggravating, and at that point, also a huge challenge that I just could not seem to accomplish.

One day, I took the day off work, and late that afternoon, went out on a bike ride – and made it up the hill. The only difference between that day and any other day was that I hadn’t smoked that day.

And that’s when I decided it was time to quit smoking.

At first, I thought the “cut way back” method was the best way – to hardly smoke at all, but also to not succumb to the nicotine fits. If I was cranky, or headachy, or shaky, I’d step outside and smoke a cigarette. Or half a cigarette. If I was drinking, I’d smoke.

But then I noticed my business partner. Before I consciously started cutting back, we’d go outside a few times a day together and have a cigarette. When I stopped smoking as much, he’d go without me – and when he’d come back into the office, I could smell him. He reeked. I could smell him from 20 feet away, if he walked past my office into his, the rush of air would hit me and I’d think “Holy shit, did I smell like that?!”

I ran out of cigarettes in early October of 2010 and decided I’d try not to buy anymore. On October 22, we did a show at Maxwell’s that I’ve written about – with Stuyvesant, The Mommyheads, Jenifer Convertible and Shirk Circus, for that year’s CMJ convention. Twice that night, I bummed a cigarette from Lenny Zenith of Jenifer Convertible. Then I went another week with no smokes.

On October 30, my friend Kieran had his annual Halloween party. Sandy and I went to the party, and at some point during the night, he and I stepped outside and I bummed a cigarette. I lit it up, smoked half of it, and said “What am I doing? I’ve gone a whole week with no cigarettes.” I dropped the half-smoked cigarette into my empty beer bottle, and that was it.

That was the last cigarette I smoked.

I read somewhere that it takes ten years after quitting for your body to get back to normal after being a smoker. It was one of those articles that gave you different milestones – after 30 days, the cilia in your lungs starts to break free of the tar. After six months, the deformed cells in your body start to repair themselves. That sort of thing. It felt like ten years would never happen, like I’d certainly turn into some gross, smoky mutant before then.

But here we are. Ten years, no cigarettes. The anniversary was yesterday.

Of course I gained a fuckton of weight, but I’ll deal with that over the next ten years.

~ by Al on November 1, 2020.

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