Having spent the last eighteen minutes outside wishing my fifteen minute break were longer, I return to the basement of my office building at the corner of Yuppie Street and Privilege Way. Luckily, my coworkers are nowhere to be found. This allows me a brief moment to freshen up —not because I smell like B.O. (although I do sweat worse than a sixteen year old boy driving high on weed when a cop pulls up in the next lane) —I smell like something else. Something more noxious and, despite usually covered up well with BANG by Marc Jacobs cologne, it is the smell of ridicule and condemnation. Sss-sss. The sexual, peppery scent fills the room and my nostrils. My colleague Oxana enters the room just in time, once again rewarding my choice of fragrance with a compliment. As I type in the password to unlock the iMac at my workstation, Oxana sits down at her desk next to mine and begins writing frantically on a Post-It note. A few seconds later, a hand emerges in my peripheral, sticking a yellow square with pink writing on the wall next to me. “786 minutes 😡 “. I peek around the corner to look at Oxana, her smirk reminding me that she, as a mother of two children herself, is only looking out for me. “Thank you, Oxana. I’ll buy you some soon for being so caring”I say, sarcastically. She looks at me with distaste and snaps back, “If you do that, I will shove them all down your throat.”786 minutes. Divided by six minutes taken off my life per unit (Oxana’s personal assumption, which she assures is proven scientific data) equals 131 cigarettes smoked since I started again a few months ago. And those are just the ones she knows about.
I smoked my first cigarette at age four. My single mother, working day and night to support her two children, often left us home alone, where mischief undoubtedly ensued. Although we were always punished for our misdeeds when caught, there were often times we got away with murder. This, of course, rendered us in our young minds as invincible. The first puff started on our front porch. Erin and Terry, brothers who lived around the corner, sat outside waiting impatiently for Kira (my sister) and I to return with the goodies. We scoured every ashtray, every nook and cranny, to find cigarette butts that still had a few good hits left. After finding two, we returned to the porch where our friends immediately jumped up, saying, “Hell yeah!”Two four year olds, two six year olds, and two half-smoked cigarettes. A parent’s dream!
I continued smoking sporadically until age twelve, taking my mother’s half-smoked butts from ashtrays or standing on the side of 7/11 asking strangers to buy me a pack. Not once did anyone turn down an offer, knowing they would make a few extra dollars in the transaction. More often than not after each transaction, the now-criminals would ask, “How old are you, kid?”I always answered in the same manner, cooly, smugly, “Not old enough to buy cigarettes.”The concept of “smoking-to-be-cool”was my incentive, looking to fit in with the older kids who criticized my feminine nature, as well as my failure to “act black”in order to fulfill the stereotype expected of someone with brown skin. Despite my future goals of excelling in academia and one day attending Harvard Law School, there was something refreshing and exhilarating about hanging out with hoodlums who didn’t share my aspirations. My association with this confused, troubled group of kids never hijacked my ambitions of prosperity and success. I knew our actions were “against the rules”, but why? Phrases from my mother’s lips such as “gateway to other bad things”and “destroy your future”come to mind —she was only 99% correct.
I cannot deny the fact that people with whom I associate —peers, colleagues, family, etc. —influence my thoughts, behaviors, and perception of the human psyche. The first time I tried cocaine, I was attending a party hosted by close friends a few years back. I have since tried the drug only once, as my perception of its heavy users and abusers is that they lack goals and ambitions for a healthy, successful future. I have not seen or heard from those older children with whom I used to smoke for quite some time. Most of them remained confined within that small town in Indiana, having children with their “true loves”, not attending college or, quite horribly, being killed by gang violence. My mother’s fear of smoking cigarettes leading me down the same path as these other children was valid and understandable, since my sister, two years my senior, took a similar path of the other children. Yet, what my mother didn’t know, nor did I understand at the time, was that I smoked to avoid further ridicule from people I feared. As a “white-acting”mixed boy with flamboyant tendencies, my white flags came in quantities of twenty per box at a rate of $2.50 per pack.
I didn’t touch a cigarette between ages twelve and sixteen. Some of those kids with who I previously associated moved away. Others made new friends. It was a blessing, really, as I truly hated the taste and smell of cigarettes, as well as the accompanying memories they triggered. My reintroduction to them occurred as a sick twist of fate. Before coming out as gay, a boy I found attractive convinced me I could buy him a pack of cigarettes without being carded because I looked older than sixteen. He was right; it worked on my first attempt, prompting me to smoke a victory cigarette with this hot hunk of teenage influence. Despite being older and having a better grasp of the decisions I made, here I was again, doing something outside my own norm to be accepted by a peer. I recently saw this person in San Francisco, where he now resides. After quitting the habit nine months ago and picking it back up again recently (UGH!), I remind my friend, still not out of the closet at age twenty-five, that his good looks and charm have cost me thousands of dollars over the last nine years. “I’ll repay you by giving you cigarettes each time you come visit.”Thanks, fucker.
It is undoubtedly difficult for a non-smoker to grasp any sort of benefit from smoking cigarettes. The story I just laid out for you, coupled with the known health risks of smoke inhalation, stained teeth, and the $12/pack price in Chicago, certainly do not scream “beneficial!”But think: how often do you spend money on processed, high-fat, non-organic, artery clogging food? A few times a week? Your daily Mocha Cookie Crumble Frappucino® addiction costs over $2,000 a year, which, by the time you retire, could be a fully loaded Audi A6 TDI (my dream car, by the way.) Alcohol. Showering too often. Antiperspirant. Jogging. Looking at a bright computer or phone screen before bed. Like smoking, all of these things are believed by some to have severe health risks. So why, then, would anyone consciously do harm to their bodies? It is simple: to look good…to smell good…to see what your Instagram friends and crushes are doing at 3AM. Social interaction and acceptance are important forms of sustenance we sometimes overlook when we do or don’t do (or, criticize others for doing or not doing) certain things. We grab a drink or a bite to eat on a first date, or with friends after a long day at work. We shower right before our Grindr hookup arrives to alleviate the always-lingering scrotum smell beneath our Calvin Kleins. We lift, stretch, and tear our bodies at the gym to attract attention on the beach or in photographs. We are addicted to this routine because we crave a look…a conversation…a kiss. Many self-identified “non-smokers”admit to smoking cigarettes “when they’re drunk.”Indeed, after dancing away for hours in a club, I’ll head outside to light up, finding other smokers with whom to converse. In fact, asking (or being asked) for a lighter or cigarette almost always prompts pleasant, intelligent, and/or valuable conversations. Some of my current friendships are a result of venturing outside an establishment (a movie, concert, restaurant, etc.) to smoke a cigarette. While seeing Disclosure at the Lincoln Park Zoo this past June, a man I would have typically overlooked asked me for a cigarette. Handsome (and seemingly straight), I obliged. Two hours later, he met me at a club in Boystown. After two hours of dancing and drinking, the next thing I knew I was inside of him, in my bed, in my apartment. Had it not been for my smoking vice or his vice of inebriated courage, I would not have met this gorgeous man. Furthermore, I would not have performed the random sexual act to which I have been struggling to open myself up more often. I really thought he was straight, the trickster!
I cannot eloquently analogize my smoking, your drinking/jogging/use of antiperspirants, or any other practice in order to alleviate their negative associations or portray their perks as more impactful on life experience than their risks. After all is said and done, we act in a manner that works best for us in the moment. I am going to mask bad smells with showers and Mitchum. I will accept a drink from a handsome fellow at a bar. I will join my colleagues for a cigarette on our fifteen-minute break. Life, in its temporality, must be enjoyed now. Whether I die in my fifties or nineties, I would prefer to remember myself as young, fun, and social —not old, listless, and alone. “I think when you’re young you should be a lot with yourself and your sufferings. Then one day you get out where the sun shines and the rain rains and the snow snows and it all comes together.”- Diana Vreeland.