I smoked an average of twenty cigarettes a day from October 1994 to May 2007. I was not a person who smoked, I was a smoker. And I was all in. I’d had a total of three Zippos in my life, and I had a hip pocket devoted to pack and lighter (currently for the cell phone). I followed the lead of top intellectuals like Denis Leary and sang the praises of smoking. And while I became much less of an evangelical about tobacco after cancer took a beloved aunt, I still enjoyed it.
I tried quitting, but I never wanted to, so every attempt was a failure. Sure, they made you cough, and sure, if enough time passes without having one, you turn into the Incredible Hulk. Sure they turned my fingers and teeth yellow, and sure they were just pumping carcinogens into my lungs, I wanted to keep doing this. I was young. I was immortal.
I enjoyed the taste of the filter on my lips. I enjoyed the pageantry of lighting a cigarette. When I was in college, anybody I knew who had a Zippo pulled elaborate stunts with them to light a cigarette. Not me—I flicked open the lighter, ignited it, lit the cigarette, and flicked the lighter closed. It was out and back into my pocket in less than five seconds. According to some, my technique wasn’t necessarily the coolest, but it was up there. I enjoyed a cigarette in my hand. I wasn’t so much holding a cigarette, as much as the cigarette was an extension of my fingers.
I was the kind of person who would say things like, “You want a cautionary tale about smoking? I bring you George Burns.” (To my Hastings College contemporaries, substitute “Darryl Lloyd” for “George Burns.”) At the time of my being the most militant about smoking, I was no better than any Trump fan. Give me irrefutable proof that the tobacco corporations were breeding and cultivating the perfect piece of toxic waste to make you keep sticking toxic waste in your mouth until you died, and I’d make up excuses. I can’t remember any of the excuses because when I had my epiphany about them (several years after I quit), I purged every single positive thing I could say about big tobacco.
I didn’t quit smoking because of the horrible things it did to me. I found out about the horrible things it did to me because I quit. For example, I’ve never had a masculine musk, and I do sweat a lot, but in the middle of August with the A/C broken was Drakkar Noir compared to how I smelled as a smoker. You can’t smell yourself when you’ve caused permanent damage to the inside of your nose. When it grows back, and a smoker is nearby, you know it. You know it before the get within ten feet. It was a Doppler effect with smell. I smelled like that. All. The. Time. How could anyone stand to be around me? How were women ever attracted to me?
I have been a non-smoker for fifteen years. I can’t say I haven’t smoked in fifteen years because I’d had two cigarettes since, a little over ten years ago. They were both really horrible, and I have not wanted to go near one in the past twelve years. One of the cigarettes was a blatant attempt to start a conversation. It worked. Cigarettes used to be really good for that. I had a lot of friends whose relationship with me could withstand five-to-ten-minute bursts every hour, and that was about it. Smoking was a solitary or a social activity, depending on how you were feeling that day. There was something magical about that. I wanted to capture that.
I was full-on smoker when I created a number of my enduring characters, and as a result, many of them were full-on smokers—in the stories I wrote during that thirteen-year period of my life. In stories I’ve written about them since, they’d either quit, or I’d completely forgotten about the smoking thing. I wrote one story last year where I paid lip service to tobacco for continuity’s sake, but otherwise ignored it.
Smoking is intertwined through much of my early oeuvre, but it’s not crucial to the story. I only call attention to it as a set piece of something cool happening. (Girl puts a cigarette out in boy’s coffee. Boy, eyes on the girl, drinks the coffee.) I’ve started writing scripts set in the time period where most of these characters would have been smokers, and I’m choosing not to write the smoking. The way I see it, I have three choices.
One: I can add tobacco to the contemporary stories. It wouldn’t be hard because I’m still in the draft phase, and I’ll be going over them several more times.
Two: I can go back into the classic stories, some of which have been quasi-published, and strip the smoking out. That would mean removing non-essential but still fun scenes and exchanges. The boy meets the girl when he creeps out while bumming a cigarette from her. This is the most important relationship in this series of stories. So I’d have to completely rewrite it.
Three: Or, I could leave the smoking in the classic stories and not include it in the contemporaries. I don’t have to explain it. Let the smoking and non-smoking characters be alternate universes. Whatever. The important thing is, this requires the least effort. Why do I want to be giving this vile habit anymore thought than I’d already put into it?
The world is evolving, and I am there for it. Popular opinion has turned against tobacco, Homosexuals have the same marriage rights as the rest of us. You cannot function without a cell phone now. The creator of the most beloved contemporary series of children’s novels is currently on blast for being anti-trans. Dr. Oz is not Senator Oz. The legalization of cannabis in New Mexico kind of ruined the screenplay Shane and I wrote about the hunt for a vicious pot dealer on the Navajo Reservation. It took us days to figure out how to fix that.
There was a time, not that long ago, when public opinion was generally cool with cigarettes. I used to smoke in my dorm room. You could smoke while you were eating at restaurants. There were ashtrays in hospital waiting rooms. Can you imagine? That’s when these characters were born. And while some of these stories have been rewritten from the ground up (one twice), they are still a product of their time.
I am definitely going with option three, for nostalgia’s sake.