The real dope about smoking

Kevin Cowherd

December 09, 1992|By Kevin Cowherd

People who have never smoked can't appreciate the simple pleasures associated with cigarettes.

The choking cough, the constant shortness of breath, the nicotine-stained fingers, the overpowering smell of a chimney that follows you everywhere . . . you people have missed all that.

I feel sorry for you. I really do.

As an ex-smoker, though, I find I have far more empathy for smokers than for the fresh-air extremists, those whiny, holier-than-thou members of the Health Gestapo who make a big show of coughing if someone lights up within a city block of where they're standing.

Unlike a lot of people, I did not start smoking by succumbing to peer pressure in high school.

In fact, I remember the time in ninth grade that a bunch of us were hanging out in the school parking lot.

Suddenly Sal Marelli -- who was on the fast track to a dank cell at Leavenworth even then -- whipped out a pack of Marlboros and offered one to me.

"You're not chicken, are you?" he said.

"No, it's just that . . ."

"It's just WHAT?!"

"Well, I'm on heroin. Cigarettes are kid stuff."

Then I pretended to nod off for a minute. When I came to, I started scratching my neck nervously and asked if anybody wanted to buy my watch, 'cause I really needed the money bad.

After that, the kids pretty much left me alone about cigarettes -- and everything else, for that matter. (Look, I'm not saying it's right to pretend you're a junkie. It just worked for me, that's all.)

In any event, I didn't start smoking until my sophomore year in college, and then for the silliest of all reasons.

One night my roommate and I were pulling an all-nighter studying for some big exam.

By 3 in the morning, I could hardly keep my eyes open -- even though I had about 71 cups of coffee under my belt and two of these little white "diet" pills.

But I noticed that my roommate, who was smoking one cigarette after another, seemed remarkably alert.

"Do those keep you awake?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said. "Help yourself."

So before someone could whack me over the head and bring me to my senses, I fired up one of his Salems. After one puff, I started choking violently.

"Boy, this is great!" I said.

Then I took a few more puffs and got dizzy and nauseous.

"Just (cough) wish I'd started sooner."

But that's how some people get started smoking -- stupid people, anyway.

As I recall, we stayed up until 6, smoking our brains out and studying. I did real well on the test, but two months later I was up to a pack a day and could barely run 20 yards without passing out.

What gets me is when people who have never smoked walk up to smokers and, with the wide-eyed look of the truly feeble-minded, say: "Why don't you just quit?"

As if it were that easy. I eventually quit the way most people quit: by gaining 15 pounds, becoming tense and irritable, and screaming at everyone around me.

Look, I know a guy -- this is a true story -- who went for a complete physical two years ago.

The doctor said: "You have the beginnings of emphysema. If you don't stop smoking, you'll be carrying an oxygen tank by the time you're 40."

So the guy vowed to quit smoking. He went out and bought the nicotine gum. The vow lasted exactly three weeks.

This spring the guy went back for his annual checkup. And this time the doctor said: "Congratulations. You now have full-blown emphysema. You're a jerk. Get out of my office."

Well, this really freaked the guy out. I mean, emphysema. That's pretty serious. So he vowed again to stop smoking. This time he bought that patch.

By June, he was smoking again. Yes, he is a jerk. Cigarettes do that to people.

As it is, smokers have become the new lepers of modern society. You see them huddled outside office buildings, taking a few furtive puffs before hurrying back inside to join their non-smoking colleagues, who tend to view them with a mixture of amusement and contempt.

In the building where I work, smoking is allowed only in certain designated areas. One of these is the fifth-floor men's room. You walk in there and a cloud of smoke smacks you in the face. Stumbling through the haze, you're treated to this Dante-esque vision of a few poor souls puffing furiously on cigarettes while all around them, other men are relieving themselves.

Say, that'll really make a smoker feel good about his habit, huh? What's the matter, isn't there any room next to the furnace for these poor slobs?

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