The Lonely Life Of A Hard-core Smoker

April 03, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

You are a smoker, and you think you have it tough.

For a few precious drags on a cigarette you will leave your office, march down to the street, light up, and then try to beat the clock and the elements.

In restaurants, you always get the worst tables, the ones with the views of the rest rooms.

At house parties, you are shunted to the porch.

At the beach, you are yelled at by the young and upwardly mobile who bemoan the ills of secondhand smoke while their skin molts in the sun.

But you have it easy.

Meet Craig Swanson. Teacher. Role model. Smoker.

He is 47, compact and trim, with thinning hair, a mustache and goatee, and a quick, high-pitched laugh. He is one of 46 million adult Americans who smoke. He is also a biology instructor at the Gilman School, a seat of academic prestige and excellence along Roland Avenue in North Baltimore. Of course, he knows better. But he is addicted.

So he hears the little taunts from the other teachers who have kicked the habit. And he patiently obeys the school's 4-year-old no-smoking-on-campus rules. Well, he obeys most of the time.

And, in the last will and testament the Gilman Class of 1993 published in its yearbook, some of his favorite students thoughtfully passed on to him a part of the human anatomy. "They willed me another lung," he said.

This is what it is like for one man to smoke in America in 1994. Follow the mild-mannered Mr. Swanson around for a day, through clandestine smoking sessions in parking lots and on long, long cigarette-filled walks along Roland Avenue, and you begin to have an understanding of the smoker's life.

It's not that it's no longer cool to light up in public -- it's almost illegal.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is considering a ban on smoking in the workplace.

The Food and Drug Administration is mulling a proposal to reclassify cigarettes with nicotine as an addictive substance. What's next, Lucky Strike prescriptions?

And then there is the tax proposal. Try $1.25 a pack, a congressional suggestion for a giant life raft for the Clinton health care initiative.

But that's Washington stuff.

'They taste like garbage'

In Baltimore, Mr. Swanson has other things on his mind.

Like cigarettes.

He wants one, and he wants it now.

He smokes in his car. And grades papers.

He smokes on the street. And gossips with fellow smokers.

"Actually, the cigarettes, they taste like garbage," Mr. Swanson said. "But once in a while, they taste really good."

He's a pack-and-half-a-day man. Merit is his brand. Smoking is part of his routine.

He could easily walk to his job since he lives in a townhouse on the Gilman campus. But no. Each and every school day he awakens at 6 a.m., showers, dresses, gets in his car -- a 1989 Toyota Tercel, that, to be honest, smells like the bottom of an ashtray -- takes out a cigarette and smokes. And then he drives to a dairy store to pick up a pack of cigarettes and a cup of coffee.

"I could come back to school the short way, too," he said. "But I don't. I go down Falls Road, up Cold Spring, and then back up Roland. So I can have another cigarette."

Another cigarette.

His day isn't timed in periods -- it's timed in smoking breaks.

He goes about an hour between cigarettes. One moment he is discussing the female reproductive system with a class of wide-eyed 10th-grade boys. The next moment, he is rushing outside, cradling in his hands a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.

"I'm quitting . . . next week," he said.

Mr. Swanson began smoking at 17, taking his father's 1960 Ford Falcon out for a spin one day, winding up 30 minutes away from his home in Narragansett, R.I., and wandering into a store.

He approached the counter. He asked for the Newports.

"How do you start?" he said. "You pick up a cigarette and for whatever dumb reason it tastes good."

One cigarette led to two, to three, to a pack, to a habit.

The man smoked. Through college. Through a four-year Peace Corps stint in the Philippines, where he taught teachers how to teach science and where he loaded up on the local brand, B-52s, unfiltered babies wrapped in black. Through a 20-year marriage that ended in divorce.

"She didn't like my smoking," he said. "So I built a porch for myself to smoke on."

Mr. Swanson has been at Gilman 17 years, passing on his passion for science to one class of boys after another, coaching assorted athletic teams and, well, smoking.

Smoking views change

In the old days, it wasn't so tough. He could light up in his office. He could light up in front of students. Back in the 1950s, Gilman seniors even had their own smoking room.

But this is the 1990s. Smoking isn't just considered bad by much of society and science. It is considered very bad.

Four years ago, they snuffed out the smokers at Gilman. They banned cigarettes on campus -- except in private quarters. Nothing personal. Mr. Swanson took it in stride. He attended the smoking cessation classes sponsored by the American Lung Association. And he actually kicked the habit.

For 11 months.

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